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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reading to be forced?

This recent news item tells me that some educational authorities in India are slowly waking up to the realization that merely cramming a handful of textbooks through school and college cannot make educated and socially valuable citizens, and TV and net-surfing are not solutions, people need to do a lot of diverse extra-curricular reading from books the traditional way since childhood: and given the kind of country India is, maybe even that has to be made mandatory before people will do it (a lot of my pupils have to borrow books to read from me on the sly, because their parents regard it as a habit far more obnoxious than doping, and, unlike TV, the net, shopping and attending parties, a serious threat to what they call 'studying'!) I urge my readers very strongly to visit the thread called ‘Books and the good life’ on my orkut community to ponder over the things that have been said there, particularly the post where I wrote ‘leaders are readers!’
Now contrast that with what is happening in school and elsewhere by reading this and this. I could cite dozens of other examples from what I read and see with my own eyes. Of course, as you will see on those sites themselves, there are dissenting opinions, but judge for yourself.

18 comments:

Shilpi said...

I don't know whether to raise my eyebrows or frown or yelp upon reading all the links provided and upon reading what you've written, Suvro da.

1. Mandatory reading? Compulsory reading for pleasure? Good grief. Yet who knows, maybe it may become like brushing one's teeth - a habit - and just as much of fun and pure delight! Or could it become something similar to taking out the garbage? "Hrrmph. It's my turn to read Herriot today...." But maybe this is the only way to let some children read in peace without their parents yelling at them.

While I do regret that I haven't, didn't, and don't read as much as I should, I can't imagine having to read books on the sly while growing up. It would have driven me crazy a lot earlier.

2. The second one seems so utterly sensible in parts that I was ignoring and swatting off the sudden insensible bits that kept cropping up until that last ridiculous bit (which I could ignore no longer) where the writer earnestly and seriously states his belief that mobile phone gadgets with emoticons can actually be termed 'books'……..

3. The third one is the most ridiculous of the lot – and that too in Australia. I’m sure these people aren’t reading anything worthwhile and if they are, then I shudder even more. And prom managers! Where is the world going, I wonder. Sometimes I imagine myself hiring a horse and a sword and going around slaying lots of idiotic people (or at least poking them with my sword) and probably myself too at some point…or is that not very proper a thing to say…It's no more improper than than these ghastly news pieces.

Very interesting links. Here are a couple of links related to the first two. Different opinions in the two....
http://berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2008/04/21_studentreads.shtml

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/05/AR2009030501541.html

Take care, Suvro da.
Shilpi

Amit parag said...

Keeping in mind the principles of the essay you wrote, that is, where you viewed the freedom/ discipline bifurcation and advocated self imposed discipline, then this latest idea to come out of the government think tank would be pretty much useless for the majority of school-goers. While there is no doubt that there must be a few students whose interest would be aroused, many would view it as a further addition to their syllabus. As it is, there are many good enough parables in the current books, few students hardly have the energy to search for further works of even those few authors whose stories are in their text books.
But since the government cannot/is not willing to face the mammoth task of reaching out to every individual and show them the beauty of books over stupid internet games and C-grade movies and midnight parties, I think it is a worthwhile idea. At least there will be a few hundreds who will begin to prefer reading to everything else. I know that no one can instill goodness in every people but the vast majority of men must and can be made to follow a good idea.
And I am very well aware of the quotation that says reading made compulsory is better than not reading at all, for what is forced on us to do, always develops a rebellion.

aranibanerjee said...

Sir,
A few years back, Harper Collins and UNESCO started a programme called--DEAR. DEAR stands for 'Drop Everything And Read'. Orient Longman, for whom I had worked, also became a part of this project by publishing a non-profit list called DISHA BOOKS. Largely meant for EFL (English as Foreign Language) learners, this project is also popular in the Anglo-Saxon world. In India, Kerala was the first state to start this programme in its schools. Here is a link that one can follow: http://www.blonnet.com/2004/06/23/stories/2004062300241900.htm
The programme ensures that there is a day or a period in schools where students are to drop all work and 'read'. Reading is not restricted as a language learning 'skill' where one 'skims', 'scans', and 'infers' but enjoys the form and shape of language and enriches ones world view. The Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages jumped into the DEAR fray and devised a reading box called the English 400. It has been adopted by Sarva Siksha Abhiyan projects in India. In fact, ESL schools do more to encourage reading at the primary level than our so-called public schools.Teacher training, state initiatives, and a basic humility that encourages new ideas make this possible. The latter are often populated by teachers whose only claim to be there is from their lineage and marriage. Of course, I am not talking of schools like 'Woodstock' in Mussoorie or Vidyaaranya in Hyderabad. But, some of the finest schools in the Darjeeling hills or in cities like Calcutta and Delhi are no better.
The link to the Harper-Collins supported DEAR project is www.dropeverythingandread.com/
A humble submission: while it is quite justified on your part to be shocked by the fact that reading books has to be made an 'event' and tied to the school-framework it remains a fact that not many people understand or enjoy what they read. In fact while conducting ELT workshops I have asked teachers as to why they find a story funny or feary or clever. They have hardly been able to answer. There is a need to tie reading with analysis that is graded but nevertheless serious. An interesting weblink is: http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=55
One of the many reasons why reading has fallen out of favour is that the quality of contemporary literature is not great.(Except for J.K.Rowling’s and ) I have visited schools, spoken to teachers, looked at libraries and found out that people who like reading Enid Blyton, Wodehouse, Assimov and the likes have inherited a culture of reading. Most school-goers in India at this point of time are children of families who are first-generation learners. Post-independence Nehruvian India did many things to arrive at mass higher education. It brought people from the villages to the towns as engineers, doctors, lawyers, industrial workers and clerks. They were suppiled with highly subsidized education, reservation in jobs, and scholarships but were not supplied with cultural capital. It has brought afluence, ability to send children to the public schools where Wodehouse was household name, and also to buy cars, go to malls and MacDonalds. But, the need for inititiatives like the DEAR remains: there must be a ‘back to basic movement’. We need to supply culture to our masses. Otherwise, religious fundamentalism, technocratic conceit (know-all MBAs who think that they can talk culture by participating in corporate social responsibility schemes and subscribing to ‘Down to Earth’), and pseudo-intellectuals (the big-bindi or pony-tailed, South Delhi phillistines who shuttle between Khan Market, India Habitat and the JNU). We must ask people to read and think on their own. Thinking is not just needed to solve numericals: it is also needed to understand what the Dracula represents and why is Sherlock Holmes so popular. Unless we make people think and reflect we will never sustain reading and readership.
I suggest that we train our teachers, make a habit of gifting books, and help sustain programmes like DEAR.
Arani

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

Those were two very interesting articles. Regarding the first article, I agree with much the writer has said. One just have to take note of the rapid movement of one's eyes from one corner of an internet page to another, from one tab to another....perhaps absorbing nothing completely. It is sad, maybe in a way yes, this does affect the concentration quotient of the average reader, but the writer's opinion that 'What is needed is a machine that can combine the ease and speed of digital technology with the immersive pleasures of narrative' is laughable. I am a staunch purist in this case and just cannot digest the use of Kindle E Reader and all these other gadgets, say what people may about their advantages. One does not have to shell out an enormous amount of money to buy the books one wants to read, there are so so many languishing libraries, if only we bothered to look. Gadgets can never replace books.

As for the second article Sir, well, wow. I am trying to collect my scrambled thoughts, the only half-way coherent thing I can come up with is, would these kids not find it exhausting, keeping up such ridiculous charades as early as high school? Their loss....but the frenzy to spend recklessly has taken such strong root Sir, I see evidence of it around me all the time.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Amit, I didn't quite get you: what is the point in forcing kids to read if all that it manages to make them do is rebel against it?

And Vaishnavi, what I desperately want people to do is read - read good stuff, that is. What they read from, to me, does not matter: if millions get comfortable with reading from something like Kindle Reader, so be it! I no longer buy printed encyclopedias myself: I much prefer to store my Britannica and Encarta on the computer. And once I find a gadget convenient enough to read from, and which can help me to store a whole library in my pocket, I'll go for it at once. Remember that once people read from stone carvings, then from books handwritten on palmyra leaves... the point is, why on earth should people give up reading books, whatever form books might take?

Finally, Arani, thanks for the links. I hope a lot of my readers explore them, and get back with comments.

Ranajoy said...

Suvro-da,
A small update on my son(a 9th grader in USA). I was very pleasantly surprized to see that my son has been assigned two dramas to be researched - "Twelve Angry Men" and "To kill a Mockingbird". This is over and above their syllabus and the performance in these researches would be keenly evaluated to measure their critical reading skills.

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

Whatever you have said has given me quite a bit to think about. To me, perhaps nothing would replace an actual book but you are right, this attitude is not worth risking the danger of people to give up reading on the whole. Arani Banerjee is right when he says that some teachers have no clue as to the essence of the material they teach. I have had teachers who have taught Hemmingway and Bernardshaw in the most insipid way.

And I would like to add to his comment, it is true that most children belong to families of first generation learners. I have seen that parental influence does go a considerable way in influencing a child culturally. Parents who fail to do so have always justified their stand in some way or the other.But where, such parents lack (through inability or ignorance), schools absolutely cannot and I look forward to the day when school teachers in Chennai (I don't know how the quality of teaching elsewhere in India is) teach class ten Pygmalion the way it should be taught. I have especially realized after graduating high school, what a variety of literature our textbooks actually carried and what little justice our teachers did to them. Ode to a Grecian Urn became merely a scoring point for the boards and it's beauty, was absolutely lost on all of us. I fallen in love with Keats' poetry since then and such memories make me wince. Teachers cannot give the excuse that all they need to do is follow the syllabus. Where a parent might not be able to cultivate the habit of reading in his child, a teacher of the English language certainly should try.

ginger candy said...

Sir,

While I applaud the CBSE board's decision to include reading storybooks as part of the school's curriculum, I am a little skeptical about the implementation of the idea, mainly because of these two reasons-

1. Without proper guidance and encouragement, this might as well turn into another run-of-the-mill coursework. Teachers and parents are the primary source of inspiration, and I need not remind you about their quality nowadays. I remember the Elocution test in our school which was frequently derided by the students and their parents alike as one of the most boring and totally useless subjects (History, Geography, Civics, Moral Science-in fact, every other subject apart from Maths and Science- topped this list too). Barring a few teachers such as you, seldom did our teachers encourage us to be spontaneous and creative in subjects like these. Worse still, no efforts were made to improve students with speech impediments or incorrect pronunciation- they were punished with low marks, by the way. I once got rebuked by my class teacher for using the word 'duration' in an essay- according to that person, the word does not exist in the English dictionary! On the other hand, parents are unequivocal about the fact that any subject that does not relate directly with Science and Maths is an annoying encroachment on education in general. With teachers and parents of this kind, I am sure that many students shall find the new subject to be repulsive, and look down upon it as an ordeal that they have to bear with until the board exams comes to their rescue. Such is the state of education nowadays!

2. This new strategy is not totally unheard of. My friend from NIT, Trichy told me a similar story once. The Tamil Nadu Board of Secondary Education decided that reading newspapers should be encouraged among school students. The teachers were asked to take care of the fact that the students were regularly reading the papers, and that they were updated on daily affairs. As a result, the teachers instructed the students to memorize the front page of The Hindu every morning, word for word. They were then supposed to repeat the news to their teacher in class verbatim. Those who showed the extraordinary capacity to do so were judged as geniuses. As it turns out, many of those students made it to the IITs and IIMs later on.

I think the only hope that we have of instilling the reading habit in young minds is through teachers like you.

Thanks,
Joydeep

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Many thanks, Joydeep, but do you think it is likely for India to get a large crop of good teachers soon when this profession is so low-down on almost every bright youngster's priority list?

Amit parag said...

What I was trying to say that it is a risk that should be taken.No one knows how the general response towards it will be, after implementation of the idea. Though I say that every thing which is forced develops a rebellion, I cannot think of any egregiously bad effect this decision might have. It might have good effect on the majority, it can also make students revolt against it , and there is also the worst case scenario -the idea might not have its intended effect.

Though I have a gut feeling that even if schools were directed to follow the decision, it would not succeed.But it is a chance that should be taken.
Am I correct Sir ?

ginger candy said...

Sir,

I don't know the answer to your question for sure. However, what I do know is this: The ongoing global recession has been a boon in a way that it has forced a few wise, intelligent young people to reevaluate the quality and stability of their current profession. Many of them are eager to go for higher studies and join good Universities in India as faculty members.

We can't afford to lose hope after all, can we?

Thanks,
Joydeep

Alka said...

When I was reading your article, I remember my own childhood.My father was not very keen on how to dress us up but we get every magazine of children available at that time in our home. My father had never shown any hesitation to buy books for us. I remember my sister was still in primary school, and she didn't read any book he bought for her. But still he continued and finally after one year or after one and half years, she started reading. :-)

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Reading is dying all over India, that is for sure, and I doubt whether any kind of forcing will do more for better or for worse. Maybe a few dedicated afficionados here and there will try to keep the lamp dimly glowing, but I'm not at all sure that they will be able to stem the tide, leave alone reverse it. Perhaps things won't get so bad in all countries.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Dear 'Anonymous',
Anybody is free to disagree with me in a comment, of course, but not anonymously. And yes, I do have a very great deal of statistics to back up what I say on my blog: in this instance, from old boys who work in various publishing houses. But since you disagree, I shall not bore you with data which you will not look at anyway...

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I am delighted to note that boys in the local CBSE schools at the plus-two level have been asked to read and submit reports on books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank and Wuthering Heights. At least some will be forced to know that such books exist, and some will be able to enjoy reading them despite their parents' great dislike, since it is a compulsory school assignment! I even found out that a few boys are actually happy that they are getting a chance to read some good books...

Suvro Chatterjee said...

... a footnote to the above comment, something I learnt only yesterday: today's schoolchildren, even in this one-horse town, forced to read books such as mentioned above, have already learnt the trick of downloading critical essays on them from the internet to prepare their assignments (the teachers, of course, are either too dumb to know or couldn't care less). In fact, the boy who reported this to me said his friends went goggle-eyed when he told them he had actually read the books!

ginger candy said...

Dear Sir,

I write regularly for our University newspaper, on topics as diverse as politics and movies and literature and rock music. I have learned two things from this endeavour-

1. People nowadays pride themselves on the fact that they can't read through an entire 800-word article. My columns are typically that long, and PhD students (cream of the academia, mind you) routinely complain about the length of those. In fact, some of them have admitted that they find it difficult to read anything (out of their subject matter, of course) more than 100 words long. My editor, an excellent writer herself, always insists that we write no more than 10 words in a sentence, so that readers don't lose track of the content.

I would have tried to be more helpful and sympathetic if this class of readers were a little less smug about the issue. But given the fact that I have to hear "hey dude, I saw your article in the paper, what the heck man, so long!" several times a week, I have reached the end of my tether. I refuse to change either the style or length of my writing, knowing fully well that only a tiny minority of readers will appreciate what I do, and that is all the inspiration I am ever going to get.

2. If you belong to that shrinking group of people who love to read and write, you are sort of a social outcast these days. You will be dubbed as 'boring', looked down upon as a pretentious fool, and your friend circle will be practically non-existent. I really don't blame them, since I can see that they have very interesting hobbies themselves, such as eating, partying, shopping and gossiping. I personally feel glad that I don't have to endure the company of such kind of people, but I also know of young kids who feel embarrassed to read for the fear of getting singled out as 'freaks' or 'nerds'.

I must admit that I am relieved that I live in North America, where a fraction of the society still believes in the power of reading and writing. I shudder to think what you have to go through back home in India.

Thanks,
Joydeep

Shilpi said...

I wonder sometimes where that precious fraction is. Not in the smelly cream obviously. I've come across people who've never read any fiction (apart from what they were assigned in school), and I've come across more than a few who read nothing but text-books within their field and academic articles and they write academic articles (that's all the reading and writing they do). Close acquaintances have shared similar tales. The woeful under-utilization of the fantastic resources in universities is what makes me shudder and/or grieve as do more than most of the myopic people who infest university campuses as to-be doctorates...and what they find 'great', 'amazing' and 'awesome' also makes me shudder.