Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Save Education from Academics

by Dr. Anil Wilson
The Times of India Saturday, June 15, 2002
That the Indian Brain is among the finest in the world is now an acknowledged fact. Alas the same cannot be said of the Indian Heart. How else can we explain the situation where our colleges and universities, full of the best academics with the highest possible degrees, are yet hotbeds of petty intrigue, trivial jealousy, and meaningless mistrust? Somehow all that goes into the head does not percolate down to the heart. The most essential element of education osmosis (the process whereby the stuff in the upper chamber would get diffused into the entire system and expressed through ones behavior and relationships) does not take place, resulting in a blocking of the arteries and a highly constipated clogging in the cerebrum.
The Academic, therefore, does not manage to graduate on to becoming an Educator. Academics are a useful species, no one may deny. Yet their habitat needs to be restricted strictly to research centres located in remote hill-hideouts, away from colleges and universities where the more earthy and mundane of the human species should dwell. What we need in colleges and universities are more of Educators and less of Academics. There was indeed a time when Academics were also Educators who were not content with what went on in the classroom alone but made strenuous efforts to make positive interventions in the very lives of their wards. Their key motivating factor was concern and their target was the entire human being.
Then, somewhere along the line, due to a series of ill-conceived approaches to the process of pedagogy and education, the Academic perched himself higher than the Educator. Thus, to be an Academic is the ambition of most luckless souls who do not manage to get into management, finance, administration or fashion. A pitiful few aspire to be Educators, for that would reveal the triviality of their ambition in life! Those who interview young people constantly find that among the miniscule few who look to teaching as a career, it is teaching in a college or a university - never in a school, perhaps because it is popularly believed that it is in colleges and universities that academics congregate, while schools need educators.
hus, today, we have a surfeit of Academics who may well be likened to hit-an-run-artists. Occasionally, between seminars and conferences, they rush into the classroom (generally late by a few or more minutes because they were giving finishing touches to the latest book that must meet the publishers deadline); deluge the students with the most brilliant lectures, frown on any hapless creature who reveals his/her intellectual poverty by daring to ask a question, refuse to respond to queries because “how can one come down to the level of the students?” rush off even before the bell is rung to prepare for the forthcoming seminar that must be attended as this would pave the way for an invitation to the next one which is being held in some exotic location.
Marks can't be the sole indicator of meritThe Academic as hit-and-run artist leaves behind a host of bleeding victims who do not know where to turn for succour and help. Such victims would indeed be lucky if in the faculty there survives an old-fashioned Educator.
She will not only tend to the victims, take them to the canteen or even her own home, feed the body and the soul, laugh and joke with them (a serious anathema to the Academic who believes in the "High Seriousness of Study"), and in general seek to get involved in the fundamentals of her pupil’s life and concerns. Thus an Academic addresses, in terms of academic ability, the HCF (Highest Common Factor) in a class whereas the Educator caters to the LCM (Lowest Common Multiple). Thus while the endeavour of the Academic is to cover the syllabus, the Educator seeks to uncover it. Thus an Academic has no use for his students outside the classroom while for the Educator, old-fashioned that she is, the entire world of her pupil is her classroom.
A student’s behaviour, outside the classroom is none of the Academic’s business, while the Educator, misguided soul, will go out of her way to make it her business. This may fetch her momentary unpopularity but will earn her long-run respect. The Academic does not want this because he knows that "in the long run we are all dead". The heavy emphasis on an Academic approach to education has effectively curbed the Educator’s point of view. The unfortunate consequences of such a situation just cannot be missed.
  • There is the inordinate emphasis on acquiring skills and information with the corresponding inability to find measures to translate these skills and information into knowledge and wisdom.
  • There is the obsession with marks as being the sole indicator of merit. And this, in the face of the fact that the wide-ranging social and economic disparities in our country militate against any such simplistic connotation of the term merit.
  • Due to such a blinkered approach to education there is no scope for developing a mechanism that addresses some basic issues about what constitutes good education and what place such constituents could have in our appraisal systems.
While there may be indices (however unsatisfactory) to determine the literacy levels that a candidate has attained, there appears to be no mechanism for indicating the educational attainments of a student in terms of the core values that any reasonable educated person is expected to have. Fundamental tools of education like basic problem solving, responsiveness to universal human values, appreciation of responsibility, peer relationships, sense of discrimination and discernment, and other such intangibles, have no place in our evaluative processes. Thus we confuse skills with knowledge, information with wisdom, teaching with learning, high grades with talent, degrees with competence, and fluency with the ability to think afresh. There is a general devaluation of sports and extra-curricular activities in colleges and universities.
The Educator as an Academic is a typical product of the Industrial Age. Education, particularly higher education today, is dominated by the assembly-line syndrome that characterised the Industrial Age. This can also be seen in the similarities between mass-producing industries and most educational environments: five-day week, seven-hour day, careful division of labour for both teachers and students, a strong emphasis on conformity and a corresponding suspicion of originality, a total dependence on the sequential curriculum process, and most of all, the overwhelming concern for the product rather than the process. As we move from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Age, there is a newfound questioning of sequential curriculum process and the assembly-line syndrome.
We have come to realise that learning is fitful, episodic, explosive process of inquiry, where the process is as important as the product. Such learning is not taking in information. It is a fundamental shift in vision, awakening intuition, whereby we re-create ourselves, re-perceive the world and become a part of the re-generative process of life. The Educator will be back in business and Education will be rescued from the clutches of academics. Hopefully.

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