Monday, June 27, 2011

To be knowledgeable...

A few nights ago my father showed me this. It is about people who have done great enough things for us to have heard about them, but for some reason we do not. It reminds me about what Rabindranath said about such things "Bipula e prithibir kototuku jani" (how little I know of this great wide world). While I was reading it, a thought kept nagging me at the back of my mind. I keep hearing from many mothers that the pressure of studies has gone up in leaps and bounds these days. Children these days have to study a lot more than their parents did. A mother, whose daughter has gone up to class one this year requested me to get the exercise books of any girl who had gone up to class two this year. She said that if she did not get the exercise books of any senior to help her, the little girl will not be able to cope with the 'work load' of the 'senior' class. After this conversation, I was too stunned to speak for a long time, but now that I look back on it, I realize that this mother is not at all exceptionally crazy. In fact, she was just one of the million other mothers around her who want their children to be 'educated'.

Indeed, when it comes to examination results, our generation does seem to be doing much better. There are so many more seven-pointers these days than there used to be at the time of our parents. Numerous students these days get a one point in English. Even students who did not get more than sixty five in school examinations can hope for at least a two point in ICSE. But when it comes to real knowledge, tested by quizzes and IQ tests, the results are pathetic. 

Even so-called 'brilliant' students who regularly come first in class cannot remember what they had learnt two years ago. Students of classes nine and ten cannot spell and do simple mathematical calculations in their heads without making a large number of mistakes. What a student of class four knew during the time of our parents a student of class eight may or may not know now. High school-goers cannot say their tables and their parts of speech correctly. Most students do not know any history other than the minuscule part that they have been instructed to learn by their schools, and that too only to get the marks. 

The only thing that is important is the number of 'excellent's in the report card. It is the only measure that would mark a student as 'studious' or 'well-informed'. It does not matter how the marks are obtained; whether anything is learnt or not. Cheating has become a daily affair. Everyone cheats from everyone else. And the parents don't seem to mind either, as long as cheating brings the desired marks. So much for the honesty of the students.

The idea of learning in the true sense of the word has become an obscure idea only to be pursued by the craziest of people. All that most people want from educational institutions are a few degrees that would help them to get some 'good' jobs. For girls, the situation is even worse. Studying in an 'English medium convent school' would increase a girl's demand in the marriage market. That is all that schools and colleges are worth; that is what most parents have drilled into the heads of their children nowadays.

Both parents and their children would get a nasty shock if it were to be declared just now that a lot of questions would come in the board examinations that would be from outside the few prescribed textbooks and would test the student's actual knowledge and awareness about the goings-on in the world around them.  Be that as it may, this might be the only way to make them really learn anything rather than just blindly mug up a few books and throw them up in the examination paper only to forget everything completely in the next instant. 

The list in that website was one about really little-known people, but I can confidently say that had I shown any of my classmates (or their parents, for that matter) a list of Hitler's most notorious officers or even the highest paid women in the world or any other such popular lists, they would have been as astonished and as uninterested as they would be with this list. This is the 'educational progress' that has been taking place everywhere. I am tempted to say that our ancestors (who were not so 'educationally progressive') were much better off intellectually and much more knowledgeable than we would be any time soon. Who knows, for them this list might even have been pretty well-known... indeed, my father said he recognized five of those people.


Shilpi said...


You’ve brought up too many things for me to be able to settle my rambling mind and comment on all of them. But to share some memories and thoughts of a crone...

I've wondered too whether the bright students of one generation are simply somewhat dull compared to those from a previous generation. I am now firmly convinced that there are only the rarest of the rare who (no matter which generation they belong to) can hold their own and with aplomb. But, I think, on an average we are getting duller.

I’ll share a little story because your point in your 6th para brings it to my head yet again. In Class IX, some of our sensible teachers found it disgusting that we were spitting out G.K. from a little book for exams, and scoring over 90%. For one exam they said it was an open exam. Anything and everything could come for the test. I don’t even remember what was there apart from a fair bit on current affairs. All I remember is that two girls from the other section (incidentally they were the consistent toppers and very well-read and bright although in different ways) scored really well in the exam, and I think (but am not absolutely sure) there were a couple from my section who passed the exam (and I wasn’t one of the ones who passed - no surprise there).

I don’t know though whether such a system would work. It’s what you quite sharply point out. Learning for the joy of learning; knowing for the joy of knowing is on the decline. That is what disturbs me in some ways, and that most teachers know so little, and that people, on an average, can be so utterly indifferent to knowing more about what matters - anything. It’s what you say about the list or any other more popular list: about people being astonished, which is one thing but to be indifferent? That is what used to bother me a lot sometimes although I know it’s no easy matter to wake up from a state of indifference. It’s sometimes ‘easy enough’ to drift along but let me not get into that here. These days I worry as to the sort of young people and professors you'll get to meet by the time you're in college...

I’ve been going through that particular website with the lists (looked up ten ‘untranslatable words’, the one about books being inspired by dreams...). As for that particular list that you provided - a very warm thank you because I had missed it. None of the names rang any bells (which isn’t surprising in my case) although Nicholas Steno’s name sounded vaguely familiar. I wouldn’t bet on having known the name but I’ll remember that one name from now on. As for your dad knowing 5 of the names…believe it or not, I was quite sure that he’d be familiar with all 10.

I do hope your dad's students - among others - read this post of yours carefully....

Better end my ten-mile long comment here (I hacked off some parts). Take care and keep writing, and it's wonderful to see all those red stars on your blog-map...


Urbi Chatterjee said...

Just two things here. I know that while many of dad's ex-students do read my blog, and so I can hope that they will read this post, I can hardly think of any of dad's ex-students from more recent times who read my blog. I guess I have not been able to make my blog interesting enough for them.

And as for all those red stars on my blog map, I do wish I got comments from more of them...

Anonymous said...

Hi Pupu,

I had just typed a long-ish comment, which got deleted :( (I don't know why). So, I am repeating the comment once again.
I am one of Sir's ex-students (ICSE-2004) who regularly reads your blog. Now, if you ask me why I hadn't commented before, I must confess that I had been too lazy to type.
When I went to Sir's classes, you had been a little girl (may be in Class 1 or 2), and it's amazing to see that you have grown up to write so coherently and logically, which many grown-ups can't. I enjoyed reading many of your posts including the ones on karate lessons and on the Deathly Hallows (I am waiting to see Part 2, because like you, I am also an avid fan of Rowling's magical world).
Regarding this post, I agree that people are becoming so obsessed with marks that learning in the real sense is lost. The result is evident, with thousands scoring 90+, and yet, not getting admissions in desired colleges.
I remember I used to play a game with my dad on capitals of countries. I spent my time with the atlas, learning the capitals and though it wasn't of any use for the exams, I came to know about the countries and enjoyed the process of learning. I still play the game! (Last Sunday, I stumped him asking the capital of Honduras!)
Coming back to what you have written, I feel there should be a paper on GK for the boards, a subject that doesn't have prescribed textbooks. Don't you?

With love,
Sayantika di.

Urbi Chatterjee said...

Dear Sayantikadi,
While I do agree that taking G.K. examinations from no prescribed books would be a good way to increase general knowledge among students, I am sure that many of them and their parents would protest loudly and vehemently if any such system was put to practice. Answering such examinations would require serious studying, not blind learning by rote, and I wonder how many students would be ready to do that...

Al-Le-Gr-Fi said...

Pupu, a brilliantly written article here. I am - to put it bluntly - chuffed with your opinions. Over here we have similar problems facing education.

Our scores are going up yearly, but not because our students are getting brighter, Hell, our students are getting dimmer. It's our exams that are becoming increasingly easy and moron-friendly.

Also, like in India, parents are determined to get their kids in to the best available private schools, and it's prompting such schools to raise their fees astronomically, almost incorporating the schools. Our private education is now turning in to more of a financial-gain scam than a place to learn.

Well, I'm glad I went to a public school here anyway.
I was going to write more but my internet is threatening to disconnect, so I'll leave it there

~ Alex

Nishant Kamath said...

Hi Pupu,

This problem is indeed not restricted just to India. From what I have observed here, the condition in China is pretty bad as well, probably even worse, not that that should be of any consolation to us. And the similarity is that both have huge populations, both have students taking entrance tests to get into colleges, both have students with very good problem-solving abilities and next-to-nothing creatively-thinking ability, people on both sides of the border shy away from books.... you get the idea.

I think, and I am not sure here, I'm basing my opinion on just a couple of students I have observed here, the standard of education is still pretty good in Europe (France, Italy, Netherlands). We have students from these countries and they are from the top colleges of their respective countries and the gap in knowledge between them and us (or me) is huge. Forget about GK and current affairs (I admit I don't like reading news much, I'd rather read books), their technical knowledge is also quite superior to mine. In Italy, students who take up 'science' are also needed to learn Latin or Greek (and thoroughly), and history and current affairs as well and they need to take both oral and written tests at the end of class 12 for six or seven subjects and each test lasts for a few hours (not joking, my Italian room-mate told me this). We saw some new undergrads walking around in the Institute and he said, "These people look like kids. In Italy, you enter high school a kid and you come out an adult, fully aware of what's going on all around you." I decided to not say anything because I think the situation in India is hardly better than in the US. A couple of days ago we (an Indian friend, the Italian, and I) were discussing about grammar (rules in Latin and Sanskrit) and I was just a silent listener, not contributing anything to the conversation. He was throwing around terms pertaining to grammar and structure of a language and I had to admit that I just knew how to read and write and to some extent speak the language but had not much idea of the theory.

Coming back to your post, I didn't know any one. Even Steno, who was a geologist. We studied stratigraphy in the second year, but to this day I haven't been able to understand how that subject fits into whatever we studied, leave alone comprehending the subject matter. I remember somehow cramming the notes into my head and then just putting them down on to the answer sheet and forgetting them as soon as I had done so.

Again, coming back to the post, I agree we need to have more history and language lessons in school. Though the format of the history exams could be changed. And learning music should be made compulsory. It's probably easy for me to say so in hindsight, but when I see people here from Iran and Italy and Austria and Japan, who can play some instrument, or speak about grammar and history, even though their field of research is centred around earth sciences, I feel really deficient. So unless there is a mass change, things will probably just get worse and we'll be mostly churning out duds from schools and colleges.

Sorry about the bleak comment, but objectively speaking I think it's true.


Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Pupu,

I was reading some of your older posts when I came across the link provided by you in this one. Let me start by accepting that I haven't heard of almost any person mentioned in the link. I came to know about Nicholas Steno only a few months back and that too when Google designed a doodle to celebrate his 374th birth anniversary on 11th January this year. Thanks for sharing this link.

Although I know your father always uses this phrase, "Ami to r sobjanta ganjeewala noi.", still I believed (like Shilpi di) that Sir would know all of them. Pupu, don't lament about the fact most people are uninterested about anything serious or knowledgeable. I hope you have already understood by now that they are only concerned about trivial matters of immediate importance like marks.

With good wishes,
Saikat da