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...

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?...

Education / 19.10.2008

Four men top the list of India’s least favorite British colonialists: Robert Clive, for the decisive victory at the Battle of Plassey (1757) that established Company Rule in India; Thomas Macaulay, for the infamous Minute on Indian Education (1835) that aimed to create a class of Indians in the image of the English; Reginald Dyer, for the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar (1919) that killed hundreds of unarmed Indians; and Louis Mountbatten for the shameful flight (1947) that hurried India into a horrible carnage. Of these, only Dyer and Mountbatten are guilty as charged. Clive did well by his side and Macaulay, it can be argued, is badly misunderstood. It is particularly important to explore Macaulay with more care and ask whether our verdict is colored by stray bits of evidence without looking at the details of the case. Two selective quotes from the Minute are known to...

Education / 11.10.2008

I met a person the other day; he had educated his servant’s daughter who was now a physician in Los Angeles. “If everyone did that,” he said, “we could take care of the problems of illiteracy and poverty in our country.” Right or wrong? Let us see how we can do a very rough back-of-the-envelope calculation to see if the proposition is realistic. Suppose the population of our South Asian country is 100. (Readers can multiply this by a scale factor to transform the hypothetical example into one that applies to their country. For example, if the population of Bangladesh is 150 million, the scale factor is 1.5 million. Relevant numbers in the example can be multiplied by this factor for the analysis to apply to Bangladesh.) On average, we know that in South Asia about 25 percent of the population is very poor (below the official poverty line)...

Education / 10.10.2008

Half the illiterate adults in the world, about 400 million, live in South Asia; over 40 million children do not go to school; and half the children who do enroll in Grade 1 drop out before completing five years of primary education. Is this a problem and, if so, how is to be addressed? This is not a post about the state of education. It is about the importance of numbers and their relevance to the arguments we make and the solutions we propose. Some people say that governments have failed in their duty to provide education to citizens and therefore non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should step in to fill the vacuum. Most of the time such discussions are carried out without any reference to either the scale of the problem or the scale of the proposed solution. They are what are termed ‘hand-waving’ arguments. As soon as one looks at...

Education / 06.10.2008

By Anjum Altaf This is the edited text of the keynote presentation at a conference on education reform in Pakistan hosted by The Citizens Foundation USA in Milpitas, California, on August 30, 2008. Participants included the leading NGOs involved in education in Pakistan – TCF, HDF, DIL, CAI – as well as donors represented by USAID. Sixty years after the creation of the country half of Pakistan’s population is still illiterate. This is a major problem but it is not the major problem. It is only an outcome of the major problem. This distinction is important because the identification of the problem defines the nature of the solution. If we think of illiteracy as a major problem caused by the inattention of the state we will immediately think of a course of action in which all the NGOs get together, construct schools, and deal with the problem one...

Education / 26.09.2008

By Anjum Altaf Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) remind me of Iqbal’s poem PahaaR aur Gulehrii (Mountain and Squirrel) in Baang-e-Dara. In terms of the scale of the problem they are insignificant just as the size of the squirrel is insignificant relative to the size of the mountain. In terms of the ability to think, the roles are reversed – the brain of the squirrel is vastly superior to the non-existent brain of the mountain. So, clearly NGOs can be irrelevant or relevant depending on whether one looks at their brawn or their brain. Take education in Pakistan as an example. The public school system in the country is the mountain; the NGOs are the squirrel. It is quite clear to anyone who has looked at the numbers that the public school system has broken down. Leave aside the quality of education being imparted in the schools (it should best...

Education / 06.09.2008

In a previous post we had discussed whether illiteracy was the cause of poverty. A number of readers have enquired whether poverty can be the cause of illiteracy. We explore the argument in this post. At one level the proposition can come across as valid. The poor would not have the income to afford education for their children and would, by necessity, keep the latter out of school. The very poor would need to supplement the household income with the earnings of children giving rise to the prevalence of child labor. The very, very poor would not even have enough to afford the upkeep of their children and be forced to give them up to madrassas providing free care. This line of thinking would lead one to conclude that countries with widespread poverty would have widespread illiteracy. How then would one account for the very wide variation in...