Category Archives: education

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.

Location shift

As a compensation for writing ridiculously bad exams like GATE, will be moving to the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (ominously called CAOS!) in the Indian Institute of  Science, Bangalore. One hopes Bangalore is far more tolerable inside one of its greenest areas. The next couple of months will be spent preparing for another interview in the same department for another program, so expect fundas from fluid mechanics and miscellaneous boring things to dominate this space.

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.

Where everyday is Earth Day…

Looks like it was a success, atleast in our area. Darkness is now becoming a rare pleasure, unless you live in a village, where everyday is an involuntary Earth Day.

The gesture was definitely commendable – millions from the middle class, trying to make a difference, to bring back meaning into their lives, which otherwise is a mad rush from here to there under glaring neon ads and freezing AC vents.

Can people, i.e, society make a difference in a world that is dominated by either the Market or the State ? If they are organized, yes. The market comprises of firms that want to make money, not goods. So, if tomorrow all of the USA decides not to use tree-pulp based toilet paper, toilet paper manufacturers (theoretically) will start making some more environmentally friendly (and hopefully more hygenic) product to clean oneself.  Similarly, people can organize into vote-banks and pressurise politicians (for however brief a period) to allow duty free import of Batman comics, if they so choose. We should preferably do this before human cloning is made legal, since then politicians can manufacture their own vote bank.

Leaving the issue of having to deal with cloned voters for the moment, one should try and understand why the Earth Day is significant. Not only is it to increase awareness about climate change, but it is a call to reduce our consumption of anything voluntarily. The main problem with present-day society is that an IT professional requires 10 times more resources to go through her day than her less fortunate sister cleaning the floor of the office. We require so much because we are entirely geared toward high performance. Anything that comes in the way of performance, especially leisure is curbed. Just like darkness, leisure needs to be given its due importance. Only leisure can allow a person to grow as a person. Unless faced with financial commitments, employees should ask their companies for a four day work day with 4/5 th of the salary, or something similar. Beyond a threshold, what we value more is leisure and not money, and everybody has their threshold. We run the danger of infantilizing our workforce by making them do something over and over and not give them time to stop, step back, look and figure out what the hell they really are doing or where this is leading them.

It is also a call to stop taking yourself so seriously, to stop gloating over your achievements and see them in the context of the disaster you wreak on the society and ecosystem that you are a small but very powerful part of. To learn to learn from your ancestors as well as your children, to replace man from his place at the center of the universe where he thinks he is, and put him in his proper place – on an insignificant planet revolving around an insignificant star. To try and help people not by treating them as inferiors and victims, but as equals and family.

Descartes told us that we think, therefore we are. Earth day tells us that until we value manual labour and stop measuring superiority in terms of how many numbers you can add in a minute, nothing will change. Why should a theoretical physicist be any superior to a superb cook or a creative tailor or a responsible mother ? Because we have been lead to think that the mind is our evolutionary advantage over others, we have forgotten that our intial evolutionary advantage came because of our opposable thumb! Unless we see life, creativity, precision and beauty in the work of a person who uses her hands, Earth day has failed it purpose.

Thus, this day tells us that the world is not a linear succession from brutishness to civilization, but a cycle of life – nothing goes obsolete or out of fashion until we think that it is so, which is one of the reasons why ancestor worship was prominent in most pre-modern societies. ‘Modern’ thinking and attitudes have reduced to rubble the accumulated cultural wealth of millenia by a strange linear conception of time and progress. It is time we started looking back to avoid what is coming ahead.

These are the many reasons why everyday is an Earth day in certain ‘backward’ parts of our country, not just because they have lights that do not work when needed.

Review: Russell’s Education and the Social order, Aiyar’s Smoke and Mirrors

The problem with long breaks in between writing blog posts is that too many things happen and recounting everything is usually tedious.

Finished Russel’s interesting views on education, which is put forth in his inimitable style. His main purpose in

Brick in the wall!
Brick in the wall!

the book is to analyse the function that education plays in the modern nation-state. He also analyses its aims and what it actually ends up achieving. The range of topics covered is large, ranging from the effects of education on individualism, on how topics like religion, nationalism, sex, class feeling, competition are put forth in an educational institution to the big debate on home vs. school and how education is handled in Communist Russia.

For a logician, he is surprisingly forgiving about facets of our personality which are not governed by reason, like emotions and the subconscious. I have not read Russell in such a forgiving, pragmatic mood!! He seems to accept the tradeoff between individualism and stability, and between control and freedom of children. He is also quite happy and expectant of the results of the ‘Communist experiment’ going on in Russia, which was common to all the left-leaning intellectuals of that time.

The book tears apart the rigid, dogmatic system of education which he himself was probably subjected to, pointing out that it expects children to accept things that are patently incorrect (like the fact that his/her own country is the best in the world, and glorifying wars) and false on the pretext that they are ‘too young’ or their ‘minds must not be sullied’. He correctly understands that the education is built to consolidate the system which it represents.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, there are always two kinds of people: the ones who believe that people need to be saved from themselves and others that believe that people can be at their best if encouraged. The educational system is built by the former and Russell is obviously from the latter category, which leads to quite a clash. (Jefferson used this quote in the context of American political parties. No prizes for guessing which is which!) Russell supports an education system which is quite opposite to the one which is followed even to this day: one that encourages independent thinking and asking difficult questions. He understands the needs of social stability which is fostered by the experiences that a child has in school (i.e, socialization) but discourages moral codes being propagated by falsehoods, knowing that one, it does not really work, and two, finding out that something he/she believes in is false is not really good for morality.

Overall, excellent read. This is obviously not the place to discuss the book out, but I do recommend it!

The other book that I’m almost done with is Smoke and Mirrors by journalist Pallavi Aiyar.

The whys and hows of China
The whys and hows of China

One thing good about books written by journalists is that they are heavy on data and reflections and light on philosophy. Thomas Friedman is an unfortunate exception to this category. Like the title of the book says, this is about the author’s experiences in a new, foreign world and how many of the things that she believed in like democracy and freedom of expresssion were put to the test in this paradox of a nation-state. I fortunately got the last copy from Sapna in Mysore, and it is turning out to be a very interesting and highly readable buy.

Some of the major themes that the book deals with are paradox of free market liberalism in the economy and communist repression in the political arena, the pervasiveness of the State in all facets of the country, from the psychology of the individual to the running of the Shaolin temple. The success of the Communist Party in entering the minds and imaginations of the common people is quite amazingly put out in this book. She also writes with amusement about the assumptions made by the Indians and Chinese about each other and the cultural faux pas which happen when one visits a banquet hosted by the other.

Grudingly, she also acknowledges the amazing efficiency of the State in building infrastructure (one hospital in seven days, yes SEVEN days), and although economic disparities are large, the abject poverty that one finds in India is not present. The excellent social infrastructure that China possesses has even been appreciated by Amartya Sen. But she notes the underlying tensions that an oppressive regime is bound to generate which is kept in check by the Party by stupendous economic growth and new found love for religious tolerance and Confucianism (which promotes social harmony, they say! Mostly lip service, but anything to keep the people from, ironically, revolting).

She stays in a part of Beijing that has not yet been bulldozed to make way for skyscrapers and notes the huge difference in the perceptions, lifestyles of the people here.

All in all, two good additions :)

Normative foundations of human endeavor

Apologies for the bad sounding title, just came out that way. I had a few queries in the comments section about two things, one was about efficiency and the other about my ‘appraisal’ of the Honey Bee Network. Well, I can hardly consider myself competent to do anything like the latter, but the Honey Bee Network is an excellent example of what I want to put forward here. Thanks to the person who reminded me of it!

Some of you may have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is a diagrammatic representation of the way our needs progress, from the crassly utilitarian to ‘higher’ spiritual and moral needs. It is assumed that every person goes through this hierarchy, and most stop at some level where they are satisfied. Correspondingly, your value system gets shaped by the needs that you think are most pressing, or where in the pyramid you lie. Almost all human endeavor has had some normative scaffolding supporting it, and I think it is necessary that we examine these value systems for a clearer understanding of conflict and cooperation: how a Prakash can rationalize the present state of development looking at the Dalits at home, and how a Deepak can speak out against the present development paradigm, which to him is disenfranchising the same Dalits. One has a narrow view, the other a much broader one. One concentrated on the materialist values, another acknowledged the importance of material well-being and went beyond it. Thus, two people who essentially wanted to achieve the same thing go about in different way depending on what values they hold dear. Co-operation, even with similar goals can occur only when we agree on a similar path. Else, an uneasy truce which will eventually break down into conflict will result.

This contradistinction is nowhere as stark as in the role of science and rational thinking which were purported to represent ‘progress’ (by the children of the Enlightenment, like ourselves) vis-a-vis traditional knowledge systems. We have to understand the historical background that the Enlightenment was set in: the Dark Ages preceded it, with a repressive Church which could only maintain its own dominance by curtailing free speech and the right to question authority. In an almost reactionary stance, the great thinkers of the period put forth the ideas of liberalism, scientific method and rejection of all metaphysical and theological stances, and everything else that the Church stood for. (This was followed by a reactionary Romantic movement, followed by an era of logical positivism, followed by postmodernism, i.e, oscillation after oscillation which always resulted from a re-evaluation of value-systems the then dominant paradigm held dear. After the Sokal hoax, postmodernism is quite a bit under attack. Westeners are crazy.) Other highly developed systems of thought, especially in Asian societies have hardly seen the kind of paradigm shift that the Enlightenment (in the form of its torch-bearer, science) has brought forth.

The value systems of science are clear: a mechanistic interpretation of nature, rejection of things that cannot be perceived, dichotomy of natural and normative principles, universal applicability, and a cumulative body of work which progressively controls nature to serve man’s interests. Principles of liberalism take man to be the fundamental unit of analysis, and deal with his freedom and rights.(Women did not figure too much in discussions then). Take the example of certain set of people in India who break stones for a living: They beg the stone’s forgiveness before they break it, since it is the way for them to earn their daily bread. For them, nature is not a set of atoms, but has values that cannot be measured empirically. Logically speaking, there is no reason to accept either conception of nature as correct or incorrect. These are values which cannot be talked of in terms of logic.

At another point in the spectrum lie systems of thought like Ayurveda and Yogasana. From a ‘scientific’ point of view, it is hardly clear how standing on one’s head can lead to good health, but seems like it does. Homoeopathy is another example. Modern medicine ridicules it, but it does work! Now, these systems of knowledge have utmost respect for nature and her ‘healing powers’ , do not differentiate empirical and metaphysical levels of thinking, and tries to harmonise man’s relationship with nature, rather than controlling it. Indian metaphysics hardly gives any importance to an individual as a unit of analysis, and rather opposes all phenomena to the unchanging Brahman. Importance is put on the realisation of the unchangeable than to indulge in the transient material existence. (Ecologically speaking, an individual is part of a huge web of life, and you will never find individuals being taken as a unit of analysis, but populations and their relations with other populations. Thus, one sees more correlation between actuality and philosophy when we take Indian philosophy and Western ecology together.)

We have now reached a point in time where the Western systems of thought, with all their baggage are being accepted uncritically by cultures worldwide. Since it is essentially the doctrines of liberalism and rationalism which have brought such material wealth to Western Europe and the USA, it seems logical that we follow it without questioning. Not that the Enlightenment’s contribution is immoral or invalid (modern science and medicine deserve more respect than being called nonsense), but that it creates a conflict of values, values which are deeply embedded in us. Thus, one cannot be opposed to Brahmin students conducting dissections, but Brahmin students taking up non-vegetarianism because of peer pressure when the West is turning vegetarian is a pathetic sight. Gandhi was deeply troubled by his experiments with meat eating and regretted it thoroughly. Our traditional knowledge systems are losing their value simply because they cannot be quantified and are not ‘valuable’ in the economic sense.

This is where organisations like the Honey Bee Network play such a vital role. HBN is trying to bridge the gap between disparate systems of thinking and trying to find common ground for dialogue. Keeping the western values of systematic enquiry and while not belittling the cultural wisdom of the native is what HBN has been doing successfully for some time now. The results of their untiring work is there for all to see on their website, with traditional wisdom being documented for posterity and rural inventors and entrepreneurs being encouraged. I have run out of my quota to speak about efficiency, will keep that for later. Too much indulgement in philosophy is dangerous, will stop here ;)