Our third teacher was a soft-spoken jazz guy named Richard, with wide hips. He said he had a two-year-old daughter. At our first meeting, he gave Sophia and me a big lecture about the importance of living in the moment and playing for oneself. … Richard said there were no rules in music, only what felt right, and no one had the right to judge you, and the piano world had been destroyed by commercialism and cut-throat competition. Poor guy – I guess he just didn’t have what it took. … As the eldest daughter of Chinese immigrants, I don’t have time to improvise or make up my own rules. I have a family name to uphold, aging parents to make proud. I like clear goals, and clear ways of measuring success.
Now the rain is falling, freshly, in the intervals between sunlight,
a Pacific squall started no one knows where, drawn east
as the drifts of warm air make a channel;
it moves its own way, like water or the mind,
and spills this rain passing over. The Sierras will catch
it as last snow flurries before summer, observed only by
the wakened marmots at 10,000 feet, – Spring Rain, Robert Hass
The day began beautifully, with just enough specks of white cloud pinned against a blue sky. It is Memorial Day weekend and summer is almost here.
By the time Maya woke up from her afternoon nap, the sky was gray. I want to go to Dolores Park demanded Maya. Shanthala demurred because she thought that it might rain. The prediction says less than 1 mm, I said, lets take her to the park. So we set out.
As we reached the park, water came down like a fine spray, too fine to be a bother, but not insufficient to be ignored. Maya dashed off to play. Shanthala and I sought shelter from the rain under some slides. The spray turned to drizzle and drizzle turned to a fine rain. Spring asserted a reminder that it wasn’t yet done.
But, Maya couldn’t be deterred. Most parents were scurrying home when we reached the park. The rather crowded park was mostly empty. A group of young people were dancing to beer and loud techno music. Maya stood under the rain staring at them. Soon, she began to sway to the incessant rhythm of the music.
I remembered what Sir Ken Robinson had said in his talk. Why isn’t dancing as common in the curriculum as math and language. After all, don’t we have bodies ? I remembered my awkwardness at dance. My father loved dance music and took the opportunity to shake to the rhythm whenever he could. My mom thought it shocking or at least, unacceptable for a grown up man to do what he did. I imbued my mother’s shame and not my father’s abandon when it came to dancing. Probably, I also felt that if I couldn’t be good at it, I shouldn’t try. How strange, what we chose to copy and what we chose to avoid from each of our parents.
The city, usually a brilliant sight from the park, was almost invisible in the rain.
The night before, Maya woke up in the middle of the night and vomited. She vomited three more times before she slept fitfully the reminder of the night. The sheets were a mess and we retired to another bedroom to sleep. As I struggled to fall back asleep, I thought about how unfazed we parents of this generation are with our children’s malaises such as vomiting. Two generations back, at least in India, it must have been so difficult for a parent to know what to be afraid of and what not to be. Children died of the most simple things, things such as vomiting. But I also think about how easy my parents made parenting seem. I think I’d go mad if I had to stay home and care for Maya full time and cook and take care of the house. And I don’t think this is because I’m a man, thought that may have something to do with it, with how I was raised and what I was told was in store for me.
But parents also thought differently. I know of no one of my generation who wasn’t scared of their father. I don’t want Maya to be scared of me. But she does get scared when I lose my temper, as I sometimes do, when I can’t find a way around her obstinacy to even simple requests. For example, she insisted on eating an unripened banana despite my attempts to explain why that wasn’t a good idea and offering her a ripened one. Sometimes, the explaining helps. The other day, she wanted to wear her underwear back-to-front i.e. wearing what is front at the back. Insisting and pleading that she wear it the right way didn’t help. I then got out one of my own and wearing it the way she wanted to, explained the problems with doing so. She immediately switched to wearing it the right way. My parents would’ve whacked me and made me wear it the right way.
As frustrating as her obstinacy seems, it also makes up for a lot of rewarding moments, because she doesn’t give up at many other things. She did about 10 minutes on the treadmill on Friday. After almost a month of saying she wanted to run on it, but refusing to when I offered to help her, she did it mostly on her own on Friday. I found it delightful watching her slow up the ante, going as fast as 5 mph before deciding that 3-4 mph was far more comfortable. She first figured out if she could stop the treadmill when she wanted to, without my help. Then she slowly increased the amount of time she spent walking before she switched off and integrated (that’s my theory) the experience. Then she increased the speed. She is resolute in trying to figure it all out by herself, asking for help only when she’s in trouble or can’t figure it out.
The year is almost half over. I often wonder how effectively I use my time. Maya has been listening to Pink Floyd’s classic “Dark Side of the Moon” of late, especially the song Time. It was one of the first songs whose lyrics stayed with me. I especially ruminate over the ending.
Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say
I’ve always rejected the notion of hanging on in quiet desperation. I’ve rejected waiting till I’m older, more settled to do something more such as explore the world, play the guitar or enjoy a sunset. What no one told me about parenting is that it involves a lot of waiting. Everything else has to be mostly put aside for the first few years. At least, that’s how it has seemed to me. I wonder if half-scribbled lines is all I can show at the pearly gates. I’m so numbed at the end of the day, I just lapse into mindless activities like browsing or checking email (not even responding) instead of doing something more productive. It takes me a while before I can tackle chores or even indulge in a little writing.
Life knows no moderation. We have this relentless demand on our time when they’re young and a relentless ache in our hearts when they’re older and not around as much as you like them to be. Why can’t you, life, show some moderation, moderation that is demanded of us for a good life.
Yes, I miss my solitude. But then, when Maya holds my face and says “I love you Papa”, as she did for the first time last week, with a tenderness in her eyes that made me think she said the words with knowledge, not a mere parroting, I think the price has been worth it. I remember that with parenting, time has a beauty that is both casual and intense.
There were orange poppies on the table in a clear glass vase,
stained near the bottom to the color of sunrise;
the unstated theme was the blessedness of gathering and the
blessing of dispersal—
it made you glad for beauty like that, casual and intense,
lasting as long as the poppies last. – Spring Rain, Robert Hass
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“If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.” – Sir Ken Robinson
Growing up, the unstated goal of schooling was to get into a good college which was a necessary requirement for a good life. This long term goal was translated into the near term goal of topping the class. Topping the class in the monthly, quarterly exams was practice that would enable me to top the class in the final examination. Topping the class in the final exam in the first grade, second grade and so on, was practice for besting the class, the city in high school. This in turn would lead to brilliant performances in university entrance exams which would lead to my being selected into a good engineering or medical college.
In the India I grew up in, you could get into undergraduate college based on your academic ability, as measured by tests such as the 2nd year pre-university exam, the engineering entrance examination and so on. The elite engineering and medical schools of the country had their own special entrance exams. The alternate form of entry was by paying a lot of money (called capitation fee) to get into private colleges. My parents couldn’t afford to pay for my entry, though I was sure my father would’ve somehow managed to raise the money, if that was the only choice left. But, i knew what a good child would do: enter on his own academic power rather his father’s economic might, real or borrowed.
“Every education system in the world has the same hierarchy of subjects. Every one. Doesn’t matter where you go. .. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and at the bottom are the arts.” – Sir Ken Robinson
If I didn’t want to become an engineer or a doctor, then I was already on the road to failure (loser, if I knew the term then), a life away from the glitter and the glory. The whole thing was so ingrained in me, I involuntarily smirked at those who went to the arts school or to study say diploma. They were the paths of those who weren’t good enough. Also, arts was at the very bottom of the academic hierarchy. Saying that you had a B.A. or an M.A. was to declare your non-brahmanical status. While my dad yearned for me to learn the guitar, he was clear that he didn’t want me to pursue that as a career choice. As much as he encouraged me to write, he never suggested that writing could by vocation as well as my avocation.
I couldn’t stand the sight of blood and so engineering was my only other choice. Electronics and computers were becoming the subjects that students aspired to get into. For kids like me, in awe of gadgets such as TV and video and computers, these engineering fields were the way to do cool things, to impress girls. Of course, I didn’t consciously think like this. I thought that I loved to study about computers, to become a software engineer (I was enamored by software, not hardware as much). And I do love software. But like breathing air and never feeling it in the rush of daily living, I had unconsciously absorbed that the mansion on the hill was on the road to happiness and a good life and to get to that mansion, I had to study hard and be an engineer. That I liked the subject only made the task more enjoyable.
But what about those whose kids are not interested in the subjects that lead far more directly to the mansion on the hill ? What if they’ve decided that the mansion on the hill is not a sign of freedom, but bondage to a way of being ?
“And my contention is, all kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly.” – Sir Ken Robinson.
For sure, the kids these days have more choices than the duopoly of engineering and medicine, but that’s also because there are a few more subjects (such as finance) that lead to what many consider a successful life. But even otherwise, teenagers seem to be aware of far more choices to pursue as a vocation. But even now, if the choices don’t lead to an hugely successful life, I see parents dissuade their children from pursuing them. In a subsequent TED talk, given a few years after his popular TED talk on how schools kill creativity, Sir Ken Robinson narrates the story of a person he met at a book signing event. That person was a fireman, had wanted to be a fireman from a very early age. But in school, a teacher made fun of him, of squandering his talent if he wanted to be a fireman. A friend told me the story of a school mate of his, someone who was brilliant with his hands and automobiles, but couldn’t get straight grades to get past high school. Today, he runs a successful auto mechanic store in Mumbai. I know of several people who fit this category of being borderline when it comes to academic ability, but are otherwise brilliant with their hands-on intelligence in the same subject.
Many might interject at this point arguing that schooling provides the opportunities, not the guarantees. That if the kids are not bright, then there is nothing that can be done. Look at all the brilliant kids who’ve come out of schooling, look at how they’ve changed the world. I have two questions for them. First, did they succeed despite schooling or because of it ? Second, how many equally talented children have we left behind because of schooling ? If you doubt this argument, think of what Einstein, considered by many to be the very idea of genius, said:
“One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.“
Sir Ken Robinson narrates the story of Gillian Lynne, the choreographer of musicals such as Andrew Llyod Webber’s Cats and Phantom of the Opera. She was underperforming in school and was classified as having learning disability (these days she might be labeled as having ADHD and given Ritalin). The doctor her mother took her to discovered her gift for dancing and asked her mother to enroll in a dancing school instead of a regular school. Lest you think this is uncommon, teachers are how most people learn that their kids have ADHD (read this CNN article or this one or read the brilliant Anatomy of an Epidemic).
How many more unsung people are out there, damaged or hobbled by schooling ?
Some say that the point of schooling is about imparting basic skills. But, schools fail to impart such basic skills as critical thinking and a deep understanding of the scientific method and basic scientific principles that we can use in our daily lives. How many of us are able to explain why intelligent design is not a scientific theory or separate pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo from real science. Books such as Innumeracy talk of our basic inability to even comprehend numbers in a meaningful way, something that is exploited in a subtle, subterfuge way by politicians and marketeers. Literacy maybe one skill that is taught by schooling, but it is clear that many public schools in this country, the US, fail even at that basic level.
So what is schooling good for then ?
“Our education system has mined our minds the way we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future it won’t serve us.” – Sir Ken Robinson.
I’ve often wondered if the schools are a rehearsal for the work life to come. Children have to be broken (similar to how dogs are house broken) to give up their aimless pursuit of wonder and trained to sit still in classrooms, much as we adults tend to do in cubicles and offices. The whole thing is so systemic, we don’t even see it as a problem. Just that sometimes in the night, or in the minutes just before we’re fully awake, we sense an undefined, vague malaise. But, of course, this is the small price for the comforts of our life, at our successes.
But, the world is changing far too rapidly than in the past, too rapidly for the ways of our parents and even our generation for us to accurately predict what the future will be like. Paths that were almost certain roads to middle class and beyond, are no longer so. When I was in India a couple of years back, I fell into a conversation with a stranger on the local city bus. He was lamenting how despite his getting a B.E in computer science from a locally reputed college, there were no jobs to be found, thanks to the recession. He mentioned how, a few years back, such a degree was a surefire path to success. Sir Ken Robinson calls this steady rise in the qualifications needed to get a job, academic inflation. So, in the coming world, creativity and critical thinking are far more important than pursuing well established ladders to economic success. Academic excellence may not be the best use of our children’s talents and abilities.
So then, how are we as parents to think about education ? What are we to do ?
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Everything I’m good at is self-taught. Just about everything I’m terrible at is what I learned in school. I was struck by this thought a few weeks back.
Maya starts preschool in a few weeks. We’ll test the waters by sending her to preschool two mornings a week. Maya has been canvassing to go to school since about six months or so. When she learnt that neither Shanthala nor I can be with her at school, her enthusiasm flagged a bit before picking up again. What kind of school do we want to send her to ? That question has been on our mind for the past six months or so. I kept hitting the snooze button every time the thought popped up.
All Shanthala and I were certain of was that given our location, it had to be a private school, at least till middle school. Neighbors who had sent their first kid to the local public school, shied away from them for their next batch. The elementary schools have gotten really bad, we heard. So, what kind of private school ? Things were easy for my parents. They just looked for a reputed English medium school and preferably that had the words “Convent” in their name somewhere. Shanthala and I agreed that we didn’t any place that was a pressure cooker, that obsessed with academics and grades, and that was too much of a commute. We wanted to continue our single car lifestyle. We seemed certain of what to say no to, but not what to say yes to. These choices drastically curtailed the list of private schools we could consider. Part of us felt that we had gone to fairly parochial, middling schools and we seemed to have turned out OK. So, we didn’t want to obsess over schools, but some nights we wondered if we were wrong ? Were we shortsighted or too radical to impose our ecological choices to Maya’s schooling ? Were we undervaluing academic achievement ?
And then one day, I had a conversation with a wise friend whose children are home schooled. He asked me to think about what I wanted Maya to get out of schools, what was the connection between learning and schooling. A host of quotes leapt to my mind, such as Mark Twain’s famous “Don’t let your schooling interfere with your education”, Churchill’s “My education was interrupted only by my schooling” and Einstein’s “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school”. Upon a little more thinking, I was struck by the thoughts expressed at the beginning of this article.
My career is in software, a subject in which I took just a single unmemorable course in undergrad, “Programming in the Fortran language”. Everything else I learned in the backseat of classrooms as I programmed on a Casio PB-100 computer that my father bought for me. When he saw my burgeoning interest, he upgraded my computer to a ZX Spectrum, not a cheap venture in those days. It is from those roots that I’ve developed into what I consider a fairly successful place in the industry.
My most passionate side hobbies are running and writing. Both of these are self taught too. I never hired a coach or enrolled in a team to teach myself how to run a marathon and continue to improve my running skills without injuring myself. I spoke to a couple of wise, old runners and read a lot of books on running. I finished in the top 12% of all runners in the Big Sur Marathon, less than a year after I started training to run for a marathon.
On the other hand, my basics in science and math are abysmal, especially their application. Shanthala’s jaw frequently bruises her knee at my ignorance in basic concepts and their application in everyday life.
As I mulled about these thoughts, another friend pointed me to the videos of Sir Ken Robinson over at TED talks. The talks were riveting, entertaining and eye opening. They were a scathing indictment of schooling just about everywhere. I highly recommend you to take 20 minutes and watch this first video. You’ll also be well entertained.
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