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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Who are first-generation learners? – Part 2

Schools go against every one of the above statements about knowledge. They say the following instead.

1. “Learning means ‘memorizing information’ without any real need for verification or re-evaluation.”
What most of the schooled population means by ‘knowledge’ is actually ‘information’. ‘General Knowledge’ means a collection of trivia like ‘the first man to reach the moon, the tallest building on the earth, the capital of Ghana, etc. This information is required to be memorised without any context (for the one who memorises it), and hence has little relevance or use. Yes, even if it is about ‘how the four-stroke engine works’. If the learner sees no real need for that information (like I never did!), her mind will at best tolerate the information for a while until exams are passed.

2. “Learning involves only the mind, and happens best when not doing anything else.”
Most of the world believes that ‘learning’ is something that happens best when we are not doing anything else. This is the reason children are sent to school, a place where nothing else is done. It is believed that all the essential knowledge in various fields (history, geography, physics, etc.) is put together in thoughtfully designed text books. Children are expected to memorise facts, descriptions, explanations, statistics, etc. and store them in memory.   

More than 80% of the time in schools is spent in reading out, listening to and writing text that carries information to be memorised. Even if the teacher says, ‘understand and write in your own words’, she is asking the student to merely use her mind and to use different words to reproduce the same answer. ‘Practicals’ are done more as an after-thought; they are done to merely observe what the teacher asks the students to observe. No student would be allowed to make an observation and record something that is not given in the text book. Even the rest of the time is spent following instructions about how to and how not to draw, sing, dance or play in the art and PT classes.

3. “Learning is measured by how well information is reproduced. Students who question, challenge and reevaluate it are penalised.”
Schools aspire to make children store-houses of information. I heard a teacher tell her students (preparing for exams) in a school I was visiting recently “This question may appear in various different ways in the exam paper. But remember, the answer is the same.” This beautifully sums up the mission of our schools today. ‘Reproduce information. Don’t generate knowledge.’

4. “Knowledge about material things is universal. It can even be standardized.”
American scientists at the ‘International Rice Research Institute’ located in the Philippines claim to know and propose the rice varieties that every single farmer in South Asia ought to sow. It proposes standardized measures like “An acre of land requires x kilos of Nitrogenous fertilizer, y kilos of Phosphorous fertilizer and z kilos of Potassium fertilizer.” This in reality is really absurd, since each land is different. Nothing can really be standardized.

Justus Von Liebig, the father of the ‘NPK theory’ for plants later repented his actions. He said "The art of agriculture will be lost when ignorant, unscientific and short sighted teachers persuade the farmer to put all his hopes in universal remedies, which don't exist in nature. Following their advice, bedazzled by an ephemeral success, the farmer will forget the soil and lose sight of his inherent values and their influence."

5. “Knowledge can be bought and sold for money.”
When knowledge generation began to be directed by the powerful and the wealthy, it started to get corrupt. When systems and mechanisms that were in place to correct such knowledge corruption were thwarted and destroyed, knowledge corruption started becoming the norm. This is the reason that technologies that are leading to so much conflict and disharmony pass off as ‘modern’ and ‘scientific’. All major research in science and technology across the world is either directly or indirectly funded (and hence directed) by corporations in order to find ways to increase their profits. Agricultural research is an excellent example of this. I have evidence to show that all newspaper articles and research papers that report success stories of farmers using genetically modified crops are funded by the corporations who manufacture those seeds. (I’ve elaborated on all this in great detail in my book to be published very soon.)

Of course, it is needless to talk about what a huge industry education has itself become today. School managements open ‘school-chains’ like they open supermarket chains! Patenting (claiming ownership over) knowledge is another form of the same corruption. Such arrogance is a symptom of a degrading society.  

6. In today’s schools, those who can train children to memorise information and reproduce it most effectively are considered to be good teachers.
Today’s good teacher is trained in ways to threaten or bribe the child to reproduce information, which usually has no direct relevance or context for her or the child. She need not have any specific skills or knowledge born out of her own ‘experience’ or ‘knowing’. There is an interesting story from the life of Vinobha Bhave. A young man came up to him saying that he wanted to be a teacher. When Vinobha asked if he knew how to cook, clean, sew, work in the fields, or do anything else of value to the society, he replied with a ‘No’ to every one of them. Vinobha said to him “If you don’t know how to do anything, how can you be a teacher? Please go learn to do something and then we can talk about teaching."

Who are ‘First-generation Learners’?
I am not a big fan of labeling people as anything. However, I’d like to respond to this highly derogatory label we give children whose parents never went to school. It saddens me to hear this be used, every time it is.

Their illiterate parents are carriers of far more essential life knowledge and skills, which were produced by more collaborative learning processes more closely tuned in to nature and communal living. But just because their knowledge is not marketable by the industrial society, it is not valued at all. That is, it cannot be converted into ‘money’. A simple home remedy which is far more effective and cheap in treating diarrhea is not valued because it has not come from the ‘schooled doctor’ and because it cannot generate money. The information that a pharmaceutical company has patented for its profits is!

I’ve heard many parents (who are not ‘educated’) tell me ‘You are educated and so you can teach your child at home. We are not educated. How can home-schooling be an option for us?’ These people have basically been conditioned to believe that what is important knowledge can be found only in textbooks and can only be taught by school teachers. But every time my child falls sick, I run to these same people asking them if they know of a simple home remedy. They almost always have something to share and it has almost always worked.

Just two weeks ago, my mother had an infection of her eyelids. She went to an eye doctor who immediately prescribed her antibiotics. She really suffered from its side effects and was miserable with them. A week later, she went to a Siddha (an Indian system of medicine, equivalent to ayurveda) doctor asking if there was an alternative since her infection remained even after her first course of antibiotics, and the side-effects persisted. He said “Apply namakkatti (a specific type of white clay commonly available in Tamil Nadu) on your eyelids, and it will be gone in just a few days.” She stepped out of the doctor’s clinic and said “When my illiterate maid saw my infected eyelid ten days ago, this is what she asked me to do. But I didn’t follow her advise and went to the doctor instead!”  
What happened in Cuba ten years ago should help answer the question ‘who are first-generation learners’. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the country’s import of petroleum and petroleum-based chemical fertilizers stopped. In a few years, the country faced tremendous shortage of food and the average weight of the Cubans dropped by about ten kilos. Suddenly, traditional organic farmers and their knowledge became highly valuable. Engineers and doctors started training under these farmers to learn composting, cultivation of crops, identifying and preserving traditional seeds, etc. They had to re-skill themselves in many things such as cycling, constructing houses using local materials, drawing water from the wells, etc.
A North Indian Cree saying comes to my mind. “Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money.” When our demonic industrial party is over, when we have to return to nature for refuge, we will then have to learn to scramble for seeds, tend to plants, and clean up our rivers. We will then have to really revisit the question ‘Who are first-generation learners?’

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