RIP Dr. SM Nair: Father of Natural History Museums

There are the pioneers, and he was among them. Museology is not a widely-known or popular field of study even today. Way back in the 1950s, it was even less so. This is the time at which a young boy from Kerala, after finishing his B.Sc in Trivandrum, travelled all the way to Baroda to pursue his M.Sc in the subject, at the M.S. University. He went on to do research on the Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials, and was awarded the first Doctorate in Museology from M.S. University for this work.

Dr. Nair started his career as an academic, first teaching at his alma mater in Baroda, and then moving on to Department of Museum Studies, BITS Pilani.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then-PM, and a leader who took great interest in the environment, had been very impressed by the Natural History Museums she saw during her visits to Europe. She wanted to create similar ones in India. She conceived of a plan for one in New Delhi and one in Bhopal. She put together an eminent team of museum professionals and scientists to take this idea forward. One thing led to another, and Dr. SM Nair, only 37 years old at that time, was chosen as the Project Director for this initiative in 1974.

Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH
Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH

Four hectic years followed, when the conceptualization, planning and execution was done by a dedicated core team including Shri D.P.Singh, S.K. Saraswat, B. Venugopal and several others. Dr. Nair visited the best Natural History Museums around the world. He got several artists and model-makers trained at the best centres in the world. And the National Museum of Natural History opened its doors to the public on June 5, 1978 (Environment Day). Subsequently, Regional Museums of Natural History came up in Mysore, Bhopal and Bhubaneswar  under Dr. Nair’s guidance.

The stuffed rhino that greeted one on the ground floor of the FICCI building where NMNH was housed, will surely be in the memories of many a Delhi school child. The rhino had died a natural death at the Delhi Zoo, and was stuffed and kept here.

The effort in NMNH was always to make the experience interactive for children. For those times, when most museums were static displays, this focus was unusual. The Museum also had a major thrust on outreach and extension. It had an active teacher training and orientation programme, which reached out to thousands of educators in its time.

Dr. Nair had a personal connect with every exhibit and activity at NMNH, and continued to take an interest in it even after his retirement in the late ‘90s. What he must have gone through on 26th April 2016, when the news of a fire breaking out in the museum and destroying the entire collection, can only be imagined.

Dr. Nair continued to be active in his mission of Environmental Education long after his retirement, working at WWF-India and Centre for Environment Education.

Not just at a national level, he was extremely respected internationally, serving as Chairman of Natural History Museum Committee of ICOM (international Council of Museums) and as

a Member of the Joint Museum Committee of the lndo-US Subcommission on Education and Culture.

Among his books are ‘Endangered Animals of India and their Conservation’, brought out by the National Book Trust, and  ‘Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials’ by Agam Kala Prakashan.

We knew Dr. Nair since the mid-eighties, as one of the fathers of the Environmental Education movement an India.

He mentored us first as a member of the Governing Council of CEE, and then as a senior colleague. Even today, old-timers in CEE-VIKSAT recall his contribution to these institutions with great respect—when it was a struggling NGO, he spotted the potential of the team and gave them a project to develop labels and take-away materials for the NMNH exhibits. This not only paid salaries for a couple of months, but gave them their first project from a national-level, government institution. This project was a critical stepping-stone.

We have also known him as the father of a colleague, Meena, who was inspired by him to follow in his footsteps in a career in Environmental Education.

NMNH and other natural history museums excited the imagination and curiosity of generations of children. NMNH may no longer exist, but Dr. Nair’s legacy lives on.

Dr. Nair passed away last week. May his soul rest in peace.

Dr. SM Nair (1937-2021).

–Meena

The Montessori Touch

Source: ageofmontessori.org

What do a young Jewish girl and her diary; and a young man and his online encyclopaedia have in common? What is the link between the Google Guys, one of the richest men in the world, and a Nobel Prize winning writer?

It is the name Maria Montessori!

All these renowned names, spanning different periods of time, began their education in a Montessori pre-school. And all of them attribute a large part of who they are, and what they achieved, to the strong roots of the philosophy and practice of the Montessori system of education.

Anne Frank is synonymous with her Diary. The young Jewish girl who penned her experiences and thoughts of two years of hiding from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam, died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. She was only 15 years old. Her diary remains one of the most poignant pieces of literature from World War II. It is in this diary that Anne recorded how her early education began. I started right away at the Montessori nursery school. I stayed there until I was six, at which time I started 1st grade (Montessori elementary). …My parents never worry about report cards, good or bad. As long as I am healthy and happy and don’t talk back too much they are satisfied. (But) I do not want to be a bad student. …I was supposed to stay in the seventh grade at the Montessori School, but Jewish children were required to go to Jewish schools…”

As a child Anne was always asking questions, and her father felt that the Montessori approach would give enough room for her curious mind to blossom.  She attended the 6th Montessori School of Amsterdam from age 3 to 11. She then attended a year at the Montessori Lyceum (high school) until German authorities prohibited Jewish children from attending school with Christian children. Anne spent the rest of her short life in hiding, where the diary with the red checked cover that her father gave her, became her special secret. Maria Montessori once said: A child without a secret becomes and adult without a personality. Sadly Anne never attained adulthood, but her diary with her attention to detail, her observations and her honesty bears proof of her Montessori education.

What is the first place to check when one is looking for information? Wikipedia! The brain behind the online encyclopaedia is Jimmy Wales. Another curious child, Jimmy used to spend hours perusing the physical tomes of the Britannicas and World Book Encyclopaedias. This passion bloomed into Wikipedia. Jimmy credits his ability to think outside the box to the Montessori method that his school followed. Jimmy was a  true example of an Absorbent Mind that Maria Montessori wrote about in her book of the same title.

Julia Child is known as the woman who popularised French cooking in America with her famous cookbook and her funny TV cookery shows. Julia Child worked at diverse occupations from being a copywriter, to being a research assistant for Secret Intelligence, until she discovered her passion for cooking. 

Julia’s life and work was strongly influenced by her Montessori education. She always claimed that Montessori learning taught her to love working with her hands. Equally important was Montessori’s approach to making mistakes.  “[Maria] Montessori wanted kids to develop ‘a friendly relationship to error,’ – to understand that mistakes are a normal part of learning, and that to learn, you must be willing to make mistakes, and then to move forward.” 

Julia Child’s early Montessori experiences led her to endorse that involving children in the process of cooking did much more than teach them to cook. “Influenced, perhaps, by my early experience at a Montessori school, and surely by living in a clan full of carvers, painters, carpenters, and cooks of all ages, I am all for encouraging children to work productively with their hands. They learn to handle and care for equipment with respect… The small rituals, like the clean hands and clean apron before setting to work; the precision of gesture, like levelling off a cupful of flour; the charm of improvisation and making something new; the pride of mastery; and the gratification of offering something one has made — these have such value to a child. And where are they so easily to be obtained as in cooking?

If using her hands and learning from mistakes was Montessori’s lifelong lesson for Julia Child, it was the spirit of exploration that marked Montessori’s influence on Will Wright. Wright, one of the most famous video game designers in history, is best known for SimCity. His games rarely conclude with The End, rather they let the player tinker towards perfection, with each player defining that perfection.

Wright always claimed that his schooling until sixth grade in a Montessori school “was the high point of my education”. As he wrote “Montessori taught me the joy of discovery. It showed you can become interested in pretty complex theories, like Pythagorean theory, say, by playing with blocks. It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you. SimCity comes right out of Montessori — if you give people this model for building cities, they will abstract from it principles of urban design.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, best known for his book One Hundred Years of Solitude won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982, “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts.”

As a child he struggled to read, but when he joined a Montessori school his language skills were transformed by the phonetic way of learning. Marquez credited many of his successes to the Montessori form of education. As he said “I do not believe there is a method better than Montessori for making children sensitive to the beauties of the world and awakening their curiosity regarding the secrets of life.”

Montessori acknowledged that the only valid impulse to learn is self-motivation itself. She believed that children possess a natural motivation to learn and absorb knowledge without effort if given the right kind of activities, at the right time of their development.

Perhaps the most famous examples of the success of this approach is the story of Larry Page and Sergei Brin the co-founders of Google. Both have attributed their Montessori education as the foundation of their future professional life. We both went to Montessori school, and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, and doing things a little bit different that contributed to our success. They specifically credit the curriculum of self-directed learning where students follow their interests and decide for themselves what they want to learn that inspires students to become life-long learners with a love of education.

And last, but certainly not the least, one of the world’s richest men, Jeff Bezos could leap into space from a strong Montessori launch pad. He remembers: I went to Montessori school [for] about a year and a half, starting probably at age 2 1/2. … I have these very clear visual images of tracing out letters on sandpaper. I remember having a little special board that you can use to practice tying your shoes.

His mother remembers: He would get so engrossed in his activities as a Montessori pre-schooler that his teachers would literally have to pick him up out of his chair to go to the next task.

Bezos who started his amazing journey from a Montessori pre-school has come full circle by launching a $2 billion project called Day 1 Families that aims to bring quality early education to those who may not otherwise have access to it through supporting Montessori pre-schools in minority and low-income communities in America.

31 August marks the 151st birth anniversary of Maria Montessori. A century and a half later, her path-breaking philosophy and approach to education remain as relevant, if not more. The Montessori legacy lives on through the generations who have experienced the Montessori touch.

–Mamata

What Shall I Be?

In our experience of working with rural youth and those from smaller towns, we often found that when we asked them about their career aspirations, they would mention ‘engineer’, ‘teacher’, or ‘police’. With good reason, because these were among the few professionals they came across in their day to day lives. This gave us a good insight into the need for expanding horizons by introducing them to a variety of careers.  And it did make a difference. From forensic science to data science, from yoga teaching to wood-working, from optician to wildlife biologist—once the children knew about them, they were inspired to dream differently.

From Minva Aur Dumpua ke Karnaame, by V. Raghunathan, illustrated by Shilo Shiv Suleiman. Diamond Press

But never in my wildest dreams would I have thought to introduce some of the following careers to the young people. But maybe it’s time we get youth excited about some of them.

Given these COVID times, it would be good to inspire people to become aerobiologists–scientists who understand Aerobiology, the branch of biology which focusses on organic particles which are passively transported by the air, including bacterial viruses, fungal spores, pollen grains etc.! Or for that matter, to study Loimology, that is, gain knowledge of plagues and other pestilential diseases. Hygiology, the study of cleanliness could become big too

I would urge those interested in nature, wildlife or conservation to specialize in Caliology, or the study of bird’s nests– ‘calio’ comes from the Greek καλιά [kalia], a wooden dwelling, hut, or nest. Nidology means the same too, but the origin is from the Latin ‘nidus’ meaning nest. Or take up Myrmecology, the study of ants. Some could opt for Ophiology, the study of snakes.

Garbologists are going to become very important too—they study garbage, and hopefully will help to solve the world’s solid waste crisis. Given that our weather predictions are not too accurate with the monsoons more often missing than hitting on the given date, maybe more people should get into Anemology–the study of winds, and Brontology, the study of thunder. And we will always need people to take up Bromatology, the study of food. Bromotologists create new food products and also work to ensure food safety.

While I would urge young people to study Demology, that is, the study of human activities and social conditions, I would have to ensure they don’t confuse it with Demonology, the study of demons or beliefs about demons.

While not so disastrous a difference, I would still urge making the point that Mycology is the study of fungus, and Myology the study of muscles; Nephology the science of clouds, and Nephrology the study of kidneys; Pedology the study of soils, and Pedagogy the method and practice of teaching; Tribology the study of friction and wear between surfaces, and Trichology, the study of hair and its disorders.

And I would ask students to double check that they know what they are aspiring for when they decide to study Nosology—it is the study of diseases; or Trophology—it is the study of nutrition; Potamology the study of rivers; or Carpology the study fruits.

At any rate, no one can complain of lack of choices!

–Meena

Whatever you choose to be, whether a surgeon or a welder, make sure your skills are the best!

On the occasion of World Youth Skills Day, July 15.

Small Is Not Yet Beautiful

June 27 was declared as World Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Day by the UN in 2017, to focus on the contribution of this sector to inclusive and sustainable development, both locally and globally. The importance of MSMEs is huge, but not fully registered in the mindsets of most people. Globally, they account for two-thirds of all jobs. In developing countries, 4 out of 5 new jobs in the formal sector were created by MSMEs. Many MSMEs in developing countries, especially the smallest, are often run by women.

There is no standard international definition of MSME. In India, as per changes brought in last year, the classification of units in the sectors is based on a composite of Investment in plant/machinery/ equipment as well as Annual Turnover.

ClassificationMicroSmallMedium
Manufacturing and Service rendering EnterprisesInvestment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment:
Not over Rs.1 crore; and Annual Turnover not over Rs. 5 crore
Investment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment:
Not over Rs.10 crore; and Annual Turnover not over Rs.50 crore
Investment in Plant and Machinery or Equipment:
Not over Rs.50 crore; and Annual Turnover not over Rs.  250 crore

For us, as for many other developing countries, this sector is critical in terms of contribution to employment and GDP. There are about 6 crore MSME units in India today, of which 99.4 per cent of are micro-enterprises, while 0.52 percent are medium, and 0.007 per cent, are medium enterprises. In other words, micro-enterprises dominate. MSMEs account for about 30% of GDP and about 48% of exports. They employ about 11 crore people. About 41% MSMEs are engaged in Manufacturing while 59% of them are in Service activities

The number of MSME units and the people employed have been growing for the last 4-5 years.

But the contribution to the GDP has been almost stagnant. This clearly speaks for the extremely low, and falling productivity of the sector. Studies estimate that Indian MSMEs have a productivity of at best 65% and at worst, 25% of such units in other countries.

This is compounded with the difficulties these units face in scaling up and accessing markets. And not to speak of the challenges of the external environment and regulatory environment challenges. The pandemic has devastated the sector. Not only have orders dried up, but even where there are orders, units have been hit with a reduction of workforce and huge challenges in procurement of raw materials.

In a scenario where jobs are getting scarcer and entrepreneurship is being seen as the answer, we obviously need to do many things at many levels. Speaking as someone engaged in the education and skilling sector, for me a major part of the solution has to do with Education and Training.

First and foremost, we need to get basic education right.  

And then, respect for and practice of vocational skills, as well as concepts like quality consciousness and systematic approach to doing any task have to be inculcated right from primary levels. These are not mindsets which can be added on at a later stage. They are very fundamental to a person’s make up, and influence how he/she performs any task in later life.

Skill training has to be much more rigorous than it is today. A student in Germany for instance, would spend about 2 to 3.5 years learning a skill, spending half the time in vocational school and half the time in a real factory, being systematically trained. We are ready to certify youth who go through a 3-month programme as skilled! And even pass-outs from ITI institutions or Polytechnics who spend a longer time, still have zero exposure to any real life workplace situation, and at best spend some time on old and outmoded machines. Not a recipe for productivity!

Third, MSME entrepreneurs need management education. Whether it is managing finances or people, production or marketing, each small entrepreneur seems to be making mistakes, discovering first principles, and reinventing the wheel. Surely not conducive to productivity. There are such initiatives, but they seldom reach the grassroots and the audience who really need these inputs.*

MSMEs have a huge role to play in inclusive development. They have the potential to impact the lives of the poorest, the most vulnerable through creation of local businesses. We need to act now!

–Meena

PS:  Those interested in MSMEs and Skilling should watch a webinar by National Skills Network on the subject.

  • * I am currently involved in a very interesting initiative of developing an ‘MBA’ programme for rural women entrepreneurs who are Std 8 pass and above. An initiative of Access Livelihoods supported by GIZ.

To School or Not to School?

Last week Meena wrote about the conundrum of schooling in the age of Corona lockdowns. While school-going children and teachers of all ages have been thrown overnight into an entirely alien pattern of e-teaching and learning, parents have been facing some of the biggest challenges in terms of new role and responsibilities. This period has also triggered numerous dilemmas and debates about how to provide the best possible education for children while schooling at home. Several parents have seriously started considering the merits of ‘home-schooling’.

Since the early days of formal educational systems as defined by the institution of the School, there have always been a cohort of parents who have chosen to experiment with alternative methods of teaching and learning for their children. The jury is still out on the strengths and weaknesses of this practise, but there are certainly interesting examples and experiences to peruse and ponder over. Here is a particularly inspiring one.

The story goes back to 1847; when 7-year-old Al, who had been in school for just three months, came home with a note from his teacher which stated that the young boy was “addled”, was not capable of keeping up with studies, and that he was advised to leave the school. Al’s mother Nancy refused to accept this harsh judgement about her child; she took this as a challenge and decided to teach him at home. She knew that though he was shy and retiring, but this was probably because he had a hearing difficulty that constrained his active participation in the classroom. Having once been a teacher herself Nancy diagnosed that the imaginative and inquisitive child was a ‘misfit’ because he was bored by conventional rote learning. Nancy encouraged her child’s curiosity, and love for books, and gave him the time and space to use his head and hands by exploring, experimenting and discovering for himself.

The young boy was fascinated by mechanical things and experiments. An elementary science book that she gave him when he was nine, explained how to do chemistry experiments at home. Al was hooked! He spent his pocket money on buying chemicals from the local pharmacy and collected basic equipment for experiments; when he was 10, he set up a simple lab in the basement of his house where he spent hours. Encouraged by his parents, he read voraciously, including literature and history. Thus began a lifelong passion for learning for a boy who never had more than three months of formal schooling.

Al grew up to be known as Thomas Alva Edison, one of the most prolific inventors of all times whose inventions changed the world in many ways–from the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, as well as improving the telegraph and telephone. In his 84 years, he acquired an astounding 1,093 patents. He invented both product but also systems to support the process of invention, a forerunner of the concept of R&D labs. Edison went beyond being an inventor to also become a successful manufacturer and businessman, marketing his inventions to the public and setting up what was one of the early forms of a successful corporation.

Thomas Alva Edison’s mother Nancy died when he was 24 years old but she remained his source of inspiration through his life and career. In later years, a grown and very successful Thomas always acknowledged that his mother’s discipline for a focused life was responsible for his great success. As he said, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had someone to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

Not all of us can be a Nancy Edison, and certainly not every home-schooled child may grow up to be a Thomas Alva Edison. What interested me more about the story was not so much the great inventor Edison about whom much has been written, but Edison’s deep thinking on education that was well ahead of his times, and clearly reflected the deep impact of his personal experiences.  

Edison was critical of the education system of his day. He felt that “The present system does not give elasticity to the mind. It casts the brain into a mould. It insists that the child must accept. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning and lays more stress on memory than observation. The result of accepting unrelated facts is the fostering of conservatism [in thinking]. It breeds fear, and from fear comes ignorance.”

Edison’s entire life was an intense and passionate quest for knowledge and understanding which came not by blindly following books but by learning-by-doing. All his life he adhered to a meticulous recording of innumerable experiments, thoughts, and observations in thousands of detailed laboratory notebooks. Even when he became a successful businessman, his intense love for information, communications, and learning led him to set up his corporate office in his beautiful and well-stocked library. He even considered his childhood deafness, which increased as he got older, as an asset rather than a liability. For someone who was an inventor, he was asked why he did not invent a hearing aid. He said that not being assailed by outside noise made it easier for him to concentrate on his experiments and research.

Even when he had his own labs and research staff, Edison continued to endorse his style of hands-on learning-by-doing. One of his early experiments, in the early 1890s, was to produce bricks that were porous, but which would not absorb moisture when exposed to rain or snow as they were transported in open train cars. Edison and his colleagues spent almost a year experimenting with different materials and solutions to come up with a suitable binding solution or “muck” as they called it. Edison started referring to his researchers as “muckers”, and then on, the name stuck for all researchers who worked in his labs, who later formed an organisation called Muckers of the Edison Laboratory” or “Edison’s Muckers”.

This is the core of Edison’s strong views on education Edison believed that most schools taught children to memorize facts, when they ought to have students observe nature and to make things with their hands; in other words ”be muckers”.

Later, as a parent himself, he set up small problem solving searches for his children. One of these was “team-based research”; he would tell them what he was interested in reading about, and they would have to go through the books in his vast library and search out not only the books, but also mark the relevant pages or sections with slips of paper. The family also played indoor games where the traditional rules were often changed.

It was natural that Edison’s own upbringing and his discomfort with the education system would lead him, in later years, to appreciate and support Montessori’s positive alternative   philosophy of education. As he wrote, I like the Montessori method. It teaches through play. It makes learning a pleasure. It follows the natural instincts of the human being.”

In 1913 when Maria Montessori made her first visit to the United States for a lecture tour she stayed at Edison’s home.  Edison helped found one of the very first Montessori schools in the United States thus helping to spread the message and mission of an alternative educational system.

Edison’s inventions transformed the world in many ways, and many of these were the pioneers of the tech revolution that has changed the way we think and operate today. But Edison also concerned himself equally with the true meaning of education and the processes of learning. His work and life was guided by four simple principles, taught to him by his mother:

Never get discouraged if you fail. Learn from it. Keep trying.

Learn with both your head and hands.

Not everything of value in life comes from books-experience the world.

Never stop learning. Read the entire panorama of literature.

If only every parent could internalize, and instil, with conviction, these principles that lay down the foundation of life-long learning.

A century later, the world is grappling anew with the same question: What should be the future of education? While re-imagining the transformation of education in the age of technology it would still be worthwhile to leave space for our children to be “muckers”, and for the unfettered joy of learning.

–Mamata

The Future of Education

A year ago, when we were just beginning to understand the impact of Corona and lockdowns on our lives, my colleagues and I had a brainstorming, and jotted down what we saw as the impacts of these on school-age children. These included:

  • Loss in educational achievements due to long break
  • Increasing inequity in educational inputs– limited access of Govt School children to e-learning
  • Challenges in parental support to facilitate learning at home
  • Inadequate interaction with other children /adult
  • Difficulties in adjusting to new teaching methods/ technologies/ new curriculu
  • Inadequate educational inputs, resources
  • No exposure to outdoors, play, co-curricular activities
  • No outlet for energy
  • Less structure, discipline
  • Lower nutrition due to disruptions to mid-day meals
  • Challenges to govt. school infra of social distancing norms, sanitation, water
  • Pressure on Govt. Schools due to reverse migration, and shifting from private to govt. schools due to fall in income.
  • Timely availability of textbooks, coping with new timelines
  • Pressure of change in Academic year, exam patterns
  • Increased dropouts for various reasons, increase in child labour, child marriages etc.
  • Fear, anxiety
  • Parents stressed with loss of incomes, confinement etc.
  • Lowered access to healthcare.

In the year that we have gone through, not many satisfactory responses to these challenges have been found.

The pandemic is forcing us to focus on the short term, on questions like:

To open schools, or not to open schools?

To start classes, or not to start classes?

To conduct exams, or not to conduct exams?

But the responsibility of policy-makers is to go beyond, and think about the future shape of education, and to re-imagine it for the new world. This is where the UNESCO titled ‘Education in a post-COVID world: Nine ideas for public action’ will be useful. While it not a kunji  to give short answers to profoundly important questions about the future of education, it does give some useful frameworks to think about these questions. The nine ideas it propounds are:

‘1. Commit to strengthen education as a common good. Education is a bulwark against inequalities.

2. Expand the definition of the right to education so that it addresses the importance of connectivity and access to knowledge and information.

3. Value the teaching profession and teacher collaboration. Encourage conditions that give frontline educators autonomy and flexibility to act collaboratively.

4. Promote student, youth and children’s participation and rights. Prioritize the participation of students and young people broadly in the co-construction of desirable change.

5. Protect the social spaces provided by schools as we transform education. The school as a physical space is indispensable. Traditional classroom organization must give way to a variety of ways of ‘doing school’ but the school as a separate space-time of collective living, specific and different from other spaces of learning must be preserved.

6. Make free and open source technologies available to teachers and students. Education cannot thrive with ready-made content built outside of the pedagogical space and outside of human relationships between teachers and students. Nor can education be dependent on digital platforms controlled by private companies.

7. Ensure scientific literacy within the curriculum.

8. Protect domestic and international financing of public education. The pandemic has the power to undermine several decades of advances.

9. Advance global solidarity to end current levels of inequality.’

Excerpted from: https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/education_in_a_post-covid-world 

The world has changed. Crisis has to be turned to opportunity. We have to start to re-imagine the Future of Education–now.

–Meena

Of Logs and Constants…

I grew up believing that there were three pillars on which every middle-class household was built: a dictionary, an atlas, and the Clark’s table!

Our household dictionary was a Chambers with a hoary history (see https://millennialmatriarchs.com/2021/04/13/silver-tongued-orator-of-the-british-empire/). My father would often read out to us, and such occasions were always punctuated with me or my brother being asked to go and fetch the dictionary when we came across a difficult word. I am not sure why we did not bring the dictionary along with the story book, in the first place. It might have saved the interruptions. But I don’t recall we ever did that.

One of the tasks my father set us was to open the dictionary as close to the word being searched as possible. He maintained that one should be so familiar with the dictionary that we should have a good feel of where a word would be. For instance, if the word we wanted to look up was ‘signet’, at first go we were expected to open the book somewhere between ‘se..’ and ‘so..’. And as we progressed, within a few pages of the word.

The newspaper was generally the trigger for referring to the Atlas. I was a reluctant and late newspaper reader. And I think my father’s well-intentioned efforts to ask me to find obscure places and landmarks mentioned in the day’s news as part of the exercise only intimidated me and put me off newspapers even more. Political maps were a little more comprehensible than the physical maps, but neither was my comfort zone.

The Clarks Table was the third pillar. This was called for at frequent intervals when my father needed to look up any constant, any formula, any log. Being a small book, it had the tendency to get mislaid, unlike the dictionary or atlas which had their own set places. So as I recall, I spent more time looking for the Clarks Table, than into it. As we grew up and were doing our homework, if the Clarks Table was on the study table, it seemed to reassure our parents that we were seriously at work. It being the era before parents got too hands-on with regard to studies, it was a useful ploy!

Of the three, the Clarks Table was the least ubiquitous, probably confined to families who had serious science students. But my father would be sad when he came across any household which did not have all three. I have no idea what kind of conversations could possibly take place during social home-calls (frequent when we were young), which would veer around to the need for calling for the Clarks, but they did seem to happen. Because my father would often return from a friend’s house clearly saddened by the fact that there were households which did not have all these books. It was not that he was being judgmental, but he felt in his heart the disappointment that some people were being deprived of access to true knowledge!

And I let him down! Soon after we got married, my father visited us in Ahmedabad. He was there to present a paper at a scientific conference and was going over some calculations. At around 7 o’clock in the evening, he asked me for a Clark’s. And I did not have one! He was fairly taken aback, though he sought bravely to mask his disappointment. Not only had I let him down, but Raghu, a serious academic not caring to have the Tables in the house (never mind that Raghu was a professor of Finance, not math or science)!  We went out and bought one the very next day, but alas, we could never quite make up!

I am sadly not able to find out much about the history of the Clark’s Table. Apart from the fact that it is now published by Pearson, and edited by Tennent, and that it ‘..contains tables with information about topics like squares, square roots…, and all the necessary data for reference purpose for science students’.  I am not able to find any clue as to who the meticulous Mr. Clark was, and how the book was put together and when. And who is Mr. Tennent who has edited this? I am sure there must be lots of interesting stories about all this, but no information is available to the casual reader.

I would surmise from the fact that the older editions were brought out by a Scottish publishing firm called Oliver and Boyd, that Mr. Clark was Scottish. The firm was established in 1807 or 1808, and started by publishing books for young people, as well as abridged histories and songbooks. When the next generation took over from the founders, they established themselves very strongly in educational publishing, especially medical textbooks, and had a strong presence in British colonies. The firm wound up in 1990.

I suppose that in today’s world, we don’t need such reference books anymore. But being old-fashioned and with the conditioning I have, it remains a constant in my life that good education stands on the foundation of three books I can touch and feel!

–Meena

The Mother of the Rhymes

Meena’s piece last week on nursery rhymes set me thinking. How is it that one clearly remembers most of the rhymes that one had heard and learnt when one was between 2 and 5 years of age, while many poems ‘learnt by heart’ subsequently do not seem to pop up as effortlessly? Why is it that the minute I see a toddler, I can’t resist the playing the silly  little game of Johny Johny Yes Papa, or This Little Piggy Went to Market? This is not the case with just English nursery rhymes, but equally with the Gujarati rhymes that I heard as a child. We may not have understood the words, (and often the words themselves were nonsensical), but it was the repetitive rhythm and rhyme that frolicked and danced in the head till they were firmly entrenched for life.

Today many studies have shown that nursery rhymes are very powerful influencers in early childhood development and education. At an age when children have limited attention spans, the brevity and repetitiveness make them fun to recite again and again. In the process, children develop the practice of listening and speaking; their ears and tongues become sensitive to the rhythm and patterns of language, and their vocabulary is enriched. Experts in literacy and child development have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.

Thinking about nursery rhymes also led me to remember that as children our nursery rhyme books were titled Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes. While Meena discovered the  curious origins of some popular rhymes, for hundreds of years it was thought that all the popular nursery rhymes were written by an author called Mother Goose. Over the years scholars tried to find out who exactly was this Mother Goose?

Mother Goose is so old that no one knows for sure whether she was a real or a fictional character. There are several legends, dating back to the tenth century, related to this character. One theory is that she was based on an actual person—the second wife of King Robert II of France who was nicknamed Queen Goose-Foot because of her misshapen feet. Her real name was Bertha of Burgundy; she was also known as Berthe la fileuse (Bertha the Spinner) as she was believed to be a wonderful storyteller, spinning tales that enraptured children, though she did not have children of her own. But historians have said that this is but a legend and not a fact.

The character of Mother Goose seems to have made her first appearance when French author Charles Perrault published a collection of rhymes and tales inspired by the old oral traditions of French and European folklore. The collection, in French, included rhymes as well as the classic fairy tales like CinderellaSleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Little Red Riding Hood. The book, published in 1697 under his son’s name, was titled Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals (Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé). It was subtitled Tales of Mother Goose (Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye). And it became known by this subtitle. Perrault’s publication is believed to be the first authenticated starting-point for Mother Goose stories.

The English-speaking audience was introduced to Mother Goose through the translation of Charles Perrault’s book by Robert Samber.  First published in 1729, the book was titled Histories of Tales of Past Times Told by Mother Goose. The illustration on the cover of the English edition of the book showed an old woman telling tales to a group of children under a sign that says “Mother Goose’s Tales.” Some say this art is what started the Mother Goose legend. In subsequent editions and publications she was also depicted as a sweet elderly woman who magically travelled on the back of a gander or male goose. Thus the only rhyme in which she appears as a character goes

Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander,
Would ride through the air
On a very fine gander.

Somehow, over time, the sweet old lady metamorphosed into the legendary human-sized goose with thick glasses and a bonnet. 

Mother Goose was not widely known in America until after 1786 when a publisher Maby Isaiah Thomas reprinted Samber’s book under the same title. But this gave rise to another theory that the original Mother Goose was an American lady from Boston whose name was Mary Goose, and who used to sing ditties to her grandchildren and other children. The legend spread and her grave became a tourist attraction, where visitors toss coins, even today, for good luck!

Whether fact or fiction, Mother Goose has been synonymous with childhood rhymes for generations, and remains popular even today. So much so that in America, 1 May is celebrated as Mother Goose Day. This started in 1987 when a book titled Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature, tracing the history of the character’s evolution was published. This day reminds yet another generation of parents of the continuing magic of rhymes.

In naming a national day as Mother Goose Day, America has recognised the value of rhymes in child development, and uses this day to remind parents and educators of this. This is with specific reference to the well-known and popular English rhymes. Perhaps we should take a cue from this and also recall, as well as revive, the great wealth of traditional rhymes in our own regional languages. Sadly many of these have been part of the oral tradition, passed on from generation to generation; many have not been compiled and published. And with the craze for everything “English medium” our children are rote learning only English rhymes from Mother Goose. In the age of nuclear families and YouTube offerings, it is sad that young children today are missing out on rhymes in their own language. If only every child could have a Nani Goose or Dadi Goose to enrich and enliven their life and language. 

–Mamata

 

 

 

 

 

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.