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Monday, May 21, 2012

Teaching children rot

I was marking a comprehension exercise done by a pupil for homework. It told a story about how the great German painter Albrecht Durer attained fame, what a tremendous sacrifice his brother Albert made to get him the career of his dreams, working himself to the bone for years in underground mines, and how the artist paid tribute to his brother by painting his work-wasted hands folded in prayer – a painting that became famous worldwide, and still remains.

A touching story. However, having read about that painting years ago, I had a niggling feeling that something didn’t quite sound right. So I checked it out on the net, here. And just as I had suspected, that story given in some school question paper or workbook was a silly sentimental fabrication. As a medical expert cum art historian confirms, they are not Albert Durer’s hands, indeed not those of a poor emaciated workman at all, but those of perhaps a slightly elderly nobleman, perhaps suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, and whoever the model was (it could be some obscure Italian), the same hands feature in another famous painting by the same artist which shows a saint praying. So this story prescribed for schoolkids is a load of tripe. And this, when any fool of a writer, publishing editor and schoolteacher can check out the basic background facts in five minutes thanks to google. Given the fact that children on their own read nothing these days, imagine what harm this kind of irresponsible misinformation is doing to their minds (my only consolation is that this kid, being a typical teenage moron, will have already forgotten the passage, now that it is almost five days since she did the exercise… after all, no one retains any datum for any length of time these days, neither love letters nor movie storylines nor chemistry equations for much beyond examinations). But I cannot help having recurrent nightmares about these children growing up to be parents and teachers.

By the way, I found that website so interesting – Hektoen International, a journal of ‘medical humanities’, that I have put it on my blogroll.


Subhanjan said...

Unbelievable. Since you are a very knowledgeable person, you were able to identify this. May be most of the things that we read are fabricated, and we have no option but to trust them as most of us do not have encyclopedic knowledge/awareness to verify.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Yes, but you missed my point, Subhanjan - about how irresponsible we adults have become, as writers, editors and teachers. We have the world's information at our fingertips (even if not in our heads!), but neither the curiosity nor the sincerity to check out the facts before shoving bull down children's throats. If asked, those writers, editors and teachers will say they are too busy; too busy to attend mindfully to the work they get paid for! ... Maybe a day will come when all education will be acquired via computers, simply because there are no competent human teachers left any more! But even if we could do away with editors and teachers, could we dispense with parents so easily?

Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,

Even in higher studies and research, many professors and scientists resort to distortion of facts and information. Apart from plagiarism, this has also become a matter of great concern for the scientific community. Especially in growing areas like biophysical chemistry, we are advised not to refer to many Chinese journals that publish papers with wrong information. Some reputed journals like those of the American Chemical Society sometimes commit such mistakes owing to lethargy on the part of the editors.

With regards,

Anonymous said...

Dear Suvro'da,

This just goes to point out the lack of responsibility on the part of the person(s) who put that story in the workbook. And today, this trend is alarmingly rampant! Needless to say, writers and publishers of school books today are so blinded by the business aspect that they simply 'copy paste' material from wherever they can lay their hands on and never bother to check the authenticity! I really can't think of a similar 'error' like this in our school days.

Thanks to search engines like 'google', today information is at fingertips literally and we as 'parents and teachers' should use it as a boon when it comes to imparting information to our kids.

Having said that, I believe that we can truly impart 'education' to our children if we have the thirst for knowledge ourselves, because it is from us that our children will learn!



Tanmoy said...

This is really scary Suvroda. There is a general tendency by news media in general to distort news in a manner which influences people as we don’t doubt established media. They may have their own ulterior, profit making motives. However, it is alarming to discover even text books distort fact out of sheer laziness of some editors or lack of knowledge in a lot of teachers. I wonder whether such crimes are punishable by law as the long term effect is huge. Generally, the quality of any work is perhaps going down when it should have gone up. One certainly needs to be very careful.

Thank you for the blog link. I will read it.


Abhiroop said...

Dear Sir,

The Radient Readers of today are evidently not what the used to be earlier!

This brings to mind three of the most jarring instances of misinformation that I think, have been fed to all of us at some point of time in our school lives, which many of us have found out, to rude dismay, to be completely untrue.

First: Galileo's famous experiment from the Leaning Tower of Pisa: I remember reading at least two chapters in English as well as Bengali textbooks about this path breaking experiment and the sheer genius of it all. Except, surprise, surprise: it never happened. More than one historian has asserted that this was merely a thought experiment; Galileo's own journals further corroborate this in no manner. The more famous and relevant experiment is of course, Boyle's bullet and feather experiment, but, perhaps that is not as flamboyant an experiment for our young people to learn?

Second: the nomenclature of Mount Everest. Again, I remember reading in the "Amra Bangali" textbook about how brilliant Radhanath Sikdar, in a selfless tribute to his mentor, named the peak thus. Complete bunkum again: "Everest" was the result of decades long intrigue within the annals of British administration to exclude local names and "anglicise" the peak as much as possible. If anything, poor Sikdar was massively ill-treated by his British employers, and the removal of his Preface to the Survey Manual of India was hailed by The Statesman to be "a robbery of the deaf".

Third: the famous George Mallory quote about why he wanted to scale Mount Everest ("Because it is there"). As a school student, I recall being struck deep by the charismatic arrogance of this quote, idolising deeply an individual who wanted to scale the loftiest heights only for thrill of the sport itself. Alas, fifteen years later Wikipedia burst the bubble: the quote was merely a paraphrase, the creature of innovative bordering on yellow- journalism!

Why do we have such monstrosities? To my mind, two things are most regretful. One, as you rightly pointed out: neither do teachers have the diligence (my apologies if Im a little blunt here Sir) and promptitude to go beyond what the textbook proffers; nor do parents have any interest in the profound muck that are being fed to their children in their textbooks any more. Second, textbooks have taken up the garb of sensationalism as well, seeking to highlight standalone flashy, flamboyant demonstrations of cherished individuals rather than give students a holistic picture of what these people stood by. Durer is by no means any worse a painter without having dedicated that painting to his brother. Galileo will remain always, one of the foremost and fearless sculptors of modern science, despite having not climbed up the Tower one summer morning. Sikdar will be a mathematician par excellence without his "selflessness" and Mallory will remain a colossus in spite of this rock-and-roll quote. What is sad is that a generation of school kids will have to wait decades before they realise what they truly stood for.



Shilpi said...

I was reading the first paragraph and said, 'Albrecht who...' and so was checking on google and I was raising my eyebrows because the brother appeared nowhere - not in relation to the painting nor anywhere else for that matter (and it said quite clearly across websites that the famous but not what I'd call particularly beautiful "hands" belonged to some nobleman), and so I was wondering where you were going to go with your post. My sudden laugh is related to the first sentence in your second paragraph but I'm not laughing all the way because I'm wondering why anybody would cook up sentimental twaddle of that sort and provide false and inaccurate information, and then have it included in a school textbook. I had never seen the painting though and didn't know about the painter - so that bit was educational for me.

I wonder what's stopping those textbook editors and schoolteachers from doing the same? And to check not because they would have known or remotely guessed that there was something wrong with the twaddle provided but just out of human curiosity to know more about a painter whom they don't know about (and obviously they didn't/don't know anything about him). I can't help but be reminded of Pupu's telling post from last year where she talked about a list which her dad showed her on listverse and where she talks about the meaning of being knowledgeable, the loss of interest in knowing for knowing's sake, and how utterly dull most people (parents and children) are becoming because they don't even have the interest nor curiosity to know anything that matters these days apart from scoring marks and preening. She was less than 15 then...goes to show many things actually.

I wonder whether those who infest these places and so many others have somehow sensed the feeling that living cerebral and thinking and mindful and reflective lives (which I think are essential to doing mind work honestly) is both difficult and rather painful, and so they'd rather not care. Gives me the terrible premonition of a dark world that might come about but then again I can't afford to give up hope entirely as long as there is a bit of light on this planet. I'm also reminded of the comment you wrote for Pupu's musings on The Little Prince.

That blog link is rather interesting. Went and visited it and read some of the articles there...

I'll put in some of my other thoughts too, regarding a few of the comments in a bit.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Only today I heard that a 'teacher' in one of the schools in this town had declared there is no such word as 'sought', the past tense form of the verb seek is 'seeked' - in flagrant violation of not only what used to be common knowledge, but in defiance of what all dictionaries say. And the poor kids have to obey cretins like this to get the all-important marks. How much worse can things get before there is an explosion?

ginger candy said...

Dear Sir,

Your last comment reminds me of a similar incident I encountered in the fourth standard. I wrote an essay which had the word "duration" in it, and when I was returned the corrected copy of my homework, that particular word was encircled in red with a big question mark next to it. I brought that to my teacher's notice (I have no intention of naming the person publicly) who casually dismissed me by saying "Don't be stupid and make up your own words!"


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Well, I can't really blame anybody in particular, Joydeep. I remember that a decade ago, the 'best' pupil in his batch at St. Xavier's Durgapur had thanked all those who had 'teached' him in his farewell speech. In another day, his career would have been terminated there and then; in today's milieu he has managed to go on and do well for himself, and I am sure he has forgiven himself long ago for that 'minor' slip of tongue...