Thursday, February 28, 2008

Knowledge? Or simply marks?

In keeping with my recent tradition of venting my spleen on the state of the educational system in India, this post is on the excessive emphasis on marks in the Indian educational system. This article by Rashmi Bansal, where she explores life in a top IIT coaching institute. And man, what a life! If you happen to belong to the rather large 99% of the Indian population that is not from IIT, heaven help you! Seriously, what do we want from our kids? To be the best? Or to actually learn
something useful? The emphasis seems to be increasingly on just getting the highest possible marks in everything. Of what use are those marks if you cant actually use any of the knowledge?

But, more than anything else, it is what Bansal says in the beginning of her post that is of utmost importance.
"I would only like to add that teaching is an art. The best teachers need not be highly regarded academics, or from IITs. The best teachers are those who know their subject AND communicate it interestingly and effectively. And a teacher who changes lives is one who exudes passion, and a sense of empathy."
Well said Rashmi! Teaching is definitely an art. A art that is both inherent and that requires a lot of patience, commitment and passion to master. The best teachers I have had have been mediocre students at best. But what sets them apart from the rest is that they love their job. They genuinely want to impart the little knowledge they possess. And most importantly, they have the guts to admit that they can sometimes be wrong. Trust me, as a teacher it is extremely difficult to admit that you are wrong. But sometimes you are. And you must admit it. It is an act of exemplary courage. And only a person who has that courage can be a good teachers. Teachers also encourage the students to question, analyse and interpret. I will never understand teachers who insist that the student reproduce the text book verbatim. What are they scared of? Of finding themselves incapable of answering a student's questions? If so, they have no business being teachers in the first place. I am sorry to have to be so harsh, but my heart bleeds when I see the state of education in India today. I wish I could change things. Some day, I hope to start my own school. Perhaps then, I could make a contribution, however minor, to changing the system.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On dyslexia and Bollywood

I watched the movie Taare Zameen Par today. And man, was I surprised! Surprised to find that Bollywood actually bothered to make a film that's both relevant and realistic. And managed to restrain itself from introducing any contrived love story into the film. It reminded me of an earlier post where I reviewed Chak De India. Each of these movies signals that Indian cinema has indeed matured. If Chak De dealt with the place of women in a man's world, Taare talked about parental pressure, and a child's response to it.

To be honest, I cried, through practically every frame of the movie. Not that I bawled my eyes out, but that I felt genuinely touched by the pain the kid went through. I laughed at his antics and cried at his loneliness. And for the first time, I felt as if someone had actually understood what I felt like when I was a kid. I was never dyslexic, nor did I have a serious learning problem. But, I lived through loneliness and desperation at times. I was never among the top ten, or even twenty in class. And it hurt. Not because I got the 2's and 3's that 9-year-old Ishaan Awasthi did, but because despite a decent 10 on 20, my teachers would still insist that I was incapable of learning. In a way, the film brought back my childhood to me. It only got worse as time went on. Classmates, toppers all of them, would advise me to study as hard as I could. Some would insist that going to X Sir or Y Ma'am would change everything. And being the stubborn ass I was, and still am, simply refused to seek help. Not until I got to college did I feel genuinely happy about myself. If I am a confident student/teacher/worker/blogger today, it's because college taught me to love myself, irrespective of what others think.

On an intellectual level, the film also made me think. Think about why engineering or medicine are considered the only things "worth" studying. How can you judge a branch of study by the amount of money a person makes in life? I studied political science. I am now teaching French. I have not got a job that is related to my studies. Does that mean that political science or security studies is worthless? Why can't I study, just for the heck of it? I loved what I did in France for two years. I don't regret it. Then why should people look at me with pity, when I say I am teaching French at the Alliance? Oh! So, you mean you have nothing better to do? They ask. Why is it so wrong for me to consider teaching a good enough option? Am I worthless because I am not a "professional" as others would see it?

All around me, I see parents stuffing their children with knowledge. I see 7-year-old kids studying feverishly for the "pre-annual model exam". I see mothers fretting over the loss of a single mark in maths, or the relinquishing of the first rank to a neighbour. Is this all you want from your kids? Is it more important to get marks (and money later in life) then to think for yourself? What are we doing to our kids? Why can't we just let them be kids? Why do we refuse to let them enjoy their already short-lived childhood? In the unlikely event that any parents are reading this, I have one request. Be proud of your kids for what they are. Don't expect them to be what you could not be. If you wanted to be a doctor and failed to make the grade, don't expect to make up by living that life through your child. You may be the parent, but the child is his own individual. Remember, everything in life is not what it appears to be. And sometimes, the ability to think out of the box can be a person's greatest asset. We must take care not to damage that ability irreparably.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Marriage, dowry, divorce...

Yes, I am going to talk about marriage, dowry and divorce, not necessarily in that order. First about marriage and divorce. This article in the International Herald Tribune set me thinking. Is divorce necessarily a bad thing? Before you think I am anti-marriage, let me set the record straight. I argued passionately against those who said marriage was a waste, sometime back in June last year. I said that marriage was a way of telling someone we love them enough to give them our life. I still stand by it. That said, I think it applies only if the person you are married to loves you as much as you love them. Assuming of course, that you love them. In the absence of love, or worse, in an abusive or violent marriage, the best thing to do is to separate. These divorce statistics are perhaps an indicator of changing times. With financial independence comes confidence. Confidence that you can survive despite the odds. That gives battered and abused women (and sometimes men too...) the guts to get out. Provided we do not trivialise the institution of marriage and start suing for divorce because the spouse snores loudly, divorce can actually be a liberating experience for some.

One particularly controversial statement of the article stated,
"Traditional Indian marriages had little to do with romance. Often but not always arranged, they were mergers between families of similar backgrounds and beliefs, and their principal purpose was baby-spawning. Love was strong but subliminal, expressed not in hand-holding and utterances of "I love you," but in a sense of mutual sacrifice and tolerance.But in an India drenched in foreign influences - Hollywood in the theaters, teenagers named Sunita who call themselves "Sarah" and answer calls for Citibank's American customers - an imported idea of love is spreading."
Well, I object to the allusion to an imported idea of love. Love has always existed. And not just in a sense of mutual sacrifice and tolerance. While today's lovers, and spouses are more demonstrative, it certainly does not mean that Generation Yesterday did not love the way we do. Love is not imported from the west. It is here, as part of our social ethos. The little adjustments we make for the ones we love are indications of how much we are capable of loving. Love for the souse, for the child, for parents, for siblings...all of these are so much a part of the Indian family that it is impossible to refute its existence. These different kinds of love only enter into a conflict when an individual is asked to choose between them.

Ok, now, on to the other issue. Dowry. Yes, it is a bad word. But, there is no point in pretending it does not exist. India may be shining. It may be the next superpower. But, there is no denying that millions of Indian women suffer dowry harassment at some point in their lives. The recent Supreme Court verdict that "customary gifts" do not come under the purview of the anti-dowry law, deserves mention in this context. I agree that many laws meant to protect women are misused by the women themselves. But, that is true with any law. Does it mean that a woman who deserves protection is denied it because some other women exploit the loopholes in the law? It would be worthwhile to ask ourselves what exactly the court means by customary gifts. Does it include jewellery, utensils, or other "gifts" given for the birth of a child, house-warming, marriage of the husband's sibling, or other such occasions? According to the Supreme Court,
"Similarly “other customary payments, e.g. given at the time of the birth of a child or other ceremonies as are prevalent in different societies are not covered by the expression ‘dowry’,” the Bench said."
So, a husband who demands that his wife's parents buy a diamond necklace or an apartment in celebration of the birth of a child will not be punished because it is not dowry, but a "customary gift"? What the #$*%??? Are you kidding me? The illustrious Chettiar community is a case in point. I do not say this to undermine their customs or belittle them in any way. But in that community, it is customary to display a certain number of utensils, pooja items, gold jewellery, silverware and sarees during the birth of a child, or the first Deepavali. So, if the groom demands more that what the bride's family can afford, he threatens the family that he will send the bride back to her parents' home. And no, that's not dowry harassment because these gifts are customary. Come on! Get real!

The only way to solve this problem is by refusing to give or take dowry. Someone must take the first step. If even 5% of parents refused to give dowry for the wedding of their daughters, it would make a huge difference. Women are stepping out and earning their own living. They are intelligent and independent. Why do they need to pay a man to marry them? Why can't they throw all these outdated traditions, and pointless rituals out and live their own lives. Somewhere along the way, they are sure to meet someone who loves them and not the dowry they bring along. Will things ever change? Will women ever be treated like human beings with a mind of their own and not as an exhibition piece to be sold off to the highest bidder? No, I got that comparison wrong. Because, in an exhibition, it is the bidder who pays for the exhibit. Here, the exhibit pays for the buyer to take her along. Are we destined to live like this forever? When will we see things change?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Of politics and truth

On Sunday, I watched a talk show on Star Vijay titled "Neeya Naana". The topic under discussion was truth vs. lies. One section accepted that they lied and justified white lies on the grounds that they were necessary for survival. The other self-righteously proclaimed that lying under any circumstance was bad and compromised basic values. At the end of the show, I was left with the feeling that those who admitted to lying and justified it were, in fact, speaking the truth, and that those who denounced it were being the ultimate hypocrites.

Those who denounced lying were quite justified in their anger; if, they had admitted to lying about minor things every now and then on the process. But, pretending that they are descendants of Raja Harishchandra left nobody in doubt about their honesty. Tell me frankly, can you honestly say you don't ever lie. I admit I do. From claiming I never heard mum telling to bring milk when I was busy doing other things, to going to Cafe Coffee Day after seeking permission to go for culturals when I was in college, I have lied. I still do. But those lies are about things that will not, in any way, harm anyone else. And you know what's worse? On the side of truth, were two distinguished politicians of the Congress Party, both of whom hold important positions within the party. Tell me, can a politician honestly claim never to have lied? Would you expect me, as a common citizen to take any politician at his/her word? Well, no. I refuse to believe a politician who says he has never lied. After all, an honest politician is an oxymoron. And so, I could not simply not buy the argument.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Education, and the ability to think

Monday's edition of The Hindu carried a news item titled, "CBSE questions to test thinking skills." Which, in itself suggests that the current model does not. In case anyone is wondering what the hell the CBSE is, it is the Central Board of Secondary Education, that handles course material for schools across the country, and conducts the All India Secondary School Examination. So, back to the news item in question. The headline suggests that the current question paper model does not, in fact, test thinking skills. So, what else does it test? The answer is evident to anyone who has been through the grind. It tests rote memory, like all other state education boards and a majority of universities in India. You see, out here, thinking is a bad thing. Anyone who bothers to use their brains is deemed to be arrogant and disrespectful towards elders.

I have ranted quite a bit earlier on the state of education in India. This post is, in a way, an extension of the earlier ones. Our system lays much emphasis on learning by heart and repeating what one learnt. Given such a situation, how can a child suddenly be expected to be capable of answering questions that require application of knowledge and not learning? Is the capacity to think not cultivated from kindergarten? There is simply no point in blaming the educational system alone. We, as parents and family are equally responsible for this situation. How many of us take time to explain things to a child. A child is expected to listen and blindly accept all the parent says. Any attempt to question is immediately discouraged and the poor kid is labelled arrogant. In this situation, how do we expect children to think and apply their mind to anything? They are so used to accepting what adults (teachers, parents or others) say, that they become incapable of thinking.

Having said that, I think the CBSE's attempt is a step in the right direction. Change has to start somewhere. And a public exam at the age of 17, which tests application of knowledge, is bound to force teachers and schools to cultivate the ability to think. I just hope that the CBSE does not give in to pressure from parents and students and change its mind any time soon.

Friday, February 08, 2008

In pursuit of happiness

This is a follow-up to yesterday's post. I realised that I was perhaps too harsh, or maybe too frank in my criticism of "people who chase money", to put it in my own words. I don't know how many people took offence to the criticism, but I feel obliged to explain. When I said I did not understand why people would want to work weekends, I certainly did not mean to demean or belittle their effort in any way. I realise that employees of call centres, IT companies, doctors, and many others are obliged to work weekends due to the nature of their job, or personal commitment to it, or other reasons. My point is this: For every 10 hours I put in at work, I need at least one to put my feet up and relax. And, that is just my personal opinion. People are free to disagree. This statement is not meant to be a criticism of the way others function, but merely an observation on the world I see around me.

That said, I still believe that happiness lies in enjoying the little things in life. Let me give you an example. I may be a millionaire, travelling around the world in a private jet. But, what's the point if I cannot lie on the terrace on a starry night, and try to identify constellations the way I used to when I was 10? Happiness, for me, is simply that. The sound of the flower-seller on the street, the hum of the car engine next door, that begins to resemble a roar every now and then. It is also the pleasure of watching a movie with my someone special. Or even writing on my blog. I love the small things life has to offer. I would hate to give it all up for success. After all, I only have one life...

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Happiness...

I came across this blog post today, when I was browsing recommended feeds on my Google Reader homepage. If you ever happen to read this Abhi (writer of the post), please know that I agree. Although it's difficult to be quite so content with oneself, happiness is not in chasing money or hurrying through life, planning for tomorrow. After all, didn't someone say, "Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans?" Happiness is doing what you feel like, when you feel like it. As Abhi says, it doesn't mean you are not ambitious. It doesn't mean you stay idle. It simply means you don't forget to live your life today while planning for tomorrow.

Happiness is a state of mind. I am no philosopher, and hence incapable of elaborating any meaningful theory on it. But, for me, happiness is remembering the little things that make life worth living. I may be a millionaire in 30 years, but what purpose would it serve if I alienated all those close to me in the process of making those millions? Happiness is curling up in bed with a bowl of popcorn and a good book. Happiness is talking to Anand over phone for hours, until one of us falls asleep. Happiness is watching the rain with a cup of hot chocolate, in the safe haven of your house. Happiness is also playing with the twins next door, knowing fully well that one of them will start bawling the moment I try to pick them up.

I will never understand why people give up their weekends and working days for the sake of money. I work weekends too, but then, I work only weekends. I am free the rest of the time. And take time off to do what pleases me. My cousin has a huge house, a fat pay packet, all the latest gadgets and more money than she could possibly spend. But, one thing that's conspicuously missing is the time to enjoy what she has. If I manage to be so successful some day, I would probably take time off to go do a Ph.D, or teach kids at kindergarten. But, whatever I do, I just hope I never get carried away by the race for money and compromise by basic values or tastes. God, help me never become a robot...

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Randomness...

That's it! The verdict is out. The National Highways department of India is filled with nut cases. Not the crispy crunchy variety you can eat, but the ones that have escaped mental asylums from God knows where. What else do I call engineers of the Public Works Department who choose to block half a kilometre of highway for road-laying just about half an hour before peak hour? Did they ever stop to consider how people will get from Point A to Point B, given that there are absolutely no alternate routes available? The highway is question is the section of Poonamalee High Road beyond the Koyambedu Circle, which was blocked today, between 4 and 5:30 PM, ostensibly for road repairs. Result: Hundreds of vehicles piled up, honking trucks, intolerable dust, and absolutely no way out of the mess. Sigh! If only I were Urban Development Minister...

And then, there is this article by Peter Roebuck in the Sydney Morning Herald. Setting aside the cricket part, please focus on the second paragraph.
"Yes, India has its castes and colours. It is imperfect. But it has also had in recent years a Sikh prime minister, a Muslim president and a white, female, Catholic widow leading its main political party."
Nothing wrong with this one, yes? But, a short while ago, the sentence read thus.
"Yes, India has its castes and colours. It is imperfect. But it has also had in recent years a Sikh president, a Muslim prime minister and a white, female, Catholic divorcee leading its main political party."
And, left me, and another blogger wondering when Mrs. Gandhi divorced Rajiv. Did he not die before they got to divorce? And, wasn't Abdul Kalam the President and Manmohan Singh the Prime Minister? Or am I getting my facts wrong? This is symptomatic of what's ailing the media today. A well-read newspaper does not bother to verify facts, or edit the article before publishing it. And, that should also give us a vague idea about what to expect from the Aussies when we go there. I will be greatly reassured if they don't mistake me for a Red Indian.

Finally, I recently read this blogpost by Christina. I have disagreed with her on many counts before. But on this one... I really wish lynching was not punishable by law. Different by design? What the hell? I, for one, am convinced you can learn pretty much anything irrespective of your sex. Some people are wired to make cars start by rubbing two wires together; others are not. I am not, but neither are many of my male friends. And, I seriously doubt Anand can fix his motorbike if it refuses to start one day. He will probably wheel it to the nearest garage to see what's wrong. As if this Mrs. Paine's self-deprecating lament is not enough, she claims that God meant men and women to do things specifically suited to them. What the hell? Cooking is supposed to be a woman's job. I personally know men (both within the family and outside) who cook better than most women I know. I also know women who can fix a broken pipe or jump start a car as well as any man. Sure, each one has different competencies. But, that is hardly gender-specific. So, Mrs. Paine, if you ever get to read this, remember one thing. You are free to tell the world you a bloody idiot who can't tell a light bulb from a switch board, but don't drag God into the affair. He (or She) created us all equals. It is up to us to make use of what He/She gave us.

PS: Yes. The feminine for God was intentional. After all, the Mother Goddess is supposed to be omnipotent in Hindu mythology...