Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On Education Part 1 - Ridiculing teachers and loving our college days

Recently I spent a weekend with friends from my college days. One was a university rank holder, the other two had good academic credentials. We were regaling ourselves with college stories. Somewhere along the line an uncomfortable silence descended when as if on cue all three paused and wondered why we had not uttered a single word in praise of any teacher. In fact we were actively ridiculing our teachers. There were 2 or 3 that we would spare as "well he/she was ok enough". That's about it. We had sadistic imbeciles, complete nincompoops who had no idea of the subject, thorough wastrels, absolute time wasters and more masquerading as teachers. A telling comment by the rank holder who went on to do masters in USA and work for premier electronics company designing semi conductors, was "when I started my masters I had  to redo my undergrad in addition to doing my masters".When I gave John Gribbins masterful book "Schrodinger's cat" to my wife, her reaction after reading it was "why is Physics not taught like this. Only now the pieces seem to come together".

Ask any Engineering student about Maxwell's equations he/she might rattle of them without realizing that they are talking about what is considered the most beautiful set of equations and a pinnacle of scientific exposition that married disparate fields of science, electricity and magnetism, thus remaking physics. A diligent high school student would recite Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle". How many know the intricate connection between that and matrix multiplication? That Heisenberg's law upended centuries of Newtonian deterministic model of universe shocking the world and required a congress to come up with a philosophical framework is completely beyond the scope of not just students but even teachers. The wave-particle duality of light has been the battleground of ideas that shaped the world we live in. How many teachers even draw out such contrasts in the classroom? How many are even capable of reading Stephen Hawking's "Brief History of Time" and appreciate the sheer brilliance of writing such a book. A friend of mine, currently a lecturer on Nuclear Disarmament (graduating from Univ. of Illinois) wrote a thesis on Relativity titled "Enigma of space and time". The teacher evaluating it asked "what is this 'enijma'" (he pronounced Enigma as enijma). I remember this after 20 years. In my Engineering course I studied Gauss curvature by rote little did I know how Gauss curvature finds application in cartography until I studied a slim well written book, "Poetry of the universe".

We all can name a few teachers who "did their job" with some flair but I am yet to see ANYBODY say "that teacher inspired me". Even my most beloved professor of English at college was not inspirational. Yes, the literary forum he formed, the competitions he announced and judged with scholarliness all were great for guys like me who yearned for such an outlet and were already cut out for that. But he did not take a mediocre stage shy student and turn him into a thinker. He did not "inspire" a student to be a better student.

Curriculums, rat race etc are all feeble excuses. More than failing its students India first failed with regard to producing teachers who can teach. At the school level this is most dangerously pathetic. Our school teachers are the worst. I studied in the best possible schools (Don Bosco) and elsewhere but barring my biology teacher the rest were just mediocre at best and were scums at their worst. I remember a classmate who, during mandatory recitals, would rattle of Tennyson's "Brook" like a speed reader reading disclaimers for an ad and sit down in a flash. The teacher, happy to see that his student had 'learnt' Tennyson would proceed to the next victim. The words of Nehru describing how Gandhi came "and then he came..." would all be marked off for ERC with little discussion of how Nehru wrote his wonderful "Discovery of India" in captivity or any discussion of Gandhi. We would calculate the maxima minima with the given set of numbers who understood its real time application in designing.

Do we realize the importance of Einstein discovering "curved geometry" to buttress his theory of relativity? How many students can sumarise with a single example the difference with Curved geometry and Euclidean geometry? [The sum of angles in a triangle is 180 deg in Euclidean geometry, on a curved surface for the same triangle the sum of the angles is more than 180 deg, thanks to John Gribbin].

When I worked at McGraw Hill I'd check out the school textbooks and teacher guides put out by MGH. Only then it struck me why a student in America is still better suited for employment than an Indian (Duke University study bears this out). The lessons are so well detailed with real life applications. The curriculum draws heavily from multiple sources of learning. Above all the teacher guides ensure that teachers can do their job really well with a given textbook. Those guides really teach how a subject should be taught with a particular textbook, complete with what exercises to give, how to engage student, how to tickle their curiosity, how to throw a topic for debate, what homework to give, how to introduce the complexity of a particular topic.

When I read books by American academics I shed tears thinking of the pygmies who strut about in gowns in the portals of India. Deans of American universities are scholars of the highest order. Professors publish books that are Pulitzer prize winners. Bharathidasan University VC Ponnavaiko writes as follows on his online CV "Countries/cities visited: Chicago, as tourist". Another VC wonders why Karunanidhi did not get Nobel Prize.In a country where an illiterate R.M.Veerappan was education minister what can we expect.

PS: Why do we mostly talk about our college days like "halcyon days"? Its joyous in hindsight, the carefree days with little to worry about. So when somebody talks fondly of their college or school they are mostly talking of how they had a good time almost never because they had good teachers.

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