Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Edward Said and Paulo Freire: The founders of the alternative explanation of what actually the conventional propositions about education and learning are upto and what should be the proper education system that abstains from keeping the dominant class in the society at the centre stage and promotes their interest in the name of promoting the common good.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Learning versus Anti-learning

Learning includes education but formal education is not all that is
required for proper learning. The decadent educational system of Nepal
faces multiple constraints and many components of it are literally in
chaos. What is more ominous is, however, the utter failure of our
society and family to teach the children the values of life that no
textbook can teach. The TV channels and digital games pose further
challenge to the proper learning as they hijack the valuable time and
attention of the children. Let’s gather some thought amid the chaos
with this (?new) concept of Anti-learning.

The closer you go the better the clarity of the peaks. But for that first you have to learn how to travel and move closer to them. Unlike the lenses that make it possible to look at the peaks better from a distance; there is no short cut to learning in real life.

There is a popular cliché among student folks: Neither the elephant
grew enormously by studying nor the ant shrank to tiny size by not
studying, so why to bother about inability to study hard? Put plainly,
this is humor and repetition of this line by a student does not
preclude him from studying. Looked more subtly, however, the psyche of
the student who repeats this line in the exam time shows some inherent
reluctance to view studying as something gratifying instead of
burdensome. Indeed, with changing trends of gaining knowledge and
entertainment in the new generation, concentration on study is
becoming increasingly burdensome among the students.

Reading as the mode of entertainment is being relentlessly challenged
by the new instantly gratifying audio-visual aids like the television.
Even for those who have loved reading for decades and adopted reading
certain type of materials for entertainment, watching a brilliantly
entertaining movie can prove far more tempting, even though for a
moment. For those who are provided with the facility of watching the
favorite cartoon or a movie or a serial or any other show from their
childhood are, in the first place, far less likely to develop any
meaningful reading habit early enough. The A-V materials that care
about the psychological urge of the audience in terms of components of
the shows like the emotions, the conflicts, the porn; the glamour,
etc. can literally hypnotize them almost addicting them for their
lifetime. Not only the reading habits, this new trend is going to
change the way of life itself in the new generation.

This may be a problem far less conspicuous than the many others that
we tackle in the daily life, however. The assertion that the new
generation is increasingly distracted from seriously studying by the
'steroids'* in the market , may be a hasty generalization with little
in substance. Indeed, because of the growing competition the students
these days are compelled to study harder than earlier and the scores
of the top students are consistently growing in all the competitive
exams. Furthermore, the availability of the new magical resources like
the online ones may have aided the process of learning of the student
in the new generation.

The arbitrary proposition that I made in the opening of this article
can thus be argued both for and against. To sum up: the new trends in
the society may be both encouraging and discouraging to the students
depending upon on what way the individual chooses to utilize the

My argument in this article would be that despite the apparent
facilitation of learning by the tools of technical innovation, study
in its true meaning is increasingly suffering as the relative
advantage of the availability of multiple learning tools is more than
neutralized by the change in perception of and attitude towards study
in the young minds. Indeed I will go to the extent of labeling some of
the modern practice as being frankly anti-learning. And to avoid
excessive generalization of my argument, I will have to trim the
meaning of 'learning' down to gaining knowledge, acquiring skills and
developing attitudes that help the individual to adapt positively in
the social world.

A child needs entertainment, no doubt. But there is a huge difference
in the overall impact of different modes of entertainment in the
development of the child, both physical and mental. Few examples will
suffice to justify this point. A child of a peasant in the countryside
goes to the field to graze the cattle after school hours and there he
either plays volleyball with friends or reads a novel or a short story
book for which he gets no opportunity back home due to other chores.
Another child of a typical middle-class urban parents goes to the park
or nearby field to play football with friends. A third child from
similar family plays computer games as soon as he comes home back from
school. A fourth one from middle or upper class comes and sits in the
couch to surf the cartoon shows in numerous channels and watches them
for hours. A fifth teenager gets glued to the serial TV shows that run
24 hours a day in various channels. A sixth one is similarly addicted
to movies. And a seventh teenager can not resist visiting the
porn-sites in the net and visits the cyber homes regularly.

Each of these children has enjoyed the feat and has learnt various
things in the process. And definitely the routine of these children
impacts the formation of their attitude towards the social world. An
over-worked peasant kid may be, for example, dissatisfied with the
daily life because that prevents him from spending more time playing
with friends or reading interesting books. His frustration might have
been compounded by the persistent annoyance that the family debt
causes in every member. Whatever moment he gets to play, he plays
forgetting everything and that is something akin to what the
knowledgeable people call salvation. The little time he gets for
playing means a discrete component of his life, complete in itself. It
should not imply, however, that every child of the poor peasants
utilizes the leisure time to play healthy games or to read good books.
They may well land into trouble early due to substance abuse or sexual
malpractice and the process is only accelerating with the increasing
semi-urbanization of the villages.

The second child who plays football with his friends may just enjoy
the game while remaining a good child of his parents and that may form
a part of planned extracurricular activities that his parents want him
to involve. Under close supervision of the vigilant parents, playing
games with friends may not form as great a part of life of this child
as that of the first child. The case will be altogether different with
the third child who is glued to the mouse and keyboard of the computer
as he increasingly looses direct contact with the real world with his
deepening interest in the omnipotent games that the innovative human
beings have created in the computer. The attention and concentration
that the child develops with the games may have little use when the
same are needed for other deeds in real life. In the long run even the
way in which he communicates with the social world may be impacted

The fourth child glued to the TV need no longer belong to a well-off
family with increasing penetration of the Cable and Satellite TVs.
Particularly in the urban population, the addiction to the absurdly
irrelevant TV shows already forms a intractable problem. Most of these
children would never in their life realize reading books can have any
purpose other than helping to pass the burdensome exams, many of them
developing phobia towards the books and reading materials. A portion
of them from lower economic strata may not be introduced to the
potentially useful world of internet while some others may find the
active surfing of websites less ingratiating than the passive surfing
of the TV channels. This section of TV-philic children will turn up to
be the least adaptable to the hi-tech world where the TV channels show
them everything while teaching nothing. The collateral damage of this
disastrous TV-mania is the addiction of the child to the commodities,
particularly the most unwholesome fast-foods capable of ruining the
physical health of the child. In the process the child gradually
looses his ability to differentiate between the good and bad instead
opting for the one to which he is brainwashed through advertisements.

The seventh teenager in the example represents the most acute problem
in the modern society where the collusion of substance abuse and
sexual malpractice nurture the crimes that eventually progress to
large scale ones from the petty crimes. The problem may not be
measured or even thought about seriously by the responsible agencies
leading to underestimation but that only exacerbates the situation. In
the societies in the under-developed world where the institutions are
obsessed with political issues and afford little to think about such
issues, such problems are eating away the core of the societies.

With all this discussion, I intend to introduce a concept of
‘anti-learning’ to be abbreviated as AL now onwards. To begin with, AL
is also a kind of learning, but that has the effect opposite to what
learning causes in a child, i.e. gaining knowledge, acquiring skills
and developing attitudes that help the individual to adapt positively
in the social world. Just to exemplify, telling a lie is supposed to
be a bad thing which should not develop in a child. Even though lying
is fairly common among the adult population, a remorseless liar child
is something the parents try to avoid at any cost in the ordinary
circumstances. Acquiring the tendency of remorselessly lying can be
thus termed as an example of AL in which the child fails to learn the
dangers of telling wrong things for short term gains or to avoid
ordinary problems while inviting potentially huge losses or problems
in the future. Instead the child learns to avert the potential crises
resulting from telling the truth with a series of lies until the
uncovering of one lie leads to the exposure of the whole fiasco. Once
the child loses remorse to the deed of lying, he becomes able to
dismiss the realization that the short term gains of telling a lie are
eventually outweighed by the longer term troubles. This learning in
which the child develops the maladaptation of refusing to see the
obvious can be taken as the typical example of anti-learning.

In another article about the decadent educational system under
capitalist monopoly in Nepal I have given an example of a child who
reverse-cheats his friends by telling them the wrong answer of the
questions inside the exam hall. This goes one step further than the
plain ‘telling a lie’ anti-learning in which the child adopts and
institutionalizes lying to more complex process of getting higher rank
than the friends.

The development of the moral faculty of a child involves much more
than the singular component explained above. Just to name a few:
~to help others, particularly the needy;
~respecting the elders regardless of social position;
~ never to steal a thing of others;
~to live within the means of the family;
~never to use the slang and unacceptable words;
~facing the adverse circumstances with courage;
~refusing to yield to some force coercing to make the child do some
‘immoral’ or ‘unacceptable’deed;
~ always opting for ‘logical’ choice instead of the ‘pleasant’ one;
~adapting to the changed circumstances whenever they do so; etc. and
the list continues.

Every child learns more or less in each of these components of
learning from the parents as well as the teachers and the environment.
The more the parents and the teachers attempt to help the child learn
life skills pertaining to each of these points, the better the
learning. Of course not merely the tally of marks obtained by the
students in exams can measure what they have actually learned during
the period. Here comes the relevance of the concept of Anti-learning.

In the formal exams a child may score a zero but it can not be
negative and no child can be told to have ‘reverse-scored’. The formal
read-understand-memorize-write and the particularly common
rote-memorize-write patterns of teaching-learning activities in our
educational institutions can never afford to think about these issues
related to learning but not directly related to reading the books. In
the context of Nepal the further perverse pattern of insincere study
and teacher-assisted cheating has plagued almost all of the formal
exams from internal assessments to the University board exams. The
increasing frequency of blatantly immoral deals involving
selling-purchasing of the question papers threaten to further weaken
the already moribund educational institutions. How do we relate the
issue of anti-learning in such a scenario as the term ‘learning’ here
means a lot more than passing the exams by reading hard the books?

Majority of the parents of the students in today’s Nepal, most of them
in private schools in the urban or semi-urban areas have a
consistently common complaint: despite their utmost efforts and more
than reasonable expenses in the education of their children, the
outlook is quite disappointing. The other common complaint of parents,
particularly the mothers is that the children do learn the most
offensive habits like speaking the slang words without restraint or
chewing or smoking tobacco despite their persistent attempt to avoid
them from learning those things. They rarely place the blame for this
into the schools or their own family environment but the common
scapegoat is the company with some ‘bad children’ in the neighborhood
or the class. They usually dissociate this development of unfavorable
behavior with the formal process of ‘learning’ and passing the exams
and are worried scores more by the lower ranks of their children than
the development of such behaviors. As they keep scolding their child
for ‘bad habits’ while praying for better scores and ranks in the
classes, the child eventually grows into an adult with all those bad
virtues and resistant to any criticism or scolding.

It is in this background that it is relevant to introduce the concept
of learning as the all-inclusive process in which the interaction of
the child with the teachers in the class is only one component of the
process of learning. Eventually the parents come next if not at
similar role as the teachers. Now that learning is not all about
scoring in the exams, there comes the possibility of achieving
opposite of something that was supposed to be achieved. To take one
example, let’s take ‘never steal anything’ as one thing expected to be
learnt by a child at a particular age. One who does not steal and
discourages his friends who so steal and refuses to share the spoils
of theft has successfully learned that lesson in his life and he is
very unlikely to indulge in any significant act of stealing in the
future. The other who is afraid of stealing himself but is eager to
share the spoils of theft of his friends can be termed to have
incompletely learned or not meaningfully learned that virtue. The
third who steals repeatedly and is not discouraged by scolding or
punishment has learned something but that is the exact opposite of
what was originally intended: he learns how to hoodwink people to
steal things; how to avoid being caught and most importantly how to
cope with the punishment in case of eventual disclosure of the theft.
That is indeed the very active form of learning that is perverse and
here I term this phenomenon as ‘Anti-learning’.

This is how as the narrow attention of the parents is focused on the
scores of their children in the exam; they are condoning a range of
processes through which the children keep doing the opposite of what
is expected of them. While learning is a difficult process guided by
the teachers, parents and other family members and the social
environment, Anti-learning is the process that comes to compensate for
the lack of learning of certain things at certain age. This is guided
by the instincts, not by the logic as in case of learning. The utter
selfishness that the nature has given an infant or a small child as a
tool of survival persists in a distorted and dangerous form in a child
who grows failing to learn the moral values of the society. The
attitudes that develop in the process of this Anti-learning mature
reasonably fast and till the time the child can read in the books what
to do and what not to, usually it is too late. The misguided scolding
of the parents at the late stage does often have an opposite impact
and the child feels increasingly alienated from the family and the

The second factor, the children who get accustomed to TV channels and
Computer games before reading the books are very unlikely to take
reading books with due seriousness and they never learn anything
meaningful from the books other than swallowing the probable questions
for the exams. This precludes from the very beginning the
possibilities of these grown-up children developing adaptability in
the rapidly changing world in their adult life. That means the
childhood addiction to movies, TV serials or the digital games may
turn to be dangerous to the extent of preventing the necessary
learning in the future of the person that inevitably involves reading
the books.

This is how teaching a child is no mean job: for the teachers as well
as the parents. The orientation of the educational institutions is
thus of crucial importance: do they aim help their students to help
better to the world or score better in the exams? With everyone from
the shareholders to teachers aiming at money and only money, what is
sold best in the market is what they intend to provide. Obviously in
the omnipotent market it is the scores and loyalty that matter. In the
process what is ignored or marginalized is the true process of
learning in which conscience and logic matter more than the ability to
score higher and earn higher.

The tunnel to which we are traveling with the bulk of young minds
grossly neglecting what they should learn at that age looks very dark.
But very few of us are genuinely anxious about the scenario with our
own compulsions of indulging ourselves in activities that pay us the
money. Whenever we do think and see those dark clouds in the horizon,
we lack the willpower to talk to our neighbors about the approaching
debacle. When we dare to talk to them in such unusual subjects, they
frown at us and we are demoralized; indeed who works for charity when
he is hungry himself? But most of the times, we think so little about
the issues other than our daily routine that we fail to see any
anomaly in the ongoing process. This time I have spotted this
unusually subtle and dangerous anomaly of Anti-learning creeping
extensively in the new generation and I am really worried. I wish I
were an educationist or at least a teacher. But I do not have this
privilege and have written this piece to express my frustration. A
collaborating group of the educationists and the teachers can make a
difference in this case and I look forward to furthering of this
discussion so that we can check this process of Anti-learning before
it is too late, i.e. our society is full of adults who failed to learn
what conscience and virtue are; when they were children.

Pedagogy in Need of Revolution

Are our children who go to school really learning something? Are they misled or not led at all? what do they learn about life? Is passing examinations all that we expect from the school and the teachers? Some usual questions and unusual answers:

Why exactly are we providing education to our children? This question emerged when I discovered a bizarre attitude of a seventh grader towards his education. He excitedly explained me how he would prompt his friends/competitors to write wrong things if they asked him questions inside the exam hall. That was the effective way to get the higher ranks in the final exams of the classes. Had he shown some remorse for having done a wrong thing by telling a lie, I would have tried to persuade him not to repeat the deed again. But he was so obsessed with scoring and ranking higher that the practice that I label 'reverse-cheating' was as acceptable as studying harder to memorize difficult things. Competition was all he saw in the exams because a higher rank was what was praised and glorified by the teachers as well as the parents.

I have no idea how prevalent this particular phenomenon of reverse-cheating is among all the students n Nepal. But it is a safe bet to state that 'Cheating' as such inside the exam hall is fairly prevalent at the exams of all levels. Cheating provides a faster, more convenient and often the only available alternative to a hard work. Even those who study sincerely prefer to carry 'cheats' just in case a need arises inside the exam hall. Helping the other students in the last hour of exam, particularly, by the bright students is even more common and less often punished. The events of indulgence of the guardians, the invigilators, the security personnel and so on in helping the students cheat in board exams come out frequently. Even the systematic efforts by the teachers to help their students inside the hall are now fairly common. But all these forms of 'cooperative' cheating methods are wrong only because they go against the spirit of a good examination that is supposed to measure how much of the knowledge or the skill the student has been able to grasp throughout the year or so of study. The instances in which the students verify their answers with their friends at the end of the exam are often more the result of their sociability rather than a bad intention to score higher than they are capable of.

But the process of reverse-cheating defies all the moral norms and the conscience expected from the school-goers. The social norm that the child bluntly defies is that one should not tell a lie to the others. The question whether telling a lie can be justified in cases where the act is associated with a tangible reward or incentive is answered in affirmative by the child. This also reflects the attitude of the child on other pressing moral issues that often trouble a teenager: can stealing things be justifiable in some instances? Is hurting some people more 'acceptable' than hurting others? Do all the elders deserve respect of the young people irrespective of their social position? Are the rewards justifiable without hard work? And the list is open. To put it mildly, the values that were earlier linked to the concept of reward or punishment by the omnipotent god for the good and bad deeds of human beings have now been seriously eroded. Even amid the sustained or rising proportion of young people who flock to the temples or other religious places, the reverence of the genuine religious values and their practice show a reverse trend.

Why not to tell a lie or steal things or abuse a poor old man or pass an examination without studying properly then? This is where our education system has failed miserably to instill proper values in the children at proper time. The competitiveness in terms of a scoring a relatively high score in the exams has dominated all other virtues associated with learning. The roll of education as something that helps one to understand and adapt better to the world is something still to be realized by the institutions as well as the bulk of teachers. And the situation is profoundly pathetic in the private schools that have sprouted throughout the country and boast to have provided a better quality of education than their government counterparts. 'Higher' rank in the school and proficiency in English means the entry to the 'better' colleges and ability to study the 'better' subjects that promise to provide 'better' jobs with 'higher' pay. One who rote-learns from the books and teacher's notes to regurgitate the words and lines on the answer sheets in the exam gets the highest reward along with praise and prestige.

Comparing my own schooldays in a typical government school in a rural area with the current high-tech education system primarily in the private schools, I have discovered few important insights that help explain the disparity in the attitudes of the students towards learning and education then and now. First is the difference in the values as well as the perception of education among the parents of the students. Then the majority of the parents of the students in the government schools (private schools were very scarce then) were literate at best, only few of the them well-educated and with livelihood other than peasantry. Education was the only thing they could hope would give their children a life different and thus better than their own. They had also plenty of leisure time to pass their conventional wisdom about life and moral issues to their children. Subsistence agriculture, as such demands a very high manual labor per unit productivity. The children and teenagers still form the main workforce in the villages for a variety of household and farming-related chores. So the parents had to make their children good students as well as laborious workers. Hard work, patience, perseverance were some of the important values that were subtly instilled by the parents to their children throughout a prolonged intercourse. Even when the fathers ventured away for some awkward job, the mothers interacted for about a decade after a child became aware of the world till he left home for higher education or some odd job or both.

My point is not to unduly glorify something that has passed. In a nutshell, rearing a child and educating in an average rural family meant much more than making him/her compete with colleagues in terms of scores in the exams. The bulk of parents who now send their children to the omnipresent private schools simply cannot afford to have the kind of interaction with their children that I referred above. The changed economic activities of a single family with often an employed or semi-employed mother, the pressure for the parents to devote all their efforts to earn as much as possible matches perfectly with their expectation from their children that they should somehow land up doing a job with high incentive. And that is what comes from the high scores, good ranks and a tough ability to compete and trick the others. Even though the parents may dislike their children telling a lie without remorse or hesitation, they cannot punish them for the act with a conviction of those who sincerely believe someone is up there to punish the wrong-doers of this world.

Second, cooperation and collaboration among families and individuals is far more important in the traditional societies than for the modern urban families staying in rented flats in big cities. While a child in a typical rural joint family internalizes the value of cooperating and helping others for a mutual benefit, the other child in a typical urban single family internalizes the value of competing with the others to gain a reward that cannot be shared but has to be won by one among many. The parents in a city, having seen the role of competition in the modern world are likely to prefer their child to score a 80% with first rank rather than a 85% with the third rank in the same examination.

Now comes the most important factor other than school that has huge impact in the learning process of a child: the Television. Though it was limited to the privileged and the wealthy only a decade and half back, now it is difficult to find a household of middle-class family without a TV set connected to a cable network. With increasing access to electricity, a TV is no longer a new thing for the rural areas and the lower class people. Fast food and TV are the two commodities that have enticed the young population with a vigor that the parents cannot control even if they want so. And most of the parents are barely aware of the long term impact in the physical and mental health of these gratifying commodities on their children and themselves. Those who cannot afford a TV will find it nearly impossible to prevent their children from sneaking into the neighbor's room that has a TV set.

What does a television teach the children then? It shows them wonderful things, wonderful people and wonderful events that resemble little with the real things surrounding them. And of course there are the advertisements many of which exploit the cute faces of the children. None of them teaches them to live within their means, to spend less or abstain from insisting to their parents to buy something that they can not afford. The only electronic means of entertainment for the earlier generation was a Radio and less frequently a Cassette-player. Reading books for knowledge and entertainment was fairly common among those who could read. None of these had an impact comparable to television in changing the attitude of the young people on how to live (and indeed how to consume!).

In recent years, the so called 'Reality Shows' have flooded the TV channels. They epitomize the complete objective of an 'ideal' program for entertainment in this obscenely profit-seeking world driven by capitalism. We can imagine just how much the child who reverse-cheated his friends would have been fascinated by the program 'Indian Idol' in which only the best among many good singers won the competition. What was deliberately hidden from the viewers like that child was that one whose fans could afford to vote him most could be the winner regardless of the talent in singing. While making many people apparently 'compete', the real motive of the organizers of such shows is to outsmart the other TV programs which earn from the advertisements only and their innovativeness helps them to amass further wealth from the stupefied viewers who feel they are watching a real emergence of talent through a program. This world of disguised deception is what has been able to obsess people, more so the young ones, with the Television.

To sum up, what the children do learn and what they fail to learn is no longer something controlled even partially by the parents in the urban and modern rural society with good access to the Television. Their imagination, their goal, the spectacle through which they view the world around them, everything is shaped by what they see not in the real world but in a deceptively skewed virtual world in the TV screens. And with the poor grasp of the scenario by the education-providers who are themselves enmeshed in a business of selling education by competing with others, the process is only reinforced. The parents who have a permanent headache of sustaining or improving their financial status by whatever means, can little care what their children learn by which means and what they fail to learn.

Reversing the boat that is traveling relentlessly to a world full of human beings devoid of ethics and conscience might have been almost infeasible now after centuries of capitalist teaching of 'everything to winners', 'compete or die' and 'shop till you drop'. That, however, does not prevent us from challenging the status quo or the deterioration of what is already a pretty bad situation. The voices of rebellion are now fairly common though forcefully sidelined or hidden by the extravagant 'conventional' modes of mass (mis)information. What is urgently needed now is the constructive attempt by the 'non-conventional' thinkers, educationists, sociologists and most importantly the rebellious students to seek an alternative paradigm of education in which the wild competition to earn higher is not the only objective. Countering the extravaganza of propaganda industry deceptively publicized as advertisement-entertainment industry is a real and tough challenge. Convincing the people like the boy who reverse-cheated in the exams that competition is not the eternal goal of human being may be pretty difficult now that he has internalized the calamitous values about life before seeing the real face of the world beyond the bright and colorful world on the TV screen. But that should not be impossible with a radically new approach to learning as well as the formal education which has been due for very long. If only we can endure and persevere. Let's not just see but act within our scopes as students if not as educationists or philosophers.