Give them memories

Give them memories

Who is your Role Model? Think of someone you know or knew personally, not a public figure. For how many of you is that a parent or a teacher? If I asked your children the same question, what do you think they would say? Who would they be thinking of you? How do you know? What about you inspires your child? How do you know?

 My own association with schooling goes back to 1958 when I was enrolled into St. George’s Nursery & Primary School as an inmate. From there in 1961, I was shifted to Hyderabad Public School from where I graduated in 1970. Several decades later, I was correspondent of the Arunachalam Higher Secondary School, Thiruvattar, near Marthandam in Kanya Kumari District for three years, as part of my main responsibility of being the Manager of New Ambadi Estates, Kulashakharam. This school had 1200 students and 75 teachers and so was a fairly substantial assignment. We took it from being the worst school in the State of Tamilnadu to being one of the best. That is a long story which along with other stories of my life is in my book, ‘It’s my Life’, which is available for all of Rs. 230.00 from That is the value of 60 years of living; Rs. 230.

I used the term ‘inmate’ for a reason. It is because most, if not all, our schools are run like prisons. The school is owned by an entity, maybe the state or private; most American prisons today are privately owned and run for profit. Prisons have a set of professionals who run them, called Jailors. In the case of schools, they are called Teachers. Children are admitted into the school just as prisoners are admitted into prison. And their entire existence in the system is characterized by one overwhelming reality; lack of autonomy. Just like the existence of prisoners in a jail. They enter at a designated time and must serve their term and can’t leave until that time is over. The gate shuts behind them and they can’t open it. What they do is totally regulated and this is informed to them by bells or buzzers. We believe that young adults including their teachers can’t be trusted to keep to time limits but must be rudely awakened by ringing bells. Students can’t eat, sleep, play, talk or even go to the toilet without asking permission. I can go on, but I won’t because we were all fellow prisoners in the system, while some of us have been elevated to jailor status.

Another enigma and mystery – the Parent Teachers Association. Ask yourself one question: Who is the school, any school, for? Then ask why it is that those who the school is supposed to be for, have absolutely no say in any meaningful decision that affects them? Yet we believe that we will be able to form discerning, responsible, ethical citizens by ensuring that they never take a single decision in the entire time that they spend at school. We fill their heads with random information and grade them as passed or failed on their ability at random recall within a specific time frame. We don’t test knowledge or understanding, much less application. We simply test memory.

Ask yourself how you define ‘Good student’? Regurgitation of undigested food is called vomit. Regurgitation of undigested information is called passing exams. If you don’t believe me, tell me when was the last time you gave a prize for dissent? What happens to a student who tells you the truth; i.e. that what he is being taught makes no sense? What happens to a student who understands what you taught but not why you taught it or why she should learn it or where to apply it, because none of that is taught? And finally, if the child fails in the exam or more importantly, fails to learn, whose failure is it really? But who gets punished? Whose career can be in jeopardy? And who takes home her full salary without any problem? Schooling is the only system in society where product quality and customer satisfaction have no relevance. To use Mikel Harry’s definition for quality, he said, ‘If you want to see what people value, see what they measure.’ Ask yourself if you measure the quality of your parenting and teaching and if so what is the price you pay when you don’t come up to the standard. That is why you need to define the standard first.

Finally, the last nail in the coffin, the issue of life skills. In our current system, it simply doesn’t even exist. As an experiment, which I do not suggest you do, ask one of our near and dear ones who graduates from Grade 12, to leave home and take care of herself or himself for one month without going to anyone they know. I don’t think I need to describe for you, what will happen. That this happens at the end of 15 years of full time ‘education’ which you paid for and from which everyone involved benefited materially, is to put it politely, tragic. Ask yourself what you would call someone who studied something full time for 15 years? Ask yourself what you call your graduating 12th grader. Then ask yourself why?

This is not a litany of grief nor a doomsday scenario. It is a snapshot of what exists today. I can assure you that it is changeable, curable and that too without too much pain, provided only one thing; that you should want to do it. I am happy to show the way, but like the doctor, I can’t eat the medicine on your behalf.

My first set of questions to you, parents and teachers, is, ‘What does education mean to you? Why do you teach? What do you teach? How do you teach?’ These are three fundamental questions that you need to answer in a way that is convincing and inspiring. Don’t get bogged down by matters of syllabus and curriculum. These are fundamental questions that relate to your whole belief about raising children.

My second set of questions therefore is, ‘What kind of person are you trying to create in your child?’ Do you have a clear definition? Who is your role model for that? Does that inspire you? Does it make you lose sleep in the night? Do you measure yourself against a standard with respect to that definition? Do you stand before Allahﷻ and ask for His help in enabling you to achieve that goal?

It is a design issue first. Then we come to the tools and environment. You can’t build a plane in a train factory. So also, you can’t create leaders in a system designed to produce obedient slaves.

And most important of all, ‘Does your child share this dream with you?’ Because the reality is that unless he or she does, nothing will happen.

I remind you of what I said earlier: Children listen with their eyes. They don’t care what you say, until they see what you do.

 My dear friend Advocate Shafeeq Mahajir sent me this story which illustrates what I mean very well.

“I was waiting at a traffic light to cross the road with Haruki, a Japanese friend. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon in a small town on the outskirts of Tokyo and there was not a vehicle or soul in sight. So, I turned to Haruki and said, “Hey, I know it’s a red man but should we just cross?”

Haruki looked at me and shook his head. “No, we wait for the green man.”

I was a bit perplexed – it did not seem to me that it would make any difference whether we waited or not. “There aren’t any cars. Why do we need to wait?”

Haruki smiled, then asked me a question in return: “What if a child is watching?”

That is why in Africa they say, “It takes the whole village to bring up a child.”

Today we are facing a crisis. A crisis of youth. We have the youngest population in the world. We have 526 million people under the age of 25. Out of that we have 272 million between the ages of 10 & 19. That means that for the next 30 to 40 years we will have the youngest population of any nation. This makes us ideally suited to become the workforce for the world. But that is conditional upon two things: a high-quality skill training system and high-quality infrastructure. On the first, statistics of 2016 tell us that we are producing engineers of which 3.7% are employable. That means 96.3% are not. So, even if jobs are created, who will do the work? And remember that this 96.3% failures are of those who made it to engineering college. What about the millions who don’t get beyond school education itself? They still exist, they still need food, shelter, housing, medical care, employment and happiness. What will happen when all they come up against stone walls at all these thresholds?

I was driving in rural Madhya Pradesh, barely an hour out of the capital, Bhopal when I noticed in every single village we passed through, young boys (no girls) wearing trousers (some in jeans) and shirts, standing idly on street corners. Believe me this is the situation in almost every state in North India. South India is marginally better.

When I saw this for the Nth time, I asked my driver, ‘Why are they standing here? Why are they not in school or college or at work?’

He said to me, ‘Sir school khatam ho gaya, college ja nahin saktay, kaam nahin hai.’

I asked him, ‘Kheti kyon nahin kartay?’

He said, ‘Sir, school jo gaye hain. Ab kheti nahin kar saktay. Kheti karna bey izzati samajhtay hain. In kay baap khet mein kaam kartay hain. Betay pant shirt pahen kay nukkad par jama hotay hain aur time paas kartay hain.’

Me, ‘Khatay kya hain?’

He, ‘Jo in kay bapu kamatay hain. Ya phir kaheen majdoori kar laytay hain. Par ummeed bahut oopar ki hai. Wo tho nahin mil sakti. Tho dil udaas hain.’

These are the raw material for the drug trade, for crime. They are the cannon fodder for those who want to gain political power by invoking all kinds of divisiveness and violence. They have no job, no education, no nothing but they have a vote. How do we reach them? How do we help them? We are sitting on a timebomb which is ticking. As I said, I have a solution, so please bear with me.

Infrastructure development means becoming energy sufficient, making world class ports and transportation systems. Without these four things; clean, reliable energy, good transportation, ports and a highly employable workforce, no major investor will invest in this country. I won’t go into a probability analysis of all this, but I think the writing on the wall is clear for anyone who can read. The only way out is high-quality schools which can produce ethical, moral citizens, who are trained as entrepreneurs. Governments can’t help us. We must help ourselves or get prepared to perish.

My solution is implementable by every school and the results will be visible within a few years. It has three interlinked parts:

  1. Vocational/Skill education in all secondary and high schools. Every child must learn a skill and must be able to work with his/her hands.
  2. Entrepreneurial training
  3. Venture Capital Fund to incubate young entrepreneurs

The best solution to combat crime is to give people something to lose. In addition, tough zero tolerance for crime, which means that criminals must pay, not crime.

On top of that we have a society where corruption is not just acceptable but aspirational, people have an entitlement mentality, compassion has vanished, oppression is the law of the land and crime pays instead of criminals. So, teach values before you teach anything else. And remember that values can’t be legislated. Values must be inculcated. You must practice what you preach, or it will fail, and you will lose respect to boot. Your job as parents and teachers is to give them memories. It is those memories that will come to their aid in times of emotional and moral dilemmas. It is those memories which will become their touchstone, their criteria for making their own decisions in their lives. Give them memories thoughtfully because you are giving them memories anyway. Make sure that you give them memories that they will honor you for and remember you by and pray for you and seek forgiveness for you from Allahﷻ when you have long gone into your grave. Let me share with you some memories that my parents and teachers gave me.

During the years that I was in school, Hyderabad Public School, the principal was Mr. K. Kuruvilla Jacob. Mr. Jacob was a legend in his own lifetime. A man who taught me about leadership before I knew the word. Let me tell you one story about his leadership style as I experienced it.

It was 1968 and I was in Grade 8. I was sitting in class waiting for the morning recess bell to go off. My seat was by the window looking out over the courtyard across which were the toilets. To my amazement, I saw Mr. Jacob walking into the toilets with a bucket with cleaning brushes in it. A word about how Mr. Jacob looked and dressed is necessary to appreciate the reason for my surprise. Mr. Jacob was a tall and dark man who always wore white on white. He wore a white bush coat – patch pockets, half sleeves on white trousers and shining black shoes. His clothes were always sparkling white, starched and ironed to a knife-edge. You could cut yourself on the crease of his trousers and look at your face in his shoes. Here was this man in those clothes walking into our toilets with a bucket and toilet cleaners.

I dug my seat mate in his ribs and gestured but before his eyes popped out of his head, the bell rang and we all trooped out silently and stood before the toilets. What did we see? Our toilets, like I suppose the toilets in most boys’ schools, had their walls festooned with rather smelly poetry and prose, to put it politely. What we saw was Mr. Jacob, cleaning the walls of the toilets. He worked silently, ignoring us, spraying the cleaner on the walls and then brushing them clean and washing them down with water which he had carried in the bucket. When he finished a few minutes later, he picked up his bucket, finally looked up at us, smiled, and walked away. He didn’t say a word. Not one word. He just smiled at us and walked away, back to his office. We simply stood in silence and watched him disappear. I was in school for four years after that incident and can vouch for the fact that nobody ever wrote anything on the toilet wall again. Interestingly, the phenomenon of writing on the walls of the toilets was universal – all toilets had this graffiti. Mr. Jacob washed only one toilet. But suddenly all toilets were clean, and no graffiti was ever written on them again. And remember, as I said, not one word spoken. I realize today that what he did was as much theatre as it was cleaning, maybe even more theatre than cleaning, but the impact was powerful and permanent. Leading by example always is. Such were my teachers.

Let me tell you about my memories about my parents.

My father Dr. Mirza Anwar Baig was a medical doctor who worked for the Government of Andhra Pradesh, Mysore and lastly with Hyderabad Allwyn Metal Works in the 50’s and 60’s. I have many memories about him but one of the most powerful is of him in his private practice as a doctor. He started it very reluctantly, mostly at my insistence. But strangely he never broke even. I was perplexed because he was one of the best doctors that I have ever known. His clinical diagnosis was like magic. He saw signs in people that today it takes multiple scans to unearth. His patient manners were superb, and people loved him. He had a long line of patients waiting daily and didn’t finish his clinic until 1030 pm. Yet his practice made a loss. I decided to go and see for myself, what he was doing. What did I see? I saw him checking an old lady and then prescribing medicines for her. She said to him, ‘How much will these cost Doctor Saab?’ He said, ‘Ten rupees.’ She said, ‘I am a poor woman Doctor Saab. I don’t have ten rupees. Please prescribe something cheaper.’ My father put his hand in his pocket, took out ten rupees and gave it to her and said, ‘Go and buy the medicines.’ Obviously, there was no question of taking a fee from someone you just gave money, to buy medicines. This seemed to be more the rule than the exception and so a very busy medical practice made losses.

When we got home, I pointed this out to him and told him that if he is not going to take a fee, I could understand. But if in addition he was going to give people money for medicines, how could his practice make a profit? He said to me, ‘What is the good of prescribing medicines, when I know they can’t buy them?’ In a last-ditch stand, I asked him, ‘How do you know they are all in need? Maybe they don’t deserve your charity.’ He replied, ‘I don’t deserve what Allahﷻ has given me. So, I am not going to see who deserves and who doesn’t. If anyone asks me for help, I will help if I can. Let Allahﷻ judge who deserves and who doesn’t.’

In conclusion, I would like to state categorically, that the situation is far from hopeless. But for us to change our destiny we will have to redefine the meaning of ‘citizenship’ and start acting like citizens of an independent nation, instead of subjects of a foreign government. Our problem is that we have not got out of the colonial mindset. That is why we call our elected representatives, ‘rulers’. And we consider ourselves passive, helpless beings to whom things are done. Our only recourse is to train our children to become active participants in society and create a culture where dissent is not just accepted but encouraged, people have fora to voice their opinions and actively participate in societal development. Schools must play a critical role in enabling this by becoming laboratories of citizenship where children learn to own responsibility and take decisions for the general good. Care of the commons must be a major factor of concern and a change of mindset from entitlement to contribution, the criterion on which we must judge our success. There are many examples from the world of societies which operate on the values of honesty, mutual respect and harmony and a focus on contribution and not entitlement and consumption. The trick is to inculcate these values in our society.

On that depends our future. Not only our development but our very existence.

Dhan ki Baat

Dhan ki Baat

I read this article with great interest.

The final sentence is salutary. I want to add that whether governments or judges guard or curtail rights will depend on what we, the people, do about it. Active citizenship is not something that we are used to. We are still used to being the ‘ruled’, looking up to our elected governments (even calling them) our ‘rulers’. That they are not rulers is something that still remains to sink in, both in our consciousness and theirs. So, they behave like feudal lords and we behave like serfs. We even have terms that stink of feudalism to this day, used by our administrators e.g. Collector’s Peshi, Girijana Durbar, etc. There are many others but this is sufficient to illustrate.

That they exist because we put them there, will help us to understand our own responsibility for whatever is happening in the nation. Then we will change from being complainers to solution seekers. That is the real meaning of democracy, which I hope we will be able to demonstrate.

Take the much mentioned ‘demonetization’. I am not going to talk about its economic effects. Many, more qualified than I, have analyzed it threadbare and all that our media has been able to say is that it will not affect BJP’s chances of being elected again in 2019 because Modiji has changed his narrative. Little do they realize what that sounds like. Is election a matter of someone creating or promoting a story and the listeners reacting to it like rats to the pied piper’s tune? But that is the result of living in two worlds, democracy in theory (in the mind) and feudalism in reality. As I mentioned, economists have written about demonetization and time has shown the truth of what they wrote; that it was a body blow to the economy for no valid reason at all.

What is far more significant in my view is the attitude and behavior around demonetization. It was a step taken by the in secrecy even from closest aides, all of whom expressed surprise before slipping their masks back on again. It was declared as a step taken by the Prime Minister on the advice of a man who is not a cabinet member or even in government. All to prevent owners of black money from escaping.

We are told that the PM believed him and took this step almost unilaterally and issued a proclamation that from midnight of November 8, 2016. Kings issue proclamations. Not elected leaders. Elected leaders consult their council of ministers and in a matter as serious as this, they consult a larger cross section of leaders of the public (Opposition), perhaps even the public themselves. After all, the two excuses for demonetization; curbing black money and funding of terrorist activity’ are laughably inaccurate, as subsequent events have shown beyond all doubt. That is why the narrative was changed to, ‘We did it to make the country a cashless economy.’

Why would you change a narrative unless it had failed? After all, the earlier one of ridding the country of black money and terror funding and paying loads of money into the bank account of every Indian citizen sounded so much more exciting than saying that it was an exercise to support banks and credit card companies. Even more especially when the earlier statement was made so powerfully: Burn me alive?? Drama sells.

So why change it? Incidentally, can I see a show of hands from all those who received cash in their accounts from the government as a result of return of black money including that secreted in Swiss Bank accounts? Political parties need not respond because after all the sweetest part of the change was that donations to political parties were sought to be exempted from disclosure.  That is when I decided to start my own political party, Tan Man Dhan Mukti Morcha – TMDM² ©. All donations welcome.

Well, India became cashless, but perhaps not in the way that the term ‘cashless’ is meant to be understood by the spin doctors.

To understand the ‘cashlessness’ of India, of we the people, ask the housewife who saved small change from spending money that her husband used to give her, for thirty years and had Rs. 3 lakhs. Suddenly, on November 8, she was promoted to the status of a black marketer, money launderer (take your pick or invent your own names). Her legitimate savings, the symbol of our culture of family responsibility, caring for the future of others, the very spirit of motherhood, became illegitimate for her. On the face of it, all she had to do was to go to a bank and exchange it for the nice new colorful notes. But in reality, she would have had to open an account, get a PAN card, deposit the money, answer a million questions about where she got it from (all based on the assumption that she got them through illegitimate means) and pay tax on it. Tax on money which her husband had already paid tax on. And of course, she would have to answer to her husband (in many cases, a fate worse than death) about how she had all this money but never told him about it. That is how she entered the cashless economy by becoming cashless herself. As I mentioned, I am not talking GDP or economic numbers. I am talking about the izzat (honor, self-respect) of honest people, their feelings, family dynamics, domestic power equations and the disempowerment of ordinary people, especially women.

To understand the ‘cashlessness’ of India, of we the people, ask those who died, standing in queues at banks. Of course, the dead tell no tales. India is perhaps the only country where something like this can happen, not once or twice but over one hundred times, unremarked. That nobody is called to account is not surprising when there is not even a demand that this should be done. I stand in line at the bank. Someone in the line before me, drops dead. They remove him. I move ahead one place and thank god for small mercies. What’s remarkable? I am told that I am doing it for the nation. I am a vegetable, fish, eggs, banana seller, standing in line hoping that the bank will not give me a hard time asking me to open an account, PAN card and whatnot. I have enough to worry about. If someone dies in the line, well, what can I do?

To understand the ‘cashlessness’ of India, of we the people, ask the people who had no notes to exchange because all their savings were in the bank already. But after November 8, when they wanted to withdraw some cash, they were told that they couldn’t do so. Officially there was a limit to what they could withdraw. In reality, they couldn’t withdraw anything at all as the bank had no currency notes to give out.

“How long will this last?”
“God knows”, said the banker.
“How can you stop me from withdrawing my own money?”
“I am not stopping you. This is the instruction we have received.”
“What can I do?”
“God knows”, said the banker.
I go to the grocery store with my new colorful Rs. 2000 note. I need groceries worth Rs. 500.
“No!” said the grocery store owner, “You need groceries worth Rs. 2000; you just don’t realize that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I don’t have any change to give you. No notes. So, take your change in cabbages or eggs. Just keep and eat them.”
“How long will this last?”
“God knows”, said the grocer.
I can report more such conversations but won’t. I think this illustrates and all of you will recall your own experiences which match mine. That is why there’s a shortage of atheists in India. You really need to believe in God.

To understand the ‘cashlessness’ of India, of we the people, ask those who till the land, labor from dawn to dusk on construction sites to feed their families, who sell food, provide services and add real value to people’s lives. Ask the Istiriwala (mobile clothes ironing person), the Doodhwala (milk vendor), the Bayi (maid) who works in our homes, the Sabjiwala (vegetable seller), the Machiwala (fish seller); I can go on but won’t. Not one of them had a bank account. Not one of them had a PAN card. Not one of them paid Income Tax. Every single one of them had a family to feed. Every single one of them had some savings put aside for a so-called ‘rainy’ day. Every single one of them suffered for no reason except that in our Feudal-Democracy (my coinage, please give credit if you use this term), it was proclaimed without warning that his savings were illegal until proven legal. He was guilty until proven innocent.

One good thing that happened because of this demonetization which I am very pleased about. It was proven beyond all doubt that there is no corruption in India. After all, did you hear a single story of a policeman, income tax official, customs officer, bureaucrat or politician standing in a bank line trying to legitimize his bribe money? Did you hear of any of them dropping dead from exhaustion or guilt? So, what does it mean? It means that all that we always hear about corruption is nonsense. There is no corruption in India. Nobody takes bribes. All government officers and officials pay tax on all income, upar ki aur andar ki. Like elephant tusks and teeth, khanay kay alag, aur dikhanay kay alag. I will leave this untranslated in the spirit of the line of poetry:

Tum samajh sako tho aansoo
Na samajh sako tho pani
What is our, we the people’s, reaction to all this? Silence or complaining. In public, we are silent. In private, we moan and groan, we blame and crib. In both places, we take no action. And when we are asked why, we reply, ‘What can we do? We can do nothing.’ This warrants another couplet:
Kursi hai, tumhara yeh janaza tho nahin hai
Kuch kar nahin saktay, tho utar kyon nahin jatay? ~ Irteza Nishat

This brings me back to the beginning of my argument which is that if we want good governance in a democracy, we have to participate in it. Serfs have no choice and can complain. Citizens are not serfs, no matter what their elected leaders (called ‘rulers’ in India) may like to think. Citizens must act like citizens and take an interest in governance.

Today we have a situation where the Ruling Party is doing what it considers best for the nation. You can hardly fault them on intention. We have an Opposition which sits silently by and watches while it claims to be against the policies of the Ruling Party. Why? The Opposition is muzzled because everyone is afraid of skeletons in their cupboards being exposed. But what is the solution? Because in the end it is we, the so-called common folk who are paying the price; we and our children. True, we are paying the price of electing corrupt leaders for decades, but that is not a luxury we can afford. Shortsightedness is not an asset when you are driving a car at 70 MPH. Ours is going faster than that. No change without pain. Pain is not something you opt for but accept to escape death. Think cancer treatment. What is happening is worse than that. Cancer only kills you. This will kill you and your future generations. So, what do you want to do? Yes, you and me.

For all change begins with the man in the mirror.
Rethinking education – Critical need of the hour

Rethinking education – Critical need of the hour

I am writing this to share my anguish at what we are doing in the name of schooling. By ‘we’, I mean educators and the education system in the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia, South Africa and most of Africa, state schools in UK and America. That is more than 60% of the global population of school-going children. Those that don’t fit the picture that I have drawn below are to be congratulated. I hope everyone else can come on par so that one day very soon, this paper will be read as an interesting piece on how bad things used to be.

“Education is the art of making man ethical” 

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Let me try to define the problem:

We have managed to create a global society which is almost exclusively focused on amassing material wealth and possessions. A society where worship of personal desire is the predominant religion and selfishness its primary virtue. A society which defines success in terms of the ends without any thought about the means. A society where compassion, cost to others of our achieving our goals, cost to the well-being of the environment, hopes and aspirations of the less well-endowed; have all lost meaning and are not considered even worthy of passing thought. The reality is that we are burning our candle at both ends and are about to be plunged into darkness from which nobody can emerge unscathed. As someone once said, ‘Growth for the sake of growth, is the philosophy of the cancer cell.’ In this case, look in the mirror and meet both the cancer cell and its victim. In the words of J. Krishnamurthy, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ We are profoundly sick.

It is for this reason that we need to rethink education because our present education system which was stared during the Industrial Revolution in the UK and later America and was exported to the rest of the world is spectacularly successful. You may be surprised to read this but it is indeed successful in creating what it was designed to create – unthinking, unquestioning, obedient workers. Education was and continues to be modeled on the needs of the military-industrial complex with children being treated as raw material. Something to be altered to suit the need of the manufacturer, in which the needs of the raw material are of no significance. Standardization is the key, with conformity being the cardinal virtue. Individualism, imagination, curiosity, diversity, non-standard ways of learning are all seen at best as a nuisance to be ‘cured’ or at worst as a virus to be ejected. Standardized testing is the tool to convert oppression into a virtue and force all square pegs to fit into round holes. Questioning is treated as rebellion and dealt with exactly as questioning (also called rebellion) is treated in industries (suppressed by force calling it unionization and labor unrest) or in the world (suppressed by the military calling it insurgency). Scant if any attention is paid to addressing issues that led to the unrest because after all the need of bosses (read teachers, school authorities in collusion with ignorant parents) that ‘production’ must not stop, whatever the cost, is supreme.

What we need today to cure our potentially fatal global malaise is the opposite of what our schools are designed to produce. We need people who are thinking, questioning, positively rebellious leaders with the commitment to work for the benefit of others. People with the skills to diagnose, define, conceptualize, strategize, communicate and monitor. But before all that, the integrity, compassion and energy to continue to work in the face of disappointment, discouragement and opposition.

I submit to you that we don’t have an implementation or quality problem. We have a design problem. A railway carriage is not designed to fly. It is designed to be dragged along behind an engine. No matter how much power you add to its engine or how luxurious the interiors, a train will never fly because flying is first a design issue. A microlight aircraft on the other hand flies even with fractional horsepower because it is designed to fly. Our education is not designed to create leaders. It is designed to create mindless, obedient followers. Fancy infrastructure, using state of the art technology in teaching, high or low fee or teacher salaries will still not produce leaders because we are building railway carriages, designed to be dragged along behind an engine. We can’t build planes in a train factory. If we want to fly, we need to build a plane factory. We need to rethink our design based on our objective of taking to the air. Design dictates performance. We need to redesign. Not alter trains expecting them to fly.

In effect the focus must be more on the tools of learning than on accumulation of random data. Focus must be on the spirit of enquiry on asking the right questions with the best question being the one which has no answer; yet. So the search can continue and the student doesn’t sit smug like a bug in his rug, content that he has the answer and need not look any further. Real education is to deliberately put yourself into a state of positive confusion, of productive stress, where you are forced out of your comfort zone of certainties.

This thought, that confusion is good and pat answers are bad, is uncomfortable and even painful as it forces you to look at yourself as the start of the process of education. Real education is as much if not more, about educating the teacher as it is about educating the student. Both are companions and partners in learning. I know we educators pay lip service to these thoughts. Unfortunately, that is a sign of our hypocrisy as our every word and action gives the lie and exposes our inherent arrogance as being ‘people with knowledge’ who have to teach the ‘ignorant’. We need to create an atmosphere where there’s a premium on questioning and teach the art of asking good questions instead of the mugging up of someone else’s answers. This doesn’t mean that all other’s answers are wrong. It merely means that the answer was right for that person. But you have to arrive at the answer yourself independently for it to be right for you – even if it is the same answer. That makes you stronger in the end.

One reality that is clear from all this which takes us to the core issue of all learning is the importance of variety and diversity of life experience. Not standardization but its exact opposite – diversification. The question for us therefore is, ‘How do we help students to have a widely diverse menu of life experiences so that they have a sound basis for diagnosis and decision making?’

In summary therefore, real education is the result of integration of academics with structured life experience designed to teach applicable lesson and teach students the tools they need to succeed. In my view this can’t be done while keeping our current so-called education system in place. There is only one thing to be done with our production-factory-style-worker-producing 
education system which is to give it a decent burial. We have to start afresh, with a totally new approach arising out of accepting the reality about children (that they are not little boxes to be filled and labelled, but living breathing, thinking human beings with opinions, likes, dislikes, differences in how they learn, what interests them and what doesn’t and above all, the need to learn how to apply the learning).
Our biggest challenge and the greatest resistance to this new philosophy will come from our own minds and hearts. Truly it is not easy to accept that we have successfully destroyed several generations, including of course ourselves in the process and to accept that we were totally, gloriously, shamelessly wrong in everything we did in the name of education. It will not be easy to accept that we – the educators of the world – are responsible for the totally immoral, greedy, toxic and suicidal society that we are now living in. But that is the truth. The beauty of accepting responsibility for a problem is that, then and only then, are you given the ability and strength to solve it. You can’t solve what you don’t own. So let us begin by being brutally honest and own responsibility for the problem and pray for success in solving it. The solution is:

Integrated Education

I believe that education must achieve four things:
     Awaken and strengthen the conscience

The purpose of all education is to civilize. The hallmark of civilization is concern for others. That is why moral education must precede technical. People who know tools but have no moral bearings are people who can drop an atomic bomb on a city and sleep peacefully that night. People who are the opposite use drones to hasten medical aid instead of killing people by remote control. The distinguishing fact about human beings that differentiates us from other animals is compassion, concern for others and the willingness to stand up for another person who is oppressed when that oppression doesn’t affect us personally. The Wildebeest herd doesn’t defend one of their number who is being killed by lions. Each one thinks about himself and as long as he is not affected, he doesn’t care. That is why when he becomes affected, others don’t care and the cycle continues.
We humans are supposed to be different and our homes and schools are the places where we are supposed to be taught this cardinal differentiator. But how can that happen when we preach discrimination at home and teach individual competition and non-cooperation, even to the extent that we punish cooperation and collaboration between students in school. The insanity continues because once our students learn non-cooperation and destructive competition and graduate from our schools and enter the workforce, we then spend a fortune doing team building, mutual collaboration, active listening, boundaryless working and all such kinds of training workshops trying to undo years of what we taught them at school.
Our challenge is to build a foundation of moral values, ethics of behavior and good manners that give precedence to consideration for others and the commons. All this arising out of compassion, empathy and a total lack of self-centeredness. I don’t say ‘selflessness’, because I believe the moving spirit is what I call ‘positive selfishness’; which means to feel satisfied and happy when you see smiles on the faces of others. It is not that you are not concerned with the results of your actions but that you are concerned about achieving good results for others – not only for yourself. And you do this because you get true satisfaction from it and because you are aware that it is only in the overall good that your own safety, happiness and development lie.
Integrity, justice, freedom, honesty, courage, standing up for the unpopular opinion, raising a voice against the oppressor no matter how powerful he/she may appear to be, generosity, facing success and failure with equanimity, commitment and industry – all seem to be values which are not mentioned any more. Integrated Education must not only mention but champion them and teach them by practice. Success case studies where people have applied these values in their lives; stories of their struggle and the question of evaluating their success – not in conventional terms alone of whether or not they achieved what they set out to do but in real terms of the number of others they freed and encouraged through their own struggle, to take the unpopular stand for justice. All this must be done with the clear understanding that values can’t be legislated. They must be inculcated. People don’t care what you say until they see what you do.
 Create excitement for new learning
As I have mentioned earlier, the biggest problem with our current so-called education system is that we give answers, insist that there is only one right answer and shut down all questioning, enquiry and dissent. We not only don’t encourage but actively discourage approaches other than the ‘approved’ ones. I am speaking about our school systems. Strangely at the university level, in the West, this is overturned and there is great freedom to try different ways to reach the goal. The results are clear and obvious. What I have failed to understand is why our school system continues to work at cross purposes with our university system (only in the West). In India, the Middle East and South Asia both school and university are in the same pit of darkness. But at least in the West, where the two systems are opposed to each other, I don’t see why change hasn’t come yet except in exceptional cases like Finland.
Be that as it may, the critical need today is to forbid the killing of imagination, rebellion, dissent, questioning and putting activity before reflection. Forbid, not only by word and decree but make it impossible by making structural changes in what we teach and how we teach it. Imagination, questioning and reflection are all part of being human and don’t need to be taught. What needs to be done is to ensure that they are not suppressed and killed because they are inconvenient and troublesome. This is what happens effectively today in our schools.
Who are we teaching?
We have to realize and accept the fact that our challenge as educators is to prepare our students to face a future that we know nothing about. This means that we have to teach them tools, not try to give them answers from our experience. Our experience at best has historical value and that too only if the student has the tools to conceptualize learning from the incidents and stories that he/she reads or hears from us. If not, they are at best entertaining stories and at worst a boring waste of time. So teach tools, not answers. The most difficult challenge in this is to accept that we don’t have relevant answers since we don’t know the future, yet retain the confidence that from our experience, we can teach the tools they need to find their own answers from their experiences in life. But that means that we must first learn the tools to be able to teach them. Those who have understood this will tell you that it is an amazing relief to accept that we don’t have all the answers and frees us from the stress of always being ‘right’. You give yourself the permission to be wrong or to say, ‘I don’t know.’ Imam Malik bin Anas, the great Muslim jurist said, ‘I don’t know; is the shield of the scholar.’ This is potentially our greatest contribution, if we can make it.
Question our beliefs
For this to happen, we have to examine and change our basic beliefs about children; that they need us to learn, that they don’t know what is good for them, that they must always be directed, ordered and if they don’t obey, punished. That they must be supervised and are not to be trusted; that they are incapable of independently handling responsibility and that their contribution is essentially useless which may be tolerated up to a point and then shut down. Every single one of these beliefs is manifestly and completely false, but we continue to act on them. All this may sound extreme but this is exactly how we behave vis-à-vis students in our schools. If you don’t agree, please reflect on the following:
What do you call a place where when you enter, a gate shuts behind you and you can’t leave until the gate opens again? Where your day is divided arbitrarily by others without any consultation with you and these divisions are indicated by bells or sirens, because you can’t even be trusted to be your own timekeepers? What do you call a place where you can’t speak without permission, can’t even go to the toilet without permission, can’t eat when you are hungry and must eat when you are told, whether you are hungry or not? You can’t play when you want but must play when you are told, whether you feel playful or not? You have nothing called ‘free time’, where ‘doing’ is everything and reflection is nothing? What do you call a place where you are segregated not according to interests, or talents, or your friends but by your date of manufacture (age) and are taught whatever the powers that be, think you need to learn, without any consultation with you about whether you want to learn that or not?
What do you call a place where regimentation is the name of the game, where compliance is the cardinal virtue; only obedience is rewarded; questioning, especially of the system is considered rebellion; and punishment is meted out publicly so that the humiliation overwhelms the pain? Finally, what do you call a place where what happens to you is not decided by you; indeed, you have nothing to say in it at all; but it is decided by those who own you and those who own the correction facility? No, I am not talking about prisons. I am talking about our schools. Although everything I said, applies equally well to prisons. Our schools are prisons.
What is amazing is that we actually pay for our children to go there when we have ourselves been through them and should have realized the evil they do to the young impressionable mind. But we have been conditioned to accept the dominant narrative and have suffered enough punishment or seen others punished; to have learnt the danger of questioning. Finally, ask why we have an august body called the Parent-Teacher Association. Have you ever heard of a Parent, Teacher, Student Association? I haven’t. Ask why not when schools are supposed to be for children, not for teachers or parents?
Irrelevant Teaching
The amazing eye-opening research of Sugata Mitra (see appendix) proves that teachers are unnecessary to teach skills provided there is enough curiosity and desire in the students to learn and they are given research resources. So the role of the teacher is not to enforce learning on unwilling subjects but to excite curiosity and ignite desire and then open the doors to resources. The last is the easiest because resources are available easily and cost free.
Our teaching today, barring exceptions, consists of filling boxes (children) with random information which they have no idea how to use or what to do with. They have no idea how one piece of information (geography) relates to another (history) and how that relation has relevance today (current affairs). The same is the situation with all other subjects including science and math. Having suffered this, their success in measured not by understanding of what they learnt but by their ability to regurgitate unprocessed data, in response to random questions in a specific time frame. Those who can do that are deemed to have aced the exams. What did they demonstrate? Memory. I believe that our current exams are a reflection of our own admission that what we teach can’t possibly be understood and applied, so there’s no point in asking any questions about that.
During this time (exams), the individual destructive competition that we encourage in the entire system comes to the fore and any student who helps another is called a ‘cheater’ and thrown out and disqualified. What is his crime? Collaborating with another citizen, helping someone who needed help, sharing knowledge or at least information. Yet we insist on calling this education. And then we are surprised that the most highly ‘educated’ nations in the world are the most barbaric. That is why I say that the most difficult task is to bring about a mindset change. But sadly without that nothing else will work. I have proposed solutions later so please bear with me.
Make sense in terms of application of learning
As I have mentioned before, since understanding and relating what we understand in one area of knowledge to another is not even on our menu, it is hardly surprising that application of learning is not the most important thing on our mind. So we have the completely incongruous situation of our brightest pupils landing in the field of life completely incapable of taking care of themselves or of applying what they learnt to anything useful, productive or remunerative. In India the situation is alarming to say the least. Education has been made into a business, a seller’s market where the customers are helpless and quality is the last thing on the seller’s mind. This is not simply a rant. I am speaking on behalf of those who are suffering this injustice of paying for an education which delivers nothing valuable. Data speaks volumes:
What do you call a system where 97% of the graduates of a professional course are unemployable? I don’t think calling it ‘education’ really fits. But that is the sad reality of our system. The tragedy is that the only people who suffer at the end of it all are the students. The college owners make money with the fees they charged which is not refundable if the student can’t get a job. Teachers get their salaries whether or not the student learns. If the student fails to learn, the teacher is not held responsible at all. I don’t say that the entire responsibility is of the teacher’s but shouldn’t teachers at least share the responsibility of learning? But in our system they don’t. Everyone walks free except the poor student who had no say in what he would be taught or how. All he/she did was to choose a subject. Everything else happened without his say. Yet he/she is the only one who pays a real price.
Solutions: What we must do to break out of this prison
Three things must happen in education which are all complementary to each other:
1.    Through the study of history, language, literature, poetry, art, culture and religion the student must be linked to the sum total of human knowledge, experience and development so that he understands his roots. Our roots and origins must be taught truthfully as being in the entire human race and not in our own narrow false interpretation of it in terms of some caste, nationality or race.
2.    Science, math or technology must be clearly related to its application in real life. This need not be restricted to how it is applied today alone but the door must be opened for students and teachers together to explore application possibilities in the world of imagination. Imagine solutions for tomorrow.
3.    Principles of citizenship: equality, universal brotherhood, justice, responsibility, dissent, dignity and diversity of belief and practice must all be taught and emphasized so that a feeling of personal superiority and arrogance doesn’t take root in the mind.
The purpose of real education is to prepare students to deal with life and to create and live in a society that is beneficial for everyone in it. What passes in the name of education today fails on almost all of these parameters. It is true that if we’d had a society that reflected the best of these principles, our educators would have claimed credit for that and rightly so. Then where must we place the responsibility for the kind of society that we have ended up creating, which is the opposite of all these principles; except at the door of the same educators?
The idea is not to blame or condemn but to express the pain and anguish at the kind of global community that we have created and to raise the call for the need for urgent and sweeping change. As I have said before, the time for cosmetic or even incremental changes has gone, if ever it was there in the first place. It is now time to make transformational changes if we are to survive as the human race. It is not a question of saving the earth but of saving ourselves. Today we have people agitating to save everything from tigers to the most minor beetle. I ask you, ‘Who is ready to agitate to save humanity itself?’
For humanity is in far greater danger than the tiger and the need to save it from itself is far more urgent.
So what must happen? How is real education to be done?
I believe that what we need to do is to integrate education and teach children according to the ways human beings learn. What do I mean by that? Let’s begin:
1.    Citizenship is what schools must teach and inculcate before anything else. Citizenship means respect for one another and the willingness to participate in the good of one another. The way to inculcate this is to show respect for the students by involving them in all decision making that affects them. After all we consider this to be justice and practice it in all other aspects of our society. We must do three things for this to happen:
a.    Students Council
                                   i.     Create a Students Council to which representatives will be elected by the students practicing the best principles of democratic participation. This Council will have the responsibility to discuss and decide on any matter that involves them and present their recommendations to the Principal (or Governing Council of the School). These may be any matter including the daily timetable, class duration, games to be played, school uniform, extracurricular activities, hobby clubs, sports, holidays, special interests and needs or anything else. The school must be a microcosm of life and society and students must learn how to engage in it and influence outcomes while ensuring that the main purpose of their coming to school – to study – is fulfilled.
b.    The Principal/Council will inform the Students Council about any non-negotiables concerning any matter and will in the normal course of things, accept the recommendations. Where they feel that the recommendations can’t be accepted, they will give reasons and request the Students Council to come up with fresh recommendations. No recommendation may be refused without giving reasons. That is the real meaning of respecting people.
c.     Teacher Effectiveness Appraisal
                                  ii.     Teaching is not simply a job but a major responsibility with long lasting consequences on the lives of people. So assessing the effectiveness of a teacher is critical to quality. The purpose of such assessments is not to punish teachers but to help them to become better teachers and more effective in their roles. The assessments must be done professionally by an independent agency on internationally accepted parameters but one of the most critical elements of that assessment must be student feedback. This feedback must be sought with data and collated anonymously and fed back to the teachers as part of the post-assessment debrief so that they can know how they are viewed by their customers. Like all assessments and customer feedback results – these must also be linked to annual bonuses and promotional opportunities for the teachers. Only then will they be taken seriously.
2.    Humans learn from peers and together; not in segregated groups. Organizing classes by age is against human learning habits. After all you don’t forbid your older children at home from interacting with their younger siblings. On the contrary you encourage them to take care of them and teach them what they know. That way learning is accepted more readily by the younger ones and makes meaning to the older ones. Yet in our schools we follow the factory model and segregate children according to date of manufacture. So this is the first thing to change.
a.    We must organize multi-age classrooms with children of at least a 3-year age gradient studying together. This is how human beings learn best.
3.    Class size must be reduced from what it currently is (in India) to not more than 20 per class.
4.    Teaching must become client based – not even answering questions, let alone dictate notes – but helping students to ask good questions and then helping them find answers. By helping I mean directing them to resources they can search for the answer, help them in the research if they need help as well as encourage them to explore new areas, hitherto unused for such answers. This will be an excellent way to show the relatedness between different bodies of knowledge.
5.    Learning comes from different sources but the differentiator of human learning is the ability of human beings to take learning from one place and apply it in another completely different place with a completely different contextual setting. So the more variety of life experiences a person can collect, the bigger is his/her database to search for appropriate life lessons to apply when he/she needs them.
One of the finest examples of this is the ‘training of prophets’, through the shepherding of sheep. Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be on them all) were all shepherds of sheep. And through this activity they learnt the fundamentals of leading flocks of people, caring for the weak, standing between their flock and the wolves that always stalk the unwary, leading them through the easiest paths through potentially dangerous territory. The shepherd puts his flock and its needs ahead of his own. He stakes his life to protect them. He is awake while they sleep as he looks out for them. His primary concern is for them. And he does all this because he understands that his role as a shepherd and its success depends on one thing only – the welfare of his flock. So if he wants to be a considered a successful shepherd his flock must ‘speak’ for him.
The Prophet Muhammad was a shepherd in his childhood, thus taking responsibility at an early age and being alone all day and sometimes even at night while he was still not even a teenager. Then he started accompanying his uncle on his cross country trade caravan journeys traveling through hundreds of miles of desert and sometimes hostile territory. There are no passengers in caravans. At least not men. Everyone has a responsibility and that for first timer youth is usually to take care of the animals. The two most difficult animals to take care of, are camels and horses. But that is what the Arabian trade caravans consisted of. Then was the wealth of learning in the great trade centers of Palestine and Damascus of meeting and dealing with people from different nationalities and races, speaking different languages and following different religions. Here came the learning of pluralism as well as the importance of being able to deal with people in an environment where you are the stranger who has no power or authority, yet you have to strike the best deal for your trade goods. You need to learn to communicate across cultural boundaries, learn other’s ways, learn to handle conflicts, negotiate, take risk both personal and financial, make mistakes and learn from them and deal with success and failure with equanimity. This is where reputations get built and so it was in his case.
Muhammad used to spend long hours in isolation, in contemplation, meditation and prayer, alone in a cave of the top of a high rocky hill near his hometown of Makkah. Once again a very different type of experience of being alone, especially at night, watching the world at his feet and the sky above. What was in his mind? What did he feel? We don’t have a diary of those days but from my own childhood when I used to spend many hours on top of a rock in the wilderness, several miles from my home, outside the city of Hyderabad, I can try to imagine what it must have felt like. My only companion most times was my Labrador Ben who would clamber up the rock with me and simply lie by my side, the symbol of living happily in the moment.
The point I am making is the value of diverse life experiences which all lead to overall learning which can be applied to all sorts of leadership challenges in life which are contextually very different. I am not saying that all children must necessarily become shepherds or sailors but connecting with the earth and nature and being given responsibility at an early age is a great advantage.
So schools need to create a way to give a wide variety of experience as part of the teaching curriculum. I have suggested ways to accomplish this later in this paper. Parents and schools that shy away from this are doing a great disservice to their wards. Each school can do whatever is practicable for them but diverse learning – not merely sightseeing excursions – must be an important part of the curriculum.
6.    Make the classroom exciting: I can perhaps guarantee you today that barring exceptions, if you ask a student of any school or Madrassa today to name the top three exciting places that he would love to be in, he/she will not list his/her classroom in them. If you ask for the top thirty also perhaps, the classroom would meet the same fate. The reason is because our way of educating is a burden to be borne and endured until we come to the welcome breaks during the day and the eventual final break at the end of the school term. It is interesting that we use the same word that you would use for a sojourn in prison – term – for schooling. Very appropriate indeed. That is the reason why I have yet to find a child who even looks at a school text book at the end of their schooling. If they are smart they sell them at a discount and make some ice cream money. If not, they simply trash them. What more do we need as an indicator of what our clients (students) think of our service? What amazes me is that despite the fact that we all went through the same process, we still continue to perpetuate it and pay for it. Why?
So how do you make the classroom interesting? By understanding that discovery is interesting. Being told things which you have to memorize and regurgitate is not. So make the classroom a place of discovery. As I mentioned earlier, don’t give answers. Lead them to ask interesting questions (best question is the one that nobody including the teacher can answer right away). And then lead them to places where they can discover the answers for themselves. Teach them that not to know, to be wrong, to be lost and confused are all acceptable and signs of being engaged, interested seekers. That is the essence of being a student. Then once students think that they know something, ask them questions to shake that belief. So that they once again dive into discovery. For discovery is interesting and exciting; even more than finding an answer. Then once students think that they know something, ask them questions to shake that belief. So that they once again dive into discovery. For discovery is interesting and exciting; even more than finding an answer.
 Teachers must also believe and accept that they are students and seekers. This has to come from within, not lip service.  Only then can you really add value in class. I am always amazed at the difficulty that most schools (Indian) have in organizing teacher training. That educators should resist being educated must tell us something, right? But apparently it doesn’t.
Project Based teaching
The way to achieve the above is not to teach discrete, distinct subjects unrelated to each other but to take up Projects and then use them to teach all the subjects you want to teach. In this way teaching gets inter-related, interactive and collaborative. Students own responsibility for their own learning and take initiative to seek answers to questions that they generate themselves. Educators learn to respect the intelligence of students, appreciate their struggle and share in the joy of their discovery and above all, learn new things about the subject and more importantly, about themselves. Let me illustrate with one example:
Project Mountains
·        Geology: Isostacy of mountains: Stabilizing effect on tectonic  
·        Chemistry: Minerals, rock formation, volcanic activity and its effect
·        Geography: How do mountains effect climate and rainfall?
·        Biology: Mountain flora & fauna
·        History: How did mountains affect the history of nations?
·        Culture: How do mountains influence the culture, traditions and beliefs of people who live among them? What has changed today thanks to technology and connectedness? What do these changes mean for us in modern society?
·        Literature: Poetry, prose, drama, allegorical reference to mountains
·        Mountaineering: Physics of balance, load, atmosphere
·  Trips to mountains, mountain climbing, camping on mountains, photography in mountainous areas
·       Time for reflection, introspection, journal writing: Let the mountain talk to you then ask, ‘What did it say?’
·       For faith based schools: You can talk about what values mountains symbolize in your faith and how this can be applied in our daily lives. You can draw references from your scriptures and history of religious leaders to see how what they did relates to the values you see in mountains today.
Add your own.
A typical class for this, as mentioned earlier would consist of children of multiple ages with several teachers in the classroom, not only one. This is to ensure proper supervision as well as to help them in different ways from their different subject expertise. Many of these teachers can be (very easy to do this) international subject experts who come into the classroom on invitation, personally or virtually. You can have someone from the International Space Station send photographs taken from space of whichever mountain range you are studying. You can have scientists from different areas who will gladly give time to teach students. Those who won’t, you don’t need.
You can work interactively in real time with classrooms across the world, collaborating with teachers and students from different cultures, working on the same project. Remember that it is children who must do all the learning, taking initiative to connect with people and experts. All that teachers or the school need to do is to provide the infrastructure, which in today’s world is increasingly easy and cheap and then sit back and learn as well. All you need for most of what I have said is imagination, a simple high speed internet connection and a computer. You can upscale to smart boards, personal iPads and so on, but all that is optional and not essential. Nice to have but you can still do what I have mentioned with much less than that provided you have the willingness to try. The results will energize you and there will be no looking back.
Your children/students can publish a newspaper of lessons learnt in the course of their project. They will learn the fundamentals of research and publishing. They can publish books at the end of the project. They can make films and have TV shows (YouTube) about their excursions and experiences while working on the project. They can publish or broadcast interviews with subject experts, astronauts, scientists, practitioners. They can take on developmental projects locally or internationally and experience the joy of helping others in need; not by donating money alone but by living and working in those communities. To travel with a mission is the best way to see the world and learn about others but even more importantly to learn about yourself. It is only when we are taken out of our comfort zone that learning takes place. That is what happens when we work in societies where their realities are sometimes the stuff of our own nightmares. It is when you live through that, that you wonder how they can still find it in themselves to smile every morning. That tells us more about ourselves than anything else.
The possibilities are endless and their potential to produce young people with real, experiential knowledge of the subject is something that makes me wish I could be born again to study in a school like this.
The same process can be repeated with different projects generating different things that you can and need to learn from each of them especially how each is related to the other. For example, oceans, cities, wars, food, agriculture, animal husbandry, IT, classics of literature and poetry, film making, insects, disease, politics, government, health care, ecology, space, rivers and riverine systems, animal and bird migrations, entrepreneurship, money, economic systems, pollution and its effects on global warming, energy use, carbon footprint, mutual responsibility to all humanity and all creation.  Your imagination is the only limit to what you can do. That is why we need to make sure that schooling doesn’t kill it, as ours does so effectively and early. The benefit of this system of teaching is not simply that it is exciting but that it directly links with practical application in life and opens doors for lifelong learning. Our students will no longer be unemployable. They will become employers with a conscience.
7.   Faith education: Islam
I am preempting the question that I am sure to be asked, ‘How will you teach theology, especially Islamic theology using this method?’ My answer is specific to Islamic teaching but I am sure other faith educators will find it useful and will be able to modify it to suit their needs.
Allah said about people of intelligence and how they teach and learn:
A’al Imraan 3:190. Verily! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for people of understanding. 191. Those who remember Allah (always) standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, AND think deeply about (research, discovery, invention) the creation of the heavens and the earth, (saying): “Our Rabb! You have not created (all) this without purpose, Glory to You! Give us salvation from the punishment of the Fire.”
In Islam there is no contradiction between religion (knowledge of the Creator) and science (knowledge of the world He created). Allahcalled those who are engaged in studying the world (every aspect of it), ‘intelligent’ people. He then went on to describe what real intelligence is and said that it is to first recognize the Creator and then to see His signs in His creation. That leads to acknowledging Him as the Creator and to worshipping Him as it is His right that He should be worshipped by those who benefit from His creation. The entire universe, all that we know today and all that we will come to know as we learn more and more, is an open book of the Creator (Allah) which points to His power, creativity, ability and above all, His love for His creatures. This is what the Prophet Muhammad was ordered to read when the first Ayaat (revelation) of the Qur’an were revealed. “Read in the name of your Rabb who created everything.” The reference is to Allahas the Creator of everything because His creation is visible everywhere to us, who are ourselves His creatures. That is why the great scholar and jurist Ibn Al Qayyim said, ‘There are two books of Allah– an open book (His creation) and a book that must be opened (the Qur’an).’ Islam invites us to read both the books but first the open book.
Why this method? This is because Islam recognizes that all knowledge is from Allah and the purpose of all knowledge is to connect the person to His Creator (Allah). The purpose of learning is to love Allah as He loves us. To obey Him because we love Him and because we recognize that whatever He orders is for our benefit, not His; because He is free from all need, including the need to be obeyed. Obedience benefits us and disobedience harms us. Faith education adds value to basic human values that are common to all people by showing us the reward for them when we meet Allah. Faith is the connector that completes the cycle so that the current of the power of the Creator flows through the person who understands who he/she is and how he/she is connected to his/her Creator (Allah).
How can we apply Project based learning to theology at the school level?
A word about why it is necessary to teach in the Project based way instead of our traditional way of teaching Islamic studies as an add on. Today two systems of teaching Islamic studies are prevalent globally. In Madrassas, math, English and rudimentary history, geography and occasionally science are taught as an add on after the main classes of Islamic studies. These subjects are non-core, don’t count in exams and are taught by people who are usually retired teachers from elsewhere who teach them as a means of earning some pocket money. These teachers also have a lower status (albeit unstated) than the Ulama who are the ‘real’ teachers in the Madrassa and so it is not a job that they like very much. Most Madrassas in India at least, are under-resourced in any case. And so these subjects are treated as a necessary evil to be endured. What happens is that what is taught here raises questions as it apparently doesn’t sync with what is taught in the Islamic studies classes but these questions remain unanswered as there is nobody who can integrate the two and answer them.
Islamic studies themselves are taught in our age-old rote learning method, with almost total focus on memorization and very little, if at all on understanding. Questioning is usually discouraged and beaten down by the club of the threat of impertinence and disrespect for the holy. The spirit of enquiry and challenge that we read about in our history books which was the way our great classical scholars taught, remains in the history books to be faithfully and respectfully read about and put away. Never to be applied today in our teaching. It is not difficult therefore to understand why our graduates from the Madrassa who are really high school graduates but called ‘Aalim’ (Scholar) come out so maladjusted with a conflict between what they know and what is expected of them especially after being bestowed with such an honorable title. Find me one high school kid who is called ‘Scholar’ or ‘Aalim’, and you know what I mean. The title is a burden that they have to bear and becomes a barrier for most to ongoing learning because it makes them shy of asking questions. After all, if you are an Aalim, you are supposed to know it all. So how can you ask questions? Just ask any you know to name the books they have read since their graduation and you will see what I mean. Since they come from an environment that discourages research, asking questions and dissent and which is techno-hostile, most don’t even explore the possibility of learning on their own. Thanks also to their very narrow focus on learning, those that do have no parameters to compare and understand what they may see on the internet.
The exact opposite happens in our Muslim schools where Islamic studies is taught as an add on with exactly as much importance as so-called secular studies gets in the Madrassa. The results are the same with the saving grace that since Muslim school graduates don’t come out with the illusion of being Ulama, they are not as much of an embarrassment as their counterparts. The entire system is highly inadequate to put it mildly and kindly and actually harmful to put it truthfully without any sugar coating.
So how do we apply Project Based teaching to Islamic studies? I believe that at the school level we must not teach Islamic studies exclusively as we do in our Madaaris. We must teach in the Project Based method so that the students emerge well-grounded in all subjects including Islamic studies. This means that the Islamic studies curriculum must be changed and the Dars-e-Nizami (in India) or its different variations that are taught today must be replaced by a new syllabus that covers all the different Islamic sciences at a basic fundamental level. The period of education must also be brought on par with normal schools, from the current 6-8 years to 12 years, so that there is enough time to teach all that I have mentioned. The Project Based approach will ensure that what they learn will be done thoroughly and with a sound understanding of the subject. So in short – no pure Madrassas at the basic education (school) level but schools teaching Islamic studies and modern education subjects together in an integrated manner.
Once basic schooling is over, the students can go to specialist schools to study pure Islamic sciences for their graduation and tertiary education. There they need not do any of the modern education subjects because they have enough of a grounding in them already from their schools. This is the way to cure our present situation of graduating ‘Ulama’ who are at sea and totally out of place in society after having studied 6-8 years of pure Islamic studies without anything else. This is a major lacuna in our system which begs correction.
In Islamic schools also, do projects in the same way with the addition that you also ask questions about what Ayaat, Ahadith, incidents from the Seerah and rulings of Shari’ah that may apply in the case of the project that you are doing. So in the case of mountains you look at Ayaat which mention mountains. Which Ahadith mention mountains; we have several of both? Which incidents in the Seerah mention mountains? See if there are any rulings regarding mountains. How is sunrise and sunset affected by mountains so that if you are camped in a valley how will you determine the time for prayer? Camp with a shepherd on a mountainside especially in the Hijaz or other desert area to get an idea of what the Prophet Muhammad would have experienced. Spend a night in a camp in a cave on top of a mountain to experience what he would have felt in the cave of Hira. Once again your imagination is the only limit to what you can do to bring Islam in all its aspects, alive in the class. Remember that this is not a theology class. But it is a class where you bring Allah into the class and let everyone connect to Him. This is a class where in the same breath you are talking about the Qur’an, Sunnah, Fiqh, Seerah, Tafsir, Physics, Chemistry, Math, History, Geography and a host of other things, marveling at how they relate to each other.
This is the beauty of the integrated system of teaching. It makes knowledge relevant, vibrant, exciting and challenging.
7.   Social Skills Basket
 1.   Entrepreneurship
I believe that entrepreneurship is the best way to teach both leadership and citizenship. When people learn to take responsibility for themselves and their output and move mentally from ‘entitlement’ to ‘contribution’, they become valuable members of society. That is when they start thinking outside their selfish interests and think of others because they realize that their own benefit it is linked to that of others.
Vocational Training
  1. Start a Vocational Training Centre in every school. This must be done in every Government and private school and Madrassa. Every child must learn a skill. Products can be sold and the income can be used for the Center. This will also provide employment opportunity for artisans/professionals who are unemployed at present. Parents and community members can be encouraged to participate in this venture by lending their time and skills.
  2. Working with the hands is instructional, therapeutic, engaging and teaches the dignity of labor. It teaches people that simply throwing money at some service provider doesn’t solve problems. It teaches them to value the services that they are now accustomed to receiving without a thought to what makes the service provider valuable.
  3. Funding can come from CSR of companies who I assume, will be happy to fund such ventures. Other sources like Government grants, private philanthropic agencies and philanthropists can also be explored. The funding needed is only to start up. Running expenses will be generated by the center. No fees must be charged to the students. This is important to encourage them to participate.
  4. The building infrastructure already exists. If the timetable is an issue (usually there is enough time in the normal day itself) then the Vocational Training can be done after school and on weekends. In my experience children get so interested that schools will have a task to have adults to supervise on holidays and weekends. But that is a good problem to have.
Entrepreneurship Development Training
Simultaneously an Entrepreneurship Development Training Plan must be established teaching students of the Center how to turn the skill into a business. This will ensure interest in the Vocational Training Course itself as people will be interested if they see how they can make this into a viable business and career option.
I suggest opening both the Vocational Training and Entrepreneurship Development Training to local communities also to help everyone and gain popular support. The Entrepreneurship Development Training course must consist of the following skills to be taught in a completely practical mode. NO LECTURES except as initial explanations. All teaching by practitioners.
  1. Writing a Business Plan to pitch for investment
  2. Budgeting and P & L Accounting
  3. Hiring and Team building
  4. Selling and Service Orientation

2.   Leadership Development
Leadership education is a field in itself and I don’t want this article to get too long. But suffice to say that the school must devote time and space to this. One of the good ways to do this is through team sports and outdoor challenge activities. Sailing, mountaineering, abseiling, social work, working with people with various physical challenges, visiting hospitals, hospices, old people’s homes. Taking leadership roles in raising funds for civic projects, working with police in crime prevention, drug abuse and other areas, working with journalists on current political and democracy issues; all these and more are places to learn to lead and demonstrate leadership. Parents and schools must encourage, enable and support all these initiatives.
3.   Citizenship
Communication, public speaking, presentation skills, active listening, cross cultural, cross religious, inter-community interactions. Making others welcome. Neighborhood service. Exploring your prejudices about others and shining the light of reality on them. Meeting people face to face to break stereotypes. Participating in parliamentary proceedings, hearings, court cases and public issues as observers. Teaching children from deprived backgrounds, adult literacy programs, working with craftsmen on different handicrafts to appreciate their work and help them to preserve and promote those arts. Special attention to the work that women do in our society, unsung, unappreciated and unremarked; yet absolutely critical. Schools must inculcate respect for women and the underprivileged; not create yet another elitist class.
4.   Physical fitness
Team sports, horse riding, archery, swimming and anything else that promotes physical fitness. Special consideration must be given to endurance activity because that teaches the most important lesson about the need for perseverance in life. So long distance running, hiking, jungle lore, orienteering, kayaking, trail riding and all such activities which teach survival skills must be done. Interschool competitions, participating in national tournaments, sports reporting, organizing sporting events and using sporting events to tell the wider, more important story of human enterprise.
5.   Connect to the earth
Agriculture, animal husbandry and gardening. These are therapeutic and healing. A connection to the earth is something that we have lost to our great detriment. We need to regain it. The feel of good earth dribbling through the fingers as you plant a tree is something that I can feel and taste to this day. This is what we need to teach. The earth will be saved only by those who love the earth. And only those who are connected to the earth can love it. There is nothing that does that better than agriculture. Agriculture must form a part of all schooling. Children must get their hands dirty, work with water and soil, create compost, use it, plant crops, ornamentals and trees, learn how the entire ecosystem works, learn what is beneficial and what is harmful and feel the joy of a good harvest. They must learn about and practice water conservation techniques and invent new ones. They must work with and use alternate energy. They must learn about and use alternate sources of fuel. They must live in villages without toilets, running water, electricity and learn to regulate their lives according to the rhythm of sunrise and sunset, cook on open fires using animal waste briquettes and use hygienic self-made toilets.
They must learn to handle animals. Learn how to take care of them, treat them when they are sick and feel the joy of their companionship. They must spend time in the forests, learn jungle lore, drink from a jungle stream, sleep under a tree, learn the sounds of the forest and what they mean, learn what is dangerous and what is not, learn to read sign for it is reading sign that leads to a life of happiness. All these varied experiences will build their bank of knowledge which can be applied cross context all through life.
For anyone who thinks that this is all too much, let me tell you that I have done every single one of these things; some in school and some outside on my own and I did them all while having my normal education. So I can assure you from personal experience that this is all possible provided you have the will for it. To read about this please see my book, ‘It’s my Life’ Kindle 
In conclusion I would submit that the goal of all our basic school education is and must be the building of moral, ethical, courageous people with open minds who are accepting of others and their differences. Citizens conscious of their role in society, able and ready to contribute in multiple ways to build a world that is holistic, compassionate, intelligent and healing.
I think we have all had enough of the highly toxic system that we have built and inherited. It is time to end this. Before it ends us.
One of our leading thinkers who speaks about this today is Sir Ken Robinson. His explanation of what I have mentioned above is priceless. Please see this TED talk:
Many more on YouTube which I strongly advise you to listen to/watch. Here’s another:
Do schools kill creativity? Indeed, they do. It would be extremely unusual if they didn’t.
Another educator who promotes the idea of children teaching themselves is Sugata Mitra.

Listen to him here:
Finnish School system
What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success – The Atlantic

Accepting Freedom

Accepting Freedom

Many years ago, I wrote a piece which I posted on my blog called, ‘Same Chairs, Different Bottoms’. Here it is for those who may not have read it. It is necessarily full of Indian (and Hindi) idiom which is not translatable so I apologize to those who don’t understand Hindi in advance. Also you need to know something of the history of India around 1947 when we became free of the British to appreciate the satire. But here goes.
I was in South Africa in August 2016, just before the Municipal Elections which are a big indicator of the mood of the nation with respect to the party that fought for and got them independence from apartheid, I can’t help but recall sadly our (India’s) own journey down that road. The inability to gain independence of the mind, while we got independence legally from a foreign ruler. It is for this reason that even today in India, a British national has more status, privileges and aura than an Indian, especially an Indian Muslim or Dalit.

The Indian National Congress which was the party that ‘got us independence’ if I may say so, lasted around forty years before it was ousted. Same evils of the euphoria of hubris that the ANC seems to be suffering from; the apparent belief that independence was the destination instead of the reality, that it was the beginning of the journey, even the race. Bringing a nation out of slavery is easy compared to making it own the responsibility of being free. Freedom is in the mind. Not in the law books. Free people behave differently because they believe that they’re the owners. So they don’t steal from themselves, they don’t abuse privilege, they don’t seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the nation.

That’s why in countries like Sweden you have the Prime Minister riding a bicycle to work and nobody even comments. It’s not a publicity gimmick like our Indian politicians do once in a while. It’s normal. Being PM is like being a teacher or a bus driver. All equally dignified and important. But that’s also because Sweden was never a colony, was never subjugated. But countries which have had oppressive governments for generations like South Africa and India have learnt a different equation with the government. India went from monarchy or monarchies to British colonial rule to democracy. Government was always alien. The few with the power to rule the many. To this day we use the term, Modi’s rule, Congress Raj, Collector’s Peshi (means ‘August Presence’…a Mughal Court term, used today for the District administrator). If you used the term ‘rule’ for Stefan Löfven they’d laugh you out of town. The titular ruler of Sweden, which is a constitutional monarchy is King Carl XVI Gustaf who has been King of Sweden since 1973. He is the 74thKing of Sweden, and also rides a bicycle normally. He’s a ruler like the British Queen, more a tourist attraction than anything else.

Democracy is supposed to be ‘government of the people, for the people, by the people’. At least this is what we were taught in school 45 years ago. But for this to happen, it is the people who must be educated and who must understand the meaning of ownership and exercise it. So whoever may be the political party in parliament, the power always belongs to the people of the nation who give it to a set of leaders to exercise it on their behalf for their (the people’s) benefit. It is the like the driver of a car. The car belongs to the owner. The driver drives it at the pleasure of the owner, as long as the owner employs him, to wherever the owner orders him and then when his day is over, he gets on his own personal transport and goes home. That is the actual meaning of government and ‘ruling’ party in a real democracy. It would never be acceptable for the driver of the car to take it home or to do with it anything at all without the permission of the owner. The driver will never be the owner of the car no matter how long he drives it. He will always be a driver. And be judged and rewarded on the basis of his driving and the care he lavishes on the car to keep it in pristine order. But today whether you look at the drama that’s called US elections or in UK or in the many other countries including India and South Africa you are looking at drivers whose real intentions seem to be to grab the car and dispossess the real owner.

Free nations have dignity. Self-respect is a characteristic of free people which prevents them from being corrupt. You can’t steal from yourself but when you see yourself as an outsider you can steal from the “Other”. Corruption is a sign that you don’t consider yourself to be a part of the nation. Corruption is treason. It is the most anti-national of acts. It is an act of war on the nation. But in all our countries, it is rampant, accepted, even aspirational. India and South Africa are not alone in this by any means. This seems to be the fate of almost every erstwhile colony which gained independence after a struggle. All are struggling from the phenomenon of ‘Same chairs, different bottoms’. They don’t seem to see the fact that it is the chair which must be changed. The change is not in the bottom which sits in the chair, but the mindset which defines what the chair actually means.

The change is by no means easy. It means that people must elect leaders based on principles, ethics, morals and character; not on tribe, caste or community. It means that leaders then have to behave like elected representatives, not like rulers, kings and queens. It means that they must be scrupulously objective, honest, non-partisan and just. It means that integrity, not anything else, must rule every transaction. It means that there must be no financial, social or other benefit in being a leader. It means that we need to take away every ‘benefit’ that we enjoy today when we are elected to office – yet want to be there only in order to serve.

It means that public servants must reflect, even meditate on the term ‘public servant’ and consciously accept it as their self-concept. They must act like servants of the public, not as their rulers. It means that we must remove all privilege that goes with so-called public service today in countries like India. It means that almost every reason why most people opt for public service today must be removed. Then only those who still want to serve will be there to serve; quietly, unsung heroes whose love will fill the hearts of those whose difficulty they alleviate. It means we need to create a generation which finds satisfaction from drying people’s tears and seeing their smiles.

It means that the public must behave with self-confidence, self-respect and fairness and not demand more than they are due; nor seek privilege over others based on caste, creed, community, tribe or social status. It means that the public must value and want justice, not injustice which they personally benefit from. It means that people must value the law and want to follow it even when it may be painful, because they know that it is good for everyone, including themselves. It means that the law must be superior to people. That crime doesn’t pay, criminals do. It means that if a crime is committed, the criminal will be punished no matter who he or she is. No exceptions. That is the meaning of rule of law and what differentiates a democracy from a dictatorship or feudal rule.

It means that the election process itself must be changed where it is the people who pay, not aspiring leaders. As long as elections involve fund raising by candidates, they will breed, even enforce corruption. Good leadership is the need of the people and we the people must pay to have good leaders. It means that campaigning must be dignified with candidates (and parties) speaking about what they have to offer. Not spend time in maligning and demeaning others. Elections must not be a circus nor a drain on the exchequer. Media must be restrained and report facts and give space to information. Not become the spokespeople for vested interests and peddle propaganda, innuendo and lies in the name of news. Media must be and keep itself free from external influence and be the conscience keepers and champions of the values of the nation. It means that accountability must be objective, absolute and unquestioned.

When we are able to accomplish this then and only then will we be truly free. Only then will we regain our self-respect. Only then will we be able to hold our heads high as a nation that has truly thrown off the chains of servitude. Slavery is in the mind. Subjugated nations become subjugated and remain subjugated because they accept these chains of the superiority of man over man based on external causes; race, position, power, authority or anything else. Equality means to treat yourself as equal to the other – not the other way round. If you say that equality means to treat the other like yourself, you are unconsciously placing yourself at a higher level and feel satisfied at ‘bringing’ the other to your level. That still means you are doing them a favor. So I prefer to describe it as seeing and treating yourself as equal to the ‘other’. In essence, it means eliminating the ‘other’. For in a free nation, all people are citizens; albeit with different responsibilities, but all equal to one another and all accountable to the nation which comprises of all of them.

Fantasy, you say? Well, I am a poor old man. Please indulge me. Or accept the fact that when you are far removed from reality, it looks like fantasy. Searching for justice, equity and dignity in our feudal, patriarchal nations, is the real fantasy. Change it or suffer.