Friday, 20 March 2015

Do We Need Exams to Test Students?

“School failed me, and I failed the school. It bored me. The teachers behaved like Feldwebel (sergeants). I wanted to learn what I wanted to know, but they wanted me to learn for the exam. What I hated most was the competitive system there, and especially sports. Because of this, I wasn’t worth anything, and several times they suggested I leave. This was a Catholic School in Munich. I felt that my thirst for knowledge was being strangled by my teachers; grades were their only measurement. How can a teacher understand youth with such a system? From the age of twelve I began to suspect authority and distrust teachers.”
The above quote from Einstein (the greatest scientist of the twentieth century whom school system almost killed) reproduced here should be enough to alert those who seek to change educational policy, especially academic session for facilitating examination oriented academic policy. Examinations, as currently held, are not defensible; they are causing gangrene to the soul of education. Open book and grading, instead of marks policy, that has been successfully adopted by advanced societies and has replaced memory based and mindless competition based system needs to be given a try, at least in selected schools and I am sure many private schools at least would volunteer if the government cooperates.
Today there is a debate on changing academic session. I think the only thing that was not wrong with the educational system in our state was winter session that is now under scanner for reasons hardly many understand. While I wish to argue separately how changing the session could prove academic disaster (something like the recent floods proved for Kashmir economy) I today seek to question only one key premise of the whole debate that is being manufactured to benefit one can guess whom. That premise is smooth or efficient conducting of exams. Although one can refute the “arguments” for changing academic session to March by dozens of arguments (every student and teacher knows a few and one needs to be briefed for quite some time for considering the possibility of “advantages” in March session) I think why not deconstruct the very edifice of the system that is sought to be made more efficient. Do we need exams? Do we need to shift the session because exams will be facilitated in some sense?
If we want to paralyze a nation and a generation, force its best minds to attend classes, where notes are dictated and regurgitated in exams, and then much of what has been taught is of no relevance and is forgotten, and then force some of them to waste few more years in doctoral degrees as they can’t do anything new and then recruit some of them into ReTs or teaching jobs where they are overqualified. Most of the theses are not worth the space they occupy in library shelves. Most of them are guilty of plagiarism. Excellence is not achieved in a system where classrooms are overcrowded. One of the reputed educationists once told in a big gathering that he went to Europe for some special course on deputation for one year. And one fine day he was informed that he would be conferred the certificate. To his utter surprise he was never examined and when he asked authorities how come he is getting certificate without any examination he was answered that our daily interactions in class and the fact that as teachers they were successful in maintaining his interest in classes were enough for them to confer the certificate!!
A good teacher would not bother about exams and attendance; he will have enough charisma to attract students to learn. When Iqbal or Rajneesh used to lecture, students from other faculties would also join the classes. When teachers dictate notes, students would like to photocopy them and not waste one hour in the class because it is not a class where discussion happens, where new things are explored. There are teachers who have nothing to teach except dictating notes directly copied from a book or two thus committing a sort of plagiarism. A teacher must paraphrase book content or ask students to directly read the book. And students be given choice to discuss what they can’t themselves understand from the books. As most of the subjects are not rocket science or tensors or subtleties of quantum mechanics, there is no need for more than 90% teachers or classes as average intelligence is enough to grasp lessons. It is an insult to human dignity to require one to memorize what is simply learnt, used and transcended if not “forgotten.” I can only understand need for examination in some sense when skills are at stake. Remembering procedure could well be a hindrance. The best learning happens unconsciously–see the drivers and hundreds of operations we perform effortlessly, automatically once we have learnt or interiorized the craft. If we keep written examination for giving a license rather than actual driving session, how would it sound? More absurd is memory based written/oral examinations students are subject to. A teacher is one who stimulates to think rather than to memorize, who guides rather than dictates copy paste information, who motivates students to study rather than threatens to fail or asks questions that he himself has no time.
Likes of Tagore and Einstein couldn’t easily clear exams and that only shows worthlessness of a system that examined them. Wittgenstein could not stand for a PhD viva and was allowed to discuss a few passages from his own book to clear it.
We must debate need and form of exams rather than make exams a basis for changing the sessions. Any time spent in preparing for exams is wasted. Winters are best spent learning something rather than preparing for exams.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Selling or Living Religion?

Why is today so much confusion about religion? Why anxiety to prove one’s sect or school the best? Why declare others somehow inferior, misguided? What is misguidance, anyway? Why use this as a whip to beat whatever we don’t like? Let me assert that the essence of religion, which saves, is simple to comprehend and universally known and agreed upon by the best minds of every tradition that what we need is to start action or following the well-known Way. No books, no complicated commentaries, no elaborate polemical theses are needed to be consulted before one convinces oneself regarding this essential point. What is this essence of religion, mysticism, traditional philosophies?
The following famous passage of Ibn Arabi is particularly detailed and important expression of this essential point. In this passage is summed up essential Ibn Arabî (I would claim, essential Rumi, essential Ghazzali, essential Ibn Taymiyyah, essential Sheikh-ul-Alam, essential Iqbal) and the central message of all integral traditions as great masters of traditions formulate it. Here is the basis for ethics on which all traditions are united i.e., transcendence of lower self to subsist in the divine self. Here is his formulation of the theory and objective of mystical discipline. Here is also a manifesto for coexistence of traditions or plurality of modes of experiencing or relating to the divine.
Now you must know that if a human being (al-insān) renounces their (own personal) aims, takes a loathing to their animal self (nafs) and instead prefers their Sustainer/Teacher (Rabb), then the Real will give (that human being) a form of divine guidance in exchange for the form of their carnal self… so that they walk in garments of Light. And (this form) is the sharī‘a of their prophet and the Message of their messenger. Thus that (human being) receives from their Lord what contains their happiness–and some people see (this divine guidance) in the form of their prophet, while some see it in the form of their (spiritual) state.
Ibn Arabî says in The Kernel of the Kernel, “You will be all when you make nothing of yourself.” This is the golden rule that allows to know all truths and achieve all perfections and absolute certainty. Modern man, especially the academician, the philosopher of religion, the phenomenologist is more interested in speculation about Truth or God or neutral  “objective” idle inquiry than without being prepared to sell everything including the dearest self, as Jesus would say, or make nothing of himself for the sake of Truth. That explains why there is so much knowledge and so little wisdom today and why he is farther from God and nearer to dust. It is only by becoming nothing, by absolute detachment or poverty of spirit that one can attain the central point, the still centre of existence where lasting peace and felicity lie. The Friend doesn’t tolerate duality as Ibn Arabî reminds us and comes to live in the sanctuary of a perfectly polished mirror of the heart.
Ibn Arabi speaks for all men–nay for all creatures–as they stand, as he is an “unlimited mercifier.” He vindicates man qua man without feeling any need to qualify him with this or that attributes or predicate as he sees God vindicated and His plan being worked out this very moment by everyone. Addas aptly states the Akbarian view:
"Because all men worship God whether they know it or not, because it is the Sigh of the Merciful who has brought them into existence, because each of them bears within him the imprint of one of the infinitely multiple Faces of the One, it is to eternal bliss that they have been and are being guided from the beginning of eternity." (Addas 1993: 293)
Ibn Arabî  gives the most universal definition of Muhammadan where this becomes, in the words of Twinch, not a designation of a particular historical community but the very name of universality and perfection. It is the name of a station, theoretically available to everyone, attainable to the select few who travel on and on, perfectly realizing all stations until he arrives at the station of no station in which one has nothing of one’s own and therefore mirrors the Real most perfectly and is not defined by any particular divine name or attribute but brings together all standpoints or stations.
Realizing Muhammadan station of no-station, the station of faqr, sabr and raza is a life long struggle against all kinds of temptations and distractions that love of ego and world constitute. Here all of us fall short. We have no points to score against fellow believers but our guilt to proclaim, if we keep in mind the essence. It is right action that saves and confirms our real faith. Let us judge ourselves but not others in light of this. We will not get time for religious debate, for sectarian ideologies. We will begin to see why religion demands humility as the key virtue.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Choosing or not choosing to serve

Public perception, especially perception in educated class regarding animal husbandry is that is not the ideal choice even for a farmer, not to speak for a minister to choose as his profile. Farmers continue to be imagined as poor, ignorant, crude, uncouth. Animals are best when prepared for table but not when it is encountering them live with all the dung and bestiality associated with them. Another presumption is livestock sector is only of marginal importance to our economy.
Public perception may well be erroneous but as creatures who do care for reputation or perceived image we may be prone to escape reality. And reality must be faced.  Let us examine the facts.

Before I come to the status in our state I need to make an observation about a pathology of modernity called necrophilia – love for corpses which is Erich Fromn’s expression for our love for machine culture. Man has been created in divine image and this requires living with other species, seeing ourselves in them as sharing the gift of life. Nothing is more humanizing than contact with animals. One must understand why God required all prophets to rear animals, why machines are dehumanizing, why our greatest thinkers from Heidegger  (one may read his essay on technology before arrogantly dismissing that brilliant analysis to Iqbal (Ha dil kae liyae moat machinnoo ki hukoomat / Ahsasi murawwat ko kuchal daetey hae aalaat) to Gandhi (who required two hours manual labour from every citizens including ministers, CMs, PMs – in our context I would suggest working for two hours in animal rearing activities) to Wittgenstein (who said that modern western civilization is simply doomed) to Coomaraswamy (who identified machine culture with death of art, beauty and soul) identified machine culture with death of human culture, why technology and management of political dispensation in so-called democracies linked to particular ideological, personal and class interests today are fundamentally inhuman, anti-human. We need to be better aware of post-Renaissance modernity’s devilish attempt to escape creaturely limitations, to substitute machines for human hands, to take nature as It rather than as Thou, to be fooled by the idea of autonomous self who is there to use nature as resource rather than to flow with its cosmic rhythms, to understand reduction of Homo sapiens to Homo economicus and what Hemmingway put as “lusting, fighting, killing animal” to understand the genesis of public perception. We share with earth and animals our home, our kinship, our destiny. There is no option but to love animals as requirement of human nature. Using them for some end comes later.
If the idea is living with dignity and move toward achievable nationhood, animal husbandry sector should have been a privileged profile to serve. If our economy is vitally linked to livestock sector and agriculture constitutes our most important sector of economy to which not only jobs but social health is linked, why the perception in public regarding its untouchability for the “elite.” Share in GDP of livestock sector is more than most departments combined whose ministering has been seen as a privilege. If we want to serve people, identify with what serves people. If we talk about sustainable development or respecting rights of the environment, it is livestock sector rather than tourism and other “white collar” sectors that we need to focus. If we talk about sab ka saath, sab ka wikaas, agriculture and livestock sectors should have priority (and we saw how in recent Union budget it was rather ignored despite increasing number of farmer suicides and mass alienation among farmers). We need to understand our state is mountainous, landlocked, not ideal for heavy industry or irrigated crop culture but livestock industry. We need to understand that ignoring livestock sector, farmers, livestock by-product industries and host of crafts to which raw material could be made available through better attention to livestock sector, has been one important factor for poor economy and begging bowl syndrome Kashmiris have been victims of and our leadership is responsible for the same.
How is it possible that many developed countries including Australia, New Zeland and US have given great attention to livestock sector to boost their economies and here it is considered beneath one’s dignity by many educated people to serve in this sector? A minister reflects public perception and fighting that perception should be the question. But who will lead from the front? Leaders or public who live in the caves of public opinion and refuse to see the Truth outside the caves?
People do have the right to ask a ministerial candidate whether the ideals he has expressed in his document on achievable nationhood are compatible with displeasure at holding charge of a challenging but a promising sector. We all need to remind ourselves about Plato’s distinction between opinion based on unexamined perceptions (mostly expressed today in Facebook, Twitter etc.) and Truth one learns by examining in the cool light of reason one’s perceptions. Fraternity of vets and paravets were happy that a person who is articulate, bold, better grounded for understanding predicament of common man, has good knowledge of potential of the sector is rather young would better serve the Department.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Examination System: Let's Probe it!

It is a flood that comes annually, destroys generations and cripples minds
There is a flood that comes once in a century, destroys properties. But there is a flood that comes annually, destroys generations and cripples minds. And it is on a mass scale. And we are all its victims. And we don’t talk about it. It has claimed innumerable lives, destroyed creative spark in countless students. It costs us money, time, human resource and other resources. I mean Examination System prevailing here which needs examining, a thorough post-mortem. A preliminary post-mortem report follows. Detailed reports from different labs (intellectual, moral, social, psychological, political, religious) will hopefully follow in future.

The body is giving offensive smell. One can’t imagine how it functioned in its great days. Once upon a time there was instituted a system for preparing students for mastering crafts and skills they had shown promise by virtue of natural inclination, heredity etc. Students were properly initiated or baptized in the craft or profession they chose. Education was fully vocational and it simultaneously fashioned souls. Vocation was life’s wazeefa, worship. Skills, ethics, love for vocations were “tested.” Modernity uprooted hereditary, inclinational or traditional mode of education. And no wonder it results in abortions at mass scale. Somehow many get to the post primary level and then nature does her weaning at matriculation. More than 80% students feel compelled to pursue post-matric education and drop out percentage starts increasing with every next step in higher education. Meanwhile childhood and youth of countless millions has been destroyed and they have hardly learnt anything of significance or anything besides ability to read and write some preliminary things. Souls haven’t been fashioned. Anyway even those who complete PhDs don’t learn anything about the vocation of life. Meaning of life – which is the most important question education had to help sort – and ethics – which is the essence of philosophy and spirituality and part of religion – have not been in the syllabus. In fact these things are taught through education rather than by education in traditional cultures and that is why the talk about teaching values by including books on moral education has so little value really. What values can you teach? Values are imbibed from culture, through the vocation or craft. One’s job is ideally one’s dharma. Less than 1% people are not alienated from their jobs or blessed with the vocation that they have really chosen. That is why holidays, strikes are welcome always for working class. There is a universal baegaer (forced unpaid labour) in schools going on. Who says Maharaja is gone?

Now an artificial educational system has been imposed. And our souls and minds can’t accept it. Somehow we are forced to conform. And this requires violence to the mind, to the body, to the soul. And the system that successfully institutes this violence is called examination system. It requires a heap of mostly useless information. The mind somehow retains it for sometime till examination is cleared and then vomits it out. One vomits what can’t be digested and what one has really digested can hardly be known through this system. Academic terrorism that defines examination system is our greatest curse\– all terrorisms are parasitic on it. History can’t forgive those educationists who are hardly doing anything about it.

Of course there are some positives about the current system but its negatives far outweigh it and the reasoning that the Quran uses to reject wine, I apply here. In it is “great sin, and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit.”

Without denying need for certain evaluation system and the fact of difficulty of all serious learning, we are justified in asking who institutes for whom and why a given evaluation system. And does it deliver? And at what costs? No educationist or serious teacher is satisfied with the current system. There are dozens of reasons that make us sure about clinical death of the body called examination system. A few I mention today:

• All those who can’t clear the same exam they have cleared few months or years back

• Lessons are to be learnt rather than memorized to be forgotten after a particular time. We could read ten books and learn hundred new things during the time we compel our minds to memorize ten lessons

• Great teachers are least bothered about examination but focus on sharing knowledge and it is mostly less efficient teachers who are obsessed with exams. Almost all good teachers realize the point that exams are not true indicators of student’s worth. In fact examination system is required to make fools out of us.

• One must consent to read and reread the same notes not to miss a word or fill in the blank in exam. It requires desensitization and hatred of creativity. Even such “prestigious” exams as those of UPSC are linked to patience to mug mostly useless facts (one forgets most of them immediately after exams anyway). Most of the exams including entrance exams, UPSC exams involve something like prostitution of mind by mass of facts much of which is not of any use later in life or immediately after exams and are weeded out by our brain.

• The fact that most students would love copying if given any chance shows what a failure the system is. All such absurdities as craving for guess papers or other short cuts show that these corruptions are parasitic on a flawed system itself.

• Even memory that alone is tested by it, has been weakened ultimately by the current system. Our elders and ancients had far better memories.

• The developed world has almost done away with many suffocating features of the examination system we continue as a colonial legacy. It is not indigenous to our culture. We produced likes of Abhinavguptas without any examination system.

• Who can deny the fact that the dullest student can ask a question that the brightest professor may not be able to answer but who is such a fool that can assert that thereby professor should be judged? In fact in a system that primarily checks memory most teachers will fail the tests if students were to examine them. And if by some exigency student fails to have a last hour look at his notes, he may miserably fail as will the teacher who couldn’t properly prepare a lecture.

• Costs are too prohibitive to try resuscitating apparently a dead body. Assuming 5 lac students in our state and an exam of two hour duration taken after two days preparation days costs us 500000x50 hours. It means millions of men days in term of labour. What a cost! Nothing is learnt except that few pieces of information are processed for a sort of short term memory and following exams thrown into trashcan. We judge many to have failed and destroy their self confidence. Mediocrity primarily is promoted in a system that measures everything in two hours. For millennia in all cultures people have been taught wisdom and skills without this monstrous absurdity called examination.

• The best can’t be examined. It is no use examining the average stuff. Anyway they can’t win the competitive race. One must be a fool to think it is worth attempting to get 100% marks – competition forces students not to miss a comma, to be perfect photocopier or scanner who reproduces what is in the notes.

• Grammatically speaking, exams are taken, not given. But here exams are given taking our minds as ransom.

• The system has invited student alienation. Due to it we are producing so few good thinkers, scientists, philosophers.

• We are fighting for autonomy or self rule but refuse to give our youth opportunity to be themselves, to choose their vocation, to be creative, to convert prisons that our schools are perceived to into sanctuaries of learning. It is teacher’s/parent’s/community’s fault if student fails according to the best thinkers on education.

The day we revamp current exam system and replace it by more creative alternatives like assignments, presentations, credit seminars, group discussions, debates, open interactive sessions we would have moved one big step towards freedom. Post floods we could have spared mental trauma to students for one year but it seems mass promotion (to as many classes as possible) is being denied. If our State can’t give this much relief to people (and this will be service to students and people and State if we weigh carefully costs and benefits) what else can it give? Occasionally it is good to suspend some procedure to see if it is really needed.