The best blah blee of the country

From the notice board of the university. Those who share this, perhaps are content with only reading it.

From the notice board of the university. Those who shared it, perhaps are content with only reading it.

“You are in the best *** school of the country” is the most frequent starting line in this university, when the key guys address their flock of sheep students (I am attending a university for a master degree in public policy. This is my second masters.). I wonder if boys and girls also use some version of this as a pick up line. Because, I do see them carrying the “best school…” kind of gloss on their nose tips.

This is quite a rant, but feels necessary because I have never been to any “best school” of the country ever in my life. I have been the one who went to all things average in India. A regular middle rung school, a private university for first degree, another private university for masters and then when it came to career, I was again lost in the sea of average-ness starting a company when that was not quite the thing to do.

Two weeks into the program, the Vice Chancellor walks straight into the class, in between a lecture of a professor, takes the center place and urges students to participate in an essay contest “My first day in law school”. The face breaks into a strange smile which I found hard to read. I wouldn’t have cared, but for the extreme high headed, patronizing and appallingly meritocratic feel of this place. It sets quite an adversarial and unhealthy competitive environment in the institution. For graduate students who spend just two years in the campus, this is okay and they can be indifferent to it. But for the integrated law program where 18-19 year old enter the institution and will be spending the next five years this can mean a serious impact of the institution which is likely to shape them as individuals. Certainly, there is something right that this university is doing which produces some of the most well trained and capable lawyers in the country, but as individuals who are also something besides their professions, I feel that the university ends up having a rather questionable effect.

Some of the students on campus and alumni of this university I have met, plainly said, lack a humane attitude. They are outright patronizing and carry a frightening belief that they know it all. The humility that must come along with a good education, is missing.

There is no intention to find faults with this university or with its students, it is only that the place does not quite have a spirit (of compassion, of humility) as necessary of a university excelling in legal and social sciences education.

My first day at law school, honestly, was rife with anxiety. One was constantly made aware of “not getting into trouble” and “authorities”.  It sure is not a good start if one is considering to stay or to leave on the first day at a place of learning. I was doing that constantly! The display of “shields, medals and cups” in the VC’s office were referred to and the new students were urged to win more of those!

Ironically, as a high school teacher, that very morning when one of the guys was urging the newly admitted students to get more of those medals, in the high school where I teach we were discussing the  consequences of a meritocratic education system and what kind of effects it has on the students and society. The students instinctively agreed that it puts tremendous pressure on them. One student said that his Mom would often fuss about the rank that he would get in the final exam. As long as he was in the first five it was okay, but then as he moved past rank 10 and beyond, he was pressurized and urged to get a better rank. In our school, students are not ranked on their performance, nor are they compared with their peers. It is a very learner centered, learner oriented system where each student is assessed only on his own abilities with his own performance over the year. This student then remarked that it was much better that our school (Poorna) doesn’t do this ranking thing.

That same day, in the afternoon, I was to start my master program in the university where there was this call for “become the best”, “you are the chosen few…” kind of public addresses were being made.

So, back to the point… being best is no big deal if all you produce are super sharp minds with no hearts that can feel. And the best institutions of the country should understand this very simple point. Do not carry this attitude. Your competitive entrance exams are a form of violence. They are sheer violence on students from across the length and breadth of the country who can’t get through because the odds are so unfairly stacked against them. They do not have as many sources of information to know or understand that which you test them on, before admitting them. They also do not probably have the proficiency in English language which you use in such fine measure in the entrance exams. And finally, for just over 50 seats a whole mass of them enter into this mindless game of proving themselves worth of one of the spots. It goes down heavy on those who don’t get through. The dejection is carried in the hearts for a long time in their lives. Not every youth in this country is capable of taking failure easily. Societal baggage perhaps, but it is real.

So, even if you do have to keep those competitive entrance exams which sure are a practical necessity, do not keep touting or more importantly believing that what you have admitted is the absolute best. Of what good is this discrimination? It is a plain elitist practice, in a country where there are millions of people are equally capable if given a chance, trying desperately hard to enter the universities and work their way to a better career, a better life.

My first day in law school could have been an inspiring and much joyous occasion for the promise of personal development and opportunities in life that the institution holds (and genuinely offers to those who are admitted to it) but those who run it, ruined it !

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Subject knowledge of teachers

A government run primary school in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh.  Pic: Arun Sivaramakrishnan

A class in progress in  a government run primary school in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh. To understand this town better, a few of us at the university spent time at various institutions in the town. Pic: Arun Sivaramakrishnan

There is a rare corner in the Indian media (print and broadcast) where concerns about various aspects of education system in India are being pursued. This space, I am glad to see, has  a significant presence of researchers and academicians from the university I attended. Over the past year, these articles have aided my work as senior secondary teacher. Besides, reading views on classroom teaching, learning outcomes, teaching-learning process etc have helped me make sense of my experience in the past year.

This morning, in his regular column Other Sphere, Anurag Behar (CEO of APF and former VC of APU) speaks of the lack of subject knowledge among teachers in India (Read: Making Teachers Specialists). This problem he notes, is systemic – that the required qualification for a teacher to teach Grades 1 to 8 is a Diploma in Education (D.Ed) degree alone. This D.Ed degree can he had after Grade 12, in India.

He observes –

To be a teacher for Grades 1 to 8 in India, a diploma in education (DEd) is the basic qualification. These norms on qualifications and all other aspects of teacher education are governed by the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE). The entry to a DEd programme is after passing Grade 12. It is a two-year programme, and doesn’t have anything to do with subject knowledge of the future teacher. Its curriculum is designed for other educational aspects, e.g. child development, sociological issues of education, pedagogy.

The educational attainment that is required for teaching Grades 1 to 8 in India is simply inadequate. Some years back I spent some time with a bunch of senior secondary graduates who were pursuing D.Ed degree in a small teacher training institute in a district town in Maharashtra. This district is infamous for malnutrition in children in India and for agrarian distress. These boys I met were doing this 2 year D.Ed program with the intent of being appointed “para-teachers” in the state government run schools in distant villages of the state. Para-teachers was an interesting idea that Maharashtra government came up with, to improve teacher presence in its schools across the state and perhaps someone in the government also thought that this will improve teaching quality in the schools.

These boys were too young to be teachers, was my first thought. They were too inexperienced to be made responsible for education of children. Though the intent was to create a cadre of teaching assistants to help regular government teachers in their work in school, in practice, most would end up handling classes themselves as teacher absenteeism was rampant at the time. They were clearly seeing this as a job opportunity. They’d be paid between INR 3500 to 5000 per month for the work. And in the interior districts which also suffer from long running agrarian distress, this is a very decent job opportunity. Not surprisingly, several teacher training institutes were cropping up and D.Ed program was a run away hit. The fate of children in government run schools of Maharashtra’s districts was not partly or wholly in the hands of these young, inexperienced boys and girls who have inadequate knowledge. Poor training which is also a problem, doesn’t even matter.

With Anurag’s piece, I am reminded of those boys. And now, as a teacher, I am able to clearly see the kind of debilitating effects it might have had on learning of children in the schools they joined. Simple in proposition, Anurag’s observations on a teacher’s subject knowledge requirement in India being hopelessly low is single-most important factor in poor educational outcomes in schools in India.

Elsewhere, in Deccan Herald newspaper Rohit Dhankar (heads the School of Education at APU) writes on the myth of Private Schools for the Poor (PSPs) in his piece School as a Mint.  He is looking at a completely different front of the school education dynamics in India. His analysis of two categories of schools (that he sees in India) – schools for rich and schools for poor, builds a plausible case that these schools are not concerned with quality of education and contribute to the poor-elite divide in the society.

He points to a space which is not being questioned by any quarter of the society –

In spite of irreconcilable difference in their appearances, both of these schools have exactly the same notion of quality: that which gives the maximum return for the investment is good quality education. This is the market-friendly definition which is almost unquestionably accepted by the parents, the governments and the economics centric researchers in education.

This drive for profit he argues is ruining education.

Neither is concerned with the quality that helps in developing a harmonious authentic self or a concerned citizen with critical rationality. Profit motive, therefore, creates its own saleable illusion of quality and thrives on it; and, in the process, turning humans into self-seekers and deepening the chasm between haves and have nots.

Again, a rare piece of commentary on the state of schools.

A year as a high school teacher

Poorna, Image Courtesy: Vinay B R

Poorna, Image Courtesy: Vinay B R

This seems to be a month of anniversaries. This month I complete a year as a high school teacher at Poorna. Besides this, I figure that our little startup which took off from a small house in a small college town is now a fledgling company which is over 7 years old. The business has gathered momentum and the company now has two areas of work – consulting and scientific instruments sales. Momentum (a healthy work pipeline and a sufficient annual revenue), I guess is a natural consequence of sticking around long enough in business.

But back to teaching, I look back at the year in school and realize what a tremendous learning opportunity it has been. I take this as a moment to draw together the lessons.

“Teaching” would be a rather tall claim for me to make and after a year it sure would be a claim to say that I am teach. I realize that I am an agent, who goes into the classroom and shares his knowledge and understanding with the students. That is all. I have been a rookie at best.

Starting with A level and Indian senior secondary level students was a soft launch into teaching as the challenge to simplify ideas and  field questions from unconditioned, formative stage minds of children is lesser with students of senior secondary. Moreover, teaching economics and sociology to such a group can be intellectually stimulating as well as an opportunity to reflect and bring back to class the experiences of daily lives which connect the concepts that one reads in these subjects. In a way, it completes the loop from learning to experience and back to learning in the society.

I also realize that teaching helped me in focusing on what is meaningful in life. And this insight kicks in only when I take a telescopic view of a full academic year. In my pursuit to be a teacher who practices what he teaches, I had to ensure all along about this consistency between thought and action. I couldn’t have been more wrong in imagining this consistency as easy to achieve. There were several occasions when my own beliefs were questioned.

The other view that developed along the course of the past year is that teaching firmly keeps a person in touch with society’s growing and most dynamic section – the children. This has become the most enriching aspect of this experience. Besides, there is always a quick game of football that can be played, a poem that can be enjoyed and absolutely hilarious moments with children who are busy comprehending and making sense of things and people around them.

As long as I can, I am sure to be a part of a school for the rest of my life.

 

 

Education in pre-colonial India: Dharampal’s The Beautiful Tree

gurukul_kamat

Image Courtesy: K.L. Kamat (Illustration by B.K. Mitra for Kalyan Magazine shows students and animals in harmony with nature)

In the school where I teach, the teachers hold a very diverse range of views about the role of a school in a child’s life. What must school stand for and what areas of the child’ s life must the school be concerned with. Those who run the school – the management folks, stand at one end of the spectrum of beliefs about “education” and the manner in which a child’s time in the school must be structured. The rest dot the entire spectrum with some of them occupying the far opposite end of the spectrum which means that they are of the opinion that democratic means of taking decisions in school must be the overriding criteria. Above that, the school should let children be – in a sense that let them decide when they want to take up written exams if exams are a necessity. However, they’d prefer that there are no exams and that children should be assessed in some other non-structural, preset format. Exams, in short, are tyrannical. This has been an ongoing discussion for several weeks now and likely to reach no easy consensus.

Meanwhile, there is another discussion on role of a school in children’s lives. It began with this article on children’s emotional and psychological needs. It gives a roundup of the ways in which schools in Indian metros are catering to such needs:

Children in Indian metros are reaching out to school counsellors to make sense of their increasingly complicated, increasingly lonely lives. A nine-year-old is no longer too young to have a problem — or even know what a problem is.

This led to someone remarking that probably Indian schools will soon be back to the “gurukula” system of ancient India – where schools will “again” begin to cater to all the aspects of a child’s education – academic, social, emotional and spiritual. The remark led me to think of the sources from where one can draw inferences that ancient schools or “gurukulas” were indeed catering to all of those needs of a child.

As it looks, there is no historical evidence to say this conclusively. Even as a possibility, this is hard to imagine because launching off from the point of believing that India’s “ancient” system was the best arrangement which developed well-groomed, well-grounded and learnt individuals one is already given to believe that there was something extraordinary that the “gurukulas” did. They sure were a very different institutions from the modern day schools. But saying anything further – about how they approached education and helped children will require more evidence, in the absence of which, I feel compelled to tell that teacher that her argument is a mere conjecture.

Thinking of existing works on history of pre-colonial education system in India, I can think of only one very well written and comprehensive work – The Beautiful Tree, by Dharampal. The discussion in school reminded me of this book which I had read a few years back. Re-reading it this week, I find it remarkable in scope and review.

Dharampal refers to the lack of historical records in the introduction:

Very little, however has been written on the history, or state of education during this period, starting with the thirteenth century and up until the early nineteenth century.

Further, he reviews the records for nineteenth century and describes the sources:

Most of the discussion on the state of indigenous Indian  education in the early nineteenth century, and the differing viewpoints which give rise to it, use as their source material (a) the much talked about reports by William Adam, a former Christian missionary, on indigenous education in some of the districts of Bengal and Bihar 1835-38 (b) published extracts of a survey made by the British authorities regarding indigenous education
in the Bombay Presidency during the 1820s, and (c) published extracts from another wider survey of indigenous education made in the Madras Presidency (from Ganjam in the north to Tinnevelly in the south, and Malabar in the west) during 1822- 25. A much later work on the subject, but more or less of asimilar nature is that of G.W. Leitner pertaining to indigenous education in the Punjab.

Even these later works, leave alone the earlier ones, do not say anything about what was the approach of a “gurukula” in imparting education nor are any ethnographic works dealing with what went on inside them. It leads to the argument that all the glorious claims about the traditional Indian “gurukula” system lack evidence. However, we do have sufficeint account of the fact that the macro role it played in the society and pre-colonial, “indigenous” system was remarkably effective in addressing needs to the society at that time. It is this “beautiful tree” of indigenous education system that Gandhi said was destroyed by the British in India. Dharampal adds that:

It is important to emphasize that indigenous education was carried out through pathshalas, madrassahs and gurukulas. Education in these traditional institutions – which were actually kept alive by revenue contributions by the community including illiterate peasants – was called shiksha (and included the ideas of prajna, shil and samadhi). These institutions were, in fact, the watering holes of the culture of traditional communities. Therefore, the term ‘school’ is a weak translation of the roles these institutions really played in Indian society.

What he highlights in the following lines is the trap that educationists are walking into again:

The idea of a school existing in every village, dramatic and picturesque in itself, attracted great notice and eclipsed the equally important details. The more detailed and hard facts have received hardly any notice or analysis. This is both natural and unfortunate. For these latter facts provide an insight into the nature of Indian society at that time.

The proverbial ancient “gurukula” system needs to be looked into with a more critical lens and the first step would be to find records from the history of what went on within these ancient schools. Without this we will continue to have these vacuous conversations about the ancient glories and continue to push the current school system towards a vision which no one knows what it looks like.

Librarians’ Day

S.R. Ranganathan (Source: The Hindu)

S.R. Ranganathan (Source: The Hindu)

This morning in the school assembly I learnt that August 12th in India is celebrated as Librarians’ Day. Such days and their significance appear to have got confined only to the schools in our times. Colleges, universities and institutions of higher learning transact a great deal of their daily work in and via the library. Yet, it is striking how pioneers of the field and their work are forgotten by those who come after them. The histories that reside on the fringes at times are those which determine the course of times. Library science in this country is one such history from the fringes of the society’s memory.

It is celebrated in the honour of S. R. Ranganathan, an unintentional librarian who laid the foundation of library science in India. In 1924 he became the first librarian of University of Madras. It was here that the Colon Classification, the Classified Catalogue Code and the Principles of Library Management took shape. Ranganathan’s ideas would change library science in India in the years ahead.

Library science in some ways fits the classic example of a retrogressive Indian society. Ranganathan’s time as a librarian and Presidency of Madras spawned the library movement in South India. It is this phase of extensive outreach and campaign for the cause of libraries that led to a thriving network of public libraries and reading culture among the people.

The year India gained independence and the country was undergoing serious political change, Ranganathan had joined Delhi University and was shaping up its undergraduate and graduate programs in library science. By this time, his student S. Dasgupta was a professor at Delhi University and joined him in another frenzied phase of activity in the library world. Ranganathan was elected as the president of Indian Library Association (ILA). They began conducting “study circle” and “research circle” meetings. As a part of the ILA, three journals were started – Annals, Bulletin and Granthalaya. Annals later acquired an international acclaim. The man had the foresight to draw a 30 year plan for the development of library system in India. This is remarkable even by today’s standards because there is hardly any planning done in the country for such a time frame. And library system? Least likely of all.

Back here in Bangalore, Documentation Research and Training Centre was founded by him as a part of the Indian Statistical Institute for research and training in library science. He was appointed as the National Research Professor in library science by the government of India for his contributions to the field and his extensive service. He joined the league of 4 other National Research Professors that India had – Dr C V Raman, S N Bose, P V Kane and S K Chatterjee.
It is interesting to see that the man started off his first day as a librarian with these words –

I can’t bear the solitary imprisonment day-after-day. No human being, except the staff. How different from the life in the college.

It turns out that the unpleasant beginning was to be the only time he felt that way about working as a librarian and in a library. Back at the school, we had a librarian – Usha Mukunda (Founder, Center for Learning) visiting the kids. Book reading and library orientation sessions for children of all age groups were conducted all through the day. Growing up with several libraries around and with a love for books, this was an opportunity to know more about the army of librarians who have contributed to the success and careers of several students, celebrated authors, historians and the intellectual horde.
(Information on S R Ranganathan’s contributions sourced from – Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, Ed. by Allen Kent and others, Vol. 25, 1978, published by Marcel Dekker Inc., New York.)