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.

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