A is for Apple

English equals power. Given this, the big Indian tragedy is that young people in India can have studied English for years—and not know English. They can use it for the simplest greeting and thanking, and not beyond that. Certainly not for work. And not for pleasure. They do not enjoy reading English books or watching English films. But, since English is power, let us ask, why this tragedy? It can be traced back to the very way the English alphabet is taught—“A for? Ap-pull! B for? Ba-at! C for?” and so on. 

The English alphabet is not phonetic. Only a few schools in India recognise the common sense that follows in order to teach this non-phonetic alphabet some teaching strategies must be involved. The majority of schools refuse even to acknowledge that English has silent letters and that the second ‘p’ and the end ‘e’ in the formula, “A is for apple” are two such. The lack of  phonetic learning leads to immediate reliance on rote memorisation, the bane of Indian education.

If and when India is ready for reform it can start at the first step, with A. It can make it compulsory, and comprehensible for all English teachers in the country to accept that A is not for ap-pull, but that it is the first letter of a non-phonetic alphabet, a letter that has several distinct sounds that makes words as different as ant, apron, after and already, to say nothing of the sounds that A makes when combined with other vowels. Following this discovery, the learner learns to sound out the letter on the page instead of, as now, spelling it out and then getting stuck until it is memorised.

This is a simple key that will unlock many closed vaults of knowledge. We will have millions more successful learners. They will have new mobility in their careers and they will have new sources of enjoyment. 

A is also for Art and that brings us to another big problem with education in India. There is an absence of art in our schools. The paradox in our country is that rich as our country is, and has been through its long history, in the arts, and staggering as the artistic variety is in its diverse regions, its schools are impoverished in the arts. There are two distinct problems, each one hiving off into a dozen associated ones.

In the average school in India, there are so many subjects taught and so much “course” to be covered that the school decides to dispense with art. Still, because it is a legitimate subject, “art” is given one period a week. It consists of the teacher explaining a technique, putting up an example on the blackboard and letting the children copy it. They have homework, classwork, and exams in art as in their other subjects, with tick marks and remarks in their art copies.  Many children are interested enough in art to love the period anyway and to make the most of the work they are given. The majority are never stimulated by its possibilities. They are able to realise, mostly subconsciously, that it is an ill-devised, amateurish approach to teach, but not actually teach, something un-defined. They dismiss it with a bored shrug. We thus lose the possibility of awakening minds and hearts, of teaching important skills, of producing an art-literate population. We will gradually lose the levels of art production in our country because now that the population is exclusively educated in schools and not at home, they have few sites for learning anything outside the classroom.

In the better schools of India, art is taught more imaginatively. But it remains a subject, along with others that implicitly have more weight because they are the ones in which marks must be obtained for future success. Art is not integrated into the functioning of the school and the learning of all subjects. This missing approach is a commonplace in the best schools in the developed world but is missing in India because there has been no discussion of the problem and because our art teachers and researchers are few and isolated from each other. Some of them know that Science, Social Studies, Languages, and Maths are all subjects that must start off by using art generously. Genres, colours, the body, the media, all is available for creative exploitation in the teaching of these subjects, and thousands of ideas on how to do so exist in the educational repertoire of the world. But our teachers are not trained in these techniques. There is no reward for acquiring them. There is active discouragement from the school to doing anything that does not directly relate to the syllabus and helps to complete the course. That art could do precisely this is not known.

A is also for Aryans. The new NCERT textbooks have valiantly engaged with the question of how to think about our history and what precisely to make of various power politics in the past. That debate must be continued and ideas generated continuously. But we should also lighten up. If we had more artists in proportion to our population, we would undoubtedly have more irreverence and the targeting of an artist like M.F.Hussain for what was hardly an irreverent act would be more avoidable. We could have more artwork, including cartoons, music, performances on every aspect of our history. Let us look briefly at the A for Asterix example. Created over the ages by the masters Goscinny and Uderzo, the comic series Asterix educates, entertains, and impresses by its profound playfulness and sensitivity to the conundrums of history. Our new digitised and fictionalised epics notwithstanding, we do not have in contemporary times that playfulness with history that art can present, and of course has presented in older Indian genres. If only art was more present in the lives of children it would permit them to think about every part of their spatial and temporal environment in creative ways. Not to be imitative but merely to take inspiration, we would have our artistic, irreverent portrayals of our own past Aryans.

A is for Aurobindo, because any A-Z of education must have include educational philosophers and activists as well. Aurobindo Ghosh (1872-1950) wrote A System of National Education and many essays and speeches, all challenging the imitativeness that characterised British colonial education for him. Significant, in today’s climate, is his premise, “It is not our contention that the actual system of ancient instruction should be restored in its outward features….Many of them are not suited to modern requirements” (Heehs 2005: 81). Regarding what was called in early 20th century “the assimilation of East and West,” and today is familiar as globalisation, he says, “We must begin by accepting nothing on trust from any source whatsoever, by questioning everything and forming our own conclusions. We need not fear that we shall by that process cease to be Indians or fall into the danger of abandoning Hinduism” (ibid: 85).

A, therefore, is for the action we need to take. On another front, we need to worry about AIDs education. We need to think of the specific disorders related to learning such as attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity, none of which are seriously thought about yet. Thousands of children are treated as problems because of this lacuna in our thinking. We need to take action by first making certain that these are issues that are actively discussed and that would make action imperative. In the huge territory of education that confronts us, bristling with problems, let us take one step at a time, and the first step could be—the teaching of A.


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