Sunday, June 29, 2014

An Impractical Education

This is the latest comic I wrote for the Mint.

I have been thinking for a while now about the inadequacy of our secondary and senior secondary school syllabi. As far as I can see, the syllabus informs teenagers about fairly complex natural, physical and chemical phenomena, formulae for equations and trignometric calculations that most of them will never use in their daily lives. But it leaves them totally unprepared for life.

The average school student is illiterate when it comes to survival skills, especially in urban areas where they do not have any opportunity to learn through direct observation.

The choice of studying Science, Arts, or Commerce is a significant life decision if we assume that this choice is to have a real bearing on how we live our lives, or how we can make a living. I took up Science and later, in undergraduate college, 'Arts' (which is really the Humanities and Social Sciences). But the curriculum told me nothing about how to live. All I had was an assortment of facts and formulations, decrees and interpretations. If I had not been lucky enough to have the money for a specialized degree afterwards, I would have floundered. If my family did not support me further, I would have sunk into poverty. At fifteen, I was being prepared for what could eventually be a career in, say, medicine or astronomy or biochemical engineering. But I was totally unprepared for supporting myself in case I did not have the resources or temperament to study towards the aforementioned careers.

A formal school education tells us very little about how to make a living from the land or how to actually - practically - tap into nature's resources. We grow up knowing nothing about sustaining life (or love, which is incredibly sad and goes a long way towards dehumanizing and de-sensitizing the populace). Why is this so?

I am starting to believe that a highly stratified (in India, this means stratified along class and caste lines) society has something to do with it. We take human labour and basic survival skills for granted because we expect someone else to do it for the higher ups, i.e. people who access to formal schooling.

This someone else would be a low-paid mazdoor, some unfortunate born with limited access to white collar schooling. Even if this someone wrangles some schooling out of the system, a secondary school certificate is not likely to lead to a white collar job. The only other way out of poverty would be entrepreneurship, which would mean a small investment of money or material assets. The poorest in India have been rendered landless either by the caste system or modern institutional 'development' leading to displacement. Worse, they often work under conditions that lead to health breakdowns with no compensating insurance or benefits.

The pool of labour might have shrunk, but it exists. And so, the rest of us survive without having any real survival skills. Growing hundreds of food crops, harvesting, cooking, cleaning, growing cotton, rearing silkworms, beekeepers, weaving, sewing, shoe-making, assembling machines, cutting wood, building houses, mining sand and stone, cutting and shaping metal, identifying medicinal herbs. We cannot do any of this.

Skills that define human civilization, skills without which we would not last a day, are denied to us. And we allow it because we see so little value attached to these skills in the current economic system.

I often wonder, what would it be like if we actually began to attach value to our own survival? Would we not be a different sort of India?


Rounak Jain said...

Wow. This was worth the wait. Enjoyed every word of it. Couldnt have agreed more. However I would just point out one thing. Might be least important given the amazingly basic yet solid idea. Studying mathematics, trigonometry and all, though not used after academic life but definitely not a waste of time and efforts. If learned sincerely, its hidden after effect is that it improves ones mental ability to reach out to the best possible solution with the given situation in the least possible time. I have felt the difference myself. Thats why perhaps there is aptitude test taken in placement drives, CAT, GATE, GRE etc. Afterall life is mostly facing problems and solving them. But again, I doubt you havent observed this already.
Also, I would like to bring it to your notice that ever since I stumbled upon your blog, I have been a regular visitor. Revising your articles hoping to find one article I missed earlier. These days the frequency of your articles here has reduced which gets me impatient at times, to visit Known Turf and find no new article/idea. Still worth the wait, all of them. Thank You for Known turf.

Annie Zaidi said...

Thanks Rounak.
I agree, Math does have applications. I did study Maths at the higher secondary level and though I struggled a little, I have no doubt it was worth learning. I think all learning is interlinked.
I am only amazed at how much of our school learning is based on the assumption that somebody else will always be there to feed us and clothe us and build for us and so on.
However, I disagree with CAT and GRE methods. I actually scored higher in Math than English ability, which is absurd, given my actually abilities as well as my aptitude.

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Unknown said...

I remember asking as a schoolboy, "Why should I study math? Where am I going to use?" and everyone told me how it had applications everywhere.

I finished school in 1992 and apart from basic arithmetic, I still don't see the application on math in my life at all! Everyone else was wrong about the use of and the importance of studying math.

And I wouldn't have aced any interviews by telling them that I know Trigonometry and Calculus!

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