Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Eudcation --- What for?

What are the objectives of education? This is a very important question, though it is a question that has been discussed possibly hundreds of times in various parts of the world. Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives is possibly the most popular. He identifies six categories in the Cognitive domain, namely, Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation (see, for instance, Wikipedia), five categories in the Affective domain and the Psychomotor domain (for which he did not create categories, but others have --- see, for instance, While this is so, what I wish to address is a very different kind of question. I wish to ask: What does society expect to get by sending their children to educational institutions? In other words, what should be the ultimate objective of the education system? Should it be to prepare people for employment? Or should it be to impart knowledge about the world so that they can use the knowledge in life? Or should it be to make them aware of social and political histories and realities so that they can become good citizens? Or should it be to create sensitive and thinking individuals who can live peacefully in society and contribute to its well-being? Or ..... something else?

This is a question every society should ask and ensure that their educational system meets the objectives. This is very important since that decides the fate of the future generations. Though school education in Kerala is among the best in the country (if not the best) I have not seen a debate on this matter. Shalini Advani raise some important issues in The Hindu that are related to this, though her concern is about how corporate involvement in education and how education is becoming just a mechanical process and is losing its soul. I hope the questions I am attempting to address here at least partly includes the issues she has raised.

Education for Employment?

Should education prepare a person for employment? Of course, it should. A person needs an employment to earn his livelihood, and where else can he get the skills required for that? But that leaves the question of how. How should education prepare the person for his employment? This is a rather dificult question to answer, as I show now. How can this preparation be done? By giving him all the skills he require for the job? What job? During studies, there is no way a person can know what job (s)he is going to do, except in very few cases. So how can education prepare people for employment? Obviously, the special skills required for a particular job has to be provided by the employer and not by the education system. However, employment does not mean just doing some work. It also means living peacefully with your colleagues, helping each other, doing the work in a responsible and sincere manner, even fighting for employees rights. In other words, these are the very same skills one needs to live in a society. Therefore, a good education system should provide part of the skills required for any job.

Education for imparting knowledge?

Of course, education has to impart knowledge. That is one of the major functions of education. In schools, children need to learn a lot of things about the world so that they can use the knowledge in their day to day life. The question whether someone can impart knowledge, or whether children need to build knowledge on their own, is relevant but we shall not take it up. Another question is what this knowledge should be, or what all should be taught. I would say that whatever basic knowledge is required for life should be covered, and what exactly that consists of has to be decided by the particular society. This could vary from place to place and there is always the problem of to what extent local knowledge should be included in the syllabus. It may be somewhat difficult to arrive at an objective conclusion in this matter, but there could be an overall understanding in each region or state. In any case, acquisition of knowledge, such as science, mathematics, history and languages, is an essential part of education.

Education for creating good citizens?

Is the creation of good citizens one of the purposes of education? If yes, then how does one define a good citizen? I would say "Yes" to the first question. Since we live in a democracy, and a democracy is only as good as its citizens, we need good citizens if the democracy is to succeed. Citizens do have a very important role in a society and it is not just that of voting. While voting for the party or candidate you believe in is important, it is also important to make the right choice. The citizens need to be politically aware, and also capable of evaluating the good and bad points of the party and/or candidate. If this has to happen, they should be aware of the history of the land and the parties, the policies the parties have been pursuing and promise to pursue if elected, and consequences of different kinds of policies pursued by these and other parties in their land and abroad. They should also be capable of understanding the nuances of governance and of seeing through misleading statements that parties may make during election time. In addition to all this, citizens need to be capable of reacting to situations even after the elections and not just wait for the next elections. Thus, citizens should take upon themselves part of the responsibility of running the country. They obviously need a great amount of training for this. We shall not go into what the training should be since we are discussing something else.

Education for creating good individuals?

I believe that education should also help in creating sensitive, thinking and active individuals. This is certainly necessary for living in a society peacefully and for bringing individuals in the society closer together. Why sensitive? To understand the problems of others and to be able to empathise with them. Why thinking? To be able to identify problems and to come up with solutions, possibly innovative. Why active? To be able to get involved in social issues and be willing to work towards solving the problems. So, in my opinion, education should help in creating sensitive, thinking, active individuals.


So let us get back to the main question: What is the purpose of education? We find that it should prepare people for employment. But that, in turn, means that it should impart knowledge, it should help individuals to become good citizens, it should help to make them sensitive, thinking, active individuals (though the second point may be debated). All these qualities would help to prepare people for employment and for life. In fact, I think what would help people in life is largely what would help them to get employment. At least, that is how it should be.

Does our education system measure up to this? I do not think so. Our education system is primarily geared to enable the children to pass the examination. Whatever else the children gain is actually unintended. But isn't all this too tall an order for our education system? Perhaps. But let me look at it from another point. Very long ago, children used to learn the skills they required for living from their parents and peers. The extent of knowledge required, why the entire knowledge mankind had, was limited. Now things have changed dramatically. The extent of knowledge mankind has today is more than what a studious person can learn in a lifetime. And parents are often so busy with their own professions and/or with other matters that they are unable to impart any amount of education. In fact, that is probably how formal systems for education came up in society. Very often there are no other avenues for the children to acquire the capabilities discussed above. Therefore, our school system simply has to take upon itself these functions.

Let me conclude by mentioning another kind of concern that Shalini Advani discusses in her article. This is about the changing purposes of education with time. As she says, "...there is one crucial question which is insufficiently discussed. And the question is this: What is the purpose of education today? At various times, over the past 100 years, that question has been answered differently --- in colonial India, the official answer would have been, 'To create a cadre of clerks and officials to run the colonial state' while in a newly decolonised India, the official answer could be, 'To create a nationalist sensibility and the national citizen' ... Today, I suspect the official answer to the question about the purpose of education would be: 'To give people jobs.'" In its broadest sense, this is what would also help them lead a good life and be helpful to society. But when it is seen just as "giving people jobs", I fear the objectives could be limited to just acquiring a limited set of skills. This should never be so.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Knowledge should be Free

This is an editorial I wrote for the March 2003 issue of the magazine Science India that I used to be associated with. I think what I wrote then is equally valid today also. But first, here is what I wrote:

The Columbia Tragedy

The month of February started with a tragedy in the sky, a tragedy that could have been averted, like most others, if human knowledge had been more complete, or perhaps, if some individuals had taken more care. Science India pays homage to the seven space travellers who lost their lives as the space shuttle disintegrated high in the sky. We can add thier names to the seven others who died when another space shuttle, Challenger, blew up on the launchpad, or to thirteen others who died in various accidents involving spacecrafts. Let us remember the hundreds or thousands of others, known and unknown, who had their lives prematurely terminated in our quest for the kind of technology that makes it possible for us to go beyond the atmosphere. And a similar number of people who helped build up the scientific knowledge base for the development of technology. And, indirectly, the millions upon millions who helped all of us (scientists) lead a life devoted to science and technology by providing us the basic amenities of life. Let this remind us that knowledge is a product of social activity, contributed by one and all, and, as such, everyone is heir to all knowledge. Let this also remind us that knowledge is to be used for social good, and not for personal advancement. If the lives of the seven astronauts can remind us of this fact, they would have achieved far more than what they went to space for.


Experiments conducted in Columbia were intended to study about the benefits of zero gravity in manufacturing certain materials. The knowledge gained from these experiments would have become the property of the companies that sponsored the study. The companies would certainly have paid NASA for the experiments. Does that really compensate for the knowledge they acquired? Can they ever compensate for the lives of the astronauts? I write about this tragedy because the news spread the world over. But how many such accidents would have taken away lives without any of us knowing about them? How many people had to give up their lives in the pursuit of knowledge at least some of which has helped companies to build successful businesses? Can these companies compensate for these lives? I believe that knowledge should not be proprieterised, whatever the law of the land may say. I believe it is unethical and immoral to do so.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Other Golden Temple

Everyone in India, at least everyone who reads newspapers or news magazines, would have heard of the Golden Temple in Punjab, the most holy place of Sikhs. But how many of us would have heard of a Golden Temple in the south? "Golden Temple in the south?" I can almost hear you asking. Yes. There is a Golden Temple in the south. But this is not a temple of the Sikhs. This is a temple of the Buddha -- a temple of Tibetans. And this is situated inside the Namdroling Monastery, inside the large Tibetan settlement-- one of the largest Tibetan settlements in the country -- at Bylakuppe near Madikeri, on the way from Bangalore to Kudagu (formerly Coorg). You turn east from the road to Kodagu, about 30 km before Madikeri, and drive along the beautiful countryside for about three kilometres to reach the Monastery and the Golden Temple. The place has a good parking space with bathrooms and toilets. Park your vehicle and just walk up a few tens of metres to enter the gate of the Monastery. Walk across the courtyard and go through another gate to face one of the two temples there. You cannot enter this temple. You can only gaze at it from the outside. Leaves of eucalyptus are burnt in two containers near the temple. Helps to keep away the ubiquitous flies, at least in the vicinity of the urns. But this could really be part of the rituals. The roof of the temple itself has some parts covered in gold. The design is typically Tibetan. If you reach there at a suitable time, you should hear chanting inside.

Turn left and walk a few yards to get near the main Golden Temple. There you have a counter where you can deposit your footwear. Really convenient and being run well. After you get rid of your footwear, you can enter the temple. You find yourself in a large hall, facing three huge golden statues. The one in the middle is that of Gautama Buddha. This is supposed to be thirty feet high. On either side of the Buddha are idols of goddesses. The one on the left is supposed to be the goddess of war and destruction, and the other, the goddess who gives. These are supposed to be 28 feet tall -- possibly to keep them smaller than the Buddha. On either side of the Buddha are pillars on which the typical Tibetan dragons are entwined. The entire hall is decorated in paintings that are typically Tibetan -- very colourful, out-of-this-world images. Tibetan monks, young and old, scramble about in brown and maroon dresses, cleaning, carrying things, and generally moving about to fulfil their duties. You also see small children in the same kind of dress running about, though only occasionally. The living quarters are also busy with activity, but strangely quiet. The place is much quieter than any other place where so many young men live.

The whole place is very clean, as a Monastery should be. The lawns are well kept. The gardens are neatly neatly maintained. The only thing that upsets a visitor is the large number of house flies that are seen everywhere. One would wonder where they came from. This is a safe haven for them since Buddhist monks wouldn't kill any form of life. But one wishes that they at least kept the flies away.

I happened to visit the place with Ayesha, my daughter, and Rajaram (or just Raj), her fiance, when we went on a tour to Kodagu (formerly Coorg) in June 2007. It was raining lightly and we found a well-kept parking space. We parked our vehicle there, went to the toilet and walked into a restaurant in the adjoining building. The restaurant was also clean and well kept, though there were too many flies for our comfort. A fly actually committed suicide in one of our cups of coffee which we got replaced. The restaurant, it turned out, was run by Keralites. There were shops that sold Tibetan curios, though we are not sure that they were brought from Tibet. It hardly matters. We visited the temple and went on our way. I was sorry that we did not have the time to talk to the people and find out more about the place, the monastery, the temples and their life. I hope I will get to go there again.


The Golden Temple was actually an unscheduled stop. Soon we were on our way to Kodagu and the Honey Valley Home Stay Resort. There was continuous rain and we had to halt a few times to find our way. Raj called the resort on a few occasions to get guidance. At one point, a jeep approached from the other side and stopped near our vehicle. A greying gentleman in water-proof clothing, who was driving the vehicle, asked us whether we were going to Honey Valley. When we replied in the positive, he said he was coming to pick us up. He turned the vehicle around and we followed him. At one point, we turned right and he took us up a steep slope into a small compound with a house. We parked our vehicle there and shifted to his jeep. The rest of the journey was through a forest track that cannot be called a road. There were signs of trees having fallen across the track, which had been cut and removed. The track had just enough space for the jeep to go and I wondered what would happen if another vehicle came down. But, apparently, there was little chance of that happening. The drive up the slope was tough, though it was not totally new for me since I had had the occasion to travel through a forest track in a jeep. The jeep swayed from one side to the other and the driver had to engage the four-wheel drive more than once.

At one point, I asked the driver whether it is not tough to go up and down this track every day, perhaps more than once a day. His answer was of the kind one expected from an ex-military person. He said, "No, if it has to be done, it has to be done, that is all". His English was flawless too. So we thought he must be an ex-service man, which eventually turned out to be wrong.

We finally reached a part of the track that was cemented and less than a hundred metre away was a level ground on which were a few buildings that looked like unplastered brick structures. One of them was a single-storied house and another was double-storied. We were invited to occupy the first room upstairs. All the buildings had traditional sloping roofs with tiles. Our room was neatly kept, with four beds covered by white sheets and blankets neatly folded. The room had terracota tiles on the floor, which I liked and so did my daughter. We later found that all rooms, except bathromms, had terracotta tiles, and bathrooms had glazed tiles.

We must have reached the resort after 2 pm. They told us that lunch will be ready soon and we could go down to the mess. We arranged our things in the room (see photograph) and went down for lunch. The lunch was good -- not the formal kind of thing you get in expensive hotels, at least not the kind of food that I thought they would serve, but good tasty food of the kind you eat at home. They had chappathis with two side dishes -- one made with jack fruit seeds was very tasty -- and steamed vegetable. Then they had rice and dal and papads and curds. Some nice bananas as dessert. I asked if they could give me some tea or coffee and they immediately obliged. I started beginning to feel at home. Although it was raining and very windy, it was not uncomfortably cold. There was a thickly forested hill right opposite to us and it looked very beautiful in the rain. The picture below shows the balcony before our room from where we could get a nice view of the forest.

The people there were talking in broken Malayalam to me (the driver had asked me, before we started our way up to the resort whether I was from Kerala, and even commented that Shetty (Raj's surname) was not a typical Kerala name to which Raj replied that he was from Mangalore). So I started wondering whether they were Keralites. I found out slowly that some of the workers were originally from Keala. The greying gentleman who was our "driver" turned out to be the owner of the resort, and an elderly lady who was present in the mess most of the time turned out to be his wife. They were from Kodagu itself but learnt Malayalam because Kodagu has a lot of Keralites, being adjacent to the districts of Kannur and Wayanad in Kerala.

The owner, Suresh Chengappa, I learnt, was the eldest of four brothers and two sisters. When their father passed away at the age of 54, all the responsibility of the family fell on him. Later, when they had to partition the property, no one wanted the land in the forest on top of the mountain. So he and his wife moved into this land. There was no proper road, no electricity and so on. There was a small dwelling, which consisted of one room, and the floor plastered with cow dung. But there were wild elephants and leeches. The wife had to live there alone occasionally when the husband went out for getting provisions or for other work. They grew honey bees and sold honey for an income. As the wife told me, they had thirty rupees with them when they came to this land. As a person born and brought up in the country side and towns, I could not even begin to comprehend the problems through which they had successfully come through. It explained the "driver's" statement -- "if it has to be done, it has to be done. That is all." I thought of the many people who complain about facilities even in cities. Suresh, his wife and son look after the resort and the estate. They have coffee planted in most of the estate, but they also keep honey bees, some cattle and three dogs who went with Ayesha and Raj when they went on a trek to a nearby waterfall and showed them the way. You can see me trying to get friendly with one of the dogs, Gundu, in the picture. They produce their own electricity using a small hydroelectric plant that has turbines from Switzerland and locally made generators. Ayesha and Raj went to see an waterfall (see photograph) and also on a trek during which time they got to donate their blood, to leeches!

Suresh is a very interesting character. He has a good collection of books on various subjects, including Bertrand Russell's Impact of Science on Society, Mohan Pai's Western Ghats, and the Mir Publishers' Physiology for the Layman. Along with the Danish scientist mentioned earlier, he developed a new technique for honey bee cultivation which has been approved by the International Centre for Bee Research and is now recommended by them all over Asia. He says he has not been able to publish his studies, but he is happy that a lot of people are using the technique. He asked me about my work, about cloud formation, types of clouds, why it rains more in some places and why Doordarshan's coverage of weather is so bad. He said that he is not religious, does not believe in rituals and that he is not bothered about death or the life after. I found him to be a nice person, contended with life, and ready to face whatever life has to offer. And also ready to help. My impression is that he behaves in the same way to the workers. Mrs. Chengappa is also very friendly and concerned about the people around her. She looks after the mess, prescribes the menu and even helps in cooking. But she is aware of what exactly is going on, and, as Suresh said, "If I just conk off one day, the family knows what exactly is happening in their establishment and they will have no problem in running it." In fact, his son, Sarath, is a graduate in Hotel Management from Mangalore, and he intends to start another resort somewhat down the hill. Suresh has two daughters, the elder of whom is married and the younger one is in school.

We had a long chat spread over two days, about clouds, weather, meteorology and so on, which moved onto religion, god, and apparently supernatural phenomena. He concurred with me on my belief that the mind appears to have the ability to do things that seem to be "supernatural", or inexplicable. He mentioned that he knows one Dr. Soanes (my spelling!), who is a biologist, but learned to do some things that can be classified as "supernatural". He said that once one of their guests had lost their camera, and they suspected that one of the servants had taken it (which the servant denied). But since they could not do anything without proof, and since the Inspector of Police was not available on the telephone line, he contacted Dr. Soanes, who said that the camera was in the cottage itself. But they could not find the camera anywhere. Later, after returning home, the visitors found the camera inside one of the bags and informed Suresh. Suresh said that Dr. Soanes started with water divining, which he learnt when he had to call a water diviner after the government agencies failed to locate water in his land through scientific means. Having convinced himself about this power, he developed it further and thus became able to locate missing objects. Soanes, incidentally, is a Canadian.

That brings us the the last people we met before we left. Unfortunately, it happened to be just hours before we were scheduled to leave so that we could just talk for a few minutes. In fact, they were staying there when we reached there, but, for some reason, we never got into any conversation with them. They were a young couple. The man was tallish and broad, and even somewhat fat. He had long hair, that appeared like ropes since bunches of hair had got stuck together. I don't know whether this was done deliberately. The lady was small built. It looked as though her hair had been shaved off and was starting to grow again. To be frank, the couple looked strange, and that is possibly the reason that we did not get friendly with them earlier. But the day we were leaving, I was in the mess before my daughter and her fiance and just got talking to them. It was purely accidental. I saw them petting the dogs and speaking to them and said something to them (incidentally, I am also fond of dogs and most dogs also tend to like me). This soon developed into a conversation that had to be cut short since it was beginning to get late for them to leave. The husband said that he had a tattooing business in Bangalore, and that the lady did various things including predicting the future using tarot cards and also by sitting with the subject and doing some meditation. She said that she had developed some kind of ability to detect a lie when someone spoke to her. She used to immediately ask why (s)he was lying and this caused some relationships to break. She then stopped doing that and decided to get involved in another person's life only when the person asked for help. She too turned out to be non-religious. She said her god was only nature. She said she was a follower of Osho and had spent one year in the ashram. She also agreed that the mind seems to have some powers that are not normally developed, but would appear "supernatural". We agreed to meet again and share our ideas, since it was already late for them to leave. We too left in the afternoon, with memories of a wonderful time we had in the middle of the forest and the very interesting people we me there.
Raj, Ayesha, Mrs. Chengappa, Suresh, me and Sarath.

To reach Honey Valley, you go to Madikeri, which is a rather well-known place and proceed towards Bettagiri. To reach Madikeri from Bangalore, you go along Hunsur road bypassing Mysore. From Madikeri, take the Mangalore road. After 3 km, turn left at the fork and enter the Bhagamandala road leaving the Mangalore road. Again turn left after 3 km and drive about 11 km to reach Bettagiri. About 6 km along this road takes you to a place called Napoklu, which is a rather big town. Another 10 km or so will take you to Kakkabe, but be sure to find out the exact route in advance since you may not find someone to ask on the way. The Kabinkad Junction is just about 3 km away. You should have informed the resort in advance so that they can come and pick you up from Kabbinkad. Though the resort is just 3 km away from the junction, you need a four-wheel drive vehicle to reach there.