Thursday, April 28, 2016

Totally Incomplete

The way Sanskrit is taught institutionally in India is essentially through syllabi that have been frozen for decades, and in an examination format that kills innovative thinking – Nikhil Govind, “How to teach Sanskrit”, The Hindu, April 29, 2016-04-29
I take strong exception to the above statement, but in ways that would be surprising to most. My disagreement with the writer is not that what he says is wrong; rather, what he says is totally incomplete. “Totally incomplete”?
Yes. His statement asserts, by implication, all the other endeavors of acquiring knowledge in India do not suffer from the stated deficiencies – their syllabi are not frozen for decades, their examination format promote innovative thinking etc. BAH HUMBUG! In upper case letters, please note. That is, “TOTALLY INCOMPLETE.”
For the past two years, a little less than that, I have had the misfortune of teaching some engineering courses, from the basics to the most current aspects of engineering practice in a so-called academic institution that has acquired - no one knows how - a reasonable reputation for its products, the graduating students.
Here, “change in syllabus” is unheard of, except for trivial changes in the periphery. I will give you an example – there are no new steel truss bridges being built in Indian Railways, except in the northern border regions, mostly from terrain considerations. Otherwise, it is prestressed concrete bridges (the gauge conversion effort on Indian Railways is very specific about this) or at best steel plate girder bridges. This factoid must hit anyone who has his or her eyes not necessarily wide open, but merely a slit and looking askance. But, a section of the syllabus, about 25% of the portion for a semester is devoted to steel truss bridges. Go figure – talk of dynamic syllabus, anyone?
Ask anyone who has even had brush with the basics of a subject called Engineering Mechanics (concerning solids), both statics and dynamics. You would not be able to find anyone who would say the subject while including projectile motion, excludes Simple Harmonic Motion. Well, this really is the situation. Yet, when this was pointed out, the response was, paraphrasing, “Changing the syllabus is a deeply involved process and it is better we did not open Pandora’s Box!”
Let me come to the format of the examination. I graduated in the mid. 1970s. I do not recall, honestly, ever asking the teacher about the format of the question paper. We go to the class room, receive the test paper, scan it, decide the questions to be answered (if there are choices), and begin to answer.
Now, at least where I work, this is not so. For the question paper, a few formats are prescribed and teacher per force has to choose from one among these. What is more, the chosen format has to be made known to the students. The student now goes to work, not on the subject, but to find out how to maximize the returns for his/her investment. If it is like, 20 nos. of 2 mark questions and 3 nos. (out of 5) of 10 mark questions, (s)he knows 60% of the marks are for the taking if (s)he focused on 60% of the portion for the test. The ROI is indeed satisfactory. Indeed, with some lucky strikes in the 2 mark questions, the ROI is more than more than satisfactory! Which investor would say no to this?
That is, the teachers “teach to test” and students “learn to test, to score.” Students are a step ahead of the teachers, and both are fully divorced from the subject. And, if this does not kill “innovative thinking”, what would? I do not know.
On the syllabus, Sanskrit is nothing exceptional. On tests/examinations too, Sanskrit is not beyond anything ordinary. Now, you know how I came to the conclusion that the lines quoted at the beginning are “TOTALLY INCOMPLETE”!
The only change that would relieve the writer of the burden I have imposed on him is to change the sentence to something like, “The way Sanskrit, to be honest, any field of knowledge, is taught institutionally in India ...” This would also add strength to his contention that “one has to ask questions that feed into contemporary intellectual questions”. The focus: Contemporary intellectual questions.
Raghuram Ekambaram

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