The Crossley engine was iconic
and as much a part of a tea garden as a tea bush. Crossley engineers trained
local men with an aptitude for mechanical tinkering who became Blacksmiths’ and
were a legend. Most of them had had no formal education to speak of. All they had
was the interest to learn, curiosity and dexterity and were very creative. They
attempted anything and succeeded where highly trained mechanical engineers would
be stumped. I put this down to what our formal education does to the mind,
where our creativity is severely curtailed within the imaginary boundaries of what
‘can’ and ‘can’t’ be done. Those who are not mentally conditioned in this way,
try all sorts of new ways with great success because nobody told them what ‘can’t’
One of my favorite stories about
how creative people without a formal education can be is as follows. When
I took over Lower Sheikalmudi Estate as the Manager, one of the things that I
concentrated on was to make the land more productive. I took a three-pronged
approach. We dug trenches in the swamps to drain the water and planted cardamom
on the ridges between the trenches and planted pepper on the shade trees – Grevillea
Robusta (Silver Oak). We filled in (planted tea) all vacant patches and tea
field boundaries. And we reclaimed all big vegetable gardens which had become
more commercial than personal and had encroached into our tea fields. The
incident I want to mention here had to do with an infilling area in the LSM
Upper Division. This was a large bare hilltop which was about ten acres in
extent, which we planted with clonal cuttings. Since the area was completely
bare and open, I was very concerned about the survival of the cuttings as we
were going into the dry weather.
was no water on site to irrigate the plants. If we dug a well in the swamp at
the bottom of the hill, we would have to install a diesel pump because there
was no electricity there, then put in a pipeline and build a tank on top of the
hill. Only then would we be able to irrigate this plot. An expensive
proposition to say the least. We were taking all other moisture conservation
measures; mulching the plants, digging lock and spill trenches and filling them
with coconut husk to retain whatever moisture that occasional rain and daily
dew fall would yield. But I knew that these would not be enough when the summer
set in and we would probably have heavy casualties if we couldn’t irrigate the
plants. One day I was standing on the hilltop with Mr. Govindraj, my Field
Officer, and we were talking about the problems of irrigation and how important
it was for the successful survival of these plants. There were a few workers
around us, digging trenches. As we were speaking, one of them, Shashi, said to
me, ‘Dorai, if you permit me, I can bring water here to this hilltop.’ Mr.
Govindraj’s instant reflex reaction was, ‘Hey! Keep quiet and do your work.
Don’t interrupt the Manager when he is speaking.’ Such were those days.
immediately stopped Govindraj and said to the man, ‘Tell me how you will do it?’
said, ‘Dorai, I want two helpers for two days, permission to cut bamboo in our
reserve forest, and two or three empty diesel barrels (they have a capacity of
two-hundred liters). Give me this and I will get water here from that stream
over there,’ and he pointed to the stream in the ravine near the forest
boundary. The stream was at least three kilometers away as the crow flies in a
small ravine abutting the forest. If the crow walked it was much further. I was
very intrigued. He wouldn’t explain any more when I asked him. I instructed
Govindraj to give him what he asked as I wanted to see what he would do.
a week later he came to meet me in the Muster and asked me to go to see what he
had made. I was astounded to see what he had done. He had cut mature bamboo and
punched through the nodal septa to create a pipe. Then he had rigged up a
siphon system using the diesel barrels to lift the water from one level to
another and had water from the stream flowing out of the end of the bamboo pipe
into a small tank in the middle of the tea infilling area. It was a system that
cost next to nothing to build, needed neither power nor manual attention to
run, and was made by a man whose job was manual labor. In effect we had a
hydraulic engineer in our midst who had never gone to college, could barely
read and write, usually dug holes in the ground or did other such unedifying
jobs, and his knowledge was hidden because nobody bothered to ask him. If I had
also followed suit and allowed my Field Officer to shut him up, we would have
unnecessarily spent a fortune to do something that one of our own workers did
for us, free of cost. I invited our General Manager to visit the estate and see
what he had done, and we took photographs and gave him a gift. Everyone all
around was delighted but none so much as myself for the life lesson I learnt.
later promoted Shashi to Supervisor and put him in charge of our tea nursery as
he was very smart and had a lot of good ideas. I used to listen to him
carefully and we did many an interesting thing as a result of his ideas. People
close to the job know the most about it, if only managers will listen. And it’s
all free. He did a brilliant job with the nursery and several years later after
I had left, I understand that he was promoted to the Staff grade. As they say,
‘you can’t keep a good man down.’
Our Blacksmiths kept machinery
which should have legitimately been given a decent burial in the 19th century,
alive and kicking – generating electricity, running pumps, factories and
what-have-you. Amazing work, mostly unsung but hugely appreciated by those who
benefited from it. These ‘Blacksmiths’ were able to keep not only the Crossley
engines running but handled anything that moved with equal confidence and
aplomb. This included tractors without generators or starters, motorcycles with
temperamental carburetors and even the Peria Dorai’s (PD) car. All passed
through the hands of the Estate Blacksmith and lived to tell the tale. They
were also artists with the lathe machine. All CTC factories have lathe machines
to sharpen CTC rollers. On these machines were made all kinds of knickknacks,
tools and what-have-you, as required or desired – sometimes the difference between
the two being non-existent.
I had a blacksmith on my estate,
Lower Sheikalmudi, called Thangavelu. His trademark was his smile, showing huge
gaps of missing teeth but bright and shining like the rising sun, no matter
what time of the day or night you called him. The other thing about him was
that no matter when you saw him, he always looked like he had been freshly
dipped in a drum of lube oil. I used to tell him that if I cut him, oil and not
blood would flow. Which got a huge laugh as my reward. Thangavelu was an
absolute wizard with his hands. He’s had no education to speak of and so his
creativity and initiative were intact. He did things with bits of wire, soap,
wire mesh and coconut fiber which kept machines turning in an emergency until
we could get the right part or consumable that had given up the ghost. He once
made me a pruning knife with a truck spring blade and put a handle on it
encased in staghorn (from a discarded Sambar horn picked up in the forest),
secured with copper bands. It was a thing of real beauty and I carried it with
pride for a number of years.
One day when I had been
transferred to Paralai Estate, I gave it to one of my pruning workers to
sharpen. Then I left to inspect some plucking and then went to the office in
the afternoon. While I was in the office, some workers came running and said
that Forest Department officers had come and arrested several of our workers
from the pruning field and taken them off to Pollachi. I was astonished until I
learnt that while they had been pruning, a Barking Deer got flushed out from
under some unpruned tea. The deer ran for its life but one of the workers threw
his knife which brought it down and before anyone could think, other workers
had butchered it. I was furious at them for having killed a poor animal which
apart from the kindness angle was also illegal. This whole thing was reported
to the Forest Range Officer who came and arrested the workers and hauled them
off to the Police Station in Pollachi. The workers who came to me, said that
they had been locked up and had not had anything to eat and their families were
I drove down to Pollachi and met
the Range Officer and the Superintendent of Police. I arranged for the workers
in the lockup to be fed. Then I persuaded the officers to drop the case against
them as they had done their deed without any thought, almost as a reflex. It
took a lot of talking and the fact that I knew the officers concerned and had a
good relationship with them. What also helped was the fact that I had driven
all the way down from the Anamallais for these workers, which was not usual and
so everyone was very impressed, and the case was dropped, and the workers
released. The only casualty, apart from the poor Barking Deer (which
incidentally made a nice meal for the Forest Department and Police guys) was my
pruning knife. It had been ceased by the Range Officer, who fell in love with
it and when I went to meet him, it was on his table. He asked me if I would be
kind enough to allow him to keep it. With my workers’ freedom in his hands, I
had hardly any choice. So, I bid it farewell. Thangavelu never got around to
making me another one though we talked about it many times.
was the custom of the plantations when any Assistant Manager got married and returned
with his wife, there was a round of parties to meet the couple. So also, in our
case and since I was the Secretary of the Anamallai Club, I had more than my
fair share of friends and so we had a party to go to every night. The parties were formal suit and tie affairs
and the hostess would go to great lengths to cook special dishes in honor of
the guests and at the end the couple would be given a gift. In a place where
social relationships were very important, these parties were not simply for
entertainment. They were rites of passage and thresholds of entry from
bachelorhood to married status, which gave you a higher level of status and
respect. They also had ‘snob value’ associated with who invited you and who
didn’t. I didn’t bother with that at all, but then again, I was invited by everyone,
so it didn’t matter. The parties were also a good way to introduce the new
bride to a way of life that was foreign to her and helped her to make contacts
with senior ladies and others more experienced in this lifestyle, which could
be challenging for someone born and brought up in the city. Most people who go
to tea gardens for a holiday in good weather don’t realize the difficulty of
that environment for those who must live there all year round.
have written about how my estate workers welcomed us when we returned to the
estate. https://yawarbaig.com/wherearetheleaders/see-with-their-eyes/ The beauty of planting life was that it
was like being in a family. You had your bickering, sometimes it could be trying.
But always there was mutual affection and traditions to uphold and the proper
etiquette in all things. And most importantly, in an emergency, everyone stood
dinner parties in our honor were so frequent that my wife could recognize a
road only in the dark. The parties, enjoyable though they were and were a good
way to meet friends who lived too far to visit frequently, could be very taxing
as they tended to go on very late. We were expected to put in an appearance at
the morning muster on the estate at 6:00 am no matter when we returned. The
night of Mayura Factory inauguration (the day that started at 2:00 am), we had
been invited to dinner at the home of our dear friends, Prema and Ricky
Muthanna in Mudis. Ricky was the General Manager of BBTC and we were honored to
be invited to their home.
happened, there was no time even for a short snooze in the afternoon thanks to
the inauguration and to top it all, my car was once again in hospital. I didn’t
fancy the idea of going all the way to Mudis (about thirty km on serpentine
estate roads, decorated with potholes) on my motorcycle. I asked Mr. AVG Menon if
I could borrow car, a brand new Hindustan Ambassador which had arrived just
that week, for the evening and he graciously agreed.
set off at about 7:00 pm as the dinner was for 8:00 pm. I was exhausted as I
had been awake for 48 hours with about 2 hours of sleep, but we set off, Samina
and I, on this long drive. We arrived at Prema and Ricky’s house to a very warm
welcome. Samina and Prema became friends instantly and have remained friends
all these years. Ricky and Prema’s home was a delight, very tastefully
decorated and one of the iconic bungalows in the Anamallais. It was the only
bungalow to my knowledge which had a central courtyard with a veranda all
around it and so it had a garden inside and outside. Prema had called a lot of
people in our honor and the house was full of our friends and some others who I
knew by name but was meeting for the first time.
plantation parties (except in my house) started with drinks, which the men
consumed in large quantities while the women sipped soft drinks and discussed
matters of great import. As I was not one for the spiritual experience, I would
take my orange juice or fresh lime soda and chat with whoever was still on
mother earth. But as many left for higher altitudes in proportion to the fuel
inside them, I would usually take myself off into a corner and contemplate the
world. That day I was so sleepy and tired that my eyes were self-shutting
unable to withstand the weight of my eyelids, while the party was in full
swing. I was clearly out of it. Prema saw me in that state and said to Samina
and me, ‘Yawar looks like he is going to drop. Let me give you dinner so that
you can eat and leave. I have no idea when these men will eat, and you look
like you won’t last too long.’ I agreed wholeheartedly and we ate, said our
farewells quietly and left.
up to that point I had my faculties still intact. You had to be alert when
driving in the Anamallais, both on account of the road conditions as well as
the possibility of coming upon a herd of elephants or gaur around a bend. That
night was mercifully elephant free and we reached Lower Sheikalmudi Estate
without incident. As I took the final turn on the road leading up to our
bungalow (the ‘Tennis Court Bungalow’), I relaxed and that was my undoing. The
next thing I knew, there was a crash and the car came to an abrupt halt. I was
shocked back into awareness and realized that I had driven off the road. The
left front wheel of the car was hanging off the side of the road in midair with
the front fender resting against a tea bush, which was the reason we didn’t go
all the way down into the ravine. The chassis was resting on the roadbed.
Samina and I were shocked. It was 2:00 am and there we were.
realized that this was not a good situation because the car didn’t belong to
me. It was Mr. Menon’s car and a new one to boot. It was therefore my
responsibility to get out of this situation. It didn’t even occur to me that I
could leave the car where it was until morning and then get assistance to take
it out of its predicament. I had crashed it and it was up to me to get it out.
And I had to do it right away; it was not even a matter to think about. As it
was, the car was directly below a stairway that led up to our house. I told
Samina to walk up to the house so that she would be safely home. Then I went in
search of a tractor to pull the car out. I knew that the leaf transport
tractors – Massey Ferguson – used to be parked near Mayura Factory, about 2 kilometers
from where I was. Our roads had no streetlights and it was a dark night. The
tea fields were home to wild boar and other friendly species, not to mention
several species of snakes, but none of them was my boss while Mr. AVG Menon
was. I hiked off in search of a tractor. On the way I called my good friend,
mechanic Thangavelu, because there was no way that I could pull the car out
alone. Both of us got to where the tractors were parked and selected the one we
of the tractors had self-starters and used to be parked on an incline so that
you could roll down and start the engine. And they had no lights; I never
understood why. Working in starlight, I got into the driver’s seat, rolled
down, and started the tractor. Now we needed a tow rope. Thangavelu recalled
that the telephone company people had been working on a line passing through
one of our fields and had left a coil of telephone wire there. So off we went,
with Thangavelu standing on a plank behind me, holding the seat as I drove the
tractor. We picked up the coil of wire and drove back to where the car was;
hooked up the wire to the chassis at the back and pulled the car back on the
road. When I examined the damage, I saw that the tea bush had taken the shock
and except for a small side indicator light, nothing was broken. That was a big
relief to put it mildly. Thangavelu then took the tractor back to its parking
spot and I drove home at 3:30 am.
still recall the first thing that AVG asked me when I told him that we’d had an
accident in his new car. He said, ‘I hope you and Samina are alright?’ I told
him that we were fine but that his new car had been inaugurated with a broken
indicator light. He was amused and laughed it off and said, ‘That can be fixed.
I am happy that nothing happened to you both.’ That is why we used to call him A
Very Good Menon.
It is a no brainer to say that there is no family in the world that can continue to provide all the knowledge, talent and energy it needs, to fuel the growth and development of their business, indefinitely. Yet it is amazing to see the usual reluctance to bring in outside talent, even when it has become abundantly clear that the business will flounder if the knowledge and skills that are needed are not provided in a timely manner.
Here are some important things that Family Business Owners/CEO’s must keep in mind so that they can create a climate that can attract and retain the best professional talent.
The first and foremost thing to do is to consciously make the decision to hire professionals. If professionals from big-name MNCs are hired as a matter of prestige or fashion as happens more often than one would like to believe, it is almost certain that the hire will go wrong. Once the conscious decision has been taken it is essential for the family to spend a sufficient amount of time helping the professional to understand what he or she is getting into. Family business cultures are as different from each other as can be. The professional that the family business hires will more than likely not have any idea about the dynamics, culture, taboos, norms and accepted behaviors of the family and their business. It is likely that given the corporate MNC culture of a Western company, he may find some of the norms and expected behaviors difficult or even impossible to follow. In such cases it is better that this is discovered early and the hiring is not done, rather than have to go through what can be a painful and embarrassing termination. Be frank with the incumbent; let him see what and how you are from as close as possible. Share all that you do and expect him to do without reservation and then let him decide if he wants to join. It is a good idea also to create a space for his family to meet your family and share some mindscape. The social interaction can help in breaking the ice and helping both parties to see each other without any pretense, voluntary or otherwise.
Choose the best:
Believe me, the best really want to work for you. Get professional help to hire the best because the best don’t just happen round the corner. It is a common mistake that many family business owners make of treating professionals as a ‘cost’. They hire below themselves as they don’t want to pay what it takes to hire the best. This is a very costly mistake. And you will pay that price. It is an accepted fact in leading edge global MNCs that hiring superior people is the most cost-effective choice. Survey after survey shows that superior people may be up to 15% more expensive but produce between 40-50% more in terms of output. Hire the best and from them, demand the best. Those who are worthy of their salt will welcome working to high standards. This will also create the kind of achievement-oriented culture you need to attract the best talent. Winners attract winners. So do losers.
Treat them with respect:
They are not the ‘hired help’. They work for the company, not for you personally. Don’t use them to do your personal jobs and actively discourage those who will offer to do them to suck-up to you. Give professionals responsibility that is commensurate with their qualifications so that you can really leverage their talent and experience for your company. Some family business CEOs collect professionals from various MNCs like people collect watches or paintings. Then they talk about who they have working for them. But when it comes to giving them freedom and authority to take decisions and really bring about change in the company, they tie their hands and don’t allow them to function. Professionals who have self-respect and who are interested in their careers, leave when they see what is happening. Others, for their own personal reasons stay on, lose their edge and gradually vegetate at your expense.
Don’t make promises you can’t or won’t keep:
Treat them like the professional colleagues they are. Some business owners in their eagerness to hire some high profile professional promise them all kinds of things which they personally have no authority to deliver. When the promises don’t pan out, the professional justifiably feels let down and will more than likely leave. I recall one case where one family business CEO hired a high-profile HR head from a global MNC with the ‘incentive’ that the family wanted to replicate the global MNC’s corporate university in India. The HR professional was very excited believed the dream merchant who hired him, only to be hugely disappointed later. He lasted with them for all of six months.
This is a big one. Many family business owners are so used to doing things themselves or getting their family or friends to do things for them for love that they almost take umbrage if anyone suggests that service needs to be paid for in cash. When hiring professionals, they treat having to pay a salary like having teeth extracted and try to haggle and pay as little as possible. On the other end of the spectrum are those who are over generous and pay out of guilt or to tell their friends how much they are paying key professionals. Both approaches are wrong. If you pay peanuts you get monkeys who will steal the peanuts. Honesty does have a price, believe it or not. And overpaying does not buy either loyalty or dedication. Check the market. Pay either the market value or 5% -10% more, since your company may not be such a great name to have on the CV. But don’t pay more than that. If the person you are hiring needs to be literally purchased, then he is not worth hiring. You want people to join you also for the challenge and for what they think they can achieve for you.
Create a clear career path for them:
Professionals are very anxious in family businesses to know where their career will take them. They may accept not becoming the CEO, but they would naturally expect to get to the No.2 position or to the head of a functional or SBU role in a reasonable time. Create a career path for them based on clearly defined goals. I have recommended that even the CEO’s job must be open to professionals because you want the CEO to be the best qualified person. And if it is a non-family person, so be it. That is good for the business and by inference good for the family.
Demonstrate excellence. Inspire and then never settle for anything but the best. Competent professionals like to demonstrate what they can do. Set high goals and reward those who exceed them, handsomely. A good objective performance management system is also a major asset in attracting and retaining the right people. Many professionals are very apprehensive of subjective appraisals in family businesses and the whole business of being ‘liked’. A clear-cut performance management system assures them that their achievements will be noticed and rewarded objectively and that their career progress does not depend on subjective likes and dislikes.
Expose them internationally: Invest in their learning:
Give your key professionals international exposure. Let them publish, present papers at international seminars, teach at business schools, participate in service programs. Only if they meet others will they learn. What they learn they will bring back to you. Sure, a couple will leave. Those couple would have left anyway. In any case you need a flow of a clean cool breeze, now and again. But others will join you because they see the caliber of people you have working with you. Make learning an item on the Performance Appraisal System. Provide learning opportunities, pay for them, and support those who learn. Then ask them how you can enable them to apply what they learnt in your place. Without the challenge of international exposure professionals will lose their edge and thereby their usefulness to you.
Don’t be shortsighted with respect to employee development. People who want to learn are precisely the kind of people you need. Don’t punish them for wanting to learn. Appreciate their spirit and support them, so that they will create a culture of learning in the organization. Some employers think differently, to their own detriment.
Give them a stake in the business:
Key professionals help you to become more profitable. They are the cause of your wellbeing. Acknowledge and appreciate that materially. Believe me, they are smart enough to know their own worth. They need to be appreciated and their contributions acknowledged. The best option is to give key executives a percentage of the profit. Some people recommend stock options or phantom stocks, but these can have other implications for the family itself. A percentage of the profit is a neat, clean way to give the professional a stake in the company without raising other issues. They get it if they deliver. Not unless.
In conclusion, business success is about skills and knowledge. Not about genetics and surnames. The family needs the business. The business doesn’t need the family. Just like flying a plane and owning it are two different things and signing the cheque for the plane doesn’t make you a pilot, so also in business. Owning a business doesn’t automatically make you a great businessman. Hire the right people, treat them right, pay them right. That’s the best way to ensure that your own lifestyle doesn’t suffer.
For more, please read my book,
The Business of Family Business’, http://amzn.to/2ptG4sc
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 Amazon.in. 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:
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.
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.
“In order to change an existing paradigm, you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.” ~ R. Buckminster Fuller
The purpose of this article is to help the graduates of Madaaris (Ulama) to become relevant in modern society and to be able to provide positive leadership to their congregations.
I have tried to define the situation with Madrassa Education in India as I understand it and to propose a solution to the deficiencies and problems that it faces. That these deficiencies and problems are not necessarily recognized or likely to be accepted by those who run Madaaris is to be expected because the first reaction of the patient who is diagnosed with a terminal illness is denial. However, this ‘illness’ though terminal, if left unattended, is curable if addressed. The question is whether those who have the authority – Madrassa administrators and even more importantly, sponsors – are willing to address it and implement the cure. It is my job to share my thoughts. With that, I rest my case before Allahﷻ. For I will not be asked, ‘What did you know?’ I will be asked, ‘What did you do?’ That is what you, my dear reader, will also be asked.
About the issues with the quality of education in our Madrassas in India, I believe we need to look at the syllabus which is based on the Dars-eNizami. Dars-e-Nizami or its derivatives are taught in thousands of Madaaris worldwide which draw inspiration, instruction or follow the principles and values of Darul Uloom Deoband, arguably the most respected Madrassa in the subcontinent. I have quoted from Darul Uloom Deoband’s site because Deoband is the bastion of this syllabus and methodology. You can see what they themselves say about what the student gains after eight years of full-time residential ‘education’. (bold type below is mine).
“Its founder was Mulla Nizamuddin Sahalvi (d. 1748), who was contemporary of Hazrat Shah Waliullah. The curriculum known as “Dars-e Nizami”, which is current today in all the Arabic schools, is a relic from him. Adding something more to the syllabi of the third period, Mulla Nizamuddin prepared a new syllabus. The great peculiarity of this syllabus is that more attention has been paid in it to the creation of depth of insight and power of reading in the student, and although immediately after the completion of this course proficiency is not acquired in any particular subject, this much ability is surely created that, through one’s own independent reading and labor, one may acquire proficiency in any subject of one’s liking. The standard of Hadith and Tafsir in this course too is not much high, and of literature there is included no book at all.
Mulla Nizamuddin created what came to be called Dars-e-Nizami in the 1730’s, more than a century before 1857 and the establishment of British rule in India. He created the syllabus to enable Madrassa graduates to get government jobs in the Moghul administration. Since he was from Lucknow where the influence of Iran was very strong, his course gave far more importance to Ilm Kalam, Greek philosophy, logic (Mantiq), Farsi and not to the Qur’an, Hadith and Seerah. What is amazing is the sincerity with which our Madrassa authorities still cling to this totally outdated syllabus ignoring all the changes in time, space, political situation and realities of the modern world that have happened since the 1730’s. The result is that they are still producing graduates ideally suited to enter the service of a government that ceased to exist a century and a half ago.
I don’t think there is any doubt in the minds of anyone including those who graduate from Madaaris with at least some residual ability to think still intact, that there is a crying need for change. Not merely cosmetic or incremental change but a total transformation of the curriculum, syllabus and teaching methodology to ensure that those who graduate from there can enter society with confidence.
The reason this is even more important is because according to the Justice Sachar Committee Report (2005) http://bit.ly/2fmNJoY there are two million students in Madaaris in India. That is less than 2% of the population of Indian Muslims but it is significant because of the amount of money that is spent voluntarily on it by the community which the same Report defines as being economically speaking, the weakest in the nation. Yet the Indian Muslim community spends a colossal INR 24 billion (2400 crores) annually on sponsoring Madrassa education. I doubt if there is any other community of Indians who can match this contribution to national development.
I arrived at this figure by assuming a cost/student of INR 1000 per month per student. The actual cost is most likely to be double that or more as most Madaaris provide boarding, lodging and education, totally free. However, for our discussion the amount of INR 24 billion (2400 crores) is sufficient. It is my contention that anyone (person or group) that spends so much money must be concerned about the quality of the output for which the money is being spent. I believe that is where the problem starts because to the best of my knowledge there is no particular purpose or clear objective of Madrassa education.
No Madrassa teacher or director has ever been able to answer me clearly when I asked them to describe what their final product, the graduate of the Madrassa, was supposed to be. Educators teach what they have been mandated to teach according to the syllabus. Sponsors sponsor the education considering it to be a ‘good deed’ for which Allahﷻ will reward them. Students who come mostly from the poorest strata of Muslim society and their parents, have no voice at all in deciding what is taught, how it is taught or what the result is. The fact that the graduate is called A’alim is a bonus and he exists with a sense of position though without any skills to lead his life in society.
In brief this is what happens in Dars-e-Nizami. This is not a criticism of this work and may Allahﷻ grant the best reward to the its author. I am mentioning this to you so that you, who live in today’s world, can decide if it is enough as the fundamental education for young people and relevant in our 21st century world. I want you to see this also in the light of Islamic religious education and ask yourself if this is sufficient for someone who is going to emerge at the other end and be called A’alim.
Under Dars-e-Nizami curriculum:
Students only touch the Qur’an as the method is a ‘Dawrah’ (reading, not teaching). Tafsir-i-Jalalayn (which has fewer words than the Qur’an!) is followed and that is done for Barakah only. Usool-ul-Tafsir are not taught. Arabic, the language of the Qur’an and Sunnah, is not taught which means that students never get to touch the original revelation but must be content with the translation. Instead Arabic books are taught in Urdu (translations) and this is not considered either strange or wrong. The teachers themselves don’t know Arabic, so if one wanted to bring about a change, it would not be so easy as to simply tell teachers to teach in the original language of the book, which is Arabic. They can’t because they don’t know it themselves. Yet they are recruited, paid and teach.
Interestingly in every Western university where there is a Faulty of Islamic Studies, fluency in Arabic is a pre-requisite for being recruited as a teacher. Consequently, they have non-Muslim teachers who know Arabic and can quote the Qur’an and Hadith which our graduates from our Darul Ulooms and even their teachers, can’t. It is a matter of shame for us that Islam is the only religion which is taught by non-Muslims in many Western universities because all the Darul Ulooms of the Indian Subcontinent together, can’t produce enough graduates who are fit to be hired into a system that demands the knowledge of the language of the Qur’an to teach the Qur’an. The fact that they don’t know English either doesn’t help and non-Muslims teach Islam to Muslim students, understandably with their biases and prejudices.
The six books on Hadith are also taught in a similar fashion – as a ‘dawrah’ during the last year. Students gain neither knowledge nor understanding. The teacher simply reads, gives a short explanation and goes on to the next Hadith. There is no discussion, no question and answer, no reflection on the Asbaab (circumstances) of the Hadith, no comparison with what Rasoolullahﷺ taught in a given situation and how it compares and contrasts with what we are taught or what we do in our own lives. There is no time to contemplate on any Hadith and think about how to apply the teachings in current times.
History and Seerah are neither taught in detail nor to extract lessons. This is the strangest and most crippling deficiency because Allahﷻ ordered us to learn about the life of His Prophet, Muhammadﷺ and to emulate him and follow his way. If this is not even done in a religious school (Deeni Madrassa) then where will it be done?
There is a total lack of critical thinking for fear of raising questions or disagreeing with the established position of the ‘school’. In our Madaris we teach Madhab, not Islam. For example, in Hanafi Madaris like Deoband and others, a whole course is taught about the ‘mistakes’ of Imam Shafi in his extraction of rulings but no course on the Principles of Fiqh (Usool-ul-Fiqh), Manners of Disagreement (Adaab-ul-Ikhtilaaf) or Principles of Extraction of Rulings (Istambaad-ul-Ahkaam). The result is that instead of appreciating the different approaches of the Fiqhi scholars and Imams, students come out with the impression that one of them was ‘right’ and the others were ‘wrong’. And since they follow the ‘right’ one, they are superior to the other classical scholars who were ‘wrong’. This arrogance creates rigidity and is the root cause behind the inter-denominational hatred, divisiveness and violence. Acceptance of a point of view different from one’s own; accepting that someone else can also be correct, is not something that our Madaaris believe in, teach or practice.
Even this would have been acceptable if they had been open about it. They would still be wrong but at least honest. But instead, they publicly proclaim that all the four (Sunni) Imams of Fiqh are correct, but clandestinely and privately they condemn everyone other than Imam Abu Hanifa. They try to enforce Hanafiyat (‘Hanafeeism’ – my coinage) rather than Islam. This is hypocrisy at its worst.
One of the reasons why critical thinking and questioning is discouraged is that people consider the human understanding and interpretation of the revelation by their predecessors as ‘divine’. The opinions of their own scholars (called Akabireen; The Great Ones) are considered sacrosanct, unquestionable, irrefutable and good for all time. The reality is that only Qur’an and authentic Sunnah is divine. Rest of the sciences of religion are human understanding of the revelation and as such are bound to have differences. An interesting corollary is that there is no evidence that anyone who has been raised to this ‘divine’ status today, ever wanted this to be done or told anyone that he was infallible and must be obeyed without question. Yet this is done in their name today.
It’s noteworthy to mention that Imam Abu Hanifa’s main students (Imam Abu Yusuf and Imam Muhammad) differ from him in one-third of his madhab. It shows that he trained his students to think rather than copy him and if they differed from his opinion he didn’t throw them out of his class. But his way has been lost today.
Students in Madaris succeed because they focus on memory. Madrassas deliberately discourage, even punish, critical thinking. The most powerful way to do this is to make everything sacred and therefore unquestionable. There is no difference in approach to the Word of Allahﷻ, the teachings of His Messengerﷺ and the teachings of (especially and almost exclusively) the scholars of a particular Madhab. The word ‘Akabireen’ (Great Ones), is used exclusively for scholars of the Madhab only. No Deobandi – Hanafi means Iman Shafi, Imam Ahmad or Imam Malik when he says, ‘Akabireen’ with the appropriate intonation of respectful reference. He means not only Imam Abu Hanifa exclusively, but he means the Ustaadhs of Darul Uloom Deoband only. So, where is the question of questioning anything that was ruled by any of them when to do so would be to literally put your life and reputation on the line. “To question is not to deny” – is not something that our traditionalists believe in. Our way is to hear and obey, even though that is something that applies only to the Word and Orders of Allahﷻ Raising humans to a semi-divine status is always injurious to reason.
Since students don’t learn Arabic, which is the language of both Qur’an and Sunnah, they are not able to reach the source books and study them directly. They rely on translations which are bound to have their limitations. But this situation is not remedied. Instead it is accepted as inevitable, unchangeable and correct.
The teachings and rulings of Rasoolullahﷺ are treated as if coming from a ‘Mufti’ rather than from the Messenger of Allahﷺ. People don’t take guidance from the Qur’an and Sunnah. Instead they impose their own understanding from their culture, ideas, philosophy on the Qur’an and Sunnah. Instead of taking from the Qur’an & Sunnah, people start to give to Qur’an.
Finally, in what is, in reality, a basic primary to secondary or at the most, high school level course, nothing is taught of math or science, history (mentioned earlier) or geography. How someone who never learnt math can even be called ‘educated’ is beyond me, but that is what happens in our Madaris. Yet the student graduates from high school with the title, ‘A’alim’ and its attendant attitude.
Teaching methodology in Madaaris is totally defunct and completely free from all the latest developments in teaching technology and methods. Madrassa education in the Indian subcontinent is the only system in which teacher training is unheard of. So is understanding of child psychology, class plans, teacher assessment, standardized exams or any of the teaching aids that are commonplace in every other school. Just ask a normal Madrassa teacher about any of these things and you will see what I mean. Corporal punishment is normal and brutal.
Yet there seems to be no concern in our community and no anguish except in my heart. No effort to change anything because of our innate laziness and blind following of the ‘Ulama’. This elevation of status of ‘Ulama’ (Madrassa graduates) to a level of semi-divinity, is the masterstroke which the ‘Ulama’ have played which shuts down all legitimate criticism which could have resulted in improvement. Instead, anyone who dares to criticize with sincerity and concern is deemed a rebel with his status liable to be promoted to ‘apostate’, if he doesn’t cease and desist and refuses to toe the line.
For those sponsors of Madaaris reading this I would like to respectfully ask, ‘How many of you have taken the trouble to go and see what is taught and how, in the institutions you support? If you haven’t, then ask yourself, ‘Why not?’ How and why are you so disinterested in what you are sponsoring that you don’t take any trouble to ask what is taught, why it is taught, how it is taught and what is sought to be achieved because of the teaching. Do you have any idea what you want to achieve apart from getting Thawaab? I don’t think that anyone will differ about the need to have a clear focus on the purpose of Islamic education and to bring Islamic education on par with secular education in terms of teaching curricula and methods. Then why don’t you do it?
The present syllabus is totally inadequate both theologically and in a worldly sense. Add to that the fact that graduates come out with the title of A’alim and an inflated sense of their own importance combined with an inferiority complex. This happens when their Madrassa inflated egos meet the real world and realize their inadequacy. So, they go into a shell because they’re helpless and don’t know how to handle it. In short at the end of eight years of fulltime study the students of our Madaaris graduate with the title of A’alim but without proficiency in anything. You may ask how this is different in the case of a Matric student who also graduates without proficiency in anything. The answer is that he is not called an A’alim and passing Matric is not his final goal. He passed Matric as a step to enter a pre-university course from where he will enter university and go on to post graduate studies and so on. His self-concept and attitude are completely different, and society treats him accordingly.
The vast majority of those who graduate with the degree of A’alim however, go nowhere. They become Imams and spend the rest of their lives leading Salah in a masjid and start their own Madrassa or teach in another Madrassa albeit without any qualification to teach. That this is the result of 8 – 12 years of so-called education on which a colossal amount is spent by the community which can least afford this luxury, shows how little we care about our own community and its most critical asset; the youth and education.
Quality is the outcome of measurement
How can you have quality in a system where there are neither standards nor metrics? In India, you don’t need any accreditation or certification to start a Madrassa. There are no minimum standards for anything at all; infrastructure, teacher quality, teaching material or any of the normal standards that you would have to satisfy to be certified and permitted to start a basic elementary school. There are no metrics to measure anything in the Madrassa system, so how can you have quality which is the outcome of measurement? Teachers need no qualification to teach nor do they or you feel the need for this. Students come from the poorest and therefore the least powerful or vocal section of society. Students and their parents have low or no aspirations and no voice at all to implement any change, even if they knew what they wanted to be changed. The curriculum has no benchmark to compare with any curriculum today, is not comparable to any other educational system and to top it all is given the patina and glow of the sacred and holy which is meant to throttle any change initiative in the cradle.
To close the loop from where I started, the biggest hurdle to change in the existing Madrassa education system is the fear that any mention of change inspires in those who own and run it. That is entirely understandable because for one thing; the Madaaris are the means of their own livelihood. For another, change in the way that is needed is not merely incremental, evolutionary or cosmetic but revolutionary, transformative and metamorphic. What is needed is a completely new system. Resistance arises from the real fear in the teachers and Madrassa owners of becoming redundant and thereby losing their livelihood. This is a real fear because expecting current teachers to learn a completely new body of knowledge and teaching methodology is unrealistic. Add to it the fact that included in the re-learning is to learn two new languages, Arabic and English, and the water gets even murkier. That is why I began with Buckminster Fuller’s quote. What is needed is to create a new model which will be proof of concept to inspire change and give people the reassurance that success always does. I remind myself of two things: people with limited resources must be very clear and selective about where to spend them to get the maximum benefit. And one day we will be questioned about what we did or failed to do by the One who knows and sees all.
All change must begin with clarifying the goal. Madrassa educators must arrive at a consensus on what they and their Madaris really are; basic primary and secondary schools or higher institutions of specialized theology? As it stands they are neither. Once that is settled, the rest can all be tailored, and standards defined accordingly. We must therefore begin with defining the goal; the end result that we would like to achieve. Once that is clear and agreed upon, one can work on the curriculum, syllabus, course material (books etc.), testing, teaching methodology, teaching tools and technology, infrastructure and teacher training.
Madrassa sponsors must articulate their vision for the training of Ulama. What do we expect them to achieve once they graduate? The goal of learning is something that is not even questioned in any other branch of education because it is clear from the beginning. You don’t need to ask someone running a medical college or a flying school or a Judo dojo or a dance academy, what they expect from the students who graduate. But with respect to our Madaaris and those who graduate from them and those who teach them, their purpose, their life goal, what they are aspiring to become and achieve are all enigmatic and mysterious. That is why there is low motivation which is sought to be countered by rote learning and brutal corporal punishment.
One final matter which all aspiring instigators of change need to keep in mind is that all this needs serious capital investment. Less than what we spend for ostentatious weddings but still significant. Without that we can’t hope to create the infrastructure, teacher training, curriculum development, courseware and myriad other things that are necessary to ensure that the new institutions can deliver the results we hope to achieve. This is also necessary to make Madaaris aspirational. To test if our Madaaris are aspirational (in case you have any doubts) ask one of your children if they would like to leave their school and join any Madrassa in India and you will have the answer. This must change. The image problem that Madaaris have reflects also on their graduates and explains the lack of respect that Madrassa graduates have in Muslim society.
The big question is, ‘How much longer do we want to continue with this?’ This question must be answered first and most importantly by those who fund Madrassas. It is they who must drive the change. It is they who will be questioned by Allahﷻ and recorded in history for what they did or failed to do. Change is the result of the actions of those who pay for it. It is time that we focused on what happens to our donations and seek to make that most beneficial for the community because it is only quality that pleases Allahﷻ.
What must be done?
I have tried to list some broad changes that need to be introduced urgently if we are interested in ensuring that our money is spent in a beneficial manner to achieve our aims of serving the needs of Islam and Muslims.
A Central Madrassa Board must be created to ensure the following:
All Madrassa teachers must be qualified to teach and have a degree in education
Infrastructure must conform to a standard and must be inspected periodically
Corporal punishment must be banned and severely punishable if practiced
Centralized curriculum, syllabus and examination system
Centralized management of funds by the Madrassa Board
Transparency in all matters and merit, the only consideration
I have not attempted to suggest a complete curriculum and syllabus for Madaaris because before anything can be suggested it is essential for the institutions to feel the need and to define their goal. Currently they don’t have any goal apart from getting donations. The fact that their graduates emerge in society, unfit and incapable of dealing with it, much less provide leadership, leaves them unmoved. Until that changes and until they feel the need to change, no change is possible.
Despite all of the above, if donors decide that it is time to question what happens to their donations and if they are getting value for them; and if they are willing to take the pain to bring about change, it can be done.
I believe it is essential to change ourselves before change is forced upon us from outside.
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 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 must 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 someone else’s answers. This doesn’t mean that all answers that other people may have thought, are wrong. It merely means that the answer was right for that person. But you must 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 the integration of academics with structured life experiences, helping students with the tools they need to derive applicable lessons. 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-robot-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. We need to start by convincing ourselves (teachers, policy makers, parents) that children need not agree with us, need not share our priorities about their lives, can have their own aspirations and dreams and that our job is not to change them but to enable them to achieve what they want to achieve. This doesn’t mean that we have no role in guiding our children. Just that we understand the difference between guiding and forcing. Our role is to guide and empower. Not to force.
The biggest challenge and 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 change 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 even 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 in school even to the extent that we punish cooperation and collaboration between students. 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, ethical 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 the school system continues to work at cross purposes with the university system (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. The question is why the rest of the world is not following Finland even though the Finns have been successful for decades.
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. These qualities are what make us human and distinguish and differentiate us from other animals. They enable us to anticipate scenarios and plan for them. They enable us to dream and make our dreams come true. They enable us to successfully deal with a future that we don’t know about. They enable us to leverage opportunity, avert calamity and celebrate life. What needs to be done is to ensure that these qualities 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 must 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 must 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 must 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? A place 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 eat when you are hungry and must eat when you are told, whether you are hungry or not and where you can’t even go to the toilet without permission? What do you call a place where you can’t play when you want but must play when you are told, whether you feel playful or not? A place where 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 because our schools are poorly disguised 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? The only answer is that though jails are for prisoners, it is jailers who decide what happens to them, not prisoners.
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. 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 reflect 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 the student learns or not. If the student fails to learn, the teacher is not held responsible at all. I don’t say that the entire responsibility belongs to the teacher, 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:
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.
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.
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 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 humans. 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:
Students Council: Create a Students Council to which representatives will be elected by 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 include 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.
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.
Teacher Effectiveness Appraisal: Teaching is not simply a job but a major responsibility with long lasting consequences on the lives of people. 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.
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. 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. If he wants to be a considered a successful shepherd his flock must ‘speak’ for him.
The Prophet Muhammadﷺ 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 must 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.
Muhammadﷺ 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.
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 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 name his/her classroom in that list. 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 eventually the 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 even though we all went through the same process, we continue to perpetuate it and pay for it. Why?
How do you make the classroom interesting? By understanding that discovery is interesting. Being told things which you must memorize and regurgitate is not. 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. Teachers must also believe and accept that they are students and seekers. This must 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:
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?’
What values do mountains symbolize and how this can be applied in our daily lives?
Add your own.
A typical class for this, as mentioned earlier would consist of children of multiple ages with several subject teachers in the classroom, not only one class teacher. This is to ensure proper supervision as well as to help them in different ways from their different subject expertise. Some 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. So also, geologists, mountaineers, expeditioners, magazine editors, TV show hosts, you name it.
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 during 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. Social Skills Basket
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Writing a Business Plan to pitch for investment
Budgeting and P & L Accounting
Hiring and Team building
Selling and Service Orientation
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.
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.
Physical fitness & Survival Skills
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. Long distance running, hiking, wilderness survival, tracking and hunting with a camera instead of a gun or bow, orienteering, camping with all the skills associated with it, 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. Use sports to teach personal courage and teamwork.
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. Conservation and wildlife protection must be core school subjects taught in theory and practice. They must be taught in class and experienced in the wild. It is only when the new generation learns to love the wild that we can hope for the protection of our earth.
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. I can assure you from personal experience that this is all possible provided you have the will for it. To read about this please read my book, ‘It’s my Life’ Kindle http://amzn.to/2bQaE99
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.