A Wise Lady from the 12th Century Guides Education Even Today

The Aathichudi is the alphabet primer with which every child in Tamilnadu takes its first step in education. It begins with: ‘A is for ‘Aram chaiya virumbu’. The phrase means ‘Intend to do good’. And this is the first thing that a child is taught. There cannot be a better way to start the journey of life.

And so the Aathichudi goes through the A to Z of Tamil, 108 lines in all, with short moral and practical aphorisms. It spans a wide variety of exhortations from ‘Control your anger’, to ‘Never stop learning’ to ‘Care for your parents’ to ‘Do not forget charity’ to ‘Do not allow suffering’.

If we think the ‘quote a day’ approach is new, let’s think again. The Aathichudi is a pithy moral-science textbook cum self-help book which was penned by the legendary Avvaiyar in the 12th century.  

Actually, there was not just one poetess called Avvaiyar  (meaning ‘Wise and respected lady’). There were at least three—the first was way back in the Sangam period (BC); the second probably in the 10th century; and the third, the author of the alphabet primer (among many, many other works) lived in the 12th century.

All of them were wise. They talked with kings and walked with common people. They effortlessly defied convention–they did not marry, they traveled alone across the length and breadth of several kingdoms, they advised kings. wrote poetry, and shared their wisdom. They shunned worldly wealth and power. They not only provided a moral compass to people of the time, but most of what they wrote is timeless.

How influential and independent these women were in their times—they were writing, advising, travelling, teaching, judging the literary works of others, acting as negotiators between kings to stop wars. Their works don’t just endure to this day; they are living documents which every adult, youth and child in the state can quote.

A few gems from Konrai Venthan, another of her works:

Oadhalin nandre vethiyarkku ozhukkam:  For priests, morality is more important than chanting.

Kutdram paarkkil suttram illai: Finding fault results in loss of relationships.

Kaip porul thannil meip porul kalvi: Education is the real wealth, more than the one in your hands.

Neraa noonbu seer aagaathu: A job not done well is not a job to be proud of.

Valavan aayinum alavu arinthu azhiththu unn: Even the super-rich should spend within limits.

Apart from being known to every school child through the Alphabet Primer, in Tamilnadu, the mass memory of Avvaiyar is, predictably enough, based on a film–one starring KT Sundarambal which was released in 1953. There are many, many stories and myths about the Avvaiyaars—from verbally jousting with Subramania (son of Lord Shiva), to being transformed from an attractive young girl to an old lady in an instant. This last was a result of praying to Ganesha, since Avvaiyar wanted to avoid getting into a marriage and family responsibilities, so that she could focus on her scholarly pursuits. There are besides, several statues across the State, including an imposing one at Marina (though how we know how she looked is not clear to me!). There are many college and educational institutions named after her.

For a long time now, people of Tamilnadu have been remembering her through the Avvai Vizha, an annual festival celebrated around mid-March, which is a gathering of scholars of Tamil and other subjects. This has, in recent times been taken over by the State Government. Besides this, the TN Govt. has instituted the Avvaiyar Award, to be given to ‘one eminent woman who has rendered excellent service in any one field such as Social Reform, Women Development, Communal harmony, Service for Language, Service in various disciplines in Art, Science, Culture, Press, Administration, etc., on the International Women’s Day which is being celebrated on March 8th every year’.

Avvaiyar even has a crater on Venus named after her—Feature 512!

But probably if she is looking down on us, what will please her most is that her work is still being used to lay the basics of literacy and education for children! And though she does not seem to make any explicit references to women empowerment nor set herself up as a role model, she will surely be happy that she is an inspiration for women through the centuries!

On the occasion of International Women’s Day…

–Meena

‘millennialmatriarchs’ was launched on 8 March, 2018. So this piece marks our third anniversary. Our heartfelt thanks to all those who have supported and encouraged us, and most of all, our kind readers!
Mamata and Meena

International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February

Gagandeep Kang: Virologist, Professor, Department of Gastrointestinal Sciences at Christian Medical College, Vellore, India.  First Indian woman to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.  At the forefront of COVID science.

Kiran Majumdar Shaw: Chairman-MD of Biocon India Group known for its breakthroughs in clinical research. The first Indian company to export enzymes to the United States and Europe, the first Indian company to gain the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the manufacture of a cholesterol-lowering molecule.

Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath: Chairperson at Centre for Neuro Sciences at Indian Institute of Science, who leads research that will help us understand and cure Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Tessy Thomas: Expert in ‘solid propellants’, which fuel India’s Agni missiles developed by Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). Called Agniputri by media, after the missiles she has helped develop.

Ms J Manjula:  DRDO Outstanding Scientist, and Director, Defence Avionics Research Establishment.

Minal Sampath, Systems Engineer working on India’s mission to Mars. Anuradha TK, senior-most women officer at ISRO. Nandini Harinath, Project Manager Mission Design, Deputy Operations Director, Mars Orbiter Mission, ISRO. And the many other Mars-Mission Women.

Inspirations, one and all. And they are not the only women-achievers in science and technology.

But still such a minuscule number!

Not just India, but the world and Asia too have this challenge of attracting and retaining women in these fields.

For instance, worldwide:

  • Only 35% of all higher education students enrolled in STEM-related fields are female.
  • Only 28% of all of the world’s researchers are women

Recently, UNESCO Bangkok brought out a report on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education for girls and women in Asia, 2020. The report points to a cycle which hinders girls for pursuing STEM education and hence careers in science.  It highlights the reality that right from a young age, girls receive messages that these subjects are not suitable for girls. One of the issues is that girls do not see any role models of successful women scientists around them. Even when girls do take up this stream of education, there are several barriers to success—from discrimination, to having to handle multiple responsibilities outside the job, to glass ceilings.

It is in recognition of these challenges that the United Nations in 2015, decided that ‘In order to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/70/212 declaring 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science’.

The theme for this year is ‘Women Scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19’. Indeed it is a matter of pride that so many women are indeed there—whether as researchers, as doctors, healthcare professionals or in manufacturing vaccines and medicines.

The journey has started, but there is such a long way to go. Leaving 50 per cent of humanity’s brainpower and entrepreneurial energies out of the search for fundamental scientific truths and putting these to the service of humanity, seems a sad waste indeed!

Make a resolution today to encourage a girl in science. Take her to visit a Science and Technology museum. Buy her a science kit. Take her on a visit to a Scientific Institution on its Open Day. Tell her stories of women-scientists. Gift her a book about science and scientists. In fact, gift a few boys some books about women scientists too!

Do anything, but do something…

–Meena

PS: Two books by women, to get the reading list started:

The Spark that Changed Everything. Veena Prasad. Hachette.

Fantastic Adventures in Science—Women Scientists of India. Nandita Jayaraj, Aashima Freidog. Puffin Books.

Remember Surabhi?

Yes, the weekly culture-magazine that Doordarshan viewers so looked forward to in the 1990s! I was surfing the channels one afternoon, and came across something called DD Retro, where Surabhi was airing. I scrolled down to see other programmes scheduled for the day. They didn’t resonate, but I have started tuning in whenever possible to catch Surabhi.

It was path-breaking in many, many senses of the word. It ran 9 seasons and clocked an incredible 415 episodes (as compared to 236 of Friends!). It was India’s longest-running cultural programme, and had among the highest audiences ever for a TV show of that time (without any TRP fixing!).

Long before such information was literally at our fingertips, Surabhi brought the length and breadth of the country into our drawing rooms, and introduced us to wonders selected most eclectically–from the ‘classical’ arts to the ‘folk’ arts; architecture to sculpture to music, dance, etc. etc. ; museums and individual collections; natural wonders to manmade marvels. It introduced us to parts of the country which in that era are even-less known than they are now, especially the North East and the Andamans. It went deep into the nooks and corners of the country. It made us proud of our art and craft traditions, and even more, brought home the sense that these were living traditions, not some artefacts in the confines of a museum.

It terms of format, it was not a documentary as was the wont those days for giving serious, highbrow information on culture. It was a lively magazine format with short segments covering a wide variety, with no particular discernable theme for the day. Something for everyone and just enough information to whet the appetite.

The key to the success was probably the anchors: Siddharth Kak who brought a gravitas to the proceedings, and Renuka Sahane who lit up the screen with a million-volt smile. Both spoke with so much sincerity and were backed with good research. Never flippant or frivolous, the script was informative and in pretty high-level Hindi, but never seemed to intimidate. Probably because the excitement of the anchors on each new discovery and their genuine joy in sharing it were so palpable.

Audience participation was another key. Many of the items covered were suggested by viewers and after due research, the Surabhi team showcased them. And the competitions! Each episode ended with a question posed by the anchors to the audience. And what a response they used to get. According to the Limca Book of Records, they once got 14 lakh responses in a week! And it was not about clicking something on the screen. People had to make the effort to go to the Post Office, buy a postcard, write down their answers, go to a post box and post it. The Indian Postal service is said to have introduced a special ‘Competition Postcard’ costing Rs.2 (as opposed the normal 15 paise) thanks to Surabhi!. Week after week, how did they even go through all the responses? But they did, and then all the correct responses would be piled up in the room in a special segment, and children would come in to pick the lucky winners from among them.

The prizes for the competitions were bang on in keeping with the spirit of the programme. Usually sponsored by state government tourism corporations and Indian Airlines, they went from air tickets and a few days stay at beach, mountain and tourism resorts of the states, to gift coupons to be used at State Emporia; to gifts of Mysore crepe saris and Mysore sandal soaps!

My family’s close encounter with Surabhi was a lovely one. I wrote in to them describing Raghu’s unique collection of old Indian locks, and unlike today, when one can write 10 mails to ‘info@’ and not get a response, they responded in a few weeks. After seeking more information and sending a local team to take a look, a time for the final shoot was set up, and the team including Siddharth Kak were at home! The airing of the collection on Surabhi is definitely an integral part of the story of Raghu’s lock collection!

Re-watching Surabhi, I felt it was still as interesting today (albeit a few things will look quaint to today’s viewers). Would surely be worth showing at better times and creating more publicity around it? And if there could be an easy-to-find Youtube channel with all the programmes, that would be amazing!

–Meena

The Mathematician Priest

This week as we celebrated Dr AR Rao, a great teacher of mathematics, it is the right time to make it a double celebration. Coincidentally this teacher of mathematics was not only a contemporary of Dr AR Rao, but also made Ahmedabad his karmabhoomi, and the teaching of math his life’s mission.

He was Father Carlos Valles, a Spanish Jesuit priest whose contribution to mathematics education, as well as to the Gujarati language and literature left a significant mark in both fields. The life and work of Father Valles are inspiring, as well as humbling.

Carlos Valles was born in Spain on 4 September 1925. His father, a respected engineer died when Carlos was only 10. But he left a very strong impression on his young son, who through his life reiterated “My father trusted me. I would never let him down.” Soon after his father died, Carlos’ family lost everything in the civil war that broke out in Spain. His mother took refuge with a sister of hers in a city where the Jesuits had just opened a school, and Carlos and his brother got scholarships to study and board in the school. When he was 15 Carlos joined the Jesuit religious order as a novitiate. This was also when he wrote his first book The Art of Choosing, where he reflected on this turning point in his life—detaching from the family for Christ and a lifetime of service. His next ‘detachment’ was leaving the country of his birth. On his own request that he be “sent East”, he was asked to go to India. As it happened, his Jesuit order was planning to start a new St Xavier’s college in Ahmedabad, and the young priest was given the task of helping to set this up. And so, in 1949, Carlos Valles left his mother country for India, which became his home for the next many decades. As he later wrote “There I went in the fullness of my youth. My father had taught me never to do things by halves”.

He also wrote that right from the moment he arrived, he felt so at home in India, that his Indian friends were convinced that he had been an Indian in his previous reincarnation. It was here that he completed his education with a Mathematics honours degree from Madras University in 1953. For someone who knew only Spanish, the course led him to become proficient not only in math but also in English, the medium in which the course was taught.

Around the same time he was also became convinced that if he were to work and teach in Gujarat, then his teaching would need to be in the local language. As he wrote “English was enough to teach mathematics, but not to reach the heart. The heart is reached through the mother tongue”. He had already studied basic Gujarati but he realised that this was not enough. So he went on to hone his language skills at Vallabh Vidyanagar University in Gujarat, living in the hostel for one year with fellow Gujarati students, immersing himself in the language and culture, until he gained mastery over Gujarati.  This was followed by four years of theological studies in Pune, where he continued to practice writing in Gujarati for two hours every day. Carlos Valles was ordained to priesthood in 1958, in the presence of his mother who came to India for the first time.  

Finally it was in 1960, the year that Gujarat separated from Bombay and became a new state, that Father Valles started his mathematics teaching at St Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad. The story goes that on the train from Bombay, he could not get a seat, and so stood all the way, and when in the melee one of his slippers fell off the train, he also threw the other one out, saying that now there is a complete pair that someone can use.

And there started the transformation from being a student to a teacher who was eager to give his body and soul to his teaching. And Father Valles was not one to take the easy path with tried and tested teaching techniques. He not only devised innovative ways of communicating math concepts, but also took upon himself to coin appropriate Gujarati terms for the concepts. He was also convinced that it was his duty not only to reach the minds, but also the hearts of his students; through dialoguing with them on all aspects that affected their life beyond the classroom. He started by writing a small book in Gujarati. Many publishers rejected the manuscript as they felt that no one would read such a book. Eventually Father Valles published it himself with some money that his mother sent him. The book titled Sadachar went onto see twenty editions in three languages.

Thus began the double life of Father Valles—as a Mathematics teacher and as a writer—both in Gujarati. Father Valles soon became a regular columnist for Gujarati periodicals and newspapers. In his original Sunday column in Gujarat Samachar titled To the New Generation he wrote about a wide range of topics– youth, family, society, religion, psychology, morals and contemporary issues. He secretly hoped, as he wrote, that the old generation would read it first. His writings became hugely popular over the years and were compiled and published as books. He did not ignore his first subject either, and with his colleagues, he wrote a whole series of mathematical textbooks in Gujarati which were used and remembered by generations of students in Gujarat.

But it is not only through newspaper pages that Father Valles entered the hearts of Gujaratis. He was a familiar sight riding on his bicycle across the city with his cloth sling bag. To learn from close quarters about the lives, mentalities, attitudes to life, beliefs and traditions of the people of the city, he lived with families in the narrow pols of the old city. As he wrote, “…so I lived the whole day with them, sharing their two daily vegetarian meals, their floor space on a mat at night, and their family life in all its richness, blessings and problems for a few days till I knocked at the door of another family in a continuous pilgrimage. I cycled daily to and from the college for my classes, but for the rest I lived fully as a member of the family I lodged with for the time. I spent ten years in that happy way. Perhaps that is possible only in India”.

For 22 years, Father Valles carried out his mission with heart and soul, in a city that he thought would be his home for life. However as he wrote, “circumstances shaped new and unexpected paths for me.” His mother turned 90 and expressed a wish for her son’s company. Without a second thought, Father Valles moved to Madrid to be with her until she died at the age of 101. He continued to write, now in three languages—English, Gujarati and Spanish, and travel. In 1999, at the age of 74, with his undiminished passion for reaching out, he bought a computer and started a website in Spanish.

Father Valles continued to live in Madrid, but he could make a trip back to his beloved Ahmedabad in 2015. Ahmedabad had changed much since he had left, but his gentle presence reminded its citizens once again about his life’s mission of bringing harmony. As he once said “I would like the word Harmony to be the summary of my life.”

Father Valles passed away in Madrid on 9 November this year, 5 days after his 95th birthday.

Sadly I was not living in Ahmedabad in the years when he was here, but the heartfelt reception he got on this last visit, made me wish that I could have had the privilege of having met this innovative teacher, prolific multi-lingual writer, and above all, an incredible human being.

–Mamata

Go Figure: National Mathematics Day

December 22, the birthday of the mathematical genius Shri Srinivasa Ramanujam, has been observed as National Mathematics Day in India since 2012, the start of the celebration of his 125th birth anniversary. The Day has, since then, been marked in schools and colleges by special events like maths quizzes, competitions etc. Hopefully, the enthusiasm will be carried over to the digital medium this year.

Those of us who fear math will also recall they feared their math teachers. In fact, the fear of math stems in most of us because we just did not understand what was happening in the class. And math teachers seldom felt the need to do anything differently to help students understand the abstract concepts better.

It is in this light that Mathematics Educators like Shri AR Rao stand out. He dedicated his life to math education and inspired generations.

Born in the small village of Jakka Samudram of Salem district, Tamilnadu, he had his initial schooling at Tanjore—not far from Kumbakonam, where Ramanujam and studied lived when he was young.  He studied chemistry, not mathematics at graduate level, and then took a post graduate degree from Chennai. But his karmabhumi was Gujarat. He joined Bahauddin College, Junagadh in 1933, as a Professor of Mathematics and spent 27 years there. After that he taught in various other colleges in the state.

After ‘retirement’ in 1974, he started his second innings. He became a mathematician at VASCSC (Vikram Sarabhai Community Science Centre), a pioneering science education facility in the county. The teacher of formal mathematics became the flag-bearer of non-formal mathematics as a means to popularize mathematics. His mission was to make mathematics enjoyable for students and everyone else.

His innovative mind came up with dozens of puzzles, games, models and teaching aids towards this.

He set up India’s first Mathematics Laboratory at VASCSC. He traveled, attended workshops and seminars, and spoke all over the country to popularize these ideas.

I had the great good fortune of having interacted with Shri AR Rao to some extent. When I was helping at VASCSC, his 90th birthday came up. It was decided to throw a surprise party at the Centre. Just to ensure that he did come in that day, a message was sent to him that the Trustees wanted to meet him.

I still remember the joy and the excitement of the many students and bhakts who came for the party. And at last the guest of honour, Shri AR Rao, walked in. He was truly surprised and thrilled. He almost broke down when it was his turn to speak. He said that he had come in very nervously, thinking that the Trustees had wanted to meet him to ask him to retire now that he was 90! Such was his love and passion for spreading the word on mathematics education that he wanted to come in to work at this age. And indeed he did, till the age of 100. He passed away on 4th April, 2011.

If today the teaching of mathematics in India has become more comprehensible to the average student, if students appreciate and enjoy the beauty of mathematics, and if teachers have begun to employ innovative methods to teach the subject, Prof. AR Rao had a lot to do with it.

It would be appropriate to end with a quote from him:

“Although everyone concedes that without mathematics, modern science and technology can hardly make any progress, it is common knowledge that the students everywhere consider mathematics as a very difficult subject. Of the many reasons that can be found for this, perhaps, the most important are, some defective methods of teaching, over emphasis on exams and indiscriminate cramming of materials from the text books and the so-called guides. So what is really needed is inculcation of a power of understanding and a capacity of creative thinking.” AR Rao.

Blessed indeed to have met such people!

–Meena

Much of the material has been drawn from http://www.vascsc.org/images/pdfs/Glorious-Innings-of-Prof.A-R-Rao.pdf.

Stamp on Numbers

Actually, that should read ‘Stamps on Numbers’. But ‘Stamp on Numbers’ is something I would have liked to say to my Math teachers, so let me work it out my system!

Browsing through the books in the home bookshelf is an obsessive COVID activity with me, as with many others. In this exercise, I came across a book entitled ‘Wonder of Numbers’ by Clifford Pickover. While I am sure the book has lots to teach on mathematics, what I found most interesting was a snippet that the country of Nicaragua had, in 1971, issued a series of stamps called the “The 10 mathematical formulas which have changed the face of the world”. The ten selected formulae:

  • 1 + 1 = 2
  • Pythagorean law for right-angled triangles
  • Archimedes’ law of moments
  • Napier’s law of logarithms
  • Newton’s law of gravitation
  • Maxwell’s law of electromagnetism
  • de Broglie’s law of light waves
  • Tsiolkovskii’s law of rocket motion
  • Boltzmann’s law of entropy, and
  • Einstein’s law of relativity.  

The back of each stamp apparently has a small explanation of the formula. No one is quite sure how these particular formulae were selected, but what I found most fascinating was that a country would think of putting out such a series!

Delving a little more taught me that there were several hundreds of stamps across the world, devoted to mathematics and mathematicians.

Several countries have brought out stamps on Mathematics Education. https://mathematicalstamps.eu/news/100

Nicaragua, Iran and Mexico have brought out stamps on the theme of ‘Counting on Fingers’. There are several stamps which highlight calculating instruments like Pascal’s Mechanical Calculator, William Schickard’ calculating device, the Slide Rule, etc.

A number of stamps have featured statistical themes, such as a graph showing the Norwegian gross national product growth from 1876 to 1976, and one depicting the decline in malaria.

There have been many stamps devoted to games and pastimes based on mathematical reasoning. Chess and Go—a Chinese game—have quite a few each. But so do other lesser known ones–Senet an early form of backgammon; an Egyptian game from 1350 BC played by two players on a 3 x 10 board; the African game of eklan which consists of a board with 24 holes, arranged in concentric squares into which sticks are inserted etc.  Of course, the Rubik cube, invented by the Hungarian engineer Erno Rubik, a coloured cube whose six faces can be independently rotated so as to yield 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 different patterns, has a stamp or two.

The metric system was introduced in 1960 and gradually, most countries have adopted this system of weights and measures. There are quite a few ‘metrication stamps’ including:

  • a Brazilian metric ruler
  • a Romanian stamp demonstrating that a metre is one ten-millionth of the distance from the north pole to the equator
  • a stamp from Pakistan demonstrating the metric units of weight, capacity and length
  • two Australian cartoon stamps featuring the metric conversion of length and temperature
  • a Ghanaian stamp indicating that a metre of cloth is a little more than 3 feet 3 inches.

Since 1897, International Congresses of Mathematicians have been held at which thousands of mathematicians from around the world gather to learn about the latest developments in their subject. These meetings usually take place every four years. Several of these congresses have been commemorated by stamps.

India has a few mathematical stamps too. Aryabhatta, Ramanujam and DD Kosambi are celebrated on Indian stamps. Jantar Mantar, the remarkable observatory designed by mathematicians and astronomers figures on a stamp too. The decimal system which originated in India and is a fundamental contribution, is actually celebrated in a stamp brought out by Nepal through a depiction of an Ashoka Pillar from Lumbini, which portrays this.

My search engine wanderings led me to a world which I did not know existed, and from where I have gleaned most of this information. The world of people who love mathematics, stamps and mathematical stamps .

Some of these, which are also the sources of much of the above information:

https://mathematicalstamps.eu/news/100

http://users.wfu.edu/kuz/Stamps/stamppage.htm

Stamping through Mathematics. Robin J. Wilson. Springer.

Mathematics and science : an adventure in postage stamps. William L.Schaaf. Reston.

Have fun!

–Meena

Mr Kindness

Last week I wrote about Children’s Day. Earlier this month two other important international days passed almost unnoticed. 13 November which is designated as World Kindness Day, and November 16 which is marked as International Day for Tolerance and Peace.

For its fiftieth anniversary on 16 November 1995, UNESCO’s Member States adopted a Declaration of Principles on Tolerance. Among other things, the Declaration affirms that tolerance is respect and appreciation of the rich variety of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. While this is a universal ideal and aspiration, it is at the level of the individual that the foundation of tolerance and respect is laid.

And this is what the World Kindness Day seeks to do–reinforce the understanding that compassion for others is what binds us all together. It is this that has the power to bridge the gap between people, communities and nations. This global day promotes the importance of being kind to each other, to oneself, and to the world.

The idea of this day was promoted by an international non-profit organisation called the World Kindness Movement which works to inspire individuals towards greater kindness to create a kinder world; and their guiding tenet: The world is full of kind people. If you can’t find one, be one.

Nothing, and no one, exemplifies the spirit and practice of all the three days better than the beloved Mr Rogers whose TV show celebrated kindness, and helped millions of children to develop empathy.

I came upon the inspiring story of Mr Rogers via Tom Hanks when I saw the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. After seeing Tom Hank’s version I wanted to know about the real Mr Rogers!

Fred McFeely Rogers grew up in America in the 1930s as a shy, somewhat awkward, and sometimes bullied child. After getting his first degree in music, he returned home for the vacation before he prepared to enter the seminary and study to become a priest. It was then that he saw television for the first time at his parent’s home. He was appalled to see the kind of programmes where as he said ‘people were throwing pies in each other’s faces.’ While he found this disgusting, he also saw the enormous potential that TV had for connection and enrichment. That eureka moment changed his life—and the lives of millions of Americans.

Fred Rogers went on to create a TV show called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which first aired on 19 February 1968 and continued for over 30 years. The last episode of the 31 seasons was aired on 31 August 2001. Fred Rogers was the host of all 895 episodes, the composer of its more than 200 songs, and its puppeteer.

The set of simple hand puppets featuring 14 characters from his first show continued to be with the friendly Mr Rogers, clad in his trademark red cardigan and sneakers, for over 40 years. The puppets who inhabit the Neighbourhood of Make Believe, portray real-life feelings as they live and learn with the help of their neighbourhood human friends who represent a wide variety of interests and talents. The puppets and the humans live together, care about and learn from each other. As they often reminded viewers “We all have different gifts, so we all have different ways of saying to the world who we are. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”

Mr Rogers was far from preachy. He did not shy away from difficult topics like bullying, divorce, and death; he talked honestly and openly about subjects that adults are hesitant to discuss with children, but that children wonder and worry about silently. He reassured children and adults that it was ok if there were some things that they could not understand. He addressed children’s fears and insecurities, and instilled a sense of faith and trust. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”.

Although Fred Rogers later acquired graduate degrees in child development as well as divinity, he always consulted with his close associate and child psychologist Dr Margaret Mcfarland, to ensure that his scripts would authentically reflect the real concerns and feelings of children.

His show also offered children the tools to be lifelong learners—a sense of wonder, a curiosity about the world around us, the willingness to ask questions. “Did you know, when you wonder you are learning?”

The concept of neighbour and neighbourhood in the leitmotif of Mr Rogers’ life and work. “Neighbours are people who live close to each other. Neighbours look at each other, they talk to each other; they listen to each other. That’s how they get to know each other.” In his neighbourhood everyone was welcomed and valued, and the characters taught how to appreciate and respect others.

Mr Rogers’ ‘neighbourhood’ in a sense becomes the symbol of community; it extends beyond a residential address to embrace the city, the country, the continent, and ultimately the planet that we all inhabit. It metaphorically embraces the universe. And it reminds us of the dire need for, and the gentle power of sharing and compassion. “All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbours—in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.”

Today teaching and learning respect, tolerance, sharing, acceptance of differences, and celebration of diversity are highlighted in “values education” curricula. This is the kind of education proposed by UNESCO in its declaration of four pillars of education, i.e. learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be.

Over 50 years ago Fred Rogers planted the seeds of basic human values in millions of children, who must themselves have grandchildren now! And for all this he offered only one mantra: “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”

–Mamata

A-Rated History

I am living in 40 BC. Or the 13th, or 15th, or the 18th century. Really depends on which series I am watching at the moment. And my favourite ones are all set way, way back.

And boy, am I learning! Whether it is the Roman Empire, or the Mongols, or the Medicis, or South America, here is the most interesting way to get a feel of the time, the place, the world-changing events. Fully of course realizing that as per reviews (and my own shaky knowledge of history), these series range in accuracy from about 80% (Boilvar), to about 30% (Marco Polo). But I suppose it is up to me to read more authentic scholarly accounts and get my facts straight. I have started on Marco Polo: The Travels. But that, I suppose is not really very factual either. Marco Polo and his co-author have reports on the most fantastical things, whose authenticity is very much in doubt. But nevertheless the television series got me eager to read it.

The point I am coming around to is that this may be the best way to get young people interested in history. Just as David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau used television and film to bring nature into the house, and thus awaken a whole generation to interest in the environment, here is an opportunity to do the same with history.

And there are several, several such popular serials which can lend themselves to this. My question is: why are they made such that the 13 and 14-year olds who I really feel would be inspired by them, cannot watch them? I understand the Romans had their orgies, the Mongols their harems, and all of them their bloody wars and brutality. But is there no way to bring them into the family room to be family watching? Surely, there can be a way to avoid so much frontal nudity, explicit sex and the level of gore that is shown. Creative film-making is about that!

This is not a plea for censorship. It is to only reiterate that more than soap-value, these topics have educational value. And as an educator, it saddens me when the opportunity is missed. Billions of dollars and so much creative talent spent. But no teacher dealing with these topics in classroom can prescribe these as required watching. Because of the nudity, sex, strong language, drug use and violence, they are not rated for this age group.

If producers feel that their core audience is not this age group, and only putting in a lot of this will bring in the audience and generate revenues, maybe expurgated student-friendly versions available in the daytime?

There MUST be a way around. Surely technology can find a fix!

–Meena

Gandhiji’s Wisdom on Education

As we approach Gandhi Jayanti with the New Education Policy (NEP) now a reality, it is an appropriate time to re-visit Gandhiji’s philosophy of education as encapsulated in his Nai Talim (New Education)—Basic Education for All.

The fundamental premise of Nai Talim is that basic education is a holistic process, where all aspects of the individual—intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual—are given opportunity for development.  The curriculum seeks to impart learning through hands-on skill-based work that prepares young people for the real world, rather than creating islands where education has nothing to do with the surrounding community. The centrality of skills aims to reinforce the dignity of labor, the value of self-sufficiency, and strengthen local culture. In this approach to education, craft-skill serves as the center of the holistic development of the student. Other skills such as literacy and mathematics are learned in the context of their craft, and subjects are taught in an interdisciplinary way and never separated from their practical application in the world.

Some other perspectives that under-pinned Gandhiji’s thinking on education were:

  • That education should include a “reverent study of all religions.”
  • Education meant lifelong learning
  • And a re-definition of the role of the teacher, which is summed up by him as : “A teacher who establishes rapport with the taught, becomes one with them, learns more from them than he teaches them. He who learns nothing from his disciples is, in my opinion, worthless. ..In this way, a true teacher regards himself as a student of his students.”

A national education conference held at Wardha on 22–23 October 1937 wherein Gandhiji shared his vision of education led to the setting up of two model schools at Wardha and nearby Segaon.  A few years ago, I was in Wardha and sadly, it did not seem that the school was doing too well, or that it was at the forefront of educational innovation. It would seem that it is not easy to implement the philosophy of Nai Talim in a way that is relevant to today’s world.

They say the NEP has some influences from Nai Talim. How far these elements are implementable or how seriously they will be implemented is yet to be seen. My feeling is that it will take very creative re-interpretation of the philosophy of Nai Talim, if we want the spirit of it to infuse our education system. And as of now, I am not aware of any exciting experiments in this direction.  

I often find myself returning to these two quotes from Gandhiji after discussions and debates on education. To me, they are the touchstone by which any educational initiative must be evaluated:

“By education I mean an all-round drawing out of the best in child and man–body, mind and spirit. Literacy is not the end of education nor even the beginning. It is only one of the means by which man and woman can be educated. Literacy in itself is no education.’

“The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the student to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated.’

 

–Meena

Teacher Teacher   

My father-in-law will be 96 years old this month. He trained as an artist, but spent his career teaching machine drawing in a government polytechnic. He has now been retired for more years than he taught a subject that he was not passionate about. But what he was passionate about was reaching out to his students, not driven by any great philosophy or mission, but his innately sociable and open personality.  Even today, he gets phone calls from his old (literally—some are 75 years and over!) students, just for them to say that they remember him fondly. Till a couple of years ago he clearly remembered names and attributes of so many of his students. It is that life force which continues to energize him even today.

The word Teacher itself is loaded with so much meaning. After all teachers were the key players in the long drama of one’s school (and college) life, with distinct characters, roles and parts. As a part of the student audience, and at times, minor characters in the crowd scenes, we spent a great deal of time and emotion on ‘adoring’, ‘hating’, ‘fearing’, ‘hero worshipping’,  ‘imitating’, or ‘buttering up’ our teachers.

Teachers were a necessary evil that dominated every ‘period’ of our school days.­­­­­­­­­­­ It is when we were older (and perhaps a wee bit wiser) that we could look back with nostalgia and remember those teachers. This was also when we realized the lasting impressions and influences that different teachers had left on us. Not all of these were related to the subject they taught. More often, it was how they taught, or what they said and did, or even what they wore, and how they behaved. We could now see these as individuals with distinct personalities and persuasions. For some of us, the older we get, the more sentimental we get. And Teachers Day, celebrated in India on 5 September, revives many such memories.

In the good old school days, the run up to T-Day was exciting. This was the day that the tables were turned, as it were. It was the one day when students turned into teachers! This was how Teachers Day was celebrated in many schools.

This year for the first time perhaps in memory, the Covid wave has meant that educational institutions across the world are closed. In just a few months, our age-old understanding of educational spaces, classroom transactions, and players has been turned on its head. The e-learning revolution is sweeping across the globe.

Children of all ages (starting from nursery and kindergarten) passively face a small screen which reflects other small faces and a bigger face. It is in this virtual classroom that lessons are communicated (rather than taught). The day is divided into sterile time slots, rather than a time table in which the best parts were the time-outs for rowdy recesses and roistering assemblies. The Teacher is just a talking head who pops up at a designated time. As the young eyes and ears strain to keep alert and awake, the other senses lie dormant. Missing are the smells from the tiffin boxes, the touch of the dog-eared books and scarred desks, the jostling camaraderie of classmates, the fights and the making-up, the shared secrets, and playful antics…and with it the range of emotions that mark the gamut of relationships among the students, and between the teacher and the taught.itscalledreading (1).gif

I must confess that I have no current and direct experience of e-learning, as a teacher, learner, or parent. But as Teacher’s Day approaches, I cannot help wondering and worrying about this new model of teachers and teaching. Yes, we have no alternative at this moment when safety and health is the priority. True that technology has enabled a safer and more widespread route to reaching out. Agreed that there are examples of inspiring innovations and models. But what will a child of the Age of Corona and Era of E-learning remember of her classroom, her classmates and above all, her teacher? What stories will he share with his children? Who will she remember with a smile or a grimace on another Teacher’s Day?

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.   Carl Jung

–Mamata