Category Archives: children

Why do we like to cook?

I could have named this post ‘Why do we like to dance?’, but decided to name it what it is because of my new found hobby, cooking. A more apt name would have been ‘Why do we “zone out” so often?’, but it would have been incomprehensible to those whose lingo is not yet up to the mark.

To begin with, one must differentiate two kinds of cooking — one that is done purely with the motive of fulfilling a goal — ‘eat to live’, ‘pack children’s lunch boxes’, ‘Guests are arriving in an hour!’ and so on; and another whose main motive is not just the above but also something beyond it. What that ‘beyond’ is will be my focus here.

First of all, we must observe one thing about cooking that seems quite strange to people who don’t cook — cooking actually seems relaxing to people who come back tired from work! It involves more than a little mental and physical labour and yet people seem to love doing it. In fact, it is probably the one thing that is as pleasurable (if not more) than eating itself!

To answer this, we must first have a look at what it is that exhausts people nowadays. Leave out those who perform physical labour to earn their bread, who are exhausted by the sheer expenditure of energy: Most of those who will be reading this really don’t fall into that category. What seems to exhaust us is explained by people in two vague-sounding terms — ‘stress’ or ‘strain’.

So, what is it that is being stressed or strained? Surely not our muscles; most of us do not use them outside gyms or jogging tracks. Obviously, it is our senses; more precisely just one or two of them. This is pretty much a modern, white collar phenomenon.

It is remarkable that we can feel exhausted by simply staring at a spreadsheet or computer code for an extended amount of time. It is equally remarkable that the world can run because of people simply staring at spreadsheets or computer code for an extended amount of time. Welcome to the Information Age: all that is need to crank the wheels of civilisation nowadays is a computer.

With the assumption that all that matters is information fed into the thinking part of the brain, the computer and similar technologies like the television and Walkman try to feed in as much information as possible, in as focussed a manner as possible, preferably using only a single sensory system. It seems like there is some problem with this assumption — everyone nowadays complains of stress and strain without moving a muscle!

The problem seems to lie in the fact that humans have evolved to experience the world with all their senses — hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, thinking and feeling (yes, not just the physical senses!), whereas the modern living and work place seems to assume the exact opposite: humans function best when they work free of ‘distractions’, so deprive them of all extraneous sensory inputs and feed all information through one or two sensory systems.

This is the guiding principle behind the construction of most classrooms, laboratories, appliances like the TV, computer, tablet, workplaces (think cubicle!),  supermarkets and pretty much any modern place of production and consumption. People need to be ‘focused’: ensure they are not ‘distracted’ at any cost. Think about it: monochromatic or dichromatic color schemes, ACs to ensure the exact same temperature and humidity, noise absorbing ceilings and carpeting, coffee makers and canteens (no kitchens!) — The modern living and work places resemble the interior of pyramids, fit for the mummified dead, than places where actual living, feeling human beings exist.

Contrast this with a kitchen, and you get the picture why cooking is so much fun. Cooking is probably one of the earliest activities of the non hunter-gatherer human, and has not changed in its basic form for at least 6000 years. What we cook may have changed, but nothing else. It is a feast for the senses unlike any other: A well cooked meal is not just about the taste, it is about how it looks, smells, feels to the touch and feelings of happiness and contentment that it evokes. Here, the human being as a whole, and not just her brain is being stimulated. It is probably the most multi-dimensional of all activities that humans perform (with the performing arts coming in at second).

While cooking, we have to stand, walk, chop, grind, grate, stir, smell, taste, hear, mix, blend, heat, cool, wash and what not. There is simply no other activity that is even remotely close in terms of the sensory palette that offered to us, and we do all this almost unconsciously, so deeply ingrained is the activity of cooking in human civilisation. Living as we do in an artificial environment that has been consicously designed to deprive stimulation to our senses, cooking is our refuge, our hiding place, the one activity that cannot be done any other way if it has to be done right.

Cooking is therefore one of the few activities that makes complete use of all human dimensions, not just the cold, calculating, logical one. It is but a small wonder then that avid cooks find cooking relaxing, meditative and even therapeutic. It is no coincidence that good cooks seem to be ‘bursting with energy’, whereas those who cook because it provides them food are normally weary of cooking and look to eating out whenever possible.

What is more worrying is children growing up in such a sensorially poor world. Children, more than adults even, learn best through the use of all their senses rather than purely by information alone. There is a difference between reading about a sea breeze and experiencing one. There is a difference between learning about electricity and making a bulb glow or experiencing an electric shock. Learning purely by information flowing into the brain is necessarily boring, unidimensional and ‘stressful’. This does not mean we should put up a projector and show ‘educational’ movies. This is more of the same. What it means is that we have to rethink education, learning and living, adapting to the necessities of our age without losing what it means to be human.

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Grades, Percentile or Percentage? Ask a stupid question…

The motivations that drive individuals to perform certain tasks, which pattern the society in certain ways are normally difficult to gauge. Economic data is limited to analysis using primitive regression kind of techniques, and results interpreted using more primitive models of human behavior. Interviews may disclose what the person would like to think his motivations are, which makes it easier to live with himself. However, if you engineer a change, however small, that strikes at the heart of their motivations, they are exposed to plain sight.

The recently announced CBSE results were an interesting psycho/social experiment, whose results give us some insight into what our schooling system has become. Consider the statement in this article:

Mehak Arora, a student of Kundan Vidya Mandir, who scored 9.8 CGPA, said, “I think the percentage system was better. I scored more than 95 per cent in four subjects and between 80-90 per cent in one. If the percentage was to be calculated, I would have topped in my school.”

few things show up immediately – the student does not seem to care much about what he studied – If all I care about is English or Physics, the ‘overall marks’ would not really matter. Here, subjects are simply a means to acquiring marks. Secondly, the ultra-competitive nature, no doubt nurtured by parents and teachers, which drives him to get only a certain symbol on a piece of paper. Thirdly, the student is more worried about his performance relative to others rather than upto his own standards (if he has any).

Of the three, only the third is even remotely justifiable, and that too only if you assume that everyone ought to study only one of few things (Engineering, Medicine, blah) and only at certain places (IIT, IISc or (god forbid!) IIM). The students, especially the 98% variety, somehow seem to find it hard to accept that they cannot assert their superiority over others in an unambiguous manner. What is worse, if this crazy notion of success based on superiority succeeds in burning out a child or making her an insufferable snob, the society is poorer by one brilliant mind. Thus, in education as in almost every other field, the society as a whole shows suicidal tendencies.

This problem is nothing new: people have probably written about similar behavior since time immemorial. The solution is also obvious:  people don’t ask ‘why’, but only ‘how’ – not why do I need a car, but how can I get one. Not why should I get married, but how to choose my bride (‘Net arranged, broker arranged, family arranged, ‘net romance, college romance, office romance, among other permutation-combinations). Ironically, if the ‘why’ is answered, the ‘how’ normally answers itself, and the headless chicken-existential angst-Sri Sri Ravishankar routine can be avoided.

While one can claim adults make the choice themselves, burdening children with such problems is truly the symptom of a sick society. While anyone older than 25-26 and lives in a city would have had an exposure to a different way of life from what they presently lead, present day children are led to believe that there is not much beyond books, a cricket bat and a Lego kit. The nation requires x number of engineers by 2020, so childhood is spent on an assembly line to meet that requirement. Large scale organisation of this kind requires high degree of structuring, which is antithetical to a happy childhood, which is highly unstructured and exploratory.

Thus, children must not only be encouraged to ask questions, but also the right kind. One has more pessimism as to whether adults can do so, and whether it is worth the effort. Children, OTOH, are open to ideas, can be corrected, bear no prejudice that their parents have not unloaded upon them, and thus every society’s greatest experiment and perfect reflection.


Field Trip to Kaggalipura

For some unknown reason, was invited by the Regional Museum of Natural History, Mysore to conduct a field trip for the children who were attending their annual summer camp. I was to speak about ‘pollution in a water body’, but thankfully was able to do more than just that.

Morning sky
Thank you water vapor!!

The day was perfect for a field trip, overcast from the morning. The plan was to make the children take a hike around the (almost dry) lake and make a list of what animals/birds/plants/trees/insects they see. We then used the data that they collected to try and make some sense of it from an ecology framework.

Insect hunters!

Birders!
Botanists!

They found that there were far more small organisms (plants, insects) than large ones (birds, trees). We tried to figure out why this was so, and this led to the concept of survival of the one able to reproduce fastest. They saw birds near the lake had different beaks and legs compared to the ones in the field, and this led to the concept of adaptation.

We then had a discussion about the food web, and why the nutrients in the soil never get over even though plants keep consuming them. This led to the concept of a nutrient cycle, and the importance of decomposers in any ecosystem (and the importance of sweepers and housekeeping (as compared to the IT crowd) in any city!).

Fortunately, the discussions stopped before the children were bored, and then we were off the Somanathapura for lunch and then headed back.

Can't get enough of it!
Intricate, beautiful...
Curiosity has no favorite subject!
The gang at state of least entropy!!

Seems like the best way to teach children anything is to actually take them to where the action is. Since they have enough energy to burn, unlike me, they need to work on some activity which keeps them both mentally and physically busy. Then, rather than shoving concepts down their throats, it is best to ask questions so that they come up with the concepts themselves, or suddenly understand what their textbooks had mentioned. Thankfully, this theory worked well with this bunch of kids, since they were actively answering and participating in the discussions. It never works with older people. Guess questioning is now only a bastion of the child!!

Education from the bottom up

Just finished Ela Bhatt’s book ‘We are poor but so many’, which is quite a strong reminder as to how radically different the outlook, needs, tastes of the invisible 70% of our country is when compared to our own.

Benchmark for the entire planet!!
Benchmark for the entire planet!!

Bhatt recounts her experiences with women of various trades in and around Ahmedabad and around Gujarat, notably ragpickers, vegetable sellers, rural embroiderers who see that their strength against exploitation by the middlemen serving people like us is in their collective bargaining power, in their numbers. SEWA is an trade union of, for and by women in the lowest strata of society.

Bhatt tries to make the reader understand the various dangers and difficulties a poor woman has to face and how things change when their confidence (almost synonymous with financial independence) rises. As a source of both information and inspiration, this book is very useful.

In the same vein, one can envision of an education that suits the needs of those that recieve it, rather than a one-size-fits-all package shoved down children’s throats nowadays.

There have been many people who have thought hard about children’s education, but probably none could put it in stronger terms than Ivan Illich in ‘Deschooling Society‘:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.

Another interesting person is Krishna Kumar, whom I have already written about. Both, albeit in very different tones, make the same basic point – Education no longer helps children to relate to and understand their surroundings, but rather encourages them to insulate themselves from it, preferably by getting onto the middle class bandwagon. This strategy worked spectacularly for the British, who managed to create a small group in India who admired European civilization as much as they despised their own. This group helped the British administer India, and is nowadays known as the Indian Administrative Service. The middle class in present day India (you and I) have also taken excellent advantage of such an education to insulate themselves from vagaries of nature and the economy.

However well this may work for a small part of India, it is almost irrelevant to someone who does not earn more than, say, 3-4000 rupees a month. They cannot insulate themselves from nature or Chidambaram, and therefore cannot afford not to understand the environment in which they live – their survival depends on their understanding of their environment. This can easily be substantiated – Those who die of swine flu have never travelled outside their city, those who die in communal riots are not the ones who instigate it, those who have access to money will not die during a drought, if you cannot differentiate between edible and poisonous plants  or between potable and unpotable water there is no way you can survive. For those with access to money, however, all these details are taken care of by the Consumer Affairs or Health or Home Ministry.

The reason why this point is being made is that there is tremendous interest being generated in the field of education, with innumerable well-meaning volunteers from comfortable backgrounds spending time with kids in slums and villages. Times of India has a huge program, someone wants to start something called Reach and Teach in IISc for the kids of employees here, and almost every corporate has some fancy corporate social responsibilty program attending to such a need. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions – hard facts and insight into the magnitude of the task of teaching children from a milieu fundamentally different from your own is normally missing.

Since school is of no use other than to provide midday meals and the company of other children, all the required life-skills are learnt through informal channels or worse, from vested interests. Being street-smart is necessary for survival, but it also perpetuates certain modes of thinking and behavior which keep the poor away from the mainstream. The case of poor Muslims in India makes this very clear. Ela Bhatt and SEWA Bank also sought to bring certain skills into women’s lives like financial planning and spending on consumption versus production, which helped them make better decisions for themselves. Ultimately, it is their life to lead – education must help in making people autonomous and confident about their own decisions. This kind of education, especially to children just beginning to observe and understand their environment (6th – 12th grades, maybe), is crucial in my opinion. For children younger than this, it is probably more important to ensure they play a lot and generally have a good time.

So, what is the responsibility that rests on the teacher ? It certainly is non-trivial – it would atleast require a basic understanding of the background of the children, learning from their observations and interpretation, a strong sense of history and ethics and huge number of interesting stories. Nobody can learn all of this at one shot – the teacher must approach the children she is supposed to teach with humility and a desire to learn rather than teach. Reading books like the one mentioned above will not hurt either. Then the background required will slowly evolve within oneself and will benefit all involved (probably the teacher benefits more!). It also brings about a new respect for the modes of behavior and thinking of a people completely different from oneself. Indians like to travel the world to meet new people and learn about new cultures. All you need to do is step into your neighborhood slum.

Review: A Pedagogue’s Romance by Krishna Kumar

Contrast between the Ideal and the Real
Contrast between the Ideal and the Real

This book is a collection of the author’s short essays and deals with a wide range of topics, ranging from spitting and its implications to selection of ‘talented’ students for special attention to concern about lack of understanding of adolescent development in the Indian context to concern about elimination of Nature and Handicrafts from schools.

Anyone with an interest to work with children and would like to understand what one is getting into rather than jump right in and wreak unintended havoc (like yours truly) must give this book a shot. Not only does the author try to discuss the various reasons why education in India has become a new means of social exclusion, like the caste system, but also what can be done to make it better, and what should be the ultimate goal of an education.

Even though the themes are varied, all of them have a strong connection running through them: As the author puts it (paraphrased) :

Education is reflection in the process of relating (to one’s environment, society, etc )

Reflection, in the sense of leisured observation and understanding. Most of the author’s analyses use this as the analytical looking glass to view the system by, and obviously it fails miserably to live upto such an ideal. He discusses many problems which make education such a difficult system to reform like lack of social status for teachers, competitive and narrowly focused, results-oriented pedagogy and the social scenario within which a school is embedded. He also deals with gender issues and induction of everyday life into schooling.

He deplores a system which is so mixed up as to require a separate ‘value education’ or ‘moral education’ class. Another major issue, that of a scientifically based caste system which is being set up due to our primary schooling system, which eliminates almost 80% of children by class 10 takes up quite a bit of his time.

Culturally and linguistically relevant education is also something that he stresses and having handicrafts as a core curricular activity to both learn the value of manual labor and save the varied heritage of India which is fast disappearing.

Definitely worth anyone’s money.

What role does money play?

Apart from providing the ability to purchase goods to the one who has some of it, quite a bit. My focus here is more on what effect do economic relations have on social ones.

In a feudal society, where caste is dominant, economic and social relations are quite different. The closest economic relations a land-owner has is with the lower caste workers in his fields. Same with other castes and occupations. However, social relations are usually intra-caste, be it in celebrating festivals or finding a suitable bride/bridegroom. Though the picture is definitely not as simple as described here, (land owners are socially obliged to support an servant during times of need) but definitely not a very bad one either.

Coming to contemporary society, the stratification is somewhat more porous and many examples of a conflation of the two types of relations are seen. Best examples are those of office romances. If not for the monetary benefit that brings people to a common workplace, such relations would have never happened. HR managers portray companies as ‘one big family’, which is a bare-faced attempt to replace kinship relations with economic ones. Before further discussion, it is worth characterizing both kinds of relations.

Primary social relations are usually an end in themselves (intrinsic value), based on emotions and therefore quite strong (since emotions are very strong in humans), and tend to last long (in terms of generations). Economic relations are more the secondary type, having an importance proportional to utility (consequential value), based on rationality and therefore weak (humans are rational? From when?) and tend to last as long the the utility of the relationship lasts. Primary social relations assume no acceptable behavior patterns (a son who is a killer is still a son) whereas secondary relations do expect certain kinds of behavior. Therefore, when entering a secondary relation like an economic relation, a person is expected to behave in a certain way for things to go on smoothly. The norms that govern behavior may be implicit, but they certainly exist.

With this background in mind, a more fruitful analysis of economic-to-social relation shift can be made. One thing is certain: humans are inherently crazy. They get depressed, have deep seated phobias and philias, feel guilt and shame and anger, and generally defy rational explanation. (This is to be taken as a limitation of rationality rather than defects in humans.) Thus, when a person enters an economic relation, she is expected to conduct herself in a rational, predictable manner. Therefore, more often than not, one sees a very small part of a person’s personality when engaged in a secondary relationship. Sure, people get angry and break down at work, but this is the exception to the rule. Only in a primary social relationship will the true craziness of a person come forth. That is why, in my opinion, taking an office romance ‘to the next level’ usually does not work out. Once the bond becomes more and more emotional, things like jealousy and possesiveness appear. A person who is used to seeing the ‘rational’ side of their partner will find it difficult to accept such behavior. ‘You were so different in college’, ‘It was not always like this, you know’ – these are quotes that you will hear in such contexts.

Americans, ever the pioneers in handling wierd situations make sure that pre-nuptial agreements are in place to cater for such exigencies. Little wonder that divorce rates in the USA are close to 50%. Bangalore, which is a place where economic relations are increasingly determining social relations, the same issues are cropping up. Financial freedom is being attributed as one of the causes of increasing divorce rates, which simply drives home the underlying economic tinge to these relations. While economic independence to women is to be highly encouraged, and helps many escape from abusive marriages, saying financial independence increases divorce rates simply says that the marriage was more utilitarian in nature than with intrinsic value to the participants.

Companies nowadays, with the HR development mantra, are making sure that this trend will become more pronounced. Instead of advising employees to spend more time at home with family, a practical view that they take is of accepting that employees will spend more time with their colleagues than at home, and hence make the workplace a second family. Thus, it is not uncommon to see people spending ten times more time with co-workers than with kith and kin and spouse. Whatever value a primary relationship has is dependent on face to face interactions, and this becomes nil in such situations. Marriage has additional functions of sexual satisfaction and taking care of the young, which are also neglected. Considering such factors, it is unsurprising that divorce rates and broken families are on the rise in places which encourage more and more economic engagement in lieu of kinship relations.

Solutions? one cannot ignore work. one cannot ignore family and friends either (family more important here). One must understand the needs of both kinds of relationships and strike a balance that is suitable in a given personal context. Saying that one takes care of one’s family well because the family goes on a trip every year and all family members’ monetary needs are fulfilled is confusing one kind of relationship with another. If the only reason your family loves you is because of the above reasons, then you have serious issues to address!

Education – What can it do ?

Finally done with Karl Popper’sOpen Society and its Enemies – I : The Spell of Plato“. It easily qualifies as the most readable book on philosophy of any kind that I have come across. There are many strands of thought which seemed attractive and worth reflecting about, and this is one of them. A person must have great courage to take Plato to the sword in the way Popper does, knowing that legions of Platonists will come to his rescue and call Popper a witch-hunter. Nevertheless, this book seems to have had quite an influence in the way Plato is interpreted. Popper analyses social institutions like the State or School, which Plato gave lot of importance to in his program to create an ideal city, and analyses the functions that Plato made them perform.

First of all, we can say that all our activities are broadly of two kinds, activities for present day needs and those which fulfill future ones. Talking to friends over the phone, going out for a cup of coffee are hardly planned or thought out. Saving for retirement or tax exemption, impressing the boss are things which are thought out and performed in anticipation of future benefit or comfort. While day-to-day activities require few references or pointers or guides, future planning usually takes the form of researching, enquiring, weighing options. ‘Reliable’ people, ‘Knowledgeable’ guides, are usually in demand for this kind of work. Similarly, on a larger scale, the way a society ought to grow is decided by us, with the help of institutions, like the Central Bank, the Supreme Court, Parliament, Elections. Institutions can be called a body with a set of guidelines for determining its behavior, the guidelines being formed to determine the future growth of a society. The guidelines are governed by the values we would like our future society to have, for example, the sovereign, secular, democratic values enshrined in our Constitution. (Indira Gandhi wanted us to be socialist as well, so she added ‘socialist’ during the emergency).

Similarly schools: we expect them to perform certain functions, which are in line with a future vision of our country. What would they be ? Making ‘good citizens’, ‘future leaders of our country’ would definitely be up there among with the others. But are such expectations justified ? Can institutions actually make people with strong moral fibre, leadership qualities, and the courage to make a difference ? To put it in another way, can moral science classes make you moral, leadership courses make you a leader, and scouting make you brave ? Can music classes make you a good musician ? The answer to all of these is no, obviously.

One might ask: ‘Don’t certain schools have a tradition of excellence, producing leaders in every field ?’. One way to answer this is: ‘They might produce a few leaders, say 20% of the students go on to become someone important. 80% will be just the same anonymous faces like the rest of us. Therefore, these schools have an even stronger tradition of mediocrity’. Another way would be: ‘They attract people from classes of society which have always been dominant, converting such people to leaders is not as difficult as say, students from a tribal society, and they would have shone with or without schooling in certain schools’. ( Here important means well-known, respected. A good tribal school may get students into a degree program, which is important for them.)

The issue with having such expectations from an institution is two-fold: one, it is simply not possible for them to perform such a task. Two, failure to meet such expectations will make people lose confidence in these institutions, which may not be such a good thing. Then what should one expect from a school ?

Schools are excellent places to develop skills and provide children with a safe and secure environment to stumble and fall, without consequences. As important classroom teaching is, equally important will be mingling with friends, learning to face conflict, understand consequences of their actions and mould their personalities by experience rather than indoctrination. One can provide leadership skills, ethical teaching, but inculcating these and applying it in real life is not something that a school can assure. Confidence is a wonderful stimulus for a child to explore, unfortunately this is reduced to performance in sports or academics, mainly the latter. Creativity is something that cannot be (as yet) indoctrinated, and one needs freedom to excercise it.

So, what can schools do ? not make model citizens (sounds like a dialogue straight out of Brave New World!), but to provide the freedom and space so that model citizens make themselves. How we get our values is unclear, but it certainly is not by brainwashing children to be ‘competitive’ and ‘run the race’. The callous behavior of some of the ‘elite’ IT/BPO crowd goes quite a distance in stressing this point (exemplified by that poor excuse for a rag, Bangalore Times). Parents have such faith in the school system to make good individuals, that any failure on the part of the child is blamed on the child, but never on the school. Personal responsibility in bringing up children is assumed to be fulfilled by getting their children into ‘good schools’, rather than teaching by example, for which our elites have no time. This is how a Kumaraswamy is born to a Devegowda.

Popper says that institutions are to be evaluated on their performance, and schools have to evaluated on whether they give the proper skill and space which makes confident, creative individuals, not on whether they actually produce such people.