Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Making modern knowledge accessible to non english speaking populations

There are two routes to connecting those who haven't been through (or are not presently in) an english medium school to modern knowledge in different subjects:
1. Teach them english first and then they have access to it.
2. Translate books in different languages so that they can be accessed directly in languages people are already comfortable with.
I suppose both routes can be followed depending on which way the interest lies at different times and places. However I would emphasize the second route more because of the following consideration:
There is a very very large percentage of our population that doesn't know english (which may not be a bad thing :)smile emoticonbecause for them english continues to be a "foreign language" and (hopefully) for several of these people their sense of self worth doesn't depend on knowing english). So it would just be more efficient. I suppose if we take up the task of translating books in different subjects seriously and find translators (in say the 15 languages listed on our currency notes to start with) we can make modern knowledge available to a whole lot of people within say about a year. Contrast this with the time that would be required to teach the english language first to maybe millions of people.
I've been told China has done this.
Note that basic english can still be taught so that people can communicate easier when they travel, etc. But to require that the knowledge of any one language be essential to be "educated" is a big stretch in my opinion.
PS: An example to perhaps drive home the point: When I was doing my PhD I needed to refer to a thesis from France. Guess what...it was in French. Neither are the French apologetic about doing their science (and I suppose all other subjects) in French nor are the Americans disdainful of them because they choose to continue treating their own language as their primary language in their own country (which is perhaps how it ought to be :)smile emoticon ). Perhaps there is a cue for us somewhere here.
And no :) smile emoticon, a knowledge of english is by no means an indicator of being "more intelligent" or "more educated" (certainly not "more civilized" as even a cursory knowledge of history will quite likely assure you). In fact I believe that many, if not all, of our Indic languages are more refined and expressive than english. It's just a pity that we are not paying enough attention to them.

[PS: And as an analogy, perhaps we ought to stop considering chocolates as our "national sweet", or for that matter "patloons and shirts" as our "national costume". I leave further extrapolations to you...]

Questioning "fixed durations" for different levels of education

One mindset that we need to question in my opinion is different levels of education being associated with a fixed number of years. For example, it is generally expected that everyone take 12 years for high school education. Why should that be so? If someone can move faster, why not? On the other hand if someone needs more time, what's the problem? The point is to learn and understand different subjects properly. Whether one does it in 8 years or 12 years or 15 is hardly relevant in my opinion. Secondly, I think we need to think about bringing in a system which allows different subjects to be covered at different speeds. For example Maths may come easy to someone while Chemistry may take a bit of time. Why not allow such a student to move from year to year faster in Maths and slower in Chemistry?
Likewise for undergraduate education. We have fixed notions: 3 years for B.A. / B.Sc / B.Com, 4 years for B.E. / B.Tech., etc. Again, why should we think of these programs in terms of any fixed duration of time? Instead, wouldn't it be better to focus on what needs to be learned and absorbed properly and be flexible about the time it may take someone to do so? If someone finishes their B.Tech. in 3 years: Cool. If someone takes 7: That's cool too. (Within reasonable limits of course: we don't want people becoming lazy in the name of learning slowly)
A couple of Institutes that I know of in India that have tried to bring in this flexibility at the undergraduate level through the idea of focusing on the "number of credits to be accumulated" instead of "number of years required" are IIT Kanpur and IIT Bombay. I think its a cool initiative. Maybe such an approach needs to be contemplated upon by more schools, colleges, different boards and regulatory bodies.