Thinking it through

As education gets increasingly professionalized and compartmentalized, it often takes great effort to argue for a generalist approach. Very serious and well-meaning educationists will make a strong case for focussed teaching within a curriculum- Course A to follow Course B, dropping Course C because that can be picked up easily and introducing Course D because thats “hot” these days, and so on. (Depending on the discipline and the degree, you can easily put in appropriate names for A, B, C, and D.)

With the changing landscape of education, its sometimes worth thinking whether there is enough freedom of choice in our programs, and whether some students might benefit from a more generalist framework where less would be prescribed (or proscribed, for that matter) and the student could more actively participate in her or his own curriculum.

I can’t see that happening in a hurry, but I think that the higher education scenario is changing sufficiently that one must give this some serious consideration. Two immediate catalysts for the present observation were a visit by two students of the present first year batch in the CIS, and a podcast I heard.

First the students. Basically they came to share their observations that when they compared the curriculum of the five-year program at UoH with that at other institutions where there are similar five-year programs, ours seemed to be much simpler and not really challenging. In some sense, this is not too surprising given that the IISERs and other institutions cater to smaller numbers and offer a specialized if limited smörgåsbord of curricular possibilities. But I think we should pay some heed to a serious comment from the end-users, so to speak. Our courses should be accessible, but not at the cost of making them not challenging enough. (As Einstein famously said, “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” ) Having been in a similar boat many years ago, another case of syllabus envy I guess, I tried to tell the lads to also take responsibility for their own education and learn from their peers across the country- but that is easier said than done. So should our curriculum be deeper or wider? And how can we tailor it to those who want to go faster? Or, for that matter, slower?

I was mulling over this and related questions when I heard an interview with philosopher Tim Crane of Cambridge University on whether animals (other than humans) have minds? (This is one of the brilliant Philosophy Bites podcasts by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton.) The discussion was on how philosophers think we think, on how we define thinking, consciousness, and so on, and whether animals have “a theory of mind” and how this relates to our own theory of mind.

One thing that struck me- enough that I came back to this interview several times- was the deep connection between the fact of having language and the ability to imagine having a mind. Crane says- and I paraphrase- that what sets apart human thought from animal thought is our ability to think about things without thinking about their practical consequences. The pursuit of truth for its own sake is a characteristic of human thinking and, further, that it is an evolutionary adaptation that gave us the ability to learn things without there having to be an immediate use. And that this gave us an enormous advantage in the development of culture.

This is worth thinking about. Some laterality, even in structured programs of instruction, is clearly worth having, perhaps at the cost of some depth. And if this can bring about a culture of thinking, so much the better. But above all, the link is language.

Elsewhere in the interview Crane has occasion to say that philosophy starts at the boundaries of science- in this particular case, our inability to know how or whether animals think leads us to examine more closely our own concepts of belief and thought.

And this is a good thing to remember, that not only are the boundaries among the sciences blurred, at some level, even the boundary between the sciences and philosophy is. (Not for nothing was the study of science termed natural philosophy in earlier days!) What we have at the UoH is the possibility of bringing to our integrated programs of study in the CIS a diversity that only a University can provide. This is an advantage we should exploit to its fullest.

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4 thoughts on “Thinking it through

  1. If culture consists of all that one knows and practices, and passes on through generations, then the role of language in the *preservation* of culture is evident. What is often overlooked is the role of language in the *construction* of culture and in scientific creativity. We are able to talk about the nth dimension because we have language which allows us to combine, using mundane rules of grammar, the notion of ordinality with that of dimension to “compose” a complex notion that is not given to the senses and could hardly be claimed to be “embodied”. Yet our curricula, especially scientific curricula, persist in neglecting language and the scientific study of language in a manner that is abominable. There is much to be said for a broad “liberal” education especially in the integrated programs.

  2. It depends which theory you believe: is it the destination or is it the journey? Long time ago our Registrar put up outside his office the translation of the university logo (or motto, whatever; I hope it is still there): real education is the one that liberates.

    Personally I believe in the journey. So the few of us who has not reached the destination yet can still feel happy: I for one have enjoyed the journey.

    Focus on the destination is good but there is a little catch: most of us could not see the destination most of the time. So I see today so many people are taking the random walk in real life… Why we cannot have some compromise on the “depth” and “width”?

    I have often wondered why we do not adopt the principles of “steepest descent” and do exactly what we like most of the time and also learn under some supervision. Perhaps we could have reached “some” destination and also “enjoyed” the journey. Perhaps Bindu would have been a famous dancer or actor (rather than worrying about abstract mass and volume of a string) conveying emotions or actions!

    Seriously speaking, if the student does not enjoy what he is studying and learning, the whole process is a waste. No, we do not want to be known as a nation of 1.2 billion skilled labour. At least the student must have major choice in his study curriculum.

    25 years back, there was no syllabus for any of the courses in this university. Today we have a syllabus for every course but the examination and evaluation is 100% internal and so it really does not matter. So far we have not published the course contents (what we are afraid of?) on the web. What a pity!

    The basic idea is to teach the students how to swim. All of them may not go for the Olympics but all should be a able to survive a small pool. This is where we have failed. All the students are not equal, and we, the teachers, focus on the middle range. So the good students gain a little and poor students also gain a little. The gap increases but the average goes up. There is no easy solution. We need to keep more people to the top edge.

    Recently there is a discussion on the closing down of the systems biology program. The proposal was brought forward by the coordinator himself and and the final reason given (in the minutes) was that both the students and the teachers feel that the course is useless. This is a sad day for the so called “interdisciplinary courses”. If the teachers cannot motivate the students, 50% blame must be taken by the teachers. If the students did not feel interested in the course, then there should have been other alternatives open to the students.

    When we will realise that the distinctions between arts, science and humanities (add a few more) are really artificial and unnecessary?

    The average standard of teaching has come down over the last two decades because if a student does fail on our course, it is a burden on the teacher. So our teaching standard is now more focused in passing all the students rather than imparting knowledge and information (biology, I hope you will agree, contains more information rather than knowledge). This need to be addressed.

  3. Once you start a bad teaching- learning process, the damage is done. Tomorrow’s teachers have learnt today and they are not going to teach any better than or even different from how they were taught. We already have had a few decades of ‘not too good’ teaching – learning methods, but they were not too bad. Now, we have terrible teaching methods in schools.. particularly AP State schools. Those who come through this are never going to be great teachers using creative teaching methods (barring a few miraculous exceptions)

  4. Many courses will be and maybe should hard and we have to make them ‘accessible’ and ‘simple’
    not to be done by diluting or reducing the content,thats what makes this job so thrilling.I
    think when Einstien said”make it simple,but not simpler” he meant that the teacher ought to work and work to convey and get across not so trivial ideas but not give so much that the learner doesn’t have to struggle with it.Learning is not like buying pre-digested food from a shop and swallowing it.
    This University can give its students what the IISERs give and more-we are after all a UNIVERSITY,despite all that they have and we don’t and vice-versa.The end users have in good faith communicating a well meaning wish list if i may say so and it is worth spending some mid-day oil on.
    Shobha

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