Saturday, January 17, 2009

The teacher's tutor

It was through an invitation passed onto me by my editor that I found myself in an auditorium full of teachers. This hardly seems like a pleasant experience for someone who has, with much relief, finally graduated his twelfth grade. The event was a documentary being screened at the Regional Institute of Education by the Teacher foundation. The Teacher foundation as I was told by its director works with a broad range of schools from all over the country aiming to breathe fresh air into stale classrooms and even staler teaching methods. The director Mrs Maya Menon was a very enthusiastic person and through the discussions that followed after the documentary I began to wish there had been more teachers like her during my school days. The documentary itself was made by an educational filmmaker, Mr Gautam Sonti. The aim as the audience was told was to bring awareness to some of glaring issues that are haunting Indias Private and Governmental schools. Maybe because it was so direct it did happen to insinuate a heated discussion and drew much criticisim from the teaching community present. Apparently the Teacher foundation does have its work cut out for them. But it did make me think back to my schooling days and to the words of a very famous song made by a band perhaps as upset with schools in far away Britain.

“ We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control”

Pink Floyd’s The wall

When the days in school got too long, monotonous, mechanical or boring it’s comforting to let those words ring through. It was reassuring to feel I wasn’t the only one in the world who felt the space time continuum being distorted the moment I walked into class, right to the point when seconds felt like hours and maths class felt like a lifetime. To be fair I will take some of the credit for not excelling at school till the very end of my academic days (even then it wasn’t academics i excelled at). But my less than enthusiastic teachers played a pivotal role in this. However every school i attended (all 5 of them) I did find at least one teacher who kept me afloat. Who believed I could be a little more than what I was. To that unnamed teacher, I thank you. I am what I am because of you. But the rest of the teaching community at large I feel just spout out the same old rhetoric. Like a march past calling out commands like left-right-left or attention! Something stinks in the system of schooling India. Osho once asked very rightly what the difference between schools and jails were? The almost mechanical routine that school provide pupils allows for no questioning, No outside thought that deviates from the rules. This environment is so plastic, so far out of touch with the real world. At school you’re just another face in the crowd. Separated into classes, divisions and of course IQ levels. There are the few who do well in this system. But these few would do well in any system. They are the exception more than the rule. It is impossible to ask that all students be of the same maturity and intellectual level that they too would benefit optimally from the system we have now. There lies, left behind, a vast medley of academic outcasts who’s talents lay hidden and shunned by the very teachers entrusted to bring the best out of them.

And parents too. No one is supposed to know your child better than you. Stop expecting so much from schools. And start taking a larger interest into the lives of your children. It’s no wonder that so many teenagers are clueless with where their lives are to lead after they finish school. At school and at home they are persistently programmed to do what they are told unquestioningly and that’s that. Where is the individuality so characteristic of every human being? Where are all these unique talents being nurtured? India, a country with the world’s second largest populations and one of the largest exporters of qualified professionals to the west (not to mention our software programmers) still battles with one of the world’s lowest literacy rates! Doesn’t anyone realise there is something fundamentally wrong with the way our education system is functioning? Why do we have such high dropout rates? Why are children is rural areas just not motivated to get the education that is the key to taking not just themselves but India out of poverty? And it isn’t just the small poorer rural schools that can be accused of pupil negligence. Even the proudest urban public schools aren’t fairing much better. Maybe their dropout rate isn’t as high since their students aren’t faced with the option of going to work in a paddy field but are their students really being allowed to do anything beyond the boundaries of their text books and compound walls? Where is the real education happening? Some brave schools aside most schools in India are not willing to question the age old system of memorise or be damned. As for that extra bit of encouragement that often makes a world of difference (at least it did for me) most students are lucky to escape without getting a few bruises through school (I didn’t). Against this backdrop it’s indeed heartening to know that the teacher foundation is there to accept there are flaws to be remedied and classes to fill. I just wish there were more people listening.
If the central and state governments along with Boards of education brought their noses back down to earth and realised this problem exists we would start to see real change in India.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

In America....

In America, a land far, far away people are hoping for change. They call it the land of opportunities. They have the world’s largest economy and the best standard of living going by all conventional economic indicators. So why do they want change. They are allowed to vote and choose leaders of their choice. The voters are by and large educated. Something we in India cannot claim and blame our bad political choices on. But eight years ago the Americans chose a man called G W Bush to be their President and Commander-in-Chief. That mistake has multiplied itself over the eight years. From the Clinton years when the economy was strong, everyone had a job and loads of national debt. They have now gone to having an economy in recession with job losses mounting every week and even more national debt. That’s why everyone wants to be in Washington on the 20th of this month to see the man they believe can bring all the good stuff back. No not Santa Claus. This man has been running around America campaigning for a change. He wants to change the way America thinks and does politics. He wants to do away with the Reagan era and usher in an era of his own which hopefully will heal the badly bruised American economy and by default the world’s economy. If you have heard or watched him speak, even read the transcripts of his speeches you would realize that there is a piece of history right here in the making. America needs, as any country would, to stand united. Historically they have always managed to churn out leaders who have rallied the nation at a time of crisis. Real crisis. Unfortunately the Monica Lewinsky scandal that rocked the Clinton administration was not a crisis enough to bring in any president better that Bush. But by some cruel twist what Bush brought upon America forced America bring out Obama. True Obama has been growing as a person for 30 sum years but there could not be a better time for his rise into politics and for him to take a seat behind the desk of the oval office. This brings to light Obamas current status as a pop and political icon. There are striking similarities between Shepard Fairey's portrait of Barack Obama and the famous Che Guevara picture that adorns t-shirts all over the world. Except Mr Obama’s portrait will hang from the National Portrait Gallery. Its selection marks Obama’s ascension to a status of cult icon. Someone who teen generations to come will know of not from text books but possibly from being a really cool poster or t-shirt print. It isn’t a jibe at Americas first black president. Che Guevara died for something he believed in and he’s on a lot of t-shirts and no one seems to be complaining.

Sri Lankanised

An attack on Sri Lankas largest private media operator has left many raised eyebrows over the freedom of the press in the country. The attack came after sections on the state media heavily criticised the company for apparently biased reporting on the war. The attack, which left millions in damaged equipment, was specifically targeted at crippling the broadcast capability of the stations 3 free to air channels and 4 radio stations. No other part of the property was damaged. In an address to the parliament after the attacks the main opposition party (UNP) head Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe made it clear that the transition from rebel sponsored terrorism to state sponsored terrorism was like taking Sri Lanka from the frying pan into the fire.

The Sri Lankan government in recent times has been lauded for its tough stance on terror and going ahead with tackling separatist groups despite calls from the international community to strike a peace deal with the rebels. The government is riding on a wave of popularity after successive military victories have left the tigers cornered in the jungles of northern Sri Lanka. But what of its promise to create a free and fair democratic state? Unfortunately for the government its long standing policy of preventing any neutral observers into the conflict zone has left a large gap in unbiased reports which has fuelled speculation on whether the Media Centre for National Security, which is the only official source from which the press can get reports, is trustworthy enough. Added to this heavy censorship amongst the local media and allegations of harassment have constantly cropped up. Any dissenting voice is instantly labelled as a traitor and branded anti-patriotic. It was against these same allegations that the private station in Colombo was attacked.

The Rajapakse government is presently struggling to control the economy to fund its massive war chest. It has repeatedly raised taxes on every commodity or service under the sun. This has caused inflation to persistently remain in double digits. The Lankan people feel the burden heavily but they believe that it is a price worth paying to get rid of the tigers. The opposition party recently took a petition to the Supreme Court to have fuel prices reduced on par with the drop in international crude prices. Despite the court ruling to do so the government has refused saying that it has to pay off previous oil bills. This belief that it is above the law of the land leads to question whether Sri Lanka, after years of war scars and a national debt that will take generations to pay off will really be a free and fair democratic state.

Silence can be deafening

As we drive through the main gate our ears pick up the vibrations. The characteristic rapid beats that sound like machine gun fire. They get louder as we work our way down the line of people standing outside. The usual crowd of long haired metal heads wearing black shirts form a sea of bobbing heads swaying to distorted riffs from one of Bangalore thrash metal bands. Its Independence day and there is an air of rebellion, of non-conformism and a mission to make a mark at one of the year’s biggest music festivals that Bangalore's had to offer. Freedom jam was the most sought after platform for upcoming bands to be heard and hear the veterans of the trade. A bigger version than the monthly Sunday jam, it took place every (or around) Independence Day.

That however that was more than three years ago. Since then the organisers have faced multiple hurdles such as finding locations, getting permits and rowdy locals. The final blow hit when the government passed a law banning all live shows. This was meant to target the dance bars around the city but instead due to its ambiguity caused immense dispute for musicians and organisers. Now the main and only sponsors of the event, Levis, have pulled out. This was the final nail in the coffin and what happened to the freedom jam is only a symptomatic effect of the broader neglect being dished out to the local non-Bollywood music industry. The industry as a whole creates jobs for innumerable people besides the artists themselves. Due to such senseless bans they suffer heavily. Even the government is losing revenue from a potentially highly profitable industry. The whole scenario is very similar to Bollywoods predicament before it was given industry status, a time when the whole film world was run by mafias and shady wheeler dealers. Now the same injustice is being handed out to a whole generation of musicians who have a small or nonexistent avenue to show their talent.

There are small pockets all over Bangalore where musicians meet to rehearse. Watching these rehearsals I realised what they have achieved with little resources they had. If they were given the right platform and sponsorship there is no doubt Indian bands would be on the international scene. Instead of allowing foreign bands from America and the UK to play in India at a premium we should encourage our own concerts headlined by home-grown acts. T-he day might be not far off when an Indian bands garners enough respect to tour the states. Provided the public make enough demand to bring back the bands in their home grounds.