24 January 2009

What is education for?

A friend sent this interesting link out - What is education for? By, David Orr

This article echoes many of things I have been feeling after my various visits to schools and interactions with children. A recent conversation made this more poignant. The lady in the conversation was a journalism graduate making her first foray into tv journalism. She was asked to cover an increase in rice prices and report how they were reducing sales in the local ration shops. I was curious and wanted to know more about her methodology. I was naive enough to assume that the normal process would be to get a large sample size of ration shops and return with the news. She shrugged, "No, that's not how it works. I called a few shops and reported the data from the shop that showed a (maximum) drop in sales." n = 1; that was her final sample size and this went on national news. If this kid wasn't getting ethical training while she was still in school I can hardly expect her to pick it up on the job? In my humble opinion her education has definitely failed. The article elaborates on the steps the author proposes to change the way we get educated because when you are done with school if you can't operate ethically, with a strong moral conscience that is well integrated with nature and the world around you, you have failed.

Looking back I have to admit that my education wasn't so fantastic on these counts. My world views now, are a synthesis of my experiences and differ greatly from the values I was taught. I am not as successful as my educators desired and definitely no where close to happiness as defined by the society I tend to orbit in. Yet I feel successful and happy.

Bringing this post back to to the article, I was trying to imagine how we can execute the principles suggested by the author into the schools I visited. On one hand, I do think it's important to inculcate these babies with a sense of responsibility to their environment and values that cherish contentment over material acquisition. But, on the other hand, they weren't born like me, with a silver spoon in my mouth and a roomful of books. It feels a bit hypocritical actually, to keep advocating a value based life over upward mobility, having got the opportunities I have had. After all, I did not spend my childhood working as a dishwasher or wondering if there would be food at the table that night. I wrestle with this type of dilemma often.

In another instance I was working with a project partner to support the education of children from the slums. We are supporting only a few kids from different families so it's a thorny issue for me that these kids have siblings who are not getting a similar opportunity. Life's lottery is one way to look at it. Anyway, I felt at least the parents shouldn't bring anymore siblings into the picture if these kids are getting a good education. Basically, I was asking that the parents practice birth control. Now, I really don't think I have a right to dictate these type of terms to anyone because ideally you want to help kids just because and I dislike a "strings attached" approach to these type of human projects. Yet, it didn't seem fair that the parents go ahead and have more babies when they weren't doing a good enough job with the babies they had already. Do you get the dilemma? I still don't know if I did the "right" thing by requesting the project partner to have the birth control talk with the parents. It haunts me.

This post started somewhere and ended somewhere else... but it helped get my thoughts out. I suppose I should have warned you to read at your own peril. :)

20 January 2009

Value based arranged marriage

For all of you following my bathroom story, you would be happy to know that I have also managed to figure out how the washing machine works, without the instruction manual (Eureka!). The intellect is very drained so its startling when this thought about arranged marriage hit me.

Yes, I am in the band of people who are Indian, unmarried and way over expiry date. Ergo, I am the major worry of my parents because, although I'm educated, they don't get to be peaceful till I have a tax-saving, legally binding alter ego in human form. Well, having been through the relationship drill few times and being ditched for being, ahem, myself, I am a bit scarred and scared to get into the whole process again. I mean, it's great and all to come home to a dirty house, laundry for two and warm toes in bed, but I would much rather go without that than go through the whole spiel of promising togetherness and having the chap run out on me because my insecurities didn't conform to their idea of what an ideal wife should feel.

But this type of rationale hardly holds water with the darling parents. I have been asked to draw up a list of things I would like in my next future partner. I was thinking about this list last night and I had an epiphany. You see, I think I have been approaching the partner finding jazz all wrong. Typically I make a list based on physical characteristics (I am human! with hormones!) and usual no smoking, liberal-minded, well educated, must like dogs kinda list. But then these are traits, not values and that's the difference I have overlooked. Because, finally, what to do with traits if the values are messed up? So I am re-thinking the list and its funny how hard it is when you are trying to make a value-based list. So far I only have honesty and generosity (in love, cash and kind) down. Working on the rest but happily working on that list because for a weird reason this list is not so much about another person as it is about my values and unless I get that house in order its going to be impossible for me to invite someone over.

16 January 2009

Re: floods, fears and bathrooms

The most intimidating process for me, in a new country, is to figure out how the bathroom works. Mostly, I make the mistake of undressing and then trying to work the taps, instead of waiting for a tutorial from the master of the shower. Having traveled about a bit in the last few years I have lost a bit of the fear, but none of the overwhelming stupidity that seems to grip my brain when I try to get a handle on bathroom things for the first time.

I'm in London now and my bathroom looks straight out of an Ikea catalogue. White chip-less tub, a dozen tubings that spout water at full force, stainless steel taps possibly designed for the international space station, glass door shower curtain etc. As usual I went forth with trepidation towards the bathtub. First, the tap. No hot water. May be if I let the water run a bit? 20 minutes later and guilt beginning to creep in about my errant urban water wasting ways... it's only tepid. Oh wait, there's a toggle of some sort with 0 C markings on it. Some fool has set it to 37. So after changing the settings to beyond 50 (yes, I like really hot showers; the type that turn my fingers into pink raisins) and letting another gallon of water flow out, it starts turning really hot. hurrah, step # 1, identify hot and cold taps accomplished. Next, the shower. My glitzy bathroom comes with a head shower and an hand shower. I figured the toggle on the top of the tap system controls if the water comes out of the tap or the showers. In this case, if you fiddled with it just right the water came out of the hand shower only. I should have, in hindsight, checked the direction that the hand shower was pointing at because at this point of my investigation I had managed to turn the toggle while the water slapped me in the face and landed in big drops on the bathroom floor. You must be wondering how in the presence of a curtain was it possible to flood the bathroom? Well, that's what happens when it's a fancy glass shower wall that only extends half way across the tub like an apostrophe. After turning off Niagara falls I was left with a wet towel and bathroom. Hrrumph.

So on Day 1 I just managed with the hand shower. On Day 2 I aimed to used the overhead shower only to discover that while it was on, the bath tap continued to run and, since I was still overwrought about all the water I had wasted on Day 1 I quickly abandoned this plan and resorted to the hand shower. Although by this time I had figured out that in order to prevent the bathroom from flooding due to the half screen, which is a lame excuse for a shower curtain, I had to stand with my back against the wall with the hand shower hitting me hard. Somehow I had trapped myself in my own bathroom. Today, on Day 3, I finally located the head shower knob which operated quite independently of the rest of the taps and toggles. Go figure! I am sleeping well tonight, safe in the knowledge that I will be clean and the bathroom floor dry after tomorrow's shower. Another accomplishment for my massive intellect.

11 January 2009

Doing as Astro does VI

Lesson # 6 Have a fixed tantrum process

So once in a while our hero Astro, gets very sensitive and decides that the only way to get some attention is to throw a hissy fit. I have previously spoken about his saintly qualities but these are the few things he does, that make him a mere mortal. A harsh word; an harangue on why he has been sleeping on our bed; a yelling on having torn bushes in my mother's garden like a pair of schizophrenic shears; all these can be precursors to a tantrum.

First his ears droop, like the stream of accusations is literally melting them and wilting away his life force. The head falls and he stands with a countenance that suggests to Mother Earth, "Why don't you swallow me now?" After the heated words (a one sided screaming session is quite exhausting actually) he gives a sad, pained look and then saunters up the stairs. Sometimes, to be more dramatic he saunters up step by step as each sentence is repeated: "Who slept on the bed?". Climb 3 steps. Sit. "Which bad doggie slept on the bed?. Climb 3 more and sit. "Are you allowed to sleep on the bed?" Climb 3 more, reach the landing and lie down. Then he looks down upon us from his stately position, willing us to consider amnesia on said events or simply deal with it. Once on the landing though he has a strict negotiation protocol: only a biscuit or bread or maybe both, accompanied by the right combination of sweet nothings can induce him to return to the bode of us homely folks. If we decide to ignore his tantrum then he sits there till he is molly coddled. The system runs like a well oiled machine so much that whenever he's sitting on the stairs its a sure sign that some tiff, with him being the injured party has taken place.

So what does this mean for us? Well, maybe taking this process literally might not work given that stairs in most office environments are located behind closed 'Exit' signed doors and you are likely to be assumed to be doing a snort of cocaine rather than sulking if you resorted to this method in the dingy, cold and dark environs of the staircase. No, what this emphasizes is that firstly, it's OK to be pissed. I'm currently in that state about a project that's simmering and now come to a boil so I can certainly relate to the state. But once pissed you have to weigh in the options. Without truly letting the other party know how you are feeling you can't expect remonstrations so the second point is, once pissed, register your anguish. The beauty of Astro's manner is that it is politically correct. None of the sarcastic, satirical rejoinders; just complete silence and distancing. If you can throw in the body language of a grievously injured party that's a bonus. Third, decide on your price for reconciliation and stick to it. Based on his perception of injury Astro feels the price is fixed for X amount of pleading, Y amount of biscuits and Z amount of bread slices. But once he receives this quota he's back to being a goody goody dog. Fourth, let the other party approach you and, have the patience and trust to know that the people with whom you have an altercation, like you enough to come back to the table for a chat. This is the hardest for me because honestly I dislike myself quite often so what's stopping others from doing the same thing? Anyway, back to Astro.

Over the years Astro has fine tuned the tantrum so that all parties involved know that a resolution is imminent and once a settlement is reached, all will be well again. No grudges, know what I mean? Unclaimed baggage is the heaviest thing we carry around besides guilt, of course. So it's important to off load your emotions on the issue after it is resolved instead of hoping that if this has gone right, then why can't other things my life go all right as well. No sense in getting greedy yeah?

Here's His royal highness in tantrum mode.

If this is the first time you have stopped by for some life lessons from Astro please do also check out the following. Just click on the 'Astro' tag to access these pearls.

Lesson # 1 Have a routine
Lesson # 2 Practice togetherness
Lesson # 3 Don't be afraid to ask for love
Lesson # 4 Bear misfortune with fortitude.
Lesson # 5 Get some sun

9 January 2009

A fundamental right or a bureaucratic nightmare?

I have become a rabid, fomenting, voter ID advocate in the last few months, especially to people in my age group. The idea is quite simple: Stop complaining, start voting. If we, the urban educated masses, don't go out in droves to exercise our fundamental right then we have no right to complain about the government. The system of democracy might ensure that our favoured party, assuming there is a party or candidate you like, might not win. But unless we make our presence felt, through the numbers, we can't speak of change or even of being active citizens.

While growing up my exposure to governments and civil society was entirely text bookish. I learnt the way our government is organized or the chief justice is elected but I didn't learn about how laws are proposed or about my options if I don't want to pay a bribe. Civics was a subjected to be rote learnt and regurgitated for the exams. My schooling followed a typical pattern: board exams, graduation, post graduation and then the flight across the Atlantic. There was no time to be socially conscious and neither were we encouraged to be that way. I would bet that most urban Indians from my background had a similar experience. Therefore, we are a population already imbued with apathy for the system and that extends to voting as well. All this is not a justification for the apathy but a comment on how our schooling necessarily doesn't prepare us to become citizens. With this type of background it's also not surprising when people give me the following excuses when I enquire about their voter ID status.

"What's the point? We are outnumbered by the slum dwellers anyway so our voice doesn't count."

"The rural population determines our election outcomes so why should I waste my precious time in a process where I know I won't be counted?"

These merge in with other excuses ...

" I don't have the time to go through the hassle."

" I have a voter ID card but it's in my native place and I don't want to change it."

" I am waiting for my ration card to be made." (This was easy to settle; you can use various proofs for registering on the electoral list).

For those individuals who have the inclination and are provided the information, the bureaucracy is daunting. There is no one source of information. Sure Jagoore.com is a good resource (I have used it several times and it doesn't work always) but what if you are not in a city they are operating in? Also, the website is a great source of information but it doesn't take away from the fact that finally you have to visit an office and submit you paperwork after which, it will take weeks for you to know if you made it on the list. Now, if you have a voter ID already you would think that shifting it over to a new constituency would be easy, right? Wrong! Apparently your voter ID is not a valid representation of your citizenship nationally so you have to first delete your name in your previous electoral list and then apply freshly to the local ERO. You would think that the first verification would be rock solid, so why should you have to go through the process again? As a citizen you should be able to execute a change in address by the click of a button. We have a tonne of software geeks around so why not get them to create a national voter ID database where such things can be managed?

The rationale behind thinking that your vote doesn't count isn't entirely incorrect. Per sq km the density of humans in a slum or low income neighbourhood is higher than we who occupy single bunglows. Most people in the slums may be bought over but who is to say this person actually votes for the group that paid him? Also, it's we who use the roads, flush our toilet mess into the sewer and want to pay our taxes online. So unless we take up these issues with our local political set up our concerns aren't going to magically appear. The sad truth still remains that caste, religion and locality determines the winner in most cases but these are harder to use in heterogenous urban populations. My argument in such cases is simple - if you and your posse of friends are not voting, then you are never going to win the numbers argument because you are already letting the numbers make you apathetic.

Voter apathy is not a new phenomenon but the random and paper-intensive approach to voter registration doesn't make it easy either. I can't think of any way to get all my friends on the electoral list besides hounding them to do the paperwork and submitting it. In fact, in spite of my fact finding missions, I myself ended up submitting my paperwork at the wrong office and the information never got forwarded to me or to the right office. So, ultimately, who is the loser? Me! But I think these deterrents are not insurmountable. There is a system; it's very flawed; yet billions go to vote so surely, something must work. Right now it has become my onus as a citizen to ensure my voting rights are granted but hopefully that would change. Meanwhile, if you are reading this blog and are not registered to vote, shoot me an email and let' s work on it. Even if you are overseas you might as well get a voter ID because you never know when there might be elections kyunki darling, yeh hai India.

5 January 2009

Cane Fresh

When I was six, I managed to get jaundice and as part of the diet I had to stop drinking sugarcane juice for one year. Somehow it ensued that I only had sugarcane juice rarely after that and when I came on vacation to India it was the one water-based drink I was absolutely forbidden to indulge in. Truly, a very big cost to being an NRI.Link

Thus it was with great elation that I found this store in Jeevanbhimanagar called Cane fresh. All they do is sell sugarcane juice. Its neat, non messy and brightly colored. The wall is painted in hues of green and yellow with a section detailing the chains' policy as well as nutritional information about their product. If you are diabetic, this store is definitely not for you; the glass of sugarcane juice we consumed was 17% sucrose! Besides a few spelling mistakes (Magnesium not Megnesium, Chloride not Cholrise) the whole thing was nicely written up. At the bottom of the piece is how they clean their glasses so none of the plastic crap. They seem to have a pretty effective supply chain because sugarcane cannot be stored for long. Also the spent cane is not merely tossed in the garbage but recycled to a paper company.

So at the end of the day you have a product which is fresh, served in a clean manner and still affordable (Rs 10 a glass). In the indian street food melee the biggest doubt with consumption is the source of water and this chain store ensures its franchise follows a hygienic set up to ensure a good and healthy quality. Ok, I'm not a big plan of franchise operations but there is something about this as a product that goes beyond selling an item. I would recommend that you check it out if in Bangalore, sorry, other metros have not had the honor of having a store.

Update: I had a link to Cane Fresh - www.canefresh.com; this is not the same org that runs the store that I have blogged about. I wrote an email to the retailer to report the spellings and they corrected me on this. I am unable to find a web presence of the store that I blogged about.

Teachers day

Yes, I do know it's on 5th Sept., but this article is not about the day in particular, it's about the teachers in my school. 

During my last visit to the school I finally managed to procure all the things the teachers had asked for. These included items like flash cards (for teaching English) and science models. I think you can make some pretty nice flash cards that are culturally relevant (no kid in my class can relate to 'S is for Strawberry' or 'K is for Kiwi fruit') and fun to do with kids but, because of time I decided to outsource it. A book exhibition brought me closer to a wholesaler who had a library of educational aids. It was like visiting a very expensive candy shop because although the stuff was quite tasty it was hardly affordable on a large scale. There are some items that the whole class can use like flashcards, but English writing workbooks need to be given to each child and can therefore, lead to cost issues. Nevertheless I got one workbook and the teacher thinks she can just photocopy the relevant sections for the kids. 

I don't want to blog about the stuff I bought. If my readers want to know more, just message me. What was really fun was watching the teachers unwrap, unravel and play with the stuff. I didn't realize how happy this would make them and emphasized another aspect of education that isn't always in my radar - teacher satisfaction. I didn't really buy expensive products but what made the difference was (I think!) that I sought their opinion and sourced the same. Somehow this made them feel like they mattered. Sure, under SSA each teacher gets about Rs 500 a year to buy things for her class, but that's assuming she was given the whole amount and, allowed to spend it exactly as she wished. In the school I visit, all financial matters are in the hands of the Headmaster and her ethic barometer normally defines what can and cannot be purchased.  

So what can we do for the teachers which would act to incentivize them? The first and most obvious, is to increase teacher pay so that you get a pool of talented and committed teachers whom you are able to retain. But is pay the only incentive that can make this job lucrative? Based on my limited interactions I sincerely doubt that because the happiest teachers I have met are those whose students shine, not just academically but as individuals. In fact the biggest regret most teachers have is that there are just too many children and they are unable to do justice to the class because they have to service so many. The pay isn't usually the top complaint (I am basing this comment exclusively on salaried government school teachers). The second is to provide them with unlimited resources to teach. The teacher-student interaction is after all a relationship and which relationship survives just on love and fresh air? If teachers can spend as much as they need on their wards then they will be happy and this feedback loop will make the teachers happy. Third, we don't have a reward system for good teachers. Yes, there are felicitations on teacher's day with awards and such but those are for the chosen few. There has to be some system where we can reward the teachers not just for making the kids shine but for all the small things they do that go unrecognized, like walking the last 2 kms to the school when no bus operates or making a trip on the weekend at their expense to buy stuff for the classroom. Lastly, we have to create the feedback system for them so that they can participate in policy making with regard to syllabus and teaching methods. A greater stake at the local level for the teacher will go longer in producing better educated children rather than forcing a uniform school syllabus. 

I am ending my 5 month stint in India and preparing to re-join mainstream mundane of a job and a home of my own. The biggest lesson I have learnt in the whole education set up is that changing no one parameter will effect a sea change in the way our children come out of school. Its the onus of the community (you and me), the parents, teachers and school system to feel like partners in a system. Even if you are not a parent today investing in a child's education in any way is discharging your responsibility and ensuring a better future for yourself as well as the child. Everything is a loop. :)