Thursday, November 24, 2011

ISSUES AROUND SCIENCE EDUCATION IN INDIA

Last week I was at my daughter’s school, meeting the teachers. Mr. R ,her physics teacher told me that he was disappointed  with her test scores because that he had expected her to top the class. Now, this came to me as a surprise because  I know her abilities in Maths and Physics.

When I came home and shared what her Physics teacher had told me about her she was most amused!  I wasn’t so sure because I felt that the gentleman genuinely felt that she had potential in Physics. “Oh mummy it is just that he is fond of me” she told me. “So what makes him fond of you? I am sure it is because he feels you are good at his subject” I challenged her. To this, my wise thirteen year old pointed at her two long plaits saying “Mum he is fond of these…! In his scheme of things a girl with long plaits like me is a good child and is serious about her studies. So he automatically assumes that I would be good in Physics.”

Now, that is probably the best “gyan” that I have received in years..!

In a class of thirteen year olds she is  one among the three girls who have long hair and probably look like they dropped out of my generation! Though she is known to be outspoken and argumentative, in terms of appearance she  fits the archetypal image of what is called a “nerd”!

The question that bothers me is whether NERD =  NOT BEING OVERTLY CONSCIOUS ABOUT THE WAY ONE LOOKS = BEING GOOD IN SCIENCE SUBJECTS= BEING A GOOD STUDENT?

 My sister a humanities student says “YES”! According to her, most science students do not have time for anything other than studies and grades resulting in a lopsided development of their personalities. When I think back to my student days, I cannot but agree with her. I was a science student right up to my post graduation when I suddenly revolted, dropped out of a M.Sc program, kicked my scholarship aside and went in for an Arts program- probably the most controversial thing that I have done in my forty odd years (besides, the revolutionary act of marrying a man from another religion- but then that is another story)

Right through my school years, I was what can probably be best described as a “NERD”. I was very much into my lessons and my grades using my extra time for reading. I did not participate much in any extracurricular activities and was definitely not into sports! Ofcourse, my passion was writing but outside of being on the school magazine editorial committee I was not really much into anything else..! 

Getting good grades automatically made both teachers and parents  assume that I was destined for higher education in science. Though secretly I had dreams of being a writer, I never dared voice it because I was afraid of letting these people down.

As I went into college, I found that the course was so demanding that I did not even have time to watch movies. I studied at an agricultural university which involved over an hour’s commute twice a day. I used to leave at 7AM and when college got over at 2.45PM my only aim in life was to catch that university bus and get back home to complete my records and study for the various tests that were scheduled.  I  did not have what can be termed a “LIFE” !  Four years of science education also introduced me to the image of the “good student” which influenced Professors to a large extent in doling out marks in the internal assessment. A girl with long hair in a sari or a salwar kameeze was a “serious student” as was a boy  in a long sleeved shirt and oiled hair. Ofcourse if you wore glasses it was a definite plus. There were Professors who hated me at the university because of my skirts and trousers. I realized that soon enough and kept to Salwar Kameeze for the last two years.

But when I joined my post graduate program in science, I suddenly began to realize that I had a generation gap with my own generation and so I decided to call it quits! I dropped out and then joined a premier social science institute- the best decision that I made because it brought me in touch with another world – a world where anything could be questioned and argued about! I found the Professors very different – they discussed testing methods with us ( whether they would grade us based on a end term exam or a term paper or a presentation on a topic). They did not care what we wore to class as long as they were sure that we were interested in their course and were applying ourselves to learning. The two years  of my post graduation  in  arts were probably the ones which really constituted my education. I participated in as many extra curricular activities as I could, I argued fiercely with everyone for what I believed in and was respected for it.  I did a field research project that was about real people and their lives.!

I wonder what is it about science education that stunts a student’s development as an individual? While agreeing that rigor of science education is higher in terms of having to study and remember more I cannot understand why it leaves so little time for a student to explore other facets of their personalities? An average science student generally is poorly read about anything other than their own subjects ( even that is doubtful given the way science is taught and tested in our country). In any college the students from the Humanities department are, as my sister calls “the life of the college” – they are the ones who participate in events and give the college visibility outside of academics. They are also the ones who are the leaders participating in student bodies and contesting in elections.

It is unfortunate they way people perceive science education to be the only form of education that is worthy of being considered as “education”. Students are therefore forced into science  whether they have an aptitude for it or not simply because it is the done thing! Children go through with science education till their 12th standard and are then forced into engineering or medicine – those who do not make it get into a Bachelor’s degree- more out of compulsion rather than out of choice. They are probably the mediocre performers who neither have the brilliance required to excel in science nor do they have the general smartness, creativity or confidence of the Humanities student .

We see droves of engineering students who join IT firms and are sent for “soft skills” training – very sad!

Somewhere along the way, our education system needs a revamp shedding itself of imaginary hierarchies of knowledge. It needs to also take into account the fact that mere academic performance alone does not define a good student. It also calls for being non judgemental about many things – dress code and appearance being the most important one.

As adults we owe this to the younger generation. Otherwise what we will be producing will be a bunch of mediocre people who do the “right” thing in a very average sort of way.

10 comments:

Cloud Nine said...

Well written analysis, Meera. Yes, our education system needs an emergency revamp. Science is given undue importance, just a means to land in a lucrative career. Education is not science alone. I never set foot in a college, all my management studies has been through correspondence, though i was an all rounder during school days. That doesn't make me dumb and 'ordinary' like the IT guys;) What we need is people who can apply knowledge to betterment of society, not vending machines that spit out programs for pay...

anindita said...

A very relevant experience shared by you Meera. I had similar experiences. The Arts wing students were the heart of college and organised and participated in fests and various activities. In fact although we did manage to participate in some activities, we never had the time learning the organising and managing the events. Infact we were discouraged by our professrs, "Tomra ki Arts er student? Oder samay aache..." I wish we can get rid of this bias for the sake of our children. Me as a Botany student was always searching for herbs and we actually would joke, Botany ne zamin se jodh diya...but we missed much of the fun, and spent time slicing roots and shoots!!!!!

anilkurup said...

A very relevant Post!

“I suddenly realised........ I dropped out and then joined a premier social science institute, the best decision that I made because it brought me in touch with another world where anything could be questioned and argued about.......”
This statement you hold makes me astonished about the perception you have about learning science. In fact scientific temper, the base of science itself is to question, argue, discuss and debate. There cannot be science if you take something for granted and without questioning and airing opinion. Don’t you think so?

Scientific temper is to see things sceptical and analyse. If we cannot reach a conclusion or judgement with the available evidence about certain thing, scientific temper says, “Suspend judgement”.
The points you mentioned about the school teacher and his perceptions are stereo typed. Like something with relation to images we see in films of a Lawyer a doctor etc. The poor girl and her plated hair should not be the mark of her character. Funny and silly!

Students who opt for science are mostly not of their volition and in fact they are burdened by the fantasies and wired expectations of their parents.

During my time in school and college, the notion was that if one is a student of humanities, well then one must be a nitwit, mediocre and low grader.

I have known a family of three girls (then) now they are in their fifties, where the first was educated from CMC and became a Doctor, the second one did her course in JNU and chose IFS , before throwing that away and the third , my class mate a commerce graduate who later did her Phd in jurisprudence and is the professor in a reputed college in Chennai. They are all wonderful personalities, with feelings, fantasies, ideas and cravings which are cahoots in normal people.

What I mean is the parents matter much.

KParthasarathi said...

This post set me thinking.It is an undeniable fact that with the advent of IT industry the face of education has changed.The engg courses are tailored to meet the gluttonous needs of this industry and bright students are drawn to such courses like ants to treacle.The campus selection and high salaries that IT companies pay can hardly be matched by research bodies.The mgmt institutes again wean away the cream to purely managing commercial ventures.What is left for pure science or economics are those rare few who are motivated by the sheer passion for research work or those who have been left out.This is peculiar to India and not to Western countries where aptitude determines the choice of subjects.

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ Anil, our science education looks at things in a very black and white manner. Facts are told to us and we are not encouraged to question though sometimes they do explain the reason behind the fact. Social sciences on the other hand are in the "grey" region where there is no right or wrong answer. It is the way you argue your point. Science teaching and practice is very hierarchical and not participative. That was my experience with the subjects so I just opted out..!

@ Cloud nine- you did not lose anything by not entering college-if anything you probably saved a lot of valuable time

@ KP it is not the IT sector alone it is just the way we are- but let me assure you that students who are in humanities or social sciences are often there because of a personal choice and not due to someone else's.

@ Ani- hear hear!

Rahul Bhatia said...

We are still to overcome the colonial hangover and thinking that engineering, science and medicine are the only options for the bright ones! Fortunately, the trending is slowly changing but it will take time! A very well written post..

Emmy said...

Very nice post! I'm tired of people looking down on students who have no interest in the science field but rather they would like to pursue arts... In highschool I wanted to enter the arts department but was pushed into business/science which i had no interest in... this is brilliant!

Exciting Songs (ES) said...

The students who are most obedient gets to do science and the rebellious students gets to do arts. Its the latter who always have fun in life.

But at some point of time the former category also rebels - Trust me, they can create some marvels as well. They already have the patience and discipline to do that - they just lacked attitude. That comes when they start rebelling.

Jack said...

Meera,

Read 3 posts now. I still have to recover from aching sides after reading about Hindi Hic Ups. I would love to meet you father someday. Why are you asking Rajshri Productions to commit HaraKari? I am sure you are aware that it is bottom line which matters. I agree that our educations system does need deep look. That way I have been lucky as my parents let me choose whatever subjects I wanted to or even career. To repay them, I let our children do the same.

Take care

Meera Sundararajan said...

@Emmy I can empathise with you. @ Exciting songs yes, rebellion often is the first step towards individuality. @ Jack thanks for the kind words. Yes my parents also let me choose what I wanted to -utlimately. I followed their rules till graduation.

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