Friday, March 24, 2017

Discussions on education

Lots of discussions about education from first principles these days like this one from my friend the admirable Rahul Banerjee Exorcising the maths demon and also on his wall.
About university education, Owen Dixon, a justice in the Australian Supreme Court reminded in 1954 that a university's responsibility remained unchanged: to produce people whose " minds have become better instruments of thought, whose intellectual interests have been stimulated and will often be sustained, and above all who can combine knowledge with reason and both with experience so as to meet the problems of real life."
To some extent, the purposes of school education are similar with the proviso that vocational education also takes place for those who do not want to or cannot go to universities. We do not know what will be needed in future and generally try to ground the students in an all round education which not only teaches facts but also develops habits of thought. For example, we may never use the Euclidean geometry which we learn around ninth grade, but ideas of proof, logical arguments are imbibed at an age where we do not really understand the purpose of such things. It is also difficult to understand every thing that may be need in future but at a young age people absorb like sponges and remember things some of which become clearer later on if one pursues. In my opinion, very few understand calculus in their first attempts, but can acquire some feel and can use it mechanically after a while. And most things we use these days involve calculus, linear algebra and such at various stages. So, one purpose to get these through as much as possible st a young age even if only a fraction use them later on and for most the overall curriculum develops some useful knowledge and habits of thought.  These requirements get larger with time and an average high school graduate now probably knows more than an average teacher a couple of centuries ago. These are achieved through processes of synthesis and pruning. That is for the good part. There are also dubious aims like control, hold children in prison like conditions when their hormones or raging, get them to confirm and become useful tools in the enterprises that the current powers deem necessary. As Foucault wryly asks: ‘Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?’ If Foucault is right, we are subject to the power of correct training whenever we are tied to our school desks, our positions on the assembly line or, perhaps most of all in our time, our meticulously curated cubicles and open-plan offices so popular as working spaces today.'

Generally, there is a disjunct between what we use and what we understand about what we use. All this does not mean laymen like us should not discuss education. Like many other things, there are big chains in every thing and those who try to explain or question existing state of things should study a bit more about these chains and try to explain the consequences of cutting calculus or some other subject from the syllabus and its implications to different groups. Governments are keen about quick successes and appoint various panels to suggest changes and in India often the tendency is to catch up with western success and copy some of their recommendations which may sometimes be influenced by vested interests. For example, this happened with the BT Brinjal recommendations by a government panel. I have some experience with panels as I was once part of a panel to recommend undergraduate syllabus for the whole of India. Since my experience at that time was in reasearch and not teaching, I quietly slipped away from the task. In any case, these syllabi depend on what the governments decide to do at a given time, not arbitrarily but with in some parameters,  and formulated by experts in another chain of expertise parts of which may be dubious. As in the BTBrinjal case ( where the first expert report was a copy of a US government report that was favourable to big business), constance vigilance by NGOs and noise may help to reduce the unsuitability. So I welcome Rahul Banerjee's discussion but on his wall, at the moment it seems to be all over the place. So, my suggestion would be to ask for outside representation in these panels, namely from users interested in teaching and perhaps with some experience in teaching. There are several such NGOs in India.

2 comments:

Santaraksita D said...

In my experience one of most unfortunate effects of our education system is that a majority of what has been taught sit in isolated containers in people's head. There seems to be a 'common-sense' answer to a question and a 'physics' answer to a question or a 'logic' answer to a question and a 'mathematics' answer to a question. Ratio-proportion seems to be closer to 'logic' than 'calculus of real valued function'. More generally, the things encountered earlier in one's education is more a part of a 'world', 'natural', while the things taught in high school or college, less 'natural', more open to debate. (for instance, 'Decimal representations' seems to have solidified as a feature of the world, like colour, leading to, for example, the notorious 1 = 0.99.. 'debate' found online.) Consequently, our education system seems to feed cognitive dissonance instead of inhibiting it.

I think one supreme value of mathematics is that teaches us to try to follow our beliefs to their sources. The experience of seeing the trails (of causes or of reasons or of their historical development) of even our most certain beliefs leaving the confines of our minds and disappearing out in the world is vital for education.

Another vital condition for ones education seems to be a sensitivity to the historical nature of things. In an earlier post, you mention Foucault. I don't particularly like his late works but his first very book: The order of things was an important work for me (subsequently I have read many critiques by other historians, but the general effect of this work on history of science in undisputed). For the first time I internalised the idea that the very concepts that frame our world - even the most foundational notions that seem eternal - themselves have a genealogy - that they had births. Of course, the idea is older than Foucault and the applications of his theory in the book are themselves not very good - Ian Hacking's Emergence of Probability is a far superior application of such a Foucauldian analysis. A corollary is that the impossibility for 'vedic' people to have flying machines is not just because of a difference in knowledge but a difference in the very structure of their world: even if we were to go to the past and teach them how to build a flying machine, they will not be building a machine but rather performing magic (I mean early vedic, not a 5th c. mimamsika).

PS: I have an amateur interest in philosophy but even with my meagre understanding I'd agree with this assessment of Critchley http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2010/05/what-is-the-ny-times-thinking.html

Santaraksita D said...

[I don't know if my last comment went through. So I am resbmitting a previously saved copy. Have you considered shifting to wordpress. It seems to be a nicer platform?]

In my experience one of most unfortunate effects of our education system is that a majority of what has been taught sit in isolated containers in people's head. There seems to be a 'common-sense' answer to a question and a 'physics' answer to a question or a 'logic' answer to a question and a 'mathematics' answer to a question. Ratio-proportion seems to be closer to 'logic' than 'calculus of real valued function'. More generally, the things encountered earlier in one's education is more a part of a 'world', 'natural', while the things taught in high school or college, less 'natural', more open to debate. (for instance, 'Decimal representations' seems to have solidified as a feature of the world, like colour, leading to, for example, the notorious 1 = 0.99.. 'debate' found online.) Consequently, our education system seems to feed cognitive dissonance instead of inhibiting it.

I think one supreme value of mathematics is that teaches us to try to follow our beliefs to their sources. The experience of seeing the trails (of causes or of reasons or of their historical development) of even our most certain beliefs leaving the confines of our minds and disappearing out in the world is vital for education.

In an earlier post, you mention Foucault. I don't particularly like his late works but his first very book: The order of things was almost a watershed moment for me (subsequently I have read many critiques by other historians, but the general effect of this work on the profession is undisputed). For the first time I internalised the idea that the very concepts that frame our world - what seemed to us eternal - themselves have a genealogy - that they had births. Of course, the idea is older than Foucault and the applications of his theory in the book are themselves not very good - Ian Hacking's Emergence of Probability is a far superior application of such a Foucauldian analysis.

PS: I take an amateur interest in philosophy, but I have to agree with this assessment of Critchley:
http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2010/05/what-is-the-ny-times-thinking.html