Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Libertarians & Communists, Capitalists & Socialists

Anand Wilfred has devised a new project for the students of Class 7 and 8 – an exercise in opinion-forming – unconnected with the run-of-the-mill academic routine in their schools. When asked to speak on topics concerning sociological problems or political matters, children's opinions often simply reflect that of their parents, except in cases where parents took the time and the effort to enlighten their children through intelligent conversation. Many such parents allow the youngsters to form their opinions too.

Teams of our students fanned out among the folks in their neighbourhoods asking adults for their opinions about their political beliefs and social values. They carried questionnaires seeking ideas and leanings. Presently, they are plotting the results of the opinions gathered from socialism to capitalism on a horizontal axis and social values from absolute freethinking (close to anarchy) through conservatism to stern control on a vertical axis. Some of them will make pie charts or bar graphs to depict their results.

The entire exercise gave them opportunities to discuss the topics with dozens of adults, some of them highly enlightened professionals with clear ideas. They have encountered contradictions, come across differences, seen a rainbow of opinion. It proved to be an interesting exercise, and we are looking forward to the results to be plotted on graphs and presented by the eight teams to their groups one after another.

Elections would be upon us in the State of Madhya Pradesh and also for the Indian Parliament quite soon. These innocents will probably know what to do if they were given the power to vote!

Global Warming & Our Environment

Political opinion apart, one other area on which we lay great emphasis is the protection of the environment. Mandvika Rathore worked on a plan to get the students of Class 5 and 6 (children aged just 10 and 11) to survey their neighbourhoods asking families for information on their petrol needs, quantum of electric power consumed, and garbage management. They have all seen Al Gore's compelling and obligatory movie "An Inconvenient Truth" and their minds are already at work on how each family can contribute to make the environment safer for the future.

We live in a city where garbage remains uncollected for days and is spread around by rag-pickers (mostly very poor children) for whom pieces of plastic salvaged from the garbage will provide the wherewithal for the next meal.

A big motor-car carrying a single student to school is not an uncommon sight. (Ads on buses in Mumbai carry the legend: One bus carries as many people as 48 cars do!)

The act of switching off lights in a room is often considered infra dig among the upper middle class. A sad commentary indeed in a country that has become an economic power house, that has the power to change the global threat to the environment.

Children will have the power to change attitudes in their families, where adults may fail! The planet would be safe in their hands.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Know your roots!

A Message to my Students, age 12 and above

You will observe, as you grow older, that reading school books and learning for examinations do not help to develop vocabulary after Class 8. That's it -- you have to do this on your own, no teacher can help you.

One of the ways is to understand how the English language grew into the mighty ocean of words and synonyms and antonyms the way it is today, with a total vocabulary of over a million words, and probably even more if we count the technical, chemical, and other terms that professionals use in their work. Why did Hindi not keep pace with it? Why not Tamil or Telugu, and not even French? Recent history answers the question.

Some of the influential speakers of these languages did not wish to have their languages 'polluted', or made 'unclean' with words from other languages. I remember the fanatical enthusiasm with which the Hindi-speakers sought to chase Arabic, Persian, and Urdu words out of the language of the people of India. I remember the virulent speeches rendered by the 'Dravidian' leaders of south India when they spoke of the defilement, desecration, and contamination of Tamil when many common words had evolved from Sanskrit, or were rooted in Sanskrit.

Young people must understand that languages grow naturally through the way people use them, and they evolve into magnificent means of communication with a wide vocabulary when no group, no specific religion, no particular nation claims it as its own. English had this advantage ever since the British Empire spread its tentacles around the globe 200 years ago. And, English grew to fill a vacuum. This language simply absorbed words from other languages throughout its history, accelerated the pace since 1400 A.D., and can now be called the world's most preferred language of communication.

I had been wanting to write on words, their origins, and the interesting stories of how they evolved. Visit my blog at for some words and their roots, which I shall keep posting from time to time. I can neither make this exhaustive nor can I make my posts a school lesson nor college lecture. I do try to make my posts readable, humorous, satirical, or interesting. If you will write your ideas into the comments box, I would have a feedback of your feelings on my blogs and their usefulness.

Get yourself a good dictionary (edition as recent as possible, definitely not over 5 years old), and commence looking it up for every new word that you come across. See your word stock grow - it is a process that will not stop till the end of your days! One of the first chapters in most dictionaries is a brief history of the language. Read it and see for yourself how interesting it all becomes thereafter. I wish you happy times with English words!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Julius Caesar & the Dictionary are fun

When I started our first Vacation batch as I launched The Genius in 1990, I did not dream of presiding over an institution that would take root and reach legendary proportions. No, we haven't grown into a Leviathan - uncontrollable, unwieldy, unwept, unhonoured, unsung - nor into a factory relentlessly producing success stories by the dozen that we can splash in colour ads in newspapers!
We have remained a home for fun for hundreds (nay, thousands!) of young people from age 5 to 17, people who grow up, spread around the world, and occasionally come back to us through their emails, their occasional visits, sometimes with a bouquet on my birthday, and sometimes with an invitation for a wedding where Aunty and I become honoured guests.
Our Summer Programme (tradition holds me back from shortening it to the more rational spelling) started from 1st May 2008, and temperatures soon soared to 43 C. Coolers pumping in air at lowered temperatures didn't really help much!

A month has gone by, and I am retrospecting ...
The students of class 7 to 12 watched a 30-minute clip from the 55-year old film "Julius Caesar" starring Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud, and such other Shakespearean actors. We showed them the assassination scene and the funeral orations thereafter. We chose Brutus' speech - "...not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more!" - for students from class 9 upward to learn up and declaim. The younger ones were given Mark Antony's famous words that end with "Mischief thou art afoot; take thou what course thou wilt!" What a show there was, my readers, whilst all of us felt the words take hold of our hearts and minds and take them to the great historic scene in glorious Rome on the Ides of March, 44 BCE past Shakespeare's Globe, bypassing Plutarch, and all those that dealt with the historic event and the memorable scene.
Anand, Mandvika, and Garima are now planning a fun session with the Dictionary. All the students would bring their dictionaries, and for the first time in their lives, they would look at the symbols that indicate the way a word is pronounced. I do not feel proud when I use the words 'for the first time in their lives' - it is the unfortunate lot of so many of them that most homes and schools do not teach them how to accent the words, how to discover pronunciation for themselves, and also, to read up meanings of the new words that they encounter in the course of their education.
In our session, students would be handling words that are commonly mispronounced - dais, memento, bizarre, chameleon, tortoise. English is not a phonetic language like Hindi is and hence it cannot be picked up, it needs to be learnt. We do not teach the language, but we do show our youngsters how to learn it for themselves.
In the next post, I shall tell you about all that we do with the children of class 6 down to Kindergarten.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Stories from a budding genius

Here are two stories by Aakash Wilfred, aged 8. He will be 9 in July.

I reproduce them without editing either the language or the formatting. I am sure my readers will enjoy the originality and the expression. I particularly enjoyed the happy ending that he contrives so cleverly.


One day, two crocodiles were resting in the sun. Their names were Crocs and Alenk. Crocs woke up and then he woke up Alenk. He said '' We should hunt in the forest.
I am tired of fish now.'' ''Well'' said Alenk, ''If you want to eat deer; I shall come too. I am going to eat some deer too.’’
As you know crocodiles are fast runners and it did not take long for them to reach the forest. Crocs and Alenk hid behind a tree and waited for a deer to pass by.At last they saw a deer come by.Crocs and Alenk pounced on it. Crocs killed the deer by hitting it with his tail and Alenk dragged it back to the river in which they lived. They had a very good dinner, indeed.Then, one day Crocs said''Alenk, should we have the same dinner like last time?'' Alenk said ''Okay I suggest we should, but won't it be better if we had a different dinner like buffalo or something?'' asked Alenk. ''Well,I do think your idea is good'' said Crocs. On their way to the forest, they met a tiger. He was looking for food too. ''What is your name?'' asked Crocs. ''My name is Tanger. Who are you two?'' asked Tanger. '' My name is Crocs and his name is Alenk'' said Crocs. ''I was hunting deer but the deer
which I was hunting suddenly disappeared.'' said Tanger. ''Heh,heh so your deer suddenly disappeared
into thin air'', laughed Alenk. ''It's not funny Alenk. The last time I was hunting deer it disappeared strangely. Do tell me Tanger, did this deer which you saw disappear, did it have stripes that were of golden colour?'' asked Crocs. ''Yes, it did, do you know where that deer lives? If we could find it we could have a reward'',Tanger said.Before anybody could say anything, the deer suddenly came by. Tanger, Crocs and Alenk leapt upon the deer. Crocs and Tanger killed the deer by hitting it on a tree trunk.
They dragged it back to the forest river where the lion was with his followers.
''Where have you been, Tanger, Crocs and Alenk?'' demanded the lion.
''We three have hunted the Disappearing Deer for you'' Alenk said.''Good , now you all do deserve a reward. All three of you'll will have 17 kgs of meat delivered to your houses everyday.Now, goodbye'', the lion said.
They had a lovely time because they did not have to hunt.And so, the story ends in a good ending.
Aakash Wilfred Class 3
Hyderabad Public School , Begumpet

This is Story # 2

Fawny was a young deer who liked to play and have fun with his friends.And he did not have to worry about tigers because he was a very friendly deer.His father had a friend who was a tiger.So the tiger's son and Fawny were friends.The tiger's son's name was Torger.One fine day Torger said ''Fawny, why don't we collect some chestnuts from the woods.I will take my basket and we shall set off. Tell your father and my father that we are going to collect some chestnuts.And when we come back we will roast them.'' Fawny said ''Good idea Torger! I shall tell him immediately.''
Fawny bounded of as quick as lightening and asked his father whether he and Torger could go out and collect some chestnuts. His father agreed and Fawny set of to Torger's house. Torger was already waiting for him there. '' Father said to bring him some chestnuts too'' Fawny said. ''Well, good idea. Now, let's start and let's hope that there are no snakes to bite us'' said Torger who was really afraid of snakes.
The two went to a deep part of the forest. They walked for a long time until they came to a huge chestnut tree. ''Wow'', exlaimed Torger, ''These chestnut are twice as big as the ones I saw before.'' ''Well really, I should think that we would and we will collect a whole basket '', said Fawny who was pleased to see such big chestnuts. They collected lots and lots of chestnuts until the basket was to full to collect any more chestnuts. ''Come on, let's go home now and roast the chestnuts'' said Torger who was happy that they had collected lots of chestnuts. They carried the basket full of chestnuts back home. Fawny's father was pleased to see that the youngsters had gone deep into the forest without fear.Torger's father was there to.''How did you two go into the forest without getting hurt?'' questioned Torger's father. '' Ah, it was nothing'' said Fawny. '' Torger and I even jumped over a snake'' he said. ''You naughty kids!'' scolded Fawny's father. ''You should not do things like that'' he said.
''Okay'' said Torger's father.''Come on, let's roast the chestnuts.'' They had a wonderful meal of roasted chestnuts.You know, that when you sit around the fire on a cold winter's night, it's nice to eat chestnuts and talk stories.''Yummy! Torger did you ever think that chestnuts tasted super delicious when you dabbed them in pepper sauce'' said Fawny.
''Well try this: you dip a chestnut in a little sauce and then you dip it in a little bit of pepper sauce'' said Torger. Fawny tried it, but he yelled becuase it was so spicy. ''You should not try that again!'' said Fawny's father who was laughing with tears in his eyes. ''Oh, it is not funny'' said Fawny. ''Well let us play Hot Hands for a little while'' he said.They all played for a long time till Torger was out. Then Torger's father said, '' Since you two are good boys, you'll can go out and play.
They had a wonderful time playing because they had been good and brave. So the story ends in a good ending.
Aakash Wilfred Class 3 B

Hyderabad Public School , Begumpet

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Flamingos and Garbage Bags

Man, the Great Polluter


The Gulmohur Tree
We visited Sirpur Lake before sunrise this morning. The Delonix Regia (the Royal Poinciana) commonly known as gulmohur trees are in full bloom. They remind me of my home city - Bangalore. These ornamental trees were probably imported by Tipu Sultan from Madagascar. Now they brighten up the avenues of Bangalore, thanks to the efforts of Dr. M Visveswaraiya and Sir Mirza Ismail, and are a wonderful sight from the air.

Many flamingos (also spelt flamingoes), along with a horde of other tropical migratory birds have, again this year, made the mistake of landing in Indore. The Portuguese word flamengo (meaning flame-red) is the root of this word, for these birds have pink to red plumage, a pink beak that turns downward at the tip.

They ought to really keep on coming here, nest and breed to their heart's content and fly back to wherever they came from. A neighbour tells me that some of them come all the way from central Africa too. Large numbers of flamingos nest and breed in the Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, just south of Pakistan. Some migrate to the lakes and water bodies of Maharashtra and even to the marshes around Sewri, Mumbai (Bombay).

But I think it is an awful mistake - their coming to Indore - because Indoreans do not treat these very beautiful birds as guests. Those who live around Sirpur Lake need to be educated to be more hospitable to them!

Plastic bags filled with kitchen waste litter the banks of the lake; people wash clothes and bathe in the water; we even see them relieving themselves on these banks. Newspapers (Hindustan Times and Free Press and some others) carried pictures of some of the birds, but they did not indicate the depths of degradation to which Indoreans are taking this sort of pollution.

The first thing one notices in Sirpur so early in the morning is that the sun scheduled to rise at about 0545 over Indore becomes visible only twenty minutes later as its rays have to climb a few degrees above the horizon to be able to peep out to us over the thick grey miasma, a soup of corrupt air, that hangs over us, thanks to the factories as well as the Municipal conservancy staff burning garbage on street sides everywhere.
The sun appears only half an hour after scheduled sunrise!

CLICK ON THE PICTURES TO ENLARGE THEM. In the picture below, you will see a few flamingos on a mound - a tiny island - in the water]


Temperatures have been at a scorching 40 C and above for quite a few days now, and so the thousands of birds that are swimming (or flying around) so gracefully must be tropical birds. Other red beaked wild fowl foraging near the marshy banks make a beautiful sight too. I must take an ornithologist along the next time I visit Sirpur Lake.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Influence of the Mentors

When words travelled from India to China and Greece
A verse from the ancient Indian classic Manu Smriti says, “The King desirous of trying cases must enter the assembly composed in manner, together with Brahmans who know the Vedas, and mantrins (or counsellors).”
An agreement made in 1522 by the Portuguese with the Rey de Sunda [King of Sunda, Malaya] contains the words – “ . . . and for this purpose he sent one of his chief mandarims[India Office manuscript].
The Encyclopaedia Britannica says that mandarim is a Portuguese word derived from ‘mantri’, the Malay word for a counsellor or minister of state. It derives from the Sanskrit root ‘man’ meaning: mind, thought, human.
Interestingly, the most widely spoken language in the world is Mandarin Chinese. Persons of influence (mandarins) are said to have given this form of language to China. 70% of the Chinese peoples speak the language.
In the country of its origin the word gave rise to other Indian language derivatives like ‘mantra’ (= a charm, spell or magical incantation) and ‘mantri’ (= a minister or a counsellor). The Tamil equivalent is pronounced ‘mandiri’.
The English word Mentor is also derived from this root. This idea is borrowed from the wise Mentor that Ulysses appointed to teach, and train his son Telemachus when he was leaving for the Trojan War.
“THE GENIUS” has no teachers to pour knowledge into the heads of unsuspecting children. Mentors, trained to develop the thinking skills of eager learners use fun methods, guide them, play with them. A Mentor is indeed a person with a trained mind, who advises his/her wards and guides them in a friendly manner. The common definition is a faithful counsellor, a friend, philosopher, and guide.






Sunday, April 27, 2008

Crazy English

One source of amusement for me is my nose for errors on signboards and public notices. Every city in the world has its share of goofs. If you watch out for these, you will never get bored. You can always extract a chuckle from what you see around you.

The one on the left below is from the city of Bangalore. It took me a while to decipher the cryptic message, until a burly man with black oil on his hands and face walked up to me and said, "Sir, you want puncher work or wallkenosing, we are experts. Just tell us what you want to do, and we do it for you!"

No, he wasn't offering to punch some one's nose for me - he was looking at the tyres of my car as he spoke, and it dawned on me that he was speaking of 'vulcanising' and 'fixing punctures'.

This one's from Canada
The picture on the right is one that I took in the Royal Kennebecasis Yacht Club, Rothesay, NB, Canada. The confusion between you're and your is a common one around the world. I think the reason is simply that they are homophones.

Read "Eats Shoots and Leaves" by Lynne Truss

Sunday, April 20, 2008

An Inconvenient Truth

I borrow the title of Al Gore's Oscar winner for this post. I was convinced of the need for all the effort that we as individuals can throw in (except 'the kitchen sink' as the democrats might scream from their rostra) to save our precious world, when I saw the way my family members in Canada took it all seriously enough to separate their organic waste from plastic garbage, kitchen refuse from paper, trash from cardboard and metal cans.

Listen to the Birds
12- and 13-year-olds of THE GENIUS scripted a play called Listen to the Birds - I referred to this in an earlier posting on this blog. Here are some stills from the play they staged at The Genius Annual Awards - if you had watched it, heard the words spoken, and had a little feeling in you, you would have felt a lump in your throat as a little girl says, "We have much to do. We have to educate a whole city!"
Directed by Anand Wilfred and Aunty, the cast included the following (in order of appearance):-
Anshul Gupta as The Oracle Owl making dire predictions for Indore
Sharvil Thatte as Vladimir, an old crane from Siberia
Ishita Garg as Natasha, a young crane from Siberia
Ameya Dubey as Decci, the old tortoise that lives on the banks of Sirpur Lake, Indore
Sankalp Arora and Vedant Dhakad as the indifferent Lake officials
Somya Jain as the little girl Aditi who wishes to clean up all the garbage by herself
Kartik Vyas as Raj, Aditi's friend, initially indifferent, later converted to her way of thinking
Vedant Dhakad as Gerome, a moorhen who sees Aditi's bag of garbage and flies away
The choir - a group of 10- and 11-year olds who together sang The Conservation Song








An important comment ought to be made at this point - Siberian Cranes decided a few years ago to seek new water bodies rather than visit a country where there is little realisation of the need for their form of life, besides thousands of others. All rivers are sacred to the people of India, but most gutters and the waste from cities flow into these rivers! Things are changing. If more children would educate more adults, I am sure we would lead the world in a global race for conservation.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Supreme Court of India and Noise

Anguish that cannot be resolved

I write this at midnight - no, not exactly 12 yet, it will be in a few minutes. I remember the Supreme Court of India had spoken out on the Indian penchant for noise on special occasions, and issued orders: "... regarding use of loudspeaker, Court directed that noise level at boundary of public place, where loudspeaker or public address system or any other noise source is being used shall not exceed 10 dB(A) above ambient noise standards for area or 75 dB(A) whichever is lower – beating of drum or tom-tom or blow of trumpet or beat or sound of any instrument or use of any sound amplifier at night (between 10. 00 p.m. and 6.a.m.) except in public emergencies prohibited..." -

Silence after 10 p.m.?

It was only yesterday (Thursday April 17) that the High Court bench in Indore had drawn the attention of the Collector and the Superintendent of Police to the deplorable state of public discipline in Indore. Yet, here I am, at midnight, unable to shut the "" cacophony at probably 1000 deciBels at some wedding party close by, the police ignoring my pleas for help. I shall stay awake for another hour before the peaceful oblivion of sleep overtakes my tortured soul.

Note the Supreme Court's time limitation - 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. - if this has not been understood, and if the common man must tolerate this encroachment on his rights ... ... ?

As I come to the end of this post, a mass of drums and loud shouts have begun indicating the onset of more fun for the revellers of the night at the cost of the peace of mind of a thousand tormented people, some old, some sick, some just babies struggling to sleep through all this - and the lawkeepers ignore it all. This is what the Madhya Pradesh High Court compared to the apocryphal tale of Nero who fiddled while Rome was burning. Is anyone out there listening?

A Police Sub-Inspector told me last week: "Sir, if there is one single political leader, let alone a Minister or a bigwig, if just one leader of a political party is present at a wedding, the organisers will turn up the volume to what ever level they please, and no policeman, no, not even the SP will lift a finger!" I am now wondering if this damning comment is true after all.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Winning and winning

The discord between winning and winning

My dear Little Genius: "I am glad you wrote to me - you say you miss THE GENIUS. Is it because you had wonderful times while you armed yourself for a future that will be yours in just a few more years?

"You displayed qualities that the best of children have in their minds, their heads, and even in their hearts. This means that losing out the proficiency award or The Genius of the Year Award should mean nothing at all if you earned yourself the confidence that you have the tools to conquer the world in your chosen field of activity with your capabilities.

"Awards in any organisation are handed out on the basis of certain criteria - which a person fulfils at times, and at other times, does not manage to meet the demands. So many factors affect the performance of a child in his/her competitions or tests that it is necessary for us to accept the result without losing our respect for the efforts that go into the performance. My advice to you is simply that no award, no competition is more important than your personal happiness. All you need now is a strong dose of confidence.

"If friends (or well-wishers) make you cry when you lose out somewhere, it is because they have not understood the difference. I speak of the difference and the disharmony between winning and winning. You are as much a winner as any other and so just buckle down, face forward, keep the sun ahead, and let the shadow fall behind - and gallop on toward the sunset!

"The best of honours will have to be yours, sooner or later."

This is a message to every student who did not win some coveted award for some reason or the other, not necessarily owing to a fault in the student!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Some stray thoughts

"SMS" - the new written language?

Modern abbreviations are useful while sending a message on a cellphone, and the simplified language is probably acceptable to many purists. However, I think we ought to draw a line when it comes to all other forms of communication - emails, company letters, and even personal letters. Most sms-writers would have begun the last sentence with newez which, I was told by a young person, was a short form for the word anyways. It is time to realise that it is simply not a word in the English language! If you mean anyhow, you may say anyway without adding an s to it.
The environment
I read somewhere that the Amazon forests that constitute the largest green cover on earth, is gradually being eroded by human encroachment - dwellings, stretching of agricultural activities into its territory, and blatant tree-cutting. Is Brazil's bio-fuel obsession causing encroachment on forest land by sugarcane cultivators? These are matters for young people to think deeply and raise their voices with the officials concerned, or to write letters to newspaper editors .
A group of my students got together to put on a stage play on our environment and its deadly effect on some of the world's most beautiful migratory birds. We must pause to think that some of them even from as far away as Siberia choose India as their summer home to nest and breed in. The children spoke of "the plastic droppings of dirty humans" that pollute the beautiful places that host our avian guests. Very rightly a wise tortoise advises a little girl to speak to other children of the need to clean up the environment for "only humans pollute ... and only humans can undo the damage." It is time all children sat up and took notice as adults are not doing enough.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Genius of the Year

The Genius Annual Awards 2008

We had our annual do on the evening of the 5th of March in the sophisticated auditorium of Indore's DAVV University. Over 300 children received prizes for performance in various areas of intellectual activity. Ten children between the ages of 6 and 16, the best performers in their groups, received an encyclopaedia each as the Proficiency Award.

The Winner
The star of the evening, however, was Ishanika Sharma, smiling and eager, a bright and bubbly 11-year old -- who won The Genius of the Year Award that included a silver trophy, a Certificate, and a 21-volume set of The New Book of Knowledge (known as the world's best family reference set). The legend on the trophy: "high intellectual
potential and consistent superior performance".
It was a moment of pride for Ishanika and her parents.


The Great Conversation

My address to the parents and the children ranged over topics that are of concern to me, and should be of concern to all. The one thing my students must remember is the reference I made to 'The Great Conversation' that has gone on for over thirty centuries among the intellectuals who put down their thoughts in books. Books give us the wisdom of the ages. While we are profoundly influenced by some writers, their ideas were not all born within the minds of those writers. They had read other great thinkers and their books. We may assume that Dickens or Swift would have been influenced by Shakespeare, and Shakespeare in his turn by Aristotle and Plato and Socrates , whose intellects were probably impelled by Homer.

When you read a book, see in your mind's eye your own self standing with the author, and around you are other great minds of ages past, the great men and women who influenced the works of that author, and you are conversing with them; you are arguing, and listening to their reasoning, asking questions, and getting answers. Contrast this imaginary scenario with watching a television serial that has been made for the average mind of a factory worker. Our civilisation, as we know it, will come to an end if the exalted conversation grinds to a halt. We have an obligation to keep it going. [When you are free, read the article The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent by John Erskine at]

Monday, March 31, 2008

Learning ought to be exhilarating

The empty akshayapatra
Learning is the process of obtaining competence and proficiency, the development of skills, the growth of understanding, and the gradual acquisition of the ability to create ideas and new thought.
A teacher is one who pours generously from his akshayapatra (from Indian mythology: an inexhaustible source) into the empty vessels that - in his view - form the bulk of the student fraternity! This, in a nutshell, was what I had meant to say in my earlier post.
The present piece is for the children - the young people in their impressionable age, with eager faces, and eyes that indicate a craving for more when a small element of fun is mixed with the process of learning. Bubbling with curiosity to learn more, or asking for a greater, and then an even greater challenge, they fall upon these intellectual provocations to their tender brains with sprightly ardour.
Exhilaration comes from within!
While a Mentor can show an eager learner a new way to solve a problem, or offer a demanding student a higher challenge, it is the interest that is aroused in the student that ultimately brings out that feeling of exhilaration.
Imagine the ebullience that Pythagoras experienced when he discovered his famous theorem. The exhilaration must have been instantaneous when the geometrical property dawned on him, as a result of his own efforts through trials and errors.
Visualise Archimedes in the bathtub and his moment of enlightenment that was followed by an act we read of in the popular story of his 'Eureka!' run. He jumped out of his overflowing bath and ran on to the streets of Syracuse screaming 'Eureka!' which, in Greek, means 'I have found it!' He had briefly lost his senses, and he did something he wouldn't otherwise have done. Apocryphal? It might well have been true. True to the extent that the state of California today uses "EUREKA!" as its motto.
The rewards of self-learning
It is when a student seeks a learning opportunity from her own school text, or in a reference encyclopaedia, or on the vast ocean of knowledge called the Internet, or even from the recesses of her infinite cerebral abyss, that she discovers such scope for exhilaration.
Children who come from homes that will not invest in books are a handicapped lot. When schools deny them free access to reference works, and institutions become teaching shops that sell examination success, intellectual tragedy looms near.
As tiny 5- and 6-year olds, most of us have no choice of teacher or school but what our parents or guardians think of as in our best interests. In this lottery, some of us find a teacher, nay, a mentor, who would guide us, sit and read with us, talk to us, stimulate our curiosity, and help us on our course to a process of self-learning. That is when we discover those eureka moments, a flash of ecstasy -- when we find a new way of calculating something in arithmetic, a manner of expressing a thought that is off the beaten path, or a principle in science that mankind hadn't thought of in 10,000 years.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The raison d'être

One more ‘coaching class’?
It is 18 years since I floated this simple outfit, and called it THE GENIUS. Those who do not know about us – students, parents and well-wishers seek many answers from us.
Why one more ‘coaching class’?
‘Don’t we have too many already?’
‘Do you have some unheard-of USP?’

This is my answer. This is an institution that hopes to fill a sore blank in the system that calls itself “educational” but is a far cry from what it ought to be. Sorry, teachers and trainers, pedagogues and patriarchs, guides and gurus, – my basic intention is to merely make up for what you ought to do, but plead lack of opportunity and dearth of time beyond your "syllabus" and your "curriculum". You therefore concentrate on training your tenderfoot novices for no more beyond their examinations. Most Indians believe in those pieces of paper that the world calls ‘certificates’ in the pursuit of which parents drive the children they love up the wall, round the bend, and down the primrose path seeking something elusive that they never get out of the system.
The system
When the flaws in the system are pointed out, we very conveniently blame our erstwhile masters the Brits – for Macaulay’s Minutes, for the English language that probably lowered the importance of local languages, and the organization of the curricula. The Brits left our shores a full 60 years ago, and wisely the White Man changed the academic structure in his own country soon after 1947. We Indians consolidated it, bolstered learning by rote, annihilated originality, institutionalized plagiarism, and promoted the provision of vast amounts of information to be crammed by hapless children, assimilated, and ingested by them, and, in our notorious examinations we lauded bilious regurgitation of it all. In the process, we created a vast horde of counterfeiters of knowledge, infringers of information, bootleggers of stale nausea, while we prided ourselves on a small handful of institutions like the IITs that thrived on originality, research, and genuine knowledge for the sake of knowledge. We could sink our heads in the sand and pretend that the IITs were showcases for the success of our education system.
I would call my institution “The Genius”. I decided way back in 1990 that this would train a generation of children in thinking skills. Skills that had no place in the scheme of things. Skills for which neither parents nor schools seemed equipped in a part of the country where culture and intellectual strength abounded some centuries earlier, but had been given the cool go-by in preference to a cram-and-reproduce culture. After high school, students entered college and expected teachers to provide notes, day to day guidance and close attention.

Those who knew a balance sheet when they saw one stepped in with alacrity, became publishers, and provided ‘made-easies’, ‘10 years questions answered’, and opened up opportunities for a multitude of ‘coaching’ institutes. In fact, for a B.Com. degree in English language medium, you can buy notes in Hindi with simple grammatically atrocious English translations in the margin to cram and pass with honours!
We are not a ‘coaching class’
‘The Genius’ would not be a coaching class! Children who attended schools under the ‘system’ would come for an hour every day to have fun with facts, with thoughts, and with ideas. The name has now become a household word in Central India for ‘intelligence development class’. I dislike the word ‘class’ – it smacks of division, it reeks of caste, there is a stench of culturelessness. For years we conducted our sessions without even chalkboards. The students sat around the room like they would for a party, or they lounged on a carpet on the floor. The theme was always ‘fun’. It meant laughter, music, serious thought, punctuated by humour. Today we have regular hobby sessions for 600 children from twenty different Indore schools - confining our activities to stuff that is intellectual. I have repeatedly spurned the lucre that would be mine if I franchised business people around the country to run their carbon copies of my classes. Where would I find mentors with strong language skills, wide reading, deep understanding, high intelligence, and the devotion needed to honestly guide a generation of youngsters? My well-wishers and I must fight this dearth as long as the system prospers.
Success stories
An old student appears for a competition on a TV channel, wins all the way, and finally triumphs with laurels - a plum scholarship for a 5-year Engineering programme in a leading British University, all expenses (including travel, living, and accommodation) paid for the entire period. Another old student, presently in the London School of Economics completing her post-grad degree finds my email address somewhere and sends me generous kudos: "I felt alive (when I was at THE GENIUS) - because every day was another notch that I had pulled myself up by. Because it gave me a reference point in life about what kind of a person I wanted to project myself as, to the world. It became important for me to know about art, literature, theatre, sports, politics, music... I learnt that there was a power in knowledge, and I learnt that clichés are clichés for a reason. All through my life, and now, when I am in London, I have seen the world come alive around me - because I have those reference points. This frame of mind, this conditioning, this was the greatest gift I got from you and aunty. I guess I can never thank you enough for it."
I think existence "outside the system" is the way THE GENIUS ought to be... I would urge the world to ponder over the lacunae in the systems in their countries. The future generations of many oriental peoples are victims of such systems, - the world has to be a better place for the sake of the future.