Sunday, August 14, 2011

School of thought

When I look back at the 'education' I've got, I realize how worthless most of it (not all) has been. Arguably, the system is geared towards giving a pretty broad foundation on which individuals are supposed to build their sophisticated lives on. Education could thus be summarized as the spray-and-pray approach at the bottom and you-better-find-your-groove expectation as you get older.

If the aim of early schooling is to provide an awareness of the limitless options available and to enable a student to choose one when he is ready to - that is a worthy cause! But what if this ends up creating a generation of 'exam writers' ? Unhappy and corrupt citizens? People who can crack question papers problems but not real-life problems? I would not be very wrong if I say that this is what we have ended up with in India. There is a looming talent deficit that this emerging economy has to deal with. More worryingly, a good percentage of 'graduates' that this country churns out, are marked as unemployable! Recently, my colleague Mansi lent me her book 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman' to read. The book is a collection of anecdotes of the Nobel Prize winning, Richard Feynman. First published in 1985! What is interesting in that book is his critique on the education system that existed in Brazil. Excerpt (click this link on Rob Shearer's site to read more):

The lecture hall was full. I started out by defining science as an understanding of the behavior of nature. Then I asked, “What is a good reason for teaching science? Of course, no country can consider itself civilized unless… yak, yak, yak.” They were all sitting there nodding, because I know that’s the way they think.
Then I say, “That, of course, is absurd, because why should we feel we have to keep up with another country? We have to do it for a good reason, a sensible reason; not just because other countries do.” Then I talked about the utility of science, and its contribution to the improvement of the human condition, and all that – I really teased them a little bit.
Then I say, “The main purpose of my talk is to demonstrate to you that no science is being taught in Brazil!”
I can see them stir, thinking, “What? No science? This is absolutely crazy! We have all these classes.”
So I tell them that one of the first things to strike me when I came to Brazil was to see elementary school kids in bookstores, buying physics books. There are so many kids learning physics in Brazil, beginning much earlier than kids do in the United States, that it’s amazing you don’t find many physicists in Brazil – why is that? So many kids are working so hard, and nothing comes of it.If Feynman landed in India, I am sure he would have penned a similar chapter. Interestingly, Indians who continue their studies abroad seem to do well for themselves. The institutions abroad seem to be able to instill something in them that makes them thrive.

On the eve of India's Independence Day, let me attempt at putting together what I would really have wanted my school(s) to have taught me.

'The School of Thought' would only define the minimum education required, the maximum would be up to the students. The idea is NOT to enable them to recite the definition of addition, but the ability to actually add any two numbers up.

The following would be the ONLY mandatory subjects:

1. Language.
Two languages, English and the mother-tongue.
Alphabet. Words. Grammar. Phrases. Sentences. Prose. Poetry. Songs. Stories.
The pupil must be able to tell stories and read and understand stories.

2. Arithmetic.
Numbers. Counting. Concepts behind Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication and Division. Tables. Mental Arithmetic. Estimation.
The pupil must be able to handle all the calculations required in daily life.

3. People.
Self. Others. Family. Friends. Acquaintances. Colleagues. Life Partners. The Opposite Sex.
Listening. Thinking. Meditating. Caring. Negotiating. Integrity. Context. Diversity. Perception.
The pupil must be able to understanding what he/ she needs and expressing it. Grasping different contexts, people, body language. Speaking tactfully. Understanding what others want.

4. Money.
Saving. Borrowing. Lending. Taxes. Giving. Make a living. Enjoying work- doing what you love doing. Starting a small enterprise. Planning for a big one. Value of having/ not having. How does money work?
The pupil must understand the need and value of money, the nature and effects of its uneven distribution. Understanding what money can't buy.

5. Searching.
How to search for information? Optimal formation of keywords. Synthesizing information. Scanning through large data sets to get what you need.
The pupil must understand that transforming data into information creates value. Must be able to do that and use the information to get literally anything.

6. Happiness.
Staying alive. Staying safe. Games. Sports. Health. Team play. Arts. Music. Enjoying nature. Religion.
Maximizing life and joy.

7. Thinking.
Logic. Reasoning. Things beyond logic? Questioning. Controlling thoughts. Wrong? Right? Role of the community in forging individual thoughts.
The pupil must be able to spend time thinking and be able to capture the gist of their thoughts, understand which aspects have been influenced- consider the nature of each influence.

8. Exposure and experience.
Reading at least a book a week. Keeping notes. Movies. Imagining and accepting the possibilities of worlds and contexts beyond what is obvious and proximate. Exploring Nature. Places. Traveling. Understanding issues that different people face. Empathy.

In my opinion, the 8 subjects above are the building blocks. If a student masters the skills above, there is no subject that will be beyond his/ her reach. Physics, Chemistry, Botany will be things that they would naturally and out of their curiosity; be able to explore- or not! This country; any country for that matter, needs thousands of smart workers, farmers, artists, authors, administrators and politicians not just engineers and doctors. Its time this school of thought is given a 'School of Thought'. If we get this ONE thing right, we do not need to worry about anything else. Corruption, lack of infrastructure, inequality and a thousand other wrongs can be set right only through the light of knowledge.

Nothing captures this better than Gurudev's timeless words:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action--
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

- Rabindranath Tagore.

Sunday, August 07, 2011


It hit me hard today that I have not been a good friend. I haven't even wished anyone a happy friendships day (though quite a few people have wished me!). Heck, except for a few people that I interact with on a daily basis and maybe two others, I haven't called or visited ANY 'friend' for a long time!

Has work made me so callous? Family? Facebook? Orkut? Selfishness? Is this the norm for this age?- Why? I am trying to remember at which point in my life, I actually flipped over. I do faintly recall a time when friends happened to fill most of my world.

Its not that I am without friends. I know and interact with a lot more people than now that I ever did before. The truth is - there is a difference between a Facebook 'friend', a business acquaintance and a 'friend' as the word was supposed to mean in the good 'ol days when we had no online avatars. The truth is - my sense of worldly dependence has shifted to work and money. Remember the adage: A friend in need is a.... ? I do also realize that there will always be things money cannot buy, work cannot satisfy and strengths cannot influence.

I do know of a few people who still take the effort and time to keep in touch and maintain strong chords of friendship - God bless them and their friends!

As for me, I will try being a bit better.
And if you, O reader, seem to be in the same quagmire - maybe its time for you too!
Happy friendship day!