Happy Teachers' Day

It is that day of the year when suddenly the WhatsApp university comes alive, and everyone wishes each other a Happy Teachers’ Day. I play the role of a grammar inspector to remind everyone that it is Teachers’ and not Teacher’s. A popular forward on this day is how ancient Indians had six levels of teachers, starting from the lowest level, called Adhyapak, to the highest level, Guru. At a recent Engineering education conference, the organizer made an interesting comparison between Bloom’s taxonomy of learning and the different levels of ancient Indian teachers. The Adhyapaks focus on rote learning, while the Gurus, on the other extreme, focus on critical thinking.

A tribute to my favorite Gurus is provided at the end of this write-up. But before that, allow me to be extremely critical of the current status of Indian education. 

There was a time when I was obsessed with ancient Indian history. I used to spend hours and hours in the library reading many books on ancient knowledge of India. I was so obsessed that I named my daughter Saankhya, a name given to one of the first materialistic philosophies based on an enumerating technique. My favorite topics included mathematics, linguistics, and, to a lesser extent, philosophy. A beautiful theory deduces many conclusions from a few assumptions (axioms). One such theory is Panini’s grammar; I was told that his work is equivalent to more modern versions of grammar invented to formalize programming languages. I am always fascinated by his classification of various sounds into a perfectly organized sequence of the Indian alphabet (Technically, Indian alphabet systems such as Devanagari, its antecedents, and descendants are not alphabets but abugidas). Most recognize zero as an Indian invention, but very few realize that the precursors of algebra and trigonometry were also Indian inventions. Without algebra and trigonometry, the geometry of the Greeks could not have been translated into the algebraic language of analytical (Cartesian) geometry, and Newton’s calculus and physics would have been impossible. 

All these and many more were possible because of one single reason: critical thinking and questioning without prejudice. Indians had a strong tradition of critical thinking, logic, and debate in their schools. Interestingly, they did all their records and debates in a unique poetic and lyrical form. (Having no talent for language or poetry, I amuse myself by making generative AI create poems on things like how to prove that the square root of two is irrational.) The ancient Indians established the world’s first universities, frequented by all the well-known scholars of the known world at the time. Before the famous universities of the West, Takshasila (Taxila) and Nalanda were the world’s elitist universities.

No doubt, Indians had great educational institutions that modern institutes could learn a lot from. However, we tend to think that we must imitate the ancient schools exactly as they were. Let us remind ourselves that the same person who was an expert in applying the highest level of critical thinking to problems of philosophy or astronomy failed to recognize that freedom and equality are fundamental rights of every human. Over the centuries, the tradition of critical thinking was lost, and Indians were left with dogmatic theories, extreme prejudices, and discrimination. Women and lower classes were seldom allowed to attend school. Even as late as the twentieth century, my grandfather was not allowed to learn Sanskrit since he was not a high-borm. There were so many levels of teachers, but the access to that teaching was only for a few. While the elitist schools focused on critical thinking, most schools offered only rote learning. If one does an objective analysis, there were some wonderful schools back then, but on average, they were not too different from modern schools with many issues.

We also tend to blame the current situation on colonialists establishing the “modern” schooling system by replacing the old Indian school systems. There are two problems with this argument. First, the Indian school system was only accessible to the upper classes; the English schooling system at least recognized that every person had the right to education. Second, ironically, the English school system (in England) has been improving its schooling philosophies while India has been stuck in the system the English established almost two hundred years ago. 

In an attempt to provide access to education and employment to all classes of Indian society, independent India relied on public examinations, a tradition that continued from the British times. By the time I was a teenager, the IIT JEE and the local versions of it, such as EAMCET, were slowly becoming popular and were seen as a great ticket to success. As a benefactor of the IIT JEE exam, I can vouch for its success. Coming from a family with hardly any connections, a degree from a premier institution (currently ranked one in the country) has made my life and career. Every other year, we hear of a child from a poor family making it to the top of these exams, and the competitive exams have done much more to affirmative action than the reservation system ever did.

Unfortunately, the good news ends there. A generation after my JEE exam, the entire Indian society has become highly obsessed with these exams. The training during high school happens only in the so-called coaching institutes. The schools are full of teachers who join the profession not out of passion but of no choice. While weak students can become good teachers in most subjects, the same is not valid with more technical subjects such as science and mathematics. A country obsessed with Engineering education suffers from the scarcity of able teachers at the school level and beyond. The country has been producing the most significant number of engineering graduates with the support of teachers who are/were dreaded by anything quantitative. 

The teaching in most schools/colleges is pedantic, with an over-emphasis on covering the syllabus and testing the students, ignoring the learning part altogether. I long with desperation for the day parents demand learning rather than a high percentage in their children’s mark sheets. But they are as corrupt as anyone else. Most of them assume that the tuition fee is meant for a promise of a degree and a job placement but rarely for a proper education. Thanks to the abundant information technology employment over the last two decades, none of the students needed more than a piece of paper called a degree. But that may soon change, and we will all be at a loss.

As we pat each other today for being the most respected teachers, let us hope that society respects us enough to expect authentic learning in our classrooms. Exams are part of learning; they are not the primary outcomes. I await the day when we realize this simple fact of life.  Happy Teachers’ Day.