If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

In defence of "the mediocre"

[This essay has been written by Anindya Ghose Choudhury and me. The basic idea came from Anindya]

In the USA, there is a saying: “About everything that some Americans have achieved in life is to send a son to Harvard.” Replace Americans with Indians and Harvard with IIT, and you see that the adage holds good for us too. Come July every year one sees anxious parents pushing their children across the country in search of admission to top-notch engineering and medical colleges, which are considered magical doors that open up a dazzling future for the children of greater gods! Most of the remaining students too get absorbed into medical and engineering colleges of varying standards, some good, some indifferent, some without teachers or basic infrastructure, run purely as education factories. At the very bottom, like the dregs, remain the colleges for basic sciences and humanities. No one goes there if they have a choice. For example, in Karnataka this year (2010), no student has enrolled in dozens of such colleges. In a place like West Bengal, where there are not enough even substandard medical/engineering colleges to meet the demand, thousands flock to the “general” colleges.

We are indeed proud of the bright young Indians who, after graduating from premier Indian institutes, have proved their worth on the frontiers of technology and commerce in many parts of the world. But still, let’s stop and think: does the mad rush for the best of higher education have anything to do with pursuit of excellence or knowledge? Can we, by any stretch of imagination, claim this is a continuation of our age-old tradition of learners trudging hundreds of miles in search of a gurukul to pursue knowledge and enlightenment? Or is it a naked pursuit of lucre, a six-figure salary and the trappings of the neo-rich?

Satisfaction glows on the faces of proud parents, secure in the knowledge of having obtained a comfortable future for their offspring. The young heroes are feted and showered with accolades. Amidst the din, we not only forget those who haven’t made it, but also, brand them as “mediocre”, a patently unjust and untenable label, as most labels are!

Indeed, there are a significantly large number of bright and intelligent students who refuse to submit to parental pressures and/or societal conditioning to become doctors or engineers. It is also a fact that the few who go into the best technical and professional colleges are not necessarily the best products of the system of secondary education. On the contrary, many of them are beneficiaries of a highly commercialised mechanism of private coaching that is available only to people with deep pockets.

This article is in defence of those who prefer not to be a part of the rat race and who are courageous enough to stand up against the imposed prescriptions of dubious merit.

In the eighties and nineties, the pursuit of humanities was considered such a waste of time and effort that it simply wasn’t recognised as a worthy pursuit. Technology was making great strides and anyone with an iota of intelligence was expected to be a part if the new world. (After years of recession, the enthusiasm has ebbed a bit!) Philosophy, ethics and poetry were passé. Study of political science, geography, and even history was relegated to the backburner. Basic sciences, well, they were for either the queer folk with super intelligence or who weren’t good enough to be techies. No one spared a thought for the plight of a society fed on a diet of only bits and bytes.

In this hustle for technical education, no one questions the perpetuation of a system where on an average 40% students fail in any public examination. More importantly, the dichotomy of a country having some of the finest educational institutes (IITs, TIFR, IISc, ISI, AIIMS, and so on) and the largest population of illiterates in the world troubles none. The pathetic systems of basic and secondary education plods on backwards, unnoticed.

In this overpopulated country with scarce resources, mere survival requires a higher degree of intelligence and emotional maturity than in affluent countries that offer much wider opportunities. We have far too many problems and we badly need people who are not only intelligent and skilled, but also morally strong and intellectually honest to improve our squalid systems. And yet, we have an education system that relies more on rote learning than independent thinking; a system that in its misplaced sense of nurturing excellence, crushes even the feeblest of new ideas in their infancy. To wit, the system has the temerity to brand all those who haven't fallen in line, as failures.

To summarise, on the one hand, we have some high-cost, exclusive institutes that prepare students largely for the global commercial world, and on the other hand, there is a shamefully neglected basic, secondary, and higher education system that doesn’t equip students with the necessary skills to survive in this increasingly competitive world. It should also be mentioned that the vast majority of undergraduate colleges offering “general” courses are no better than the “general” compartments of the Indian Railways, overcrowded and stifling. In sharp contrast, the high-end colleges and institutes thrive in glorious isolation.

The fundamental facts of life don’t change, and they haven’t in India, notwithstanding the hoopla about nine percent GDP growth and the concomitant widening chasm between the rich and the poor. Education should bring out the best in every person. It should not only equip people with knowledge and skills, but also ensure that they become strong individuals with impeccable values. Our education system should ensure that individuals don’t grow into selfish creatures in pursuit of corporeal comforts alone, but contribute to the best of their ability to their respective fields of endeavour. The nation needs good agriculturists, teachers, nurses, policemen, economists, mathematicians, scientists, writers and artists, not just technocrats and managers. Nature has endowed humans with multifarious talents and aptitudes. And no society can sustain itself with uni-dimensional human resources. Therefore, we should encourage people to bring out their best in whichever fields they choose to excel in, instead of putting them in straight jackets of irrational expectations. The dubious debate on mediocrity will then stop troubling a vast multitude of our younger generation who are brave enough not to conform to imposed standards of an unthinking society.

Money makes the world go round, but it doesn’t build national character!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Good English, bad English

Anil Babu, a fine, formidable, and fearsome teacher of our school once narrated this story.

Two men got into an argument on a public bus. One of them was a dignified elderly gentleman, whom our teacher labelled as a professor. The other was an arrogant young fellow who, once again according to Anil Babu, could only have been a junior clerk in a merchant firm. Minutes after the argument began, when the professor was clearly winning the contest, the young man switched over to English. It was a common practice then, if Indians wished to sound authoritative, they spoke the king’s language. Perforce, the professor had to respond in English. And that turned the tables against him. He spoke in correct, grammatical English, but haltingly. And that was no match for the torrent of terrible English the clerk churned out. Finally, just as a drowning man clutches at straws, the professor said, ‘Have you read Wren and Martin?’

If you are an Indian over thirty and you've been in a school, you'd get the drift. For the rest of humanity, M/s P. C. Wren and H. Martin were the venerable authors of a grammar book that was a combination of the Geeta, the Koran, and the Bible for English teachers in India for generations. And it was the nub of a serious problem. Each chapter of the book contained a set of prescriptions about how to frame sentences. And the examples and exercises that followed usually had lines that no one would use in their lifetime. Indians were also taught that speaking "incorrect English" was sacrilege.

But English is such a funnily unfettered language! Speaking or writing it correctly is challenging to even educated non-native speakers. To make matters worse, out of the hundreds of hours of English classes in school in our country, not one was devoted to teaching how to speak. (Unfortunately, the situation hasn't changed in most of our schools even now.)

So, generations of educated Indians could hardly express themselves in the language, even when they needed it. And those who could treated the rest of their countrymen as dirt.

English is important in this integrated world, we can't live without it. But should we think of committing suicide if we made a few mistakes here and there while using the language? How important is it to speak/write correct, flawless English? Let me quote an authority on the language, David Crystal:

Many people now realize that labels such as ‘sub-standard’ and ‘broken English’ are just as insulting and out of order as any set of racist or sexist names. We have seen a move away from the linguistic subjugation of the prescription era, with people asserting their right to be in control of their language rather than to have it be in control of them. For many, prescriptivism has come to be seen as a bad dream from which we are only now beginning to awake. The operative word, in all these sentences, is ‘many’. We are only half way along the road, and not everyone is persuaded that it is the road that they ought to take. But … it is only a matter of time. A major step has already been taken in schools, where a renaissance in linguistic study has already begun to produce generations of school children who are aware of the importance and relevance of Standard English without seeing any need to dismiss or condemn non-standard English. – The Stories of English, Penguin Books, Page 534