Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Learning in Mother Tongue -- Baloney !!!

Everytime the Tamil enthusiasts strut forward with theories on the hoary culture, the antiquity, the richness etc they are often faced with a glum sceptic public who just say "good, so what, lets talk about the present". Then we are forced to listen to hypothesis on how learning in mother-tongue accelerates learning, gives better understanding and finally makes a student a better student than learning in an alien tongue. Its time to question the premise and the hypothesis that flows out.

The first premise is that when children learn in the same language that is spoken at home they can understand what is taught very readily thus grasping it effectively. What is reality? Tamil has an unfortunate dichotomy between the colloqial version (spoken at home) versus not just literary Tamil but even what is used in plain textbooks. I still remember my first Biology class at Don Bosco very vividly. Brother Deva who taught it began by saying "bios means life and logos is 'study' therefore biology is study of life". Now think of a Tamil class. Yes the Tamil word "uyiriyal" (actually that is only an equivalent of zoology) is good, consider 'thavara iyal' (Botany). I can bet my farm that no home, irrespective of how well educated, uses the word "thavaram" to denote plants, colloqially we call it "chedi". This is just one instance.

My wife studied in Tamil medium completely. Out of the blue I asked her what did she study as Tamil equivalent of "matrix" (in math). She had to think hard and fish out the word "ani". Not a great equivalent. The point is learning in mother tongue did not make it easy to grasp the word because the word used is not what is in daily use. Matrix, on the other hand is used daily. Also if one were to see other usages like "matrix reasoning" we find that Tamil falters. Many mathematical terms are like that, the Tamil words are so far removed from daily use words that they might as well be in Greek or Latin. "mee peru vaguthi" -- Greatest common divisor. "mee chiru perukki" -- Least Common multiple. Now consider a common slum boy or girl, their Tamil is totally different from all these terms.

Remember children enter classes at 3-4 years of age, a very malleable mind, they spend most of their waking, conscious hours at school, if these are capitalized on then they can learn in any language, even Swahili as for that matter.

Take the case of tri-lingual houses. Let's say a Telugu family. I used to have a Telugu friend, she would be talking to me in English+Tamil but would switch to Telugu seamlessly when talking to her sister who passes by. Take the case of Afro-Americans, Hispanics etc in America they all talk different languages at home and send their children to English speaking schools.

Often times the other excuse is our schools in TN are ill equipped to teach in English. Our schools are simply ill equipped to teach anything in any language. Our teachers are the most ill equipped. Its not that teachers in US are of higher IQ or more dedicated, they are just better equipped. I once worked for McGraw Hill and was amazed to see the support material McGraw provides for teachers to teach using their textbooks.

We also lack hard empirical data or statistics of learning delays in bilingual children (Erika Hoff : Learning Development). There is no comprehensive multi-year study.

If we accept this argument of teaching in the same language that is spoken at home / neighborhood it is not a far leap to then say we can only teach to students whose parents are educated in turn. Yes, its a great advantage if parents are educated but the excellence of an educational system is measured by how well it caters to an under privileged student. Language is just a medium of instruction. A student from a slum, unfortunately, encounters a whole new world at school, the ideas in each subject are alien, the culture would be alien, the demands are alien. The language factor is more a truism than a true cause.

A crucial factor that we need to remember is that understanding of how language are learnt is itself a veritable battlefield. A joke in anthropology states, "no tribe has been discovered without language". This is true of the most secluded pristine tribes in Amazon jungles. Starting with CHomsky's theory of "universal grammar" to Steven Pinker's "language instinct" many theories abound, but all conceded that children are the fastest to learn languages and can handle as many as they are exposed to .

Many classmates in my class came from very normal backgrounds, literate but very literary families. Nobody suffered from language delays as a result of studying in English. Yes, some stumbled but the advantage of our learning-by-rote system is finally they just had to memorize. This lacuna is equally true for Tamil medium. In my home and my neighborhood nobody used English. Even at school we freely used Tamil.

My wife has done extremely well in her career and now speaks pretty good English. Many Indians in USA do well with a moderate fluency in English. However anybody who did not study in English in shool had a difficult transition period in college, actually the learning delay due to THAT is more evident. Many Indians reach mid level position based on technical expertise but fail to go higher primarily due to lack of ability to articulate higher reasoning in English. The lack of fluency is worsened by the almost total lack of extra-curricular reading in English by Indians.

That we live in a world dominated by English is no secret there is no let up on that. Stop with stupid questions like in english there is only "uncle" to denote "chithappa, periappa, mama etc". Tamil will do a double take before it can label the ever exponentially expanding sub-atomic particle zoo. So let's close down the Tamil Medium schools. Conserve resources, redirect efforts to rearing a English speaking population.

Go Home McCain (and Palin first)

Sarah Palin, is not just an intellectual lightweight. She is practically a dunder head or no head at all. Let's brush aside Charles Gibson's interview as unduly condescending and the interview with Sean Hannity as typical hack job similar to what other interviewers did with Obama, molly-coddle the candidate. The most recent interview with Katie Couric was pure disaster. Asked about foreign policy credentials we get plain nonsense (not even varnished) . Reading the following exchange, I (a McCain supporter) just shook my head in disbelief:

COURIC: Explain to me why that enhances your foreign policy credentials.
PALIN: Well, it certainly does because our– our next door neighbors are foreign countries. They’re in the state that I am the executive of. And there in Russia—
COURIC: Have you ever been involved with any negotiations, for example, with the Russians?
PALIN: We have trade missions back and forth. We– we do– it’s very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia as Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where– where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. It is– from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there. They are right next to– to our state.

If THAT is an answer my reply is "Go Home Palin, go back to skinning moose".

Yes we have heard quotes about Vice presidency not being worth a bucket of spit. We know how FDR treated Truman like chattel and kept him in the dark about the Manhattan Project. Those days are gone. A VP is not just a heart beat away from the Presidency, he / she is the first sounding board of a president. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were a great team that way. Dick Cheney's influence will be debated for decades. Its better having a schemer like Dick Cheney than a dunder head like Palin. Remember the VP is also the President's life line to the Senate as chairman/woman of the senate. Al Gore delivered the crucial vote in ushering Bill Clinton's economic policy. Palin has no chance in hell of delivering a matching performance.

John McCain, on the other hand has shown very uncomfortable impetuousness in his way of handling the crisis. His grandstanding was just baloney. He could not even stick to his threat of not showing up for the debate sans a deal, he blinked when Obama called his bluff. Imagine McCain as president hastening to add the weight of the presidency to dealing a crisis without forrethought and rushing in headlong, then failing utterly not just in convincing his opponents but even his own party. If Obama's faux pas on meeting with rogue leaders without pre-conditions is justifiably excoriated, we are equally flabbergast at how McCain would make a mockery of Presidential power by rushing in where angels fear to tread.

If Obama wins by a landslide, its not only because the events played into his hands, it would also be because he was adroit in capitalizing them. Questions linger about Obama but the McCain camp has given answers that push us to consider Obama more carefully only because we think the answers from Obama cannot get any worse.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Can money buy elections?

One of the most popular canards is that elections, as it is practiced, in most liberal democracies (mostly West and India), is bought with money. We often hear sneers of how money (and by extension the accursed rich) defeats a worthy candidate. Little do we ask for proof. Little do we pause to question the premise. Without delving into too much arcane details of campaign finances I shall put to rest this popular misleading myth.

Bill Clinton in 1992 & 1996 was vastly underfunded compared to the always better funded Republicans, not to mention the skeletons that kept tumbling out of lingerie closets. We know who won.

Hillary Clinton, started out as the favorite to win. She expected a coronation. She raised a war chest of $100 million+ and kept it mostly for general elections. Then came a little known Illinois senator who literally gave her a run for her money. By April when the primaries of Ohio and Texas came, Hillary was deep in the red. Now Obama was outspending her 2-1, sometimes even 3-1, in Pennsylvania for example. Obama lost all 3 big states despite a media saturation coverage by fawning commentators and analysts not to mention record amounts spent in buying ads.

George Bush in 2000 had a similar war chest but he needed to burn through the cash fighting off John McCain. Even with his cash advantage Bush could only squeak past Gore (Yes, he did win Florida, get over it Dems).

Make no mistake, money is important but it does not guarantee.

Take India. In 2004 BJP was far better funded than Congress. Congress romped home while BJP was left in tatters. Go to more local levels. In 1996 Jaya was infinitely better funded than DMK and she suffered the worst political rout. In 2001 people returned the favor to DMK, a supposedly vanquished, demoralised ADMK roared back to life.

Consider 1977 elections when a power drunk Indira was given the boot, again by monetarily impoverished Janata.

If money alone can buy elections we would have as Presidents, Rotschilds, Morgans, Carnegies etc...not a peanut farmer or an Afro-American who decimated America's most famous political clan.

A people gets the government it deserves -- Alexander Pope

America's Litmus Test (Part II)

I earlier wrote about how some propose electing Obama is America's litmus test of redeeming itself. WSJ carries an interesting article today (Sep 22nd) about University of Mississippi hosting the first Presidential debate for 2008. This university, it should be noted, "gained infamy in 1962, when U.S. soldiers were called in to put down a riot resisting the enrollment of the school's first African-American student, James Meredith. It was a crucible in the battle over integration in Mississippi, where the 1955 murder of a 14-year-old black boy had helped start the civil-rights movement and the murders of three civil-rights activists in 1964 spurred congressional passage 11 days later of the Civil Rights Act" (WSJ). It is here that Barack Obama will debate John McCain. Today, "black students, for years reluctant to enroll, now comprise 16% of the student body. School officials say their goal is 37%, reflecting blacks' representation in the state." (WSJ).

The article warmly records the very important steps taken by the Chancellor Robert Khayat, "After taking over in 1995, he banned Confederate flags at football games, provoking an unsuccessful federal lawsuit and death threats that led him to hire a bodyguard. A beloved Ole Miss athlete in the late 1950s, Mr. Khayat, 70 years old, also removed the venerable sports mascot, the Confederate Colonel Rebel....He approved a new campus institute for racial reconciliation that helped organize blacks and whites to formally demand prosecutions in the unsolved 1964 civil-rights murders, a move that led to the 2005 conviction of a former member of the Ku Klux Klan...
In 2002, on the 40th anniversary of Mr. Meredith's admission, the school for the first time honored the surviving soldiers who had subdued the mob."

To be sure all is not 100% perfect, "Others say hostilities still percolate". An alumnus sums up ""There definitely are a lot of people who don't help out the cause," he said. "They don't belong on our campus....But it's not a majority."

The real icing is "In 2006, Ole Miss unveiled a life-size bronze likeness of Mr. Meredith, and praise streamed from all quarters. "One of the things we agreed on is we did not want to be historical revisionists," Mr. Khayat said. "We are who we are, but we're not who we were."

Now that is what I call intellectual integrity. This is what we expect from a University chancellor. To heal searing wounds like that inflicted in Missippi within 24 years is a great deal. While we should not settle for half-way reforms, it would do well to recognize the gravity of progress and pay respect to the courage of the few. Certainly Mr Khayat deserves our respects.

Friday, September 19, 2008

EVR, Rajagopalachari, Kalki : Who is to be credited with magnanimity

There is a time worn phrase amongst Dravidian idealogues (in my opinion that's an oxymoronic phrase), "we are only against Brahminism and not against Brahmins". They mouth this platitude while foaming at their mouth with rabid, vile anti-brahmin, clearly sectarian crudity. The platitude would be followed by "Oh look Periyar (as they call E.V.Ramasamy Naicker) and Rajaji were close friends". Now, Rajagopalachari, would be called "acharyar" depending on whether he is on their side on a particular issue.

Yes, CR and EVR were indeed great friends. It was to CR that EVR turned to advice for marrying Maniammai. Recently in a blog somebody wrote about how Kalki invited EVR to his child's marriage, how EVR came after most had left not wanting to cause a ruffle and how a photo was taken with EVR applying sacred ash to the newly wed. The blog enthused about how Kalki prohibited publishing the photo lest somebody use it for propaganda accusing EVR of hypocrisy. Kalki's rationale was EVR did so out of respect for the customs of those who invited him.

Ofcourse all of this is laudable. This is absolute gentlemanliness. This is what civilization and culture are about. All these are almost always cited to show how EVR was against "Brahminism" and not "brahmins" per se. But here comes the rub.

If EVR had chosen to sink his fangs into any other community would anybody from that community behaved like CR or Kalki? Why is it lost that much more credit ought to be given to CR and Kalki who did not doubt EVR's sincerity in opposing the clergy for duping illiterates and for the grotesque ills of caste imposed racism. CR and Kalki, true heroes of Freedom struggle, very alive to the ills of their own society had the decency to agree with EVR on those accounts and were able to relate to him. I strongly assert this broadmindedness would not be seen from anybody else.

A larger point would be that had EVR picked on any religion other than Hindus as the target of not just barbs but many outright insults the long arms of the law and more readily the arm of some fundamentalist would have reached him. He could get away with vilifying a portrait of Rama, I shudder to think if only .......

Anyway the merits of EVR's criticisms, his methods etc are beyond the scope of this blog

Annus Mirabilis -- 2008

History is on the march in seven league boots. Long back when I used that term my English professor said "Aravindan, not many even know that phrase". Everybody in US and to some extent in the larger world were focusing on how history will be made on Nov 4th 2008. Will America elect a woman or an Afro-American. Hillary mounted a fantastic bid for the presidency. One might have divergent views on why she failed, how she failed, whether she was a victim etc but none can disagree she made history. Come Nov 4th America will make history without fail, we will elect either an Afro-American President or a woman V.P. The latter is decidedly less symbolic than the former only because the merits of a V.P. "election" are debatable, they just ride the coat-tails of a Presidential candidate. They can help and hurt a Presidential candidate. Sarah Palin has so far helped but all concede that McCain will have to do much more to win.

However the real history that is being made is on another front. America is practically recasting its economic world with far reaching consequences and more impact than any President can ever impact the history of the country. This will reshape American lives for decades to come. Every economic aspect of how we live, car loans, insurances, home loans, credit cards, how we are rated etc etc all will undergo radical change. Many changes will be for the good. Nobody, yet knows where and how these changes will lead. But it is all happening right now and right before us. We are witnessing history in the making.

George Bush, currently the most vilified and most unpopular President ever, has had an impact on American history for decades to come. Again, I am not going into the merits of the impact.

2008 will truly qualify to be called Annus Mirabilis.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Do Indians deserve less? The absence of outrage - Part1

Recently I had a conversation with my cousin. TamilNadu CM had donated Rs 5 Lakhs( or 40 lakhs) from government coffers, tax payer money. I asked my cousin would he accept, let's say, George Bush donating 5 million to Ronald Reagan's family from federal funds. The reply I got was "why are you confusing both countries, thats India, this is USA". That was my Eureka moment. I asked him why does expect less of a TN Politician than he would expect from an American one. Do Indians deserve lesser from their leaders? What I say going forward is not just with respect to my cousin or this particular chief minister.

Sometime back, writing about how India produces the best coffee but sets it apart as "export only" (there are many like that, 'export quality not for sale in India'), Abdul Rahman termed what we consume as "swadeshi trash". Indian living in India does not have access to the best product that India produces, that was the case a decade ago, may not be true today. However, THAT in a nutshell captures the dichotomy of Indians.

Indian's living in US expect the best from America, they will accept nothing less but for Indians in India, the response is "that's India". What I find fault with is the ABSENCE of outrage. Even that least honest reaction is absent.

Here is a different twist to this. Even in USA itself, Indians expect to be treated a certain way in American stores but will take any abuse from Indian store, "its an Indian running it". Now the store owners themselves show a different dichotomy. The owners as customers elsewhere in an American shop expect certain "rights" (courtesy, respecting the line at the counter, 30 day return policy, accurate and detailed billing, ability to test, rep to answer doubts etc etc) but will not bat an eyelid if they provide any lesser service in their own stores, servicing guys who cut a line, shoddy billing, video stores are notorious for bad DVD's, electronic stores have no return policy, the icing on the cake is their response "Oh you know our guys" (Only Indian stores sell stuff without sales tax, over the counter). Here is a flip question, why do Indians feel free to cut lines in Indian stores but would stand respectfully anywhere else, why do Indians feel they are less obliged to to take care of DVD's rented in Indian stores than they would if they rented in Blockbuster?

Hurricane Katrina,2005, was a national shame in US. Hurricane Gustav in 2008 was a non-event. What changed? The outrage of Americans at their government was heard loud and clear. Note that the lives lost in Katrina were very few compared to lives India loses in every natural disaster. The chief outrage of Americans was "this is America, this does not happen here, we are ashamed". Whereas Indians happily or many times sadly say "this is India, do not expect anything else".

All of this comes round to one final question why do Indians expect less from themselves and accept less from their country, their leaders and their own fellow men?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Is Electing Obama America's Litmus Test?

Not at all. Its pure stupidity to claim that if Obama gets defeated it would mean that racism is alive and kicking in USA. Nothing is farther from truth. Having said that let me clarify that human beings have innate biases, nobody can claim to be 100% unbiased. How aware of are we of our biases? Do we hold them in check (of course we need to know that we hold a bias in the first place)? Those are the questions we need to ask constantly.

Barack Obama could not even get a floor pass in 2000 Dem convention. In 2004 he was the keynote speaker and shot to stardom (very deservedly). Even so after that he dropped of the national media but for keen political watchers. Then in 2007 he again caught the nations imagination announcing his run for presidency. He had spent just 2 years in the senate. He was running against "THE CLINTONS" (adored and loathed depending on your political affiliation). He won all white Iowa thumpingly, pushing Hillary to an insulting finish. The rest is history. A political unknown Afro-American decimated the most feared political dynasty. If THIS is not redemption what else can be?

Oh well if McCain wins then again its because nobody wants to vote for a black so there is no redemption for USA UNLESS Obama is elected. What a crass stupidity. All opinion point to the fact that people are "more" uncomfortable electing a woman than a black. Yes there is a tiny (its just tiny) slice of population that will not vote for Obama just because of his color. To condemn a roughly 120 million electorate for a miniscule minority that cannot influence the outcome is not just wrong but plain stupid and shows how ignorant the person is about democratic elections.

Men were seen waving "Launder my shirt" in Hillary's events. Nothing of that sort happened to Obama. MSNBC's commentator got away with saying that the Clintons are "pimping" Chelsea. a metaphor he used only because Chelsea was a girl. Imagine anybody uttering anything like that about Obama. Apocalypse would seem like picnic compared to the outrage that would ensue. Nevertheless, Hillary lost for so many reasons of her own making than just because of sexism.

To say that America's redemption lies in electing Obama is to suggest that McCain voters are racist. Much is made of McCain's age and health almost making his age a disqualification. When McCain was delivering his convention speech CNN ran a ticker titled "Fact: If elected McCain will be the oldest President". The ticker flashed for like a minute, an eternity in modern day cable news.

Blacks have been elected governors, mayors, legislators, cabinet secrataries, Commanders etc. Yes, we wish we could see all that happen more regularly and with such regularity that the color of the candidate does not even get mentioned. When a reporter asked Denzel Washington how he felt, as a Black actor, winning the Oscar, he said "please report as just Denzel won an Oscar, not black actor Denzel" (those are not verbatim quotes, something close).

We should look at this with some perspective. Cory Booker, Black mayor of Newark-NJ, is very appreciated. Look at Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit who is going down for sins of his own. Remember that Afro-Americans are an ethnic minority in USA. Which means we have a much smaller pool of population to find qualified people. Add to that the challenges existing in that community and it would dawn on us that not having some more qualified candidates is not ONLY due to "Discrimination". As Thomas Sowell would point out, if the "discrimination" as reason is tossed out the remaining reasons are very unpleasant to contemplate hence people harp on discrimination even none exists.

To make a contrarian argument, if Obama gets elected its because he has an advantage of being Black. The Obama campaign is making no bones about putting states like Louisiana, Georgia in play only because they hope to turn out the "black vote" by record numbers. Make no mistake I am not suggesting that it is reprehensible. Its admirable. If they can turn out their base its good for them. Also I perfectly understand the pride blacks have in this historical once in a lifetime oppurtunity. There is absolutely nothing wrong. Many Indian's felt happy when Bobby Jindal became governor just because he was of Indian lineage. There is absolutely nothing to be subtle about reaching to one's base and truly this is history in the making. Also in all fairness Barack Obama is as qualified as one can get.

A Brooklyn/Bronx town voted almost 90% for Obama despite Hillary having done all that needs to be done for that town, especially preventing the closure of a school. If one says well Hillary did it because she wanted their vote. I say, she worked to earn it, what she did is what we expect from a good poltical representative. She worked to earn the vote of that neighborhood and they voted for Obama for racial reasons. Again everybody appreciates the historical nature of the candidacy and racial pride this is racism too, though of a good variety.

I wish Barack Obama well. But I tell him "earn the vote". For those who say "if he does not win...", I say "get a life and if possible some understanding of elections".