Monthly Archives: May 2011

‘Building’ Teachers

“Every thing that tends to insulate the individual, –to surround him with barriers of natural respect, so that each man shall feel the world is his, and man shall treat with man as a sovereign state with a sovereign state;–tends to true union as well as greatness.” R.W. Emerson, American Scholar

One of the by-products of industrialization was standardization. Advent of technology empowered business, following standardization, focused on ‘product’ as unit of their affairs. Soon, evaluation of human beings as human resources brought them down to same inanimate level of products.

In all other avenues, it is the research, technology and finance that matters. People working there are merely support functionaries. It is in health and education that they truly turn into products. Naturally, you would like to enhance the quality of  toaster, car, teacher and doctor. So, you bring in reforms, ever so often, to keep pace with fashion.

The Urban Condition

No time to stand and stare...

With health reform, there is infrastructure, multiple industries so nurses and doctors are pushed to fringe. In case of education reform, with publication syndicates representing industry, full thrust is upon the human part – the teacher. Early on, several disciplines (psychology and then management) provided the much needed ingress to a rock solid academia. Soon a new discipline of Education started spanning its wings. It did help, so long its genuine understanding of the activity appealed to contributors to provide teachers with ample material. Over the time, losing objectivity, the suggestions stemmed out with burden of its own pedagogy.

It did not matter to ask whether education would enlighten mind, brighten spirits through a particular course of action. So, long as it served as a tool to narrow the focus of young minds in desired direction, it was enough. With the change in premise, it was easy to design the delivery system to a T. The reform deliberates either the area of focus or the manner of delivery.

The present reform in U.S. ponders over what kind of coaching system should be enforced to get the desired end-product. So the National Center on Education and the Economy, a think tank funded mostly by large corporations and their affiliated foundations observes that the country is no longer able to ‘build’ better teachers. With their study of teaching practices in countries like Finland, China and Canada — where educators devote greater time in preparing and have  significant autonomy in how to teach – the likely policy would be to import coaching of that time.

Random_michael comments on an article by Kevin Drum:

I’m a college professor and my wife is a grade-school teacher, so I am painfully familiar with the abysmal state of education in the U.S. Unfortunately, one of the main culprits is the system of teacher training. Simply put, schools of ed suck. Almost universally.
The reasons are complex, but a big one is, ironically, the concept of teacher training itself. Schools of ed are staffed by faculty who get tenure by publishing research. So there is a powerful incentive to generate what is ultimately specious evidence for this or that pedagogical method. This is how you get published, attract funding, get raises and promotions, etc. But it has nothing to do with turning out better teachers. Just the reverse: inculcating each crop of students with the latest breakthrough in teaching multiplication only harms classroom instruction. No wonder some of the worst teachers are those who teach teachers, as my wife can attest.
Things have gotten so bad that we no longer know what counts as a good education or effective instruction. Hence the proliferation of tests that serve to kick this basic problem down the road by marshaling “experts” who devise measurements of narrowly defined “facts” and “skills.” Meanwhile, we worship at the altar of “freedom” and “self-esteem” while in fact depriving kids of genuine foundations for both.

It leads to an examination of our starting premises. In a democracy, the end is Man. Questions, Thoreau, “Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?” This ‘conscience’ which is prime currency of democratic ideal, does it find any representation in course of modern human existence? It is only in young, untainted minds that seeds of conscience strengthen the stem of purposeful existence. Only when inquiry is goaded and guided by it, that result would benefit individual and the world alike.  It needs a person who may without ambiguity seem to be an embodiment of truth to teach the truth:

He who gives himself entirely to his fellow men appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist. Thoreau

It is not that we lacked any resources to point us in the right direction; we prefer to look elsewhere than in our own hearts – where the answer lies.  The renaissance of  this continent began with the warning: to stop looking elsewhere and rely on what we have. Building a teacher can never be the aim; nurturing future citizens could be. Individuals build their community, society, nation. Let them be individuals who are conscientious, responsible, honest and giving: you will have a strong nation.  Bernard Shaw might appear to be elitist, but he pointed merely the direct relationship between  treatment and growth:

the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. Pygmalion

Make the profession of teaching as that of builders ( not of human beings but of society and life-view) where a teacher feels responsible, is allowed to act conscionably, unburdened to give freely and you will have such a society.

Works Cited

“EMERSON–“THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR”” Virginia Commonwealth University. Web. 31 May 2011. http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/amscholar.html.

“Henry David Thoreau: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” Index. Web. 31 May 2011. http://www.constitution.org/civ/civildis.htm.

“George Bernard Shaw: Pygmalion: Act V – Free Online Library.” George Bernard Shaw – Free Online Library. Web. 31 May 2011. http://shaw.thefreelibrary.com/Pygmalion/5-1.

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Grim’s Chore

A poem by Terence Tuhinanshu, from Lifetime

My time has come, dear boy
The time for me to die.
And quick and fast
And long at last
Life has passed me by.

Die, I must.
Not of age, no.
Nor of hunger, thirst or sorrow.
But for my frustration.
Old I may be, yet still a man
With fading dreams, drowsy desires
A far out field sub-station.

I never was as expected.
All my deeds should-have’s than well-done.
But at the lowest last few moments of my life,
How am I worse than anybody else?
We all share the same fate,
Being instances of the same group.

Life is wasted on an old man
And death too, I suppose.
Old men have to die. It is their purpose.
Were it not been so, even death would pass us by.
For nobody wants an old man
With expired solutions but evergreen problems.

I have known many friends
And lost every one.
And I said to myself each time
With exceptions none
‘The most we can do is walk alone in the moonlight…’

Well, the moon has set.
The stars have left
And the sun shall never come.
Darkness lies behind me, and darkness lies before me.
I sense the Grim come reluctantly closer as I feel my way through.
And now I wonder, flattered,
If indeed my life is worth bothering the Reaper?

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Knowledge rewarded

Being vital for any civilized society, education often is taken for granted. But occasionally the busy wheels of life stop for a moment to notice those who serve equally as they stand and wait. It is heartening whenever that happens.

Such an occasion was the 10th annual EduGala held at Algonquin College where along with others, Carleton professors Leighann Neilson and H. Masud Taj were presented with Capital Educator Awards on Thursday evening from the Ottawa-Carleton Learning Foundation (OCLF), which facilitates dialogue and action to support public education in the community – from Kindergarten to PhD.

Leighann Neilson has been an assistant professor of marketing in the Sprott School of Business since 2006. Neilson designs her courses in keeping with her philosophy that learning, especially in undergraduate courses, “doesn’t have to hurt.” Students say her sense of humour is one of the things they most enjoy in her class. Neilson believes in integrating teaching and research, frequently bringing insights from her research in not-for-profit marketing or the Canadian wine industry into the classroom.

H. Masud Taj is an adjunct professor at Carleton. He conducts design studios at the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism and lectures on Muslim civilizations at the Centre for Initiatives in Education.  Both his studios and his lectures are premised on “alterity” − to know ourselves, we need to know the other. He is the director of Transnational Architectural Journeys with projects in India where he delivered the keynote at the 2ndInternational Conference of Islamic Art and Architecture. As an architect, he was mentored by the Egyptian visionary Hasan Fathy, and as a calligrapher, by Italic master David Hosbrough.

His poetry is archived in the University’s Special Collection.

The award ceremony can be viewed here.

Teaching is a futuristic activity that never loses sight of past. It is considered to be and often appears, a profession but teaching is a call. As the saying goes some instruct, others inform but the best inspire. It is in the dreams of their students that teachers live. One of the awardees, Taj  represented the spirit of eternal teacher in his acceptance speech.

I am pleased to win the Capital Educators Award. To those who nominated me: thank you for your trust. All finalists here and my colleagues at Azreili School of Architecture and Urbanism are dedicated teachers in their own ways and many more deserving than I. Hence I accept the award on their behalf.

I thank all my students at Azreili School of Architecture and Urbanism as well as life-long learners that I lecture to at Centre for Initiatives in Education at Carleton University. I also thank students and colleagues at the International Academy of Science & Technology here as well as at Sir JJ College of Architecture, Rizvi School of Architecture, and Pillai School of Architecture in India and I recall my teachers there in gratitude – Sardar Muhammad Malik of Blue Mountains School and Prof Yatin Chandawarker of Bandra School of Art.

In my forthcoming book of poems, Alphabestiary (with exegesis by Dr Bruce Meyer) the Grasshopper says:

Map your senses

On to my frame of reference,

Your thighs will bulge

With muscular insights.

You will witness

The world the way I do,

Take a leap of faith,

Fly.

I thank my family for their insights and my parents for their faith in us (my sisters too are teachers). Parents faith in their children remain unshaken: they told me I was going to win the award and that I should read out their greetings to all the teachers assembled here. So here is the message from my 86 year old parents:

Prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon him) said : “God, His angels and all those in heavens and on earth, even ants in their hills and fish in the water call down blessings on those who teach others beneficial knowledge.

Salute to all who teach and blessings to all who learn.

Knowledge is its own reward, teaching, own joy.

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What is in a (Sur)name

Reading an article by an eminent professor, I was moved by his statement early in my reading: “But in the process, the system also acquired undesirable traits like untouchability. ” In my mind I had some reactions against the apparent connotation of the statement, but further into text I found that he rejected this as a hypothesis based on his experiences of growing up in rural Punjab. He talked about how people of different castes maintained some distinctions and at the same time rejected several unstated regulations/ beliefs to coexist in harmony even while this period was close to partition (years around 1947).

Indeed, the notion of caste is not simple: In case of Hindu caste system, it is the plethora of multi-layered, alien, untutored, self-aggrandizing view-points carelessly (maybe, with deep design) promoted, which turned it into such a monstrosity that by the time I entered teens in early ’70s I had decided to shun it altogether. I toyed with the idea of discarding the second half of my name, that typically in India indicates the caste (in reality it is a far deeper classification) of a person. I had read that upper-caste people had abused and exploited people belonging to lower ones. In my immediate experience there was no apparent example of that; but it might have been true at a certain period. And in atonement, the least I could do was to discard the privilege (if any—I did not know for certain) that my ‘Sir’-name would indicate. I did (and despite everything, still do now) believe in the whole world being a single family without any difference in status. So, to live free of any weighted signifier, ought to be the course for a Citizen of the World. How could anyone aspire to be less?

From that teen idealism (perhaps the most powerful) grew several unconventional acts. One of which was giving my son an identifier (with no inkling to caste) that would make him unique in the world. Google search proves that today when he has crossed his teens, my belief still holds.

The funny part is that I have been made to look foolish because of this act. I requested the officer issuing his passport in India and he assured me that I may well leave the Surname blank, entering the two parts in his Firstname. U.S. regulations also accepted this as F.N.U. — First name Unknown. But beyond that no one is sensitive to the issue. He missed an assistant-ship because between different computer systems his name did not match (one using First part as Surname, the other vice-versa). All his life he will be caught in unraveling the muddle various offices keep creating —  sadly in a country where this was least expected. I know of many people in India with two name-bits (none signifying caste) Saurabh Pankaj, Reeta Madhav, Sohan Bharatiya etc. who are not hassled because of this.

Along the Road

Few bend, some straight as pride

The lesson I learnt is that one should not try to change the course of history without understanding in full. If as an impressionable idealistic child I had not ingrained anti-caste ideas, I might not have committed such a folly. It is not your name but your action that counts — at least in an egalitarian society. And India is truly egalitarian today in this sense. The hospitality industry and along with it, almost all others would not have boomed, if Indians stuck to caste-based untouchability. Sad to say that while sixties and early seventies were devoted to national integration trying to tide up real problems — linguistic division of states, sharing of resources etc. — the evil eighties granted this near-dead abstraction a new lease of life by turning it into a political reality. It was a response to global racialism —  our Indian home-grown version, of fine vintage.
It exists solely because of reservation policy contained within our constitution (again out of best intentions) — some castes are included, some are not. Indian academics should clearly measure out how much benefit people of a certain caste have actually enjoyed because of reservation. Initially, it was getting government jobs; but the current economy rewards people in private sector and in truly positive caste-insensitive way, based on profitability. An upper-caste well-educated boy is often rejected because he can not deliver to match a rustic performer from other caste. In a way, this is fair play and if brawn happens to be in greater demand than brain, it is a case of natural selection. A large part of people provided for by this clause have in reality lead their lives in poverty and misery having received little direct assistance. It is the economic polarization that is responsible for their dire status and not the manifestation of individual frustration misread as expression of caste-based aggression. The sole reason this tainted abstraction is still alive, is that politicians want localized power by fracturing the society.

(#) In US some states insist on teaching Christian theory of Genesis (to counter-act the Darwinian theory of evolution). Is either theory a candidate for rigmarole — they are diametrically opposed!

Often people evaluate an idea from a set of circumstances purportedly brought about by the the idea. The caste-system that we rightfully denounce as being responsible for unpleasant contemporary truth, is not the original design at all. It is like condemning the fruit from its present rotten state, without ever tasting a fresh banana. In India, Jaati was a scientific term along with Varna. Based on what might seem as rigmarole(#) to us now, it nurtured the Ashram system of coordinating individual life harmoniously with the social and political in a placid life-order. The only distinction acceptable were academic in nature: Ih-lok and par-lok, aatma and parmaatma, pap or punya, satya or mthya, dharmik or adharmik. The last brought members of all Varna-s at par: if they were true to their life-style, they were equally Dharmik.(*)

(*) Narad proud of his devotion was disappointed to learn that a butcher was considered the greatest devotee by Lord himself. Vishnu then sent him on a tour of the universe with a bowl full of oil and the warning that not a single drop should be spilled. On reaching back Narad confessed that concentrating on the bowl, he had not remembered Lord even once. Vishnu playfully indicated that while he is at work of killing animals, the butcher constantly recited Lord’s name. [Doing one’s karma in ‘nishkam’ manner is true ‘dharma’. Can anyone today appreciate the subtle finesse of the idea of performance without attachment, when you have to constantly give self-appraisals thus becoming an accountant of your slightest actions?]

If the creators of this whole false, flawed system, the Brahmins were selfish, power-mongers why did they allocate power to Kshatriya, riches to Vaishya, providing themselves to collect Bhiksha from five houses once a day and sanctified the practice of fasting (having to go through it every so often)?

The degeneration set in where Karma associated with any Jati took a backseat and privileges began to be commanded as birth-right (literally so, having taken birth within a particular caste). Further the genetic specialty (if you happen to believe in rigmarole referred above) could not have survived with distinction as races intermingled. Quite likely then, the static people located in center proclaimed, that the fringe or border residents no longer carry the noble seed. Hence, even with a caste, further classification was required.

Sad truth is as 21-May (the DoomsDay) believers recently celebrated the day to be beginning of end of the world, it emphasized that a world order had really ended with last century/ millennium, and if you agree with Ray Kurzweil, distinction between man and machine would vanish by 2045. The debate about Caste-system of India comes centuries after Kabir and other Bhakti period saint-poets had announced its demise. We can never rise to such exalted system of distinction-creation any time in future soon. The current attempts stem from immediate profitability — Stores cater to different segments with distinct Brand names: Banana Republic for the fashionable rich, Gap for middle classes and Old Navy for poor bargain-hunters; at the same time distinctions within same economic strata are done away with — everyone wears the same T-shirt, color being the only chance at distinction. Even that is kept same on special occasion — to celebrate the spirit of being universally the same (consumer).

Growing Harmony

Blending to please

What wonderful age would that have been when Girdhar (alas, no clear links to this great Indian poet) found that “Gun ke gahak sahas nar” (Thousand of seekers for quality), “bin gun lahe na koye” (None would cherish that lacks merit). Today, in the age of Zuckerberg Social-engineering, it is not your own sense of recognition or ability to evaluate that counts, but what your group of friends seem to be hankering after. As follower of your peer group you might go seek (buy) a thousand times something that is “bin gun” (worthless). Poetry, however lives on, with a little change.

Last week CVS had organized a “free” health checkup ‘sponsored’ by Novartis. I was shocked to read this:
“Exforge can significantly lower high blood pressure in blacks and African Americans.” (From their folder printed in USA 3/11 EXR-1045804)

The two subtle suggestions are: ( Not whites! they do not need this medicine…. probably they are being warned off this medicine, else they have a different metabolic system)

Secondly: Blacks (whatever they may connote) are Blacks and not African-Americans, who have come far from the shared root and due to their immediate past are different from non-American Blacks; not that distant though – same medicine works on. Here is an infographic displaying expenditure made by phamaceuticals under various heads.

Who says Caste-system and racialism are things of past? I did. Novartis proved me wrong. Granted the modern world of profit does not share the philosophy and traditions that a race or caste might hold sacred; also, that living under umbrella of a globalized world the rough edges of certain practices should not prick others. Why is that for mere material gain we bring to life a hollow version of an outdated idea. If we wish to be ideal optimists, let us never admit any difference; as realists it would do well to recognize the uniqueness without the question of superiority, power, revenge or profit. Till we practice such self-control the greed driven distinction would continue to create differentiating labels. We shall never be rid of caste – the self-seeking evil within.

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Safeguarding Culture

There was a time when life had to be carved out of the jaws of nature. The numerous means, tricks and strategies  man developed to safeguard his life in the vast hostile universe got stored in his life-style contributing to creation of a racial memory.

Book released by UNESCO Convention 2003

Precious Art of Life Courtesy: Unesco

Today, when rarely, if at all, we are challenged by a wild beast it is not life that that needs safeguarding. Ah, the joy of having reached a point where threats to mechanisms we devised to secure lives are greater han to actual life itself. This does not forward insensitivity to actual life-threats that still hound us, but is rhetoric used to sensitize people at large to conditions that minimize our freedom to thought (and hence, action) by reducing our storehouse of racial memory.

Unesco Convention 2003 is a strong step in the right direction. The poet’s warning about a ‘world so full of care.. one has no time stand and stare’ has come home. The care is no longer a weariness arising out of huff and puff of a world in toil; it is anxiety propelled by the giant strides of progress. What may get crushed beneath the wheels is least of its concerns.

To encourage individuals, institutions and nations to promote sensitivity to loss of immense human knowledge, contained more in life-styles nourishing these practices than their mere form and passed for generations through oral tradition, UNESCO started a Representative list. Various nations have contributed practices that are gravely endangered and need to be safeguarded, to this list. Some of these have been compiled in this book, which can be downloaded from the website of Intangible Heritage.

Apart from devising consensus, NGOs have been entrusted with the task to apprise the community of ICH practices about possible strategies to safeguard them. Depending on situation, either a practice can be preserved, promoted or allowed to continue without any external impetus. The last is ideal; hard to attain. The great challenge however is to learn to carry out the act of preservation/ promotion, lest through excessive interference, the practice ‘loses its essence its sanctity’ (as pointed out in this article on Omenad).

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Reclaiming Intent

Dr. Rajiv Trivedi

It is said that words profane an idea. As our restricted technological advance commits us to human communication through imperfect linguistic expression, we conduct ourselves thus. It is this elasticity of language that accounts for greater use of fuzzy logic in all human affairs. So while most people use this phrase to describe a process in which the direction of brain-drain changes, I use it as an appeal to change the nature of such a drain.

It all began with quantification of human being. For some time, it seemed a good thing as historically, human being had been treated as less than that. But while in the past, it was a product of instinct-based more-barbaric-than-civilized society; in the twentieth century it was a conscious act to place human-beings at certain pre-conceived levels. More than anything else, this century can be adjudged as being consumed with the process of evaluating man. For the first time in his history, man had focused his eyes away from gods and heavens towards his own tiny but real existence.

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Lest, it is granted!

[ A translation  of verse 28 from Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s Geetanjali by Smt. Krishna Shukla]

हठी हैं ज़ंजीरें, पर मेरा हृदय पीडि़त होता है
जब मैं उन्‍हें तोड़ता हूँ
स्वतंत्रता ही मेरी आकांक्षा  है –
पर उसकी उम्मीद मुझे
शर्मिंदा करती है
मैं निश्चिन्त हूँ कि अमूल्‍य सम्पदा स्वामी  आप मेरे मित्रवत हैं
पर मेरे हृदय में इतना साहस नहीं है
कि झाड़ सकूँ
अपने कमरे की उथली रँगीनी।

कफन जो मुझे ढँके है
वह कफन है धूल और मौत का
मैं उससे घृणा करता हूँ
फिर भी लपेटे हूँ प्रेम से।

बहुत कर्ज हैं मेरे
बहुत बड़ी असफलताऍं;
मेरी लज्जा भारी और गोपन।

फिर भी जब मैं अपने हित के वर को आता हूँ,
डर मुझे  कँपा देता है कि कहीं स्वीकृत
हो जाये न मेरी प्रार्थना।

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