The Atrocity of Education

by Shashikant Joshi - Jan 16, 2015 12:34 PM
The Atrocity of Education

Is the goal of school education merely to pass competitive exams and get a job? The current path to obtaining a decent education in India is more arduous than an Amarnath yatra or a Kailas pilgrimage—for both parents and students.

“In eating, sleeping, fear and procreation, humans are same as animals; only education makes one human. Education has been even equated to second birth, the first one being the physical birth. Knowledge is the only true friend. Those parents who don’t educate their children are enemies whose children are like cranes in the gathering of swans. The ignorant/unawakened drowns.”
–Hitopadesha

Education has been highly regarded in Indian culture forever.

In the current system, while there are many points of contention on which the debates and discussions can go on forever, here are a few issues of immediate relief and foundational impact that I have been thinking about for some time now. I am just covering one slice of the spectrum, that of urban schools.

Disclaimer: I have three children in three different urban schools right now.

The School Bag: the Weight of Knowledge

While it is the weight of knowledge that makes a teacher a ‘guru’, that is figurative our schools seem to have taken it literally. Even Class I students are carrying a 5-kg bag. Standing in line for the bus, walking from bus to class and back, day in and day out, will cause structural problems in the back—a direct and immediate health issue.

Children carrying heavy school bags
Children carrying heavy school bags

But how can the weight of the bag be reduced?

The reason for the dead weight is that each textbook has the full year’s material, and for each subject, there is a book or two and couple of notebooks. Instead, the book can be split into two or three parts, as per the terms in the school. Or even one booklet per chapter. Instead of one thick book for the whole year, one booklet per chapter will immediately cut the weight by half or more.

Books: The Stuff That Is Stuffed In Stuffed School Bags

Every year, apart from normal Term Fees, you also pay hefty Book Fees in an average urban school. I am not even talking of the super mega international schools that have a direct hotline with Stanford or Harvard for undergrad admission.

Why do students have to buy textbooks every year? Why can’t books be passed on to the next class? Textbooks at school level don’t change that often. I almost always got second hand books from seniors in my schooldays.

If different schools want to follow different books, then at least within the same school, senior students can pass on their books to junior students. It will save paper, money, trouble and help the environment and possibly solve world hunger. But it will not make extra money for the school and the preferred book publisher.

The same goes with notebooks. Every school provides notebooks with the ‘Book Package’ that you must purchase at school start. Why can’t notebooks be bought from open market? If uniformity is needed, then mandate a brown cover on each book and notebook. But that again would dent the school’s revenue stream.

Catch Them Young: Nursery Classes in Regular Schools

Nothing breaks your heart more than to see a three-year old kid screaming or sobbing in the morning school bus line. Anxiety of being away from home, jerky ride for 30-45 minutes, kid can’t handle herself, not to speak of the dead weight of knowledge in the bag as well!

Why should such a small child be forced to go to a regular school? Why not a playschool within walking distance from home? All that a small child needs is safety, cleanliness, caring and some company of other kids for an hour or two. You take extra care of a sapling; there will be enough time in the scorching sun.

Play schools are a better option than regular schools in the early years.
Play schools are a better option than regular schools in the early years.

There are two reasons for this misery.

First, schools have started ‘catching’ the harvest early on. Preference is given to existing students for the next class admissions. So, for Class I admissions, preference is given to current UKG student; for UKG, preference is given to current LKG students; and for LKG, preference is given to Nursery students.

So if you want admission in a good school in Class I, you have to send a three-year old to the regular school 10-15 km away. That is the only time ‘open admissions’ are done. If the small children go to nearby playschools, then the regular school will miss out on fees for three solid years! So they make it a Hobson’s choice for parents—either admit in nursery or just not get admission at all.

Second, in many homes, both parents are working. And for that, a kid at home becomes a problem. So these parents want the kid to go to a full regular school as soon as possible. In that process, maybe the kid will even get smarter and crack CAT one day. But this is not good for the child’s physical and emotional development.

It is clearly visible in US day care centres. Very young children end up spending eight hours or more in such centres, older ones 3-4 hours in the evening—a sad story of human development, pursuit of happiness and all that mushy stuff. How come the very reason for life is a burden in life?

Teachers: The Future Makers

Dr Pingala, in his important work of prosody Chhanda Sutra around 4th century BCE, discusses at length what we today know as Fibonacci numbers, binary number system, binomial theorems and combinatorics. Around 10th century CE, Dr Halayudha wrote Mritasanjivani, a commentary on Pingala’s work where he explains Meru Prastaara – what is today called as Pascal’s triangle—namely the coefficients of the equation for (a+b)n. And he derives it more elegantly, by using the formula n+1Cr = nCr + nCr-1.

In another work Dharmaviveka, Dr. Halayudha says:

देवे तीर्थे द्विजे मन्त्रे दैवज्ञे भेषजे गुरौ ।
यादृशी भावना यस्य सिद्धिर्भवति तादृशी ॥

“In matters of god, pilgrimage, priest, mantra, fortune teller, medicine and teacher—your gain from them is proportional to your faith in them”.

If you don’t believe in the medicine, it might not give as much benefit. And placebo works just because you believe in it. Similarly, if you didn’t believe in the greatness of Einstein and someone told you time is relative because Einstein said so, you would have called him some names! Without faith in and respect for teachers, a student can’t learn anything from them.

Good teachers are a must for the right education.
Good teachers are a must for the right education.

There are two sides to this respect-for-teacher issue. One, if the teacher is good, he or she will deserve and get respect automatically. So, it is important to hire good teachers who know their stuff really well and can inspire students to love a subject.

Second, if the school doesn’t treat their teachers with respect, the students may not as well. Many schools are notorious for high turnover because of underpay and overwork. Teachers are hired on contract to make it easy to let go, and keep them in ‘check’ so they don’t demand or get any benefits of a full time employee.

All this must stop. Somewhere, we must think of quality rather than just unbridled business profits. Get good teachers, pay them well, and let them not have to worry about making ends meet, so they can focus on good teaching from the bottom of their hearts. Bring back the dignity of the profession.

Getting good teachers: You Reap What You Sow

But where are any good teachers to hire? First we need to make sure today’s students are studying well, since yesterday’s students are today’s teachers. And we messed up yesterday’s education big time with quotas in everything, so that the quality of every profession has diluted. When there is no quota or leniency when a job requires physical abilities, why should there be any when the job requires mental abilities?

For example, one can’t become a pilot if shorter than a certain height, and one can’t get admission in military school if one has glasses over certain power. Then how can one become a good and reliable doctor, engineer or teacher coming through a quota based on compromising merit? If you can’t lift a 20-kg suitcase, then say bye-bye to your dreams of being a coolie. But if you get only 36% marks, you can still dream and become a doctor or an engineer or a teacher!

What a system we have created in the name of progress, equality and righting some alleged wrong, all in the name of vote bank politics!

Computers in Schools: Natural Light Better Than Screen Light

There is a trend among schools, and much appreciated by some parents, that computer education is now starting as early as primary school. I saw my first computer in college, and I turned out fine. Youngsters are already getting enough of digital screens in all forms. And mugging up ‘CPU’, ‘RAM’, ‘peripheral’, ‘LOGO language commands’ or ‘what is the second option in the third menu item of a window’ is not that earth-shattering. Let kids learn things with their hands, focus on handwriting, reading aloud with proper stress and diction, make paper things, and what not. The screen can come much later.

Computers in schools
Computers in schools

Don’t worry, once they start using it for real needs like actual programing, they will learn all the basics in a flash. Most of the kids are using computer to send emails, chat, Skype or watch YouTube, none of which is actually ‘computer education’ or an accomplishment of any kind.

Communicating: The Power of Language

Language is the most important invention and ability of humans that led to accumulation and passing on of acquired knowledge and ripened wisdom. But today even journalists have bad language skills. Bloggers are excused because anyone can have a free blog. Leading media publications have glaring mistakes of spelling, grammar, repetition, and copy-paste errors. This is because of the new crop of students who never paid much attention to language.

Language is neglected today in a big way. Even English! It is studied only because it is in the Boards, and SAT, GRE, foreign college admissions require it. Even bright students are not studying language earnestly. SMS has rung the final death knell on languages.

Language is the key to communication, needed even as a leader or a team member in a real workplace. Formal writing is still needed, where grammar and spelling matter.

Language should be taught with the immersion technique. Just like English is not taught via Hindi or Telugu or Bengali, similarly other languages should not be taught via English. This also means that English should not be the forced language of communication within school premises. Many schools impose a fine if students are found to speak in anything but English, even beyond English class! How much more humiliation can an Indian take?

Encroaching Coaching?

Three decades and 16 months less, when I took IIT-JEE (the only one, no main or advanced), there were only two coaching classes in the whole of India, and they did correspondence courses. Both of them were expensive and beyond the reach of many like myself. Today there are almost as many coaching centers as schools.

Many schools have integrated coaching centers. This is a symbiotic relationship. The center gets a captive audience of  students enrolled in the school and the school gets ‘motivated’ teachers without putting them on a payroll. What could be better, eh? But now, everyone is focusing on passing competitive exams, rather than understanding, enjoying and acquiring knowledge. Anything that is not exam-related is useless, including languages, history, geography, moral science or even physical activities.

There are two problems in the integrated coaching approach. One, the coaching center is secondary because the school holds the ‘harvest’. Two, powers-to-be recently said that no school can provide coaching in its premises. So, the coaching centers have started their own schools, where the focus is on competitive exams and everything else is just to remain compliant to laws. If this is not mockery of education, then what is?

If coaching could make everyone get into  a IIT, then everyone would be in IIT. Coaching can only sharpen the existing talent, so parents and students should realize what their capabilities are and exert accordingly. If it requires 16 hours a day of non-stop studying, maybe it is not for you, and that is okay. There are other careers in life.

Crafty Creativeness

Every student should know something to do with their hands—something substantial, something that takes you through a creative process. Today students don’t create anything. ‘Google and Wikipedia Zindabad – my child does her homework in minutes!’

The typical life of many students is: homework, coaching, movies, video, TV. How many are making even paper boats and airplanes, forget about cooking, calligraphy or puppets? Working parents, nuclear families, increasing cost of higher living and dreams of greater social-impact-circle—as a result, parenting is being outsourced, proxied or executed through reading blogs. The tradition of generational wisdom is fast disappearing.

The closest one can experience the ‘so-called’ divinity is in two ways—create something and help someone. Helping others in a genuine sense is considered weakness. Creating something is considered ‘unaffordability of digital resources’. While women are always closer to the experience of creating life, even that is fast becoming a liability rather than joy, men are fast losing the touch.

Craft classes a fast declining trend.
Craft classes a fast declining trend.

Primary schools should be more about exploring experiences. There is enough time for intensive book-based studies from class 6 to 12. My daughter pursuing Science in class XI still attributes her flare for art and crafts to her second grade art teacher in America. It is going to be with her for life, as job or hobby. Her art class was full of things, and kids actually experimented with colours, papers, cloth directly, without restraints or constraints. They imitated great painters, as a process of discovery of colours. That early exposure has survived and flourished in her to this day.

Doing things with hands not only gives rise to great hand-eye coordination, some creativity, it also brings appreciation for a large part of society that can’t and shouldn’t afford just a ‘desk job’. Community craftspeople can be involved in teaching the crafts. Apparently, in King Solomon’s times, every citizen had to learn at least one craft, no matter what you become later on.

Flowers of the Same Garden?

There is a famous Hindi poem—Hum sab suman ek upavan ke—we are all flowers of the same garden. This is what should be taken literally, rather than the ‘weight of knowledge’ school bag!

Apart from the crafts mentioned above, schools should take a serious interest in gardening—even city schools. Why? Keep in touch with the soil. Agriculture is the foundation of civilization. Let everyone get an appreciation for nurturing life and getting dirty in life-giving-soil. Even flower gardens and small vegetable gardens, even a terrace garden, or strip garden in limited space of an urban school are enough to develop the interest and early connection. In the long run, it will create more saviours of the environment, which will be needed badly in coming decades.

Teach your kids to have a garden
Teach your kids to have a garden

Each class can by rotation take responsibility or they can have their own garden patches. A few garden monitors can be responsible on a daily basis for watering the garden. These are all just implementation level details.

To  inculcate ideas like keeping one’s surroundings clean and respect for physical work, kids can also clean their classrooms on a rotational basis.

Plan for the long run and reap the fruits.

Good education should prepare good citizens, not just skilled humanoids.

If you as a parent have some stories or suggestions to share, please do share them in the comments section below.

Shashikant Joshi is the author of Attitude Shift: Sanskrit Maxims for Life and Leadership and runs the popular Facebook page PracticalSanskrit. He did his BTech in Computer Science from IIT Kharagpur and MS from the University of Minnesota.
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