Education / 31.03.2009

By Anjum Altaf This is an edited version of the submission made on behalf of the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan (ICERP) to the Pakistan Conference organized by students at Harvard and MIT. The questions are intended to stimulate discussion; supporting arguments can be found in the listed resources. A number of the resources pertain to India reflecting the generic issues common to the two countries. The Big Questions 1. Why is Pakistan still half illiterate? The lack of political will or of money are not convincing answers. There is not enough political pressure to make education a high priority issue for governments. Ruling elites tolerate only as much mass education as is necessary because it is subversive of the status quo especially in societies based on oppression. 2. Can NGOs fill the gap? The arithmetic does not support this contention. The issue of scale is important. The...

Education / 29.03.2009

This is indeed a remarkable coincidence. Inspired by a great first sentence from A Tale of Two Cities and its contribution to our conceptual understanding of similarities and differences, I had remarked in the last post on the value of literature and of a good teacher. I had ended by noting that I was reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond on the recommendation of Vinod, a participant in our discussion. Lo and behold! All I had to do was go back to the book to encounter an equally great and relevant opening sentence and a great teacher leading the reader through an exquisite process of reasoning. Here is how Chapter 9 (Zebras, Unhappy Marriages, and the Anna Karenina Principle) begins: Domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way. If you think you’ve already read something like that before, you’re right. Just make...

Education / 28.03.2009

With Vivek Raghavan’s input we make a quantum jump in our understanding of this issue. It drives home three lessons: how much we are helped by conceptual clarity; how we get to conceptual clarity; and how we learn. We started this discussion with our conceptualization of the issue defined by Vir Sanghvi: we were thinking in terms of ‘things as a whole’ that were either similar or different (or were similar at one time but were different now). We were thinking in terms of binaries and polar opposites. One could say we were conceptually in an ‘either/or’ world, where you were either like me or unlike me (or you were either ‘for us’ or ‘against us’ - the famous Bush formulation analogous to the Sanghvi formulation). From the outset we were uncomfortable with this binary view of the world and were groping our way towards a more...

Education / 27.03.2009

My understanding of this issue has changed since I wrote a response (How Similar? How Different?) to Vir Sanghvi’s article (The same people? Surely not).  Thanks to very thoughtful and deeply felt comments by readers (Kabir, Vikram and Vinod), a number of new perspectives suggest themselves and provoke further thinking. It is gratifying that this also bears out the premise of this blog – that while we may start with relatively unclear thoughts, we can help each other reason our way, most of the time, to arrive at a better understanding. I feel now that Sanghvi’s somewhat muddled beginning threw me off track. Let me repeat it in full here for continuity: Few things annoy me as much as the claims often advanced by well-meaning but wooly-headed (and usually Punjabi) liberals to the effect that when it comes to Indian and Pakistan, “We’re all the same people,...

Education / 24.03.2009

Vir Sanghvi, an editor at the Hindustan Times, has written an article (The same people? Surely not) in which he has expressed annoyance at the claims “often advanced by well-meaning but wooly-headed liberals to the effect that when it comes to Indian and Pakistan, ‘We’re all the same people, yaar.’” Sanghvi says that “This may have been true once upon a time. Before 1947, Pakistan was part of undivided India and you could claim that Punjabis from West Punjab (what is now Pakistan) were as Indian as, say, Tamils from Madras. But time has a way of moving on [and] the gap between Indians and Pakistanis has now widened to the extent that we are no longer the same people in any significant sense.” This was brought home to Sanghvi by two major events over the last few weeks. “The first of these was the attack on...

Education / 08.03.2009

Lewis Lapham, Mohan Rao, Mohammad Iqbal. It’s odd how unrelated pieces from across time and space sometimes fall into place as if they were intended for each other. I began with Lewis Lapham’s brilliant take (Achievetrons, Harper’s Magazine, March 2009) on President Obama’s “Christmas shopping for cabinet officers.” These are the ‘Achievetrons,’ members of the ‘valedictocracy’ who got double 800s on their SATs and graduated from the top of the Ivy League. And then Lapham, in his inimitable style, pours a bucket of cold water on the prospects: For the past sixty years the deputies assigned to engineer the domestic and foreign policies of governments newly arriving in Washington have come outfitted with similar qualifications – first-class schools, state-of-the-art networking, apprenticeship in a legislative body or a think-tank – and for sixty years they have managed to weaken rather than strengthen the American democracy, ending their terms of office...

Education, Religion / 23.02.2009

By FT and FoF This is an almost unedited record of an email exchange between a Fresh Teen (FT) and a Friend of the Family (FoF) spread over ten days (February 13-23, 2009). FT is educated in the leading convent school in Pakistan (established 1876). Her parents are both physicians with doctorates from England.  Friday, February 13, 2009 FoF: All the very best for the birthday tomorrow. Are you 14?  Saturday, February 14, 2009 FT:  Thanks!!! No, im 13. a fresh teen. FoF:  I read it first as frash been! Congratulations anyway for crossing the milestone. Now the hard slog begins. FT:  frash been!!!!!!??????? Why is it a hard slog??? FoF:  French beans in local language became distorted into frash been. Hard slog, because it is a long ways to go and your hair will turn white and your teeth will fall out by the time you are through!! FT:   well thats good to know!!!!! FoF: ...

Education / 10.02.2009

By Anil Kala   There is a celebrated episode in Mahabharata known as ‘Yaksh Prasn’ (Yaksh’s Queries) which culminates in this question:   Kim aashcharyam? (What is the most amazing thing?)   Yudhishthir answers that despite knowing the inevitability of death our incessant desire for immortality is the most amazing thing.   The answer seemed very impressive to me until one day I thought this is really silly. I realized that things said in a dramatic manner often escape critical scrutiny. For example, that our desire to live at every cost is the most natural thing and the crux of our existence; without it life will not last another day. Didn’t Buddha say, ‘Being born is cause of all our miseries’?  Therefore if there is no compelling desire to live why would anyone want to live? What seemed amazing though was the conduct of Yaksh Himself. This entity claiming to be a God, cursed...

Education / 20.01.2009

This is a response by a subject expert to the following question from a reader on Ask a Question: Q: Can artificial intelligence ever match the human mind in every aspect? Can a computer be “aware” like we are? This is a fascinating but difficult question. Researchers in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) have given many different answers to this question over the years. I will summarize some of the disagreements and encourage you to read more and develop your own views. My summary is based on Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig’s book, “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach,” which you can consult yourself for further reading. Before getting to the issue of building intelligent computers, it is worth mentioning the related work in biology and biological engineering from the last few decades. In particular, you can think of cloning technology as a different way of creating “artificial” human...

Education / 10.12.2008

After Mumbai, the raw emotions underlying relations between India and Pakistan are on public display. It is not a pretty picture. What can one make of it? India-Pakistan relations can be analyzed at two levels: the political and the psychological. At the political level, the argument is simple and familiar. It is argued that governing groups in the two countries have vested interests, to differing degrees, in maintaining the status quo and therefore a breakthrough is unlikely unless some dramatic change occurs in either the external environment or the cost-benefit calculus of the key players. Just the boldness of one leader or the sincerity of another is not sufficient to overcome the deep-rooted vested interests. Kargil goes a long way to support this argument. However, can a political position exist in a vacuum? Can it be completely out of tune with the underlying psychology of the people?...