Wednesday, 25 May 2011

An alternative to our present education system

Here are some observations about our education system and some suggestions for changing it in order to make it better-suited to serve the demands of imparting real education, in light on my personal account of 'why I left mathematics' which I have uploaded in another blog.

Being a product of the Indian system of education and having had the chance to see a few other systems in operation in other countries, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it is about our own system that makes it fail in achieving its main objective – that of producing really ‘educated’ adults and adults who are really interested in and are really good at their jobs. I’m not saying that everything is bad or wrong with what is in place right now, it is just that it could be made better.

This is my first attempt to put my thoughts in this regard on paper. I will make many sweeping statements and generalisations below, also grossly over-simplify the picture at certain places, and talk only about certain things in preference to others (for example I will not talk about how to finance education). But I hope you will bear with me because my principal aim of writing this article is to point out where some of the problems lie, and to suggest possible remedies; that there are problems is clear, else we would not be in the sorry mess that we find ourselves today. Most of what I write is based on my personal experience of living in Assam and of being part of the education system prevalent in Assam although many of the issues are equally relevant elsewhere.

Little Geniuses who never make it big
We Assamese love having heroes – barely has a student stood first in his or her Matric or higher-secondary exam that the poor child is made out to be the next Einstein or the next Shakespeare. While praising a child’s excellent performance in school is a good thing there has to be some sense of proportion. Saying too much might put a big extra pressure on the child that can in some cases even wreck him or her. Parents have begun to put so much emphasis on acquisition of bookish knowledge, school exams, results and performance that many other things in life which are equally important, like instilling good values and inculcating good habits, lie neglected along the way [for example, what lesson does a child learn when Mama gets paid hired help to do his summer project for him] .

But much before the child is anywhere near finishing school, parents have already decided what their children will go on to do – they will either appear for the engineering entrance exams or the medical entrance. There are two other professions, perhaps three, that somehow might also pass muster – joining the law school or the civil services or becoming managers. But that is all. Nothing else is good enough. Now there must surely be something very badly wrong in a society where only engineers and managers, doctors and lawyers are valued but not poets, artists, musicians, even scientists.

This has serious consequences on two counts – first of all it creates a vacuum in our quest for real knowledge – in a system that values technical and management education over the social and pure sciences, that values a secure govt. job over individual enterprise, there is no emphasis given to research in the pure sciences – in physics, chemistry and mathematics -- as well as in the liberal arts and the humanities. Subjects like philosophy, sociology, anthropology, political science and education are called the ‘general’ stream. It has minimum currency. What we forget is philosophy is the toughest and most abstract discipline of all; what we do not seem to realise is that devaluing the subject ‘education’ is one of the reasons for this present crisis in our education system.

The emphasis of higher education is no longer on a rigorous study of a subject -- knowledge is packaged in market terms, classified as a commodity, students at a university are called customers – in trying to be modern and techno-savvy we seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath-water.

As consequence is that we have not only a waste of talent that could never be allowed to develop, but also a mismatch between what a person is good at doing or would like to do and what he spends his life doing or is expected to do. Imagine the wastage when a talented singer or a natural sportsperson has to sit all day counting notes as the teller in a bank counter! Or a young child who would rather do English or history is forced to study science and then go on to become an engineer. The result -- many of us are stuck in jobs that do not interest us and for which we have no special talent while other things like music or sport which perhaps mean a lot more to us are relegated to the status of hobbies at best, to be indulged in in one’s free time. Small wonder then that this country of more than one billion does so badly in the Olympics or in the world stage of art and music.

And imagine what it all means for the poor child who has just finished school. Perhaps it is the very ambitious parents who are most to blame for this situation. They have to help their child discover his or her own talents and help him or her to find a profession which will not only be thought to be respectable and financially secure but is also mentally satisfying and challenging for the child.

From the point of view of the students, the school teachers must take on the role of mentors and help their students decide, once they get to Class XI or XII whether they should get into a professional course, whether they should opt for higher studies (at a university) or they should join a vocational training school. It should only be a small fraction who should go to university and professional schools, not everybody. There should be provision for proper counselling, not just for students but also for their over-ambitious parents, at the school leaving stage. And each of the institutes of higher learning should have trained counsellors to help their students cope with the rigours of their courses as well as their doubts and concerns about life in general.

Colleges as Time-Pass...
And what about all those many students who do not make it into any of the technical schools, medical schools, law schools or business schools in the country despite their best attempts. They very unwillingly join one or the other college to do their graduation, even while hoping to give the entrance exams another shot the following year. Therefore their participation in the college studies is at best perfunctory. But the college system doesn’t offer very much to win their loyalty either.

Generally, students who have just finished their XII from a school system and have just entered a college are eager to use their new found freedom to experiment, to try out everything – they are full of energy, enthusiasm and expectation . Even more so those few who join the college system deliberately, as a matter of choice, over all the other professional schools. But what is in store for them? They are met by a system which is based on indifference, inertia and complete lack of direction. By having dull uninterested and uninspiring teachers in our colleges we not only waste the immense potential of those students but also maim them for life – turn them into copies of their teachers. I am not saying that all college teachers are equally dull, but the chances of their failing to live up to the expectations of the students are so high that this is nothing short of a real disaster and needs serious rethinking.

And a teacher could be forgiven for everything else if one could say that she at least knew her subject well. But that cannot be expected from someone who has been teaching the same courses year after year from the same frayed notes that they had written up ages ago when they had first started to teach. Small wonder then that college teachers wake up only to register their protest against any change in syllabus! And what does the system require college teachers to do in order to upgrade their ancient knowledge? They are required to attend Orientation courses or Refresher Courses from time to time. And college teachers are often seen showing some enthusiasm to do so. But if one thought that they do so because of their love for the subject, one is mistaken. Most of them do so because it is necessary to do so to get promotions. In my opinion this is the biggest tragedy in our education system –

I have always believed that colleges are redundant – there are no colleges in the Indian sense in most other places of the world. What can colleges do that cannot be done in universities? If the argument is that in a country like India many stop after graduation and hence the under-graduate level has to be handled separately, then it begs the question -- what do we want to do with so many graduates? Is it not better for only those who really want to pursue higher studies (or those who want to sit for competitive exams at a higher level) to do their graduation (and this lot should join the university straightaway and work their way through graduation, post-grad. etc).

Vocational skills rather than useless degrees
For the rest, there is no sense in spending 3 years of their lives getting a degree that helps them to become nothing more than clerks in govt. offices or receptionists. Would it not be better if their education at the post XII level was more focussed on the occupation they want to take up later? I am thinking of vocational colleges, ITIs and polytechnics where diploma courses can be offered for a vast range of occupations. In short, I am all for dismantling the colleges, and instead strengthening the universities at the one end and also setting up many more vocational colleges where quality theoretical and practical education is imparted to students, in professions of their choice.

Of course I also find the idea of having junior colleges for just those two years also a colossal waste of resources – the +2 stage must be clubbed with the high school stage and the PGT subject teachers should be put in charge so that they will then have a little more to do than at most 2 classes per day and no other worry in this universe! Once that is done we shall have a more streamlined system with three types of educational institutes – schools, vocational colleges and universities, with the latter two institutions taking charge of two non-overlapping student populations after the XII standard. Of course I am restricting myself here only of the general streams, and leaving out all discussion with respect to professional and technical institutes like engineering schools, medical schools, law schools etc.

Beyond classroom teaching
As I have said before, a necessary prerequisite for a college or university teacher to be able to teach well, is that he must know his or her subject well, and must be in touch with the recent developments with the subject. But that is not sufficient, for there are at least two components to being a good teacher. The first is the academic component where the teacher has to first be in a position to help and guide his or her students learn the subject (not just to pass examinations with good marks) but also to develop an abiding interest in the subject. The student needs to be told not just what the answers are but also how to go about finding answers, by reading books, by reading papers and journals, by searching the net, through discussion and other methods. Then there is the other half – the social component – a teacher must be able to help his or her students not just to learn the subject but also to become good human beings, to be able to shoulder responsibility, to learn the values of integrity, hard work and honesty. At the college and university level, students should become friends, and teachers should be accessible enough for students to want to open up and tell them their problems, both personal and work related.

The way in which we teach our students and the way in which institutes with huge intakes every year of young bright youngsters take care of them – educational institutes are supposed to be places where they learn their subjects true, but they are also places where the all-round development of these young minds have to take place, and they are given the freedom to ask questions, even unrelated to their immediate lessons. They need care, they need someone to listen to them, they need counselling, they need other platforms for debate and discussion as much as they need instruction. And for all this to happen one does not need extra people – all this should ideally happen within the teacher-student community. Teachers need to play a more organic role and extend their hands to come closer to their students in more real ways. They have to try to become their students’ friends. Some of my former colleagues have done this and have really made a great difference to their students, but I wish many more would follow.

Research only for career promotion?
So much on the subject of teaching, now on to research. It is a myth that someone who shows excellent results in college and university will necessarily turn out into an excellent teacher and researcher in the subject. It requires other skills than just being able to be a disciplined learner to be able to teach well, or to be able to get into serious research. Furthermore, a person who has just obtained his or her Ph.D. (under the guidance of a supervisor) needs a few years before he or she can find her feet, and become independent researchers. Only then should he or she start taking on Ph.D. students of their own. The post-doc stage in most universities of the world is meant to cater to exactly that period. But in India, if you get a Ph.D. today, tomorrow you can be eligible to guide students. What is even more surprising is that you are even expected to do so. As a result the quality of research and training suffers very badly.

I speak only about mathematics but it might be a more general phenomenon: I believe there is something wrong with the Indian higher education system because many university teachers (all having Ph.D.s and producing many more) in many Indian universities do not have very many clues what research is all about – and this I can say because I have been a researcher myself. In the Indian system, a lot of trash that passes as research is published only because of the immense pressure of showing results – the whole business of accumulating credits by college and university teachers (for applying for promotion and higher salaries) by publishing papers and attending or organising symposia is a good and necessary thing, but only if it is done in the right spirit and not reduced to the hollow but very expensive farce that it has become now – publish for the sake of publishing, the appearance of spurious and sub-standard journals where the motto is ‘you publish my paper, I will publish yours and both will be happy’, organising workshops and symposia that do not achieve anything... There are a handful institutes in India where excellent research is being done, but they have not been able to show the way to the rest.

In summary, I believe a few basic structural changes might make our education system more efficient, more student-friendly and more in keeping with the need of our times:

1. At the school level there should be a concerted effort from school teachers to figure out the natural talents and inclinations of their students. Parents and teachers must work together to make sure that the children land up pursuing a career that interests them and also doing what they are good at.
And society must regain its sense of proportion about how they react to someone being a topper (I remember my parents have received a marriage proposal for me just after our B.Sc. results were declared!).
2. Junior colleges should be done away with – the school-system should be revitalised so they all go upto the higher secondary level and the last four years of school (IX to XII) should be given a special status and put in charge of the PGT teachers. All children should be required to attend school till Cl. VIII (which corresponds to our universal education in any case).
3. All undergraduate-colleges should be disbanded. Instead a three-year undergraduate programme should be introduced additionally in all universities. Universities should be suitably strengthened to be able to take charge of undergraduate and postgraduate education. Admission to the under-graduate programme should be based strictly on aptitude and future prospects.
4. Besides the professional schools – technical, managerial, business, medicine, law etc. -- that are already in existence there is also a lot more to be done in areas like sports, music, art, architecture and drama.
Educational institutes at all levels have to recognise that students have other needs apart from the strictly academic – teachers and counsellors should be in place to help students cope with their bigger problems and worries too.
5. The most important new component is the creation of a number of vocational schools and training institutes where high-quality education and training is imparted. The existing Polytechniques and the ITIs are the closest approximations of this new genre of educational –cum-training institutes which should aim to take charge of the vast majority of youngsters who after their Class XII want to learn some skill or craft which will enable them to find a job at the end of it – plumbers, tailors, masons, mechanics, electricians, carpenters, gardeners, as well as beauticians, cooks, baby-sitters and house-maids; all the way up to and including fashion models, designers, chat-show hostesses and flight stewards.
The existing institutes which cater for this like the ITIs and the Polytechniques, as well as secretarial schools to train secretaries and clerks, nursing schools for nurses and carers also need to be seriously restructured and refurbished to make them attractive as well as competitive. These vocational courses (of varying duration depending on the subject) should lead to a diploma and give rigorous theoretical as well as hands-on training to their students to enable them to really learn all the necessary and relevant aspects of their jobs.
6. Decisions on educational teaching and research policy need to seriously reviewed and reconsidered. After all there is no point in persisting with systems (like that of collecting credits for promotion of college and university teachers) which everyone knows has been reduced to a farce with the collusion of and for the benefit of all those involved. Decisions that can be implemented only on paper and cannot be enforced in spirit cause greater damage and wastage in the long run than doing nothing at all.

I admit that what I am suggesting is almost a complete overhaul of the education system –my suggestions will be not easy to implement, and will be met with a lot of resistance and opposition from all quarters I know, but facing these unpleasant truths and effecting these changes seem to me to be the only way forward if our education system has to win back some of its prestige and respect before our own eyes and before that of the world community. I am not claiming for a moment that what I am offering here as an alternative is the best possible – I am sure there are improvements possible – by writing this article I only want to point out that it is high time we stopped pretending everything is all-right with our education system and started talking about some of the real problems that are staring us in our faces.

Before I end, there is one final thing which has to change before everything else and that is the change of mind-set of everyone involved – parents have to accept that their children have a right to choose what they want to pursue as a career, teachers have to realise that being a teacher is something more than just a job because the lives of every student who he or she teaches is affected by it, researchers have to accept that it is not quantity but quality that really matters and that it is not good enough to be clever enough just to be able to fool the system, and our politicians, educationists and policy-makers have to somehow send out a clear signal that they understand what it means for a person to be really educated and that they are serious about ensuring that that is what our education system is meant to do even if it means in order to get the system back on rail. My head will not be spared, I am sure for having said all this, but that is my problem; as long as reading this article provokes you in some way or the other, a beginning would have been made.


Why I left Mathematics

This article is a personal account of why I left mathematics to retrain as an anthropologist after being trained in Oxford and after having taught mathematics for more than 10 years at the Gauhati University and at IIT Guwahati. In another blog I will discuss some implications of this story on our education system and will also make some suggestions.

Why did I leave mathematics? There are quite a few reasons for that. But I wouldn’t have written this article but for the fact when I recently went to meet a retired principal of a college in Upper Assam to talk to him about ethnic communities in the area, all he could do for the greater part of our meeting was to repeatedly express first his disbelief and then his deep regret that I had left mathematics. He kept saying that while people working with ethnic communities would be easy to find, the world had lost a great mathematician with my decision to change subjects!

Although I was touched and humbled by his immense faith in me and my mathematical abilities, the intensity of his disappointment really took me by surprise, coming from a person who I had never met before, and whose only grounds for thinking I was good in mathematics were my college and university results, because honestly speaking, after standing first in college and university, I have not had very much to show to vindicate his opinion. The reasons for my choosing to do maths in the first place were completely accidental. It was by elimination. I chose science in my +2 level because I didn’t want to continue with history. And then I landed with maths for my graduation because I couldn’t manage any of the subjects involving lab work. And one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was at Oxford doing my D.Phil. in pure mathematics.

But temperamentally I was not suited for mathematics. I liked being with people, I found mathematics too isolating, too ‘unsocial’. And although I liked the subject, mathematics was not an all-consuming passion for me. I had many other interests. And soon, very early on in my stay in Oxford, it became clear to me and to my supervisor, that although I was fairly good at my work, that spark of inspiration was missing in me. But he told me that I should finish what I had started, because besides everything else, an Oxford degree would help me get better jobs later. I followed his advice, and enjoyed it too, and learnt a lot and made many new friends in the process. My supervisor was right -- after I got back, thanks to my Oxford degree, there was not much trouble getting a job – first at the University and then at IIT. And I could have lived happily ever after. If it were not for all the doubts that were to follow.

I had already realised, during the course of my studies at Oxford and my initial years doing mathematics after coming back that I could not ever be a researcher at that international level which I had seen and had been trained for at Oxford. I found the idea of doing mathematics fascinating and very challenging, no doubt, but that rarified realm of pure abstract thought, when mathematics started to become exciting and beautiful, was simply beyond my reach. I simply did not understand the subject well enough, not even my own little exclusive corner of it. And as proof of that, if ever I needed it, came the news, a few years after I had returned from Oxford, that the problem on which I had worked for my doctoral work (but could answer only partially in my thesis) had been finally and completely resolved by two mathematicians using very different techniques. In that sense, even my thesis stood superseded very quickly.

My work atmosphere at IIT Guwahati was such that although we were given all the facilities we needed, I could not hope for further research guidance and intellectual support which implied that unless I had it in me to raise myself, nobody else was going to help me do it. We did not have anyone in our immediate surroundings to look up to for guidance. Of course there was Jyoti Medhi Sir in Guwahati but our disciplines were too far apart.

I could see that the best I would be able to do is to churn out routine uninspired stuff (both in my own work and in the work of my research students) which would not meet any high international standards. I have done some good work over the years but it was all done together with very able collaborators. On my own I would not be able to sustain that. I realised that my research output would serve no other real purpose than to lengthen my CV and help me to get promotions. I just could not cope with the idea of spending my whole life doing something at a level which was boringly mediocre, and where I would constantly fail to realise even my own expectations from myself.

What was even worse I knew that I could not dare to say all this aloud, given all the adulation and praise that was constantly being heaped on me. I was terrified of being put to the test and being found out someday but there was no way out -- the show had to go on. I was forced to pretend to be clever and knowledgeable and interested no matter how little I knew or cared; it all seemed wrong somehow. Not just wrong but also dishonest, to ask for and spend tax payers money to attend conferences and seminars, on the basis on my hollow credentials. I felt like an imposter, a fraud.

But still I felt obliged to continue with my job because I felt that since I had gone to Oxford on a scholarship, I owed it to whoever selected me to give back at least what it had given me before I quit. There was also another saving grace – while I was not sure of my research abilities I knew I was a reasonably good teacher of mathematics. Moreover I loved being with students. But I ran into trouble with that too. Those problems, however, had more with the system as well as with my colleagues who had other views on the duties and responsibilities of being a teacher.

When I first started teaching mathematics after returning from Oxford, I was certain that, regardless of how pathetic my future research output would be, I would be able to justify my being a teacher because I would be able to make a positive difference for my students. As a teacher of mathematics at the university I had imagined that I would have the freedom to introduce a few changes to the method of teaching at least in the courses I was offering, like introducing problem classes and giving assignments, but there I met with resistance from my colleagues since at that time the system expected teachers to only lecture to their students and do nothing else (the system has since changed, I am told, after the introduction of the semester system).

There was yet another dimension to my problem. From what I had seen from my own Oxford supervisor’s relations to his students I had understood that being a teacher had to become an organic component of the rest of my life, that there was nothing like a nine-to-five teacher, that as a teacher, I was supposed to be there not only to supervise how my students performed in their studies but also to help them cope with their own lives in a much more general sense. But soon after getting back, I found out that the culture back home was somewhat different – the teachers were expected to maintain hierarchies and not get too friendly with the students.

The system of teaching was thankfully much more to my liking at IIT. But the division of work rule was in place also there – as a faculty member I was required to just teach my courses but not really interact with the undergraduate students. But in those initial years of Guwahati IIT, with so many bright young students leaving home for the first time to come to the supposedly dangerous Indian northeast, one couldn’t help getting involved with the students and their personal problems. There were more than a couple of cases, where I felt the system had failed to respond and had been insensitive to the needs of the students. I realised that in an institution like IIT, one one needed besides medical care was also competent and trained counselling, and that was completely missing at that time. I saw a few bright students lose out and give up in front of my eyes simply because the system failed to help them when they needed it. One time I was even asked if I had any other personal reasons for supporting a student (who had failed to achieve the requisite marks by a whisker)! That student was not given admission, but he went on to do very well in another institution, vindicating my faith in him.

Slowly I realised that the system would carry on like a juggernaut, completely blind to all those who are crushed along the way, but seeing this happen and knowing that I am also part of the system, would drive me crazy with guilt. Almost all the youngsters who came to join our IIT, having made it in the tough and extremely competitive JEE, were clever and bright, but also very innocent, trusting and naive. I do not know what we did wrong but in the time they stayed with us, we managed to turn quite a few of them, in the worst cases, either into unstable and strange creatures or into bitter and angry young men who had very little respect or trust left for anyone. Since there was nothing I could do to change things, I thought it best to quit before the system devoured me too.

But what about repayment of the debt of my 3-year Ph.D. scholarship? I had spent nearly ten years already teaching and doing mathematics after getting back from Oxford, surely that was enough. But there was one last thing left for me to do – a couple of my colleagues and I got together and organised a 3-week long international workshop and conference in IIT Guwahati in my area of research to which I invited many of those mathematicians who I had met and whose work I admired. Many accepted my invitation and came, almost all of them for the first time to India’s north-east. It was a wonderful feeling to see that all the hard work we had put in had paid off – for due to the excellent quality of the mathematics and the interactions, we had also succeeded in putting the NE and IIT Guwahati on the international maths world map.

Strangely, this feeling of elation was also very liberating – I realised that I had paid back enough, there was no need for me to feel indebted anymore – I was free to leave. Once that came home to me it did not take me long to decide to resign and to start all over again – this time doing something that I felt suited my nature and my talents better – being with people, talking to them, trying to find out what makes them tick. More about why I chose to do anthropology instead some other time...

What all this has to say about our education system I will write up in another blog. But for now I want to end with the following thought. At some stage of our lives, we might find ourselves stuck in jobs which, even though they might seem to be best possible, do not make us happy anymore or with which we have some serious problem. While it is best not to make a mistake about one’s choice of career in the first place, it is never too late to start again. We should not allow the prestige or the security of our present jobs bind us if we feel that we are not really happy with what we are doing. Of course I am talking of a very thin section of the population who have the financial security to make these choices, but if one has them, then one should exercise them. One lives only once, and one must make the best of it. I gave up mathematics and started again at the ripe old age of 40 and have not regretted it. And if it is possible for me, it must be possible for others as well. You only have to take your fate in your hands and take the plunge – whatever you may or may not achieve in the end, at least you would have been true to yourself.