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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Those were the days

I read the following in Amartya Sen’s autobiography at this website: “…much of my childhood was, in fact, spent in Dhaka, and I began my formal education there, at St. Gregory's School. However, I soon moved to Santiniketan, and it was mainly in Tagore's school that my educational attitudes were formed. This was a co-educational school, with many progressive features. The emphasis was on fostering curiosity rather than competitive excellence, and any kind of interest in examination performance and grades was severely discouraged. ("She is quite a serious thinker," I remember one of my teachers telling me about a fellow student, "even though her grades are very good.") Since I was, I have to confess, a reasonably good student, I had to do my best to efface that stigma.”

As the recollection notes, there used to be a time when students who did well in examinations but were basically intellectual duds and mere bookworms were thoroughly despised by teachers (morons could not, obviously, become teachers in those days). To be considered talented, one had not only to have a questioning mind and sharp intelligence, but wide knowledge of lots of things ‘outside the syllabus’.

Sen was in school more than sixty years ago, and I, more than thirty. Sadly, I can identify much more closely with this ‘dinosaur’ than with my own contemporaries, leave alone those who are in school now – barring rare exceptions, the ‘best’ ones among the latter can only be called pathetic: their ignorance, their dullness as well as their complete lack of interest in things cerebral takes my breath away. Forget what they don’t have in the syllabi: most cannot even recall what they ‘learnt’ two years ago, be it history or literature, geography or biology, as I have checked in my own classes a thousand times over (their parents and teachers – and, strangely, future employers – are happy enough with that, as long as they ‘did well’ in their exams by cramming the night before and throwing up on the answerscripts!). I have a friend my father’s age, a civil engineer, who can still quote from both Tagore and Shakespeare – most of today’s newly-minted engineers will think that’s a fairy tale (and most of them can’t even do arithmetic quickly inside their heads, leave alone write sensible essays on any subject under the sun without copy-pasting things downloaded from the net). Yet never before in India’s history have parents and teachers gushed more about how ‘brilliant’ their wards are… Aryabhatta was brilliant, and Satyen Bose was brilliant, and every cretin who gets into Infosys or TCS deserves the same badge too.

What can you do in an age when gizmos and juvenile thrills and eating and dressing up are valued more than knowledge, and marketing is everything?

22 comments:

Shilpi said...

Many thanks for the bit from Amartya Sen's autobiography. (I just remembered that he used to go about on his bicycle when he was in Shantiniketan...)

That quote about the student is funny.

Thank you, Suvro da.

Rakendu said...

Sir, I wouldn't have felt bad about this if the parents had kept their sickness to themselves and their respective wards. But what I hate most is that they try to look down upon everybody who looks at life differently and contaminates the society. And thus free-thinking has gradually evolved to be something very shameful in this country.

And Shilpi, Dr. Sen is too old to cycle. So he moves about in a car now.

Debotosh Chatterjee said...

god knows what kind of social structure we are going to build in the near future , where mindless job seekers are going to be in plenty !
just look at some of posts by the "intellectuals" from IIT and IIM on facebook...they are simply shameful!
one such shameful thing happened just today . i had said how dabbawalas in mumbai were literally becoming "management gurus" of the country , inspite of the fact that half of them are illiterate(they have earned accolades from prince charles and gary locke !). i asked a question to my friends over there : why are we so crazy about management colleges even when we know that not a single man of quality has been produced from those places in the last fifty years? why not become a dabbawala instead? one stupid replied by saying that i am being "very negative in my thinking towards career" and then adds that i am going to be kicked out any profession i join , if i ask such question ! i was taken aback !

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Rakendu, that's Shilpi-di to you. We belong to a much older generation! Dr. Sen may or may not be too old to cycle now (at 78-79, a lot of people cycle still), but both Shilpi and I have seen him doing it in Shantiniketan - in the days when you were a little boy, and hadn't even heard of him. The world didn't start the year you passed ICSE, you know. Besides, that part of the comment was not really relevant. Don't give offence unnecessarily to people you don't even know.

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

Hah! all said, all time greats would be exactly that at all times - great, probably greatest.
when Sachin asked Bradman how he would have fared against the fearsome West Indian fast bowlers the Don had said may be he would have averaged about 70. Tendulkar asked in surprise if Bradman considered them to be so good that they could bring down his average by 30 points. Don Bradman asked "what do you think? I would have been 75 years old when they were playing. I don't fancy myself averaging more than 70 at that age"

Sayan Datta said...

Sigh!
Suvro Sir, I wonder how it would have been had I been born in that generation. To have lived in an age and place where people in general were more worldly wise, to have had peers who were more thoughtful and curious and to have met people I could worship.....Well,that was not to be.Perhaps in this cursed age all I can do is try to do my best with what I have and keep hoping that seeded in muddy waters lotuses still rise above the mud and produces beautiful and fragrant flowers.
You know, Sir, even though it may sometimes seem that way I am not a cynic. I do keep looking for even small signs of hope. I do keep searching for people I can truly respect.
Sayan Datta

Sayan Datta said...

Sorry for that typo - it will be '....produce beautiful and fragrant flowers' in the last sentence of the first paragraph.

Anand Tiwari said...

Exams were never meant to be an isolated measure of a person's intellectual ability. It is sad that passing exams has become the sole purpose of gaining an education. At least in some western countries, a significant percentage of this grade relies on class participation, individual papers and also on attendance. It is unfortunate that the present generation of parents and students have such a myopic view of learning. Personally, I wish to thank my parents who made it compulsory for me to watch movies, and read literature. Frankly the merit card I was most proud to receive year after year was in my '3rd language', Bangla. I treasure it more than all my other meagre achievements. Times certainly have changed. It feels even worse when this type of change touches the institutions I have loved.

Rashmi Datta said...

Sir,
The environment and the kind of people we now have around us makes the 'dinosaur' age look almost like a dream to me.

I think the present age parents and teachers are scared stiff of the word 'knowledge'. I notice how so few of them use it .What surprises me most is that they think that making their children and students cram for the exams with zero understanding does not have any consequences.Three to four years ago, I saw literally hundreds of potential doctors cram for the Andhra Pradesh medical entrance exam in one of the many cram shops, and many of them managed to get a seat. I now dread for my parents' health who are staying there.

And when you lament about people who value partying and gizmos to knowledge, there may be many who would ask you - "Is it necessary that all of us should value the same thing? " ( like someone did in your other blog sometime ago). Makes me wonder if these are the worst times the country is facing and I don't see how the situation can improve.
Warm regards
Rashmi

JD said...

It is indeed something to think about, as marks have become the sole motivator for most of the students today. Today's scenario was rightly depicted in the film, 3 Idiots, though I guess nothing have changed much, as the problem lies much deeper.

It is the society that we are brought up in, and we rarely try to defy the set rules & regulations. In my personal opinion though, if someone does care about real learning, and do learn, scoring marks would never be a problem.

Sir, I wish to thank you for giving the link to Amartya Sen's autobiography. It was a pleasure to read.

Request you to post some lists of good articles / read from the net from time to time.

Regards.
Joydeep Mukherjee (2002 Batch)

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

it is so refreshing to hear about great men on this blog and one of the reasons I keep coming back to this blog.


I have come to know that there will be no exams for class 10 in schools administered by the CBSE board. I think it has already been implemented. Also almost every school in delhi has stopped giving marks and replaced that with the system of grades. Many school teachers have already started complaining that the syllabus these days is easier than what it used to be in earlier days.

Don't you think it is a great step in the direction of encouraging students not to worry about exams and rote knowledge and concentrate more on pursuing their interests?

Navin

Suvro Chatterjee said...

No, I frankly don't, Navin. Reflect that neither Amartya Sen nor I nor you had much difficulty with these board exams, and they didn't stress us out so much that they prevented us from pursuing our private interests side by side, did they? Then reflect: what sort of people (I don't care how numerous they are) complain about all that stress? Are they really interested in any kind of education at all (beyond what you need to be a BPO employee, a hotel receptionist, a sales agent or a shopping mall supervisor)?

And have you thought about how much discretionary power these fools are handing over to schoolteachers? Many teachers will soon be driving around in the fanciest cars, I can tell you! In a few years' time there's going to be a new clamour to bring the board exams back: then remember that Sir predicted it!

By the way: the CBSE insanity is yet to become universal... neither the ISC Council nor any of the state boards have said anything about doing away with public examinations.

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you for the link. My cousin, who is appearing for her HS this year told me, "Everybody is studying for marks, not to learn anything."
I was happy that she has finally realised this folly which everyone ignores and hankers after marks.I was even told by one of my teachers that there was no need of studying history and geography throughout the year,these subjects could be 'managed' just by cramming from the textbooks before the exam. The only subjects that should have the honour of being read throughout the year were physics, chemistry, maths.
And when we started with algebra, I had asked all maths teachers the reason of getting a positive value when we multiply two negative integers, none of them have given me a satisfactory answer yet.
I thank my parents for encouraging me to read story books by reading aloud from the works of Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri and Sukumar Ray, and also you, sir, because you are the first teacher and one of the very few I saw who is more concerned about what we learnt rather than our marks.
While writing a feature on children's literature, I find so few children have read these immortal works. Yet, publishers are saying that they still top the charts. Does that mean these books are just bought and not read?
With regards,
Sayantika.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

The answer to your question, Sayantika, is that a huge number of people still go to Bangla-medium schools, and culturally they are not as confused and destitute as most 'English-medium' products are! I can see that by comparing my wife with a lot of her 'English-medium' contemporaries. Which is why I taught my daughter Bangla first, and saw to it that she read a great deal of our fabulous literature... besides, aren't you forgetting that Bangladesh exists, and they, unlike us, still take pride in their own language?

drsourabh said...

The problem is that is that very few people are interested in educating their children.Rather education is a tool for power and money.I recall an incident when i was in the eleventh standard and was going to Kolkata for my medical entrance test. A gentleman in his mid fifties tried to strike a conversation with me as i tried to mug up some notes from my biology classes.'Do you think what you are reading will be useful after the exam?'he asked.'No' i replied.He said that that knowledge acquired from my book would be useful for me right to the grave. I felt like telling him that my book has nothing to do with education.Those notes were my weapons and this was war.At that point if i had to read porn or mug up the telephone directory i would do it to qualify for the medical seat.That is the attitude which is inculcated in all of us from a very tender age ,perhaps even before we enter school.I am pretty sure that if after studying at a school like mine which allowed a considerable amount of freedom of thought this was my attitude, it is going to be a very difficult task to change the situation.Who will change the attitude of the parents the first teachers of the child?

sayantika said...

Thank you, Sir, for the answer. Indeed, I did forget about Bangladesh, and also it's true that the children who said that they had read these books are all from Bangla-medium schools.
And I consider myself lucky since, like Pupu, I learnt Bangla first. Otherwise, I might have missed out these treasures too.
With regards,
Sayantika.

Soham Mukhopadhyay said...

Dear Sir,
When I ask someone that why today geniuses like Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore aren't produced-they say that nowadays there is much more competition.Your reflection is true Sir. Somewhere we must be going wrong.If marks really decided the merit and intelligence, then the scenario would have been different. By intelligence most of the people think that how fast can a person do a mathematics or physics problem. And most of them consider it too 'smart' to show how dull and moron they are. Everybody takes it for granted and the one who points out the bitter truth is often marked as 'uncool'. I regret the fact that I had not been in St.Xavier's about 25-30 years ago. I would have learnt much more than I do now.

Regards,
Soham

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

I fully agree with you on the arguments which you have given. I have to confess, I never thought about this issue, in terms of the teachers teaching it.

yours sincerely,
Navin

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Your comment puzzles me, Navin. Teachers teaching what?

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

I am sorry for the last comment. It was clearly not written well and incomplete. Please ignore the last statement of my last comment. All I meant was that it never occurred to me that the removal of board exams for class ten may end up making teachers more and more flexible with the courses they teach. And this may lead to a lot of mayhem, as you have aptly noted in your previous comment.

Navin

Shilpi said...

If I can add some words: Navin, it's not about teachers being more "flexible" with the courses they teach and in how they go about teaching those courses. Very few teachers have even the bare information leave alone the knowledge or the imagination and the mind to be "flexible" with the courses they teach (I'm reminded of the teacher from Suvro da's other blog: the teacher who thought Lisa Ray was Satyajit Ray's daughter! And that's just one example...)

Considering all the things that can happen in India - teachers will be demanding material goodies/money (to buy the fancy cars and all) from their students (and God knows what else) for handing out grades! And that is the biggest problem - in doing away with the Board exams for the CBSE. And there might be students too who go around demanding grades and threatening the teachers as well...and so after a while what's likely to happen? That's already been commented upon by the blog-author.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Yes, that is precisely what I am afraid is likely to happen. By the way, teachers won't need much threatening to bend over backwards and oblige paying 'customers' by showering them with undeserved marks in exams: I happen to know lots of teachers who are slavering at the prospect of being covered with gold!