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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The demise of liberal education

… and talking about education and which way it is heading, here’s the musing of a one-time Yale University professor. It’s heavy going: casual and flighty readers are warned not to venture far into it!

I’d particularly want to draw the serious reader’s attention to expressions like “miseducation”, and “grade inflation” and “smart people who aren’t smart” and “entitled mediocrity” and “the ever-growing parastructure of tutors and test-prep courses and enrichment programs, the whole admissions frenzy and everything that leads up to and away from it” and the total neglect of the fact that there are lots of people who are not 'smart' in any of the commonly-used senses, but who nevertheless need, deserve and often demand our attention, concern and care (or else you get vast armies of feckless dropouts, millions living in wretched poverty, and dangerous rebels, including terrorists!... does that sound familiar?). Reflect on this line: “There’s a reason elite schools speak of training leaders, not thinkers – holders of power, not its critics.” Or this one: “being an intellectual is not the same as being smart. Being an intellectual means more than doing your homework.”


Think of how ominous this line is: “We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training.” And of what the senior student meant when he lamented “it’s hard to build your soul when everyone around you is trying to sell theirs.”

Think of why T.S. Eliot wrote several generations ago that we are (even in our best shrines of education) churning out vast numbers of ‘technological savages, intellectual brutes’. Reflect on why these young achievers and successes are simultaneously so busy and so lonely, so unable to connect with the world, so lacking in both understanding and empathy, so scared in spite of being so privileged and well provided for. And ponder for a while on the last paragraph of the essay.

Then turn your attention to the scenario in India, where things – even at the so-called best schools – are not only similar, but often vastly worse, because we long ago gave up even the pretence that we are aiming to produce strong and humane minds determined to change the world for the better, where nobody in any position of influence imagines that education could or ought to mean anything beyond a lucrative and on the whole easy-to-achieve career. Then think about what kind of future we are making for ourselves. A million Chandrababu Naidu-s and B.K. Ramalinga Rajus as our ‘leaders’? Could such an India hold together?

If anyone is interested, here is a link to what one great mind thought about the idea of a university in the mid-1800s. And yet another to what a very successful and forward-looking technocrat (not of the Nandan Nilekani breed, who cannot imagine greatness and worth beyond software programs and money in the bank) said about the idea of even a technical university in the mid 1900s!

Many thanks to Anshu Singh for sending me the link to the prof's essay. Anshu is that rare breed: an ex-IITian who observes, thinks and reads stuff beyond technical manuals and pulp magazines and bank passbooks. My hopes lie to a great extent with the likes of him.

7 comments:

Shilpi said...

Suvro da,
I have been wondering about that essay by Deresiewicz and connected elements, and I had been wondering too when you would put up this post. Apart from all the other things that one could write about – the one thing that frightens and shocks me more than all else is this: even if there are 5 students out of 500 who do think, who do learn, and who do strive to be good and humane, kind and compassionate – what happens to them? Where do they go? Where do they all disappear?

I’m thinking of those who don’t “sell their souls” – do they just fade away into oblivion since they aren’t “given” to changing something for the better? Where do they all go?

After a sharply interesting first month in college (so many years ago), I started wondering with a jolt what on earth people who study sociology go on to do later. I couldn’t believe that people could actually get paid to “think” about society and people and social matters. Then I realized very quickly that very many sociologists teach other students to be sociologists who teach yet other students to be sociologists – which may have been a very good thing if it hadn’t been for the sad fact that very little changes for the better in the real world inspite of so many thousands and thousands of sociologists all over the world. Or the change is so miniscule or insignificant (in terms of specific sociological contribution) that it doesn’t deserve mention.
I’m thinking about sociologists in particular because I would think that they would have been able to do some noticeable good by now – by the sheer fact that in their professional capacity they are supposed to be thinking about the larger social fabric and the place of human beings within that whole (and I’m not even being "airy-fairy mystical" about this). I’ve never heard of a sociologist studying sociology because s/he has heard that “it” pays well. So some deeper values must be driving them – but I stand here and wonder what that is – but I still don’t know. Of course once again – I’m not saying that there aren’t any sociologists who are doing good – I have met some…but that certainly doesn’t stop me from thinking that most of them are not. I am at this point reminded once again of discussions with you from the past.

I’ll end my restrained rant for the time being. Thank you for the thought provoking nudge(s). At least my mental motors keep whirring....
Shilpi

Sayan Datta said...

I have been teaching secondary, higher secondary and college students for the past one year or so and I have a few observations of my own to make. I will take a top down approach, the grossest and most visible symptoms coming first while gradually trying to narrow down and focus on the root causes.

1. The first point as Sir has already mentioned in this and innumerable other posts is the utter inability of the vast majority of students, teachers and parents alike to recognize education as something more than just a means to a financially secure life. Part of this approach certainly springs from fear of the unknown. This nameless, unreasoned, unjustified fear is so sweeping in its scope and so paralyzing that it forces one to retreat in advance even before planning an attack. Hence, the inability to take risks and the mindless rush for lucrative, easy-to-achieve careers. And hence anything that takes more time, more patience, more energy and pays a little less is discarded without the slightest consideration.

2. Inability to realize that the individual is part of a larger whole called society and if the individual decays the system decays with it. Over the years we have consistently and vehemently ignored our collective responsibility to the system we are in. From issues such as deforestation, global warming, keeping our surroundings clean and our streets safe to parenting, teaching and studying, we have never really bothered much, being understandably busy trying to be safe.


3. The false sense of entitlement that plagues most youngsters nowadays especially those belonging to upper middle class affluent families is too rampant and wide ranging a phenomenon to be ignored. Unbridled vanity only because daddy’s rich, an inflated sense of self worth without having done anything at all to earn it, unnecessary egoism – we have all seen it.

4. Extreme narrow-mindedness, herd mentality and blatant refusal to venture out only adds to the peril. Man is not only the stomach. He is also a thinking and feeling being. The mind needs food to grow; else it gets stuck in the rut leading to boredom, frustration, loneliness and inability to connect. This combined with fear drains them of both understanding and empathy finally leading to their own downfall. A direct proof of this is the fact that families are falling apart and divorce rates have risen like never before.


Coming back to the subject at hand, unless the above problems are resolved to some extent (which is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future), education can do little than to try and work towards resolving them. However, education in our country in its present form will not be enough. I will underline a few of the problems afflicting it.

1. As far as scientific education is concerned there is a severe dearth of good textbooks especially at the secondary level. Those that exist are riddled with mistakes and poor explanations that serve only as cookbooks for scoring marks. They do nothing to increase your analytical ability or to expand the span or coverage of your ability to think. At the higher secondary and college level all that Indian textbooks teach is mathematical manipulation. So, the student of calculus knows only to solve lengthy problems while not know what calculus actually is. The serious student wishing to take back something more than just marks from the book will soon die of frustration unless he can discover a good one by some foreign author.

2. But if someone does write a good desi textbook, I wonder how many will actually take the trouble of reading it. We all want quick fixes, don’t we?


3. There is a serious lack of good teachers at all levels. Poor students produce poor teachers, who in turn produce poor students. It’s an unending cycle.

4. Compared to the cost of education these days the quality of it is very poor. The new trend among some of the well known schools here is to cover up inefficiency with glitz. Hence the plethora of superbly furnished labs, tiled floors, air conditioned classrooms, video projectors and what not and yet the quality of those passing out remains just as awful.

That is all I can think of now, there were a few other points in my mind but I seem to have lost them. And now looking at my first paragraph, I certainly haven’t succeeded in what I originally intended to accomplish. Perhaps the problem is just too vast and overwhelming to fit into one page.

Sayan Datta

Sayan Datta said...

I have been teaching secondary, higher secondary and college students for the past one year or so and I have a few observations of my own to make. I will take a top down approach, the grossest and most visible symptoms coming first while gradually trying to narrow down and focus on the root causes.

1. The first point as Sir has already mentioned in this and innumerable other posts is the utter inability of the vast majority of students, teachers and parents alike to recognize education as something more than just a means to a financially secure life. Part of this approach certainly springs from fear of the unknown. This nameless, unreasoned, unjustified fear is so sweeping in its scope and so paralyzing that it forces one to retreat in advance even before planning an attack. Hence, the inability to take risks and the mindless rush for lucrative, easy-to-achieve careers. And hence anything that takes more time, more patience, more energy and pays a little less is discarded without the slightest consideration.

2. Inability to realize that the individual is part of a larger whole called society and if the individual decays the system decays with it. Over the years we have consistently and vehemently ignored our collective responsibility to the system we are in. From issues such as deforestation, global warming, keeping our surroundings clean and our streets safe to parenting, teaching and studying, we have never really bothered much, being understandably busy trying to be safe.


3. The false sense of entitlement that plagues most youngsters nowadays especially those belonging to upper middle class affluent families is too rampant and wide ranging a phenomenon to be ignored. Unbridled vanity only because daddy’s rich, an inflated sense of self worth without having done anything at all to earn it, unnecessary egoism – we have all seen it.

4. Extreme narrow-mindedness, herd mentality and blatant refusal to venture out only adds to the peril. Man is not only the stomach. He is also a thinking and feeling being. The mind needs food to grow; else it gets stuck in the rut leading to boredom, frustration, loneliness and inability to connect. This combined with fear drains them of both understanding and empathy finally leading to their own downfall. A direct proof of this is the fact that families are falling apart and divorce rates have risen like never before.


Coming back to the subject at hand, unless the above problems are resolved to some extent (which is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future), education can do little than to try and work towards resolving them. However, education in our country in its present form will not be enough. I will underline a few of the problems afflicting it.

1. As far as scientific education is concerned there is a severe dearth of good textbooks especially at the secondary level. Those that exist are riddled with mistakes and poor explanations that serve only as cookbooks for scoring marks. They do nothing to increase your analytical ability or to expand the span or coverage of your ability to think. At the higher secondary and college level all that Indian textbooks teach is mathematical manipulation. So, the student of calculus knows only to solve lengthy problems while not know what calculus actually is. The serious student wishing to take back something more than just marks from the book will soon die of frustration unless he can discover a good one by some foreign author.

2. But if someone does write a good desi textbook, I wonder how many will actually take the trouble of reading it. We all want quick fixes, don’t we?


3. There is a serious lack of good teachers at all levels. Poor students produce poor teachers, who in turn produce poor students. It’s an unending cycle.

4. Compared to the cost of education these days the quality of it is very poor. The new trend among some of the well known schools here is to cover up inefficiency with glitz. Hence the plethora of superbly furnished labs, tiled floors, air conditioned classrooms, video projectors and what not and yet the quality of those passing out remains just as awful.

That is all I can think of now, there were a few other points in my mind but I seem to have lost them. And now looking at my first paragraph, I certainly haven’t succeeded in what I originally intended to accomplish. Perhaps the problem is just too vast and overwhelming to fit into one page.

Sayan Datta

Sayak Shome said...

"Komol hirer pathortakei boley bidya,aar or theke je aalo thikre porey takei boley culture.Pathorer bhar ache,aalor ache dipti."
-Rabindranath Tagore.
Today education and culture,is certainly not the way Rabindranath Tagore had thought,and it makes my heart lament that I have no way to escape this system of education.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

You should have translated that for the benefit of all my readers who don't read or speak Bengali, Sayak. 'The diamond is the learning, the light that emanates from it is culture'.

So few comments? And all my readers are supposed to be educated people too!

Rashmi said...

"Education" and "learning”, these terms, bring a strange feeling of warmth in me and I have always tried to define them inside my head. Although I have never properly been able to put them into words, I have found myself adding new things to them every time until I realized (with ecstasy) that they are not mere terms but have now become, to me, a perpetual part of my life, something that runs spontaneously in you till eternity, and that which is indispensable for true living (and not mere existence).
It is something that does not come from books, teachers, sages or scientists. It is curled up deep within you waiting to unfold. The above-mentioned agents only help trigger the process. No wonder, I failed to "learn" anything significant from my "knowledgeable" Mathematics Professor who is supposed to have many degrees prefixed and suffixed to his name (although he teaches bookish mathematics to a level just above that of competitive exams quite satisfactorily) And what can one expect from this "teacher" who forbids students from discussion on the subject and sums? ("Why do you want to create your own competitors?” . “Clearing your friend's doubts is the only thing responsible for your poor performance in the examinations").
In contrast, I have learnt much from the waves in the sea(people call them lifeless?) ,that I should keep trying however long the period of trial would be. This was triggered by a life giving Telugu song which says-
"Yugamulu saagina, ningina thakaka egasina alala aasa alisi poduga, otami oppukuntu aagi poduga..."
[The waves that rise in the sea, yearning to reach the sky, failing and falling back, for ages, have not ceased to try, have refused to give up....]

After having fondly taken “the road less traveled by”, I remember a friend of mine warning me that any task undertaken for a good cause and is even slightly different from the conventional ones or that which doesn’t bring instant results becomes really difficult to accomplish, but one should never give up.
I clearly remember the reproachful look on the face of our Physical Chemistry Sir as our Inorganic Chemistry Sir (one soul who seems to know the meaning of science and education from among the “we help them get IIT” genre of fools) was appreciating the combined effort of my friend Shefali and me as we had made 3-dimensional models of a few chemistry structures out of a single pieces of cardboard(An initiative to understand the structures as they are-3 dimensional). My P.C. Sir had two doubts-
1. How many days had we spent (implying wasted) on making the models?
2. What would we do with them once we finish our course? (Implying that they were not permanently useful as this extra effort would not improve ranks in the competitive exams)
This was the same person who was cribbing about how our batch was less dedicated than the last .The “toppers” of the latter did not discuss their doubts with the teachers in the class, in fear of increasing the chances of their “co-competitors” to fare better than themselves in the exams. (!!!!!!)
The future of education appears bleak as greedy groups proclaiming themselves to be “educational institutions” strangle to death, the imaginative, unconventional, curious, and ingenious child in their students.
But I have known from experience that it is easy to enlist the problems but difficult to analyze the problem carefully, put forward the solutions to it and actually implement it.
At this juncture, I think it is really important to acknowledge the efforts of The National Council Of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). It has brought, with constant efforts, it’s textbooks for CBSE to standards much higher than that we would ever expect . My observations are-

1. Having read each page of the books on environmental science of classes 2 to 5,I remained dumbstruck. The books, aptly named “Looking around” takes the child on a realistic tour of life. From the farmer to the vegetable vendor, from the snake charmers to honey makers, from the Kerala tour of a little girl on vacation with her parents to the adventures of a man in Ladakh, “Looking around”, peeps into the variety of lifestyles in India at the same time “teaching” children the valuable lesson to tolerate, accept and appreciate differences.

2.The Mathematics textbooks from classes 1 to 5 are exceptionally good with colorful illustrations and hands-on activities which bring mathematics closer to life.(For instance, how many of us have really thought why we draw circles on the ground in many games like “Dog and the bone” where two people run around a circle with a kerchief or the like placed in the middle of the circle. The one who manages to run away with the kerchief without entering the circle wins.)

3.The Science textbooks of classes 6,7 and 8 are actually a journey of the reader where two characters ‘Paheli’ and ‘Boojho’ accompany the reader. They LOVE to wonder and ask questions and also try hard to find answers to them. In the book, science is presented not as a list of facts, but as a record of observations noted down after performing a number of simple experiments.

4.But, the Science and Mathematics textbooks of classes 9 to 12 have a lot of room for improvement (although they are much better than the “aim IIT” textbooks which are stuffed with formulae and bereft of life).

If only teachers and students could make use of this treasure in a proper way, we could keep the dream of a better educational system in India alive.
I am a student and am about to join an under graduate course.
Sir, I have been following this blog and the other blog of yours for quite a few days now. I have come to know of this blog through old friends. I am not a student of yours but going through the comments and the blogs of your older students and having heard about you umpteen number of times from my friends, I consider it a privilege to comment on your blog. This topic, being very close to my heart, I have summoned enough courage to post a comment and let my heart out. Please forgive me for my follies, as I am a novice in writing. I am always eager to learn from my mistakes.
Rashmi

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thank you very much for commenting, Rashmi. You have absolutely no reason to feel uncomfortable or inadequate: believe me, given your age, you write far more intelligently and cogently (and with much more substance) than a lot of people in their 30s with a lot of degrees to their names! Indeed, you are the sort of person I would like to know. So keep commenting now and then. My best wishes. If you like, you can communicate with me directly by email: the i.d. is suvro.chatterjee@gmail.com