Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Other Writings

Theatre and Science

- By Nilanjan P Choudhury

(From Learning Curve, Issue XVIII, Sep 2012 published by Azim Premji University)

Two Cultures
In the summer of 1959, the British chemist and novelist, C. P. Snow delivered an influential lecture at the University of Cambridge entitled “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution”. In his talk he drew attention to the ever widening chasm between the sciences and the humanities in post-war Britain. He went on to say that “… the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups” – literary intellectuals on one side and physical scientists on the other.

Half a century later, in a distinctly warmer part of the world i.e. India, it would appear that the situation has not changed significantly. Of course, not being an intellectual by any stretch of imagination, prevents me from commenting on the “intellectual life” of Indian society but I certainly think that the polarity that Snow pointed out is alive and kicking in our schools, colleges and daily lives.

East is East
In India, the hard lines between science, humanities and arts are drawn deep and early. Formally, this occurs after the Class 10 board exams, when students necessarily have to make a choice between Science, Arts or Commerce. From this point onwards, the rigidity of the formal education system offers little space to a 16 year old who has a passion for say, both painting and physics (assuming that s/he is interested in anything at all, after the brutal cramming of the previous 10 years).  Unlike foreign Universities, where one may easily combine a major in engineering with a minor in film studies, such possibilities are remote here. Is it any wonder that we rarely encounter the likes of Steve Jobs who integrated engineering and calligraphy to develop the marvellous user interface of Apple products?

An increasingly specialized world forces us down straight and narrow paths that lead to a diminished appreciation of the richness of both the sciences and the arts.  Yet, when the two converge the results can be unexpected and interesting.

Quantum Mechanics Meets Rashomon
In the last few months, I have had the opportunity to be a part such a convergence. The amateur theatre group that I sometimes work with, staged two plays about science and scientists – Copenhagen by Michael Frayn and Life of Galieo by Bertolt Brecht.  

Both plays are based on true incidents and feature historical characters. Copenhagen is a dramatized account of a mysterious meeting between two giants of modern atomic physics – Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. The meeting took place in Bohr’s house in Copenhagen in September, 1941 at the height of the Second World War, at a time when Denmark was under German occupation.  Heisenberg was one the few physicists who had stayed on in Hitler’s Germany unlike Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, Max Born and many others who had crossed over to the Allies. Heisenberg, a deeply patriotic German, was accused of trying to build the atom bomb for Hitler, an allegation that he refuted time and again. Bohr on the other hand, was part of the Manhattan project that actually built the Allied atomic bombs that were ultimately unleashed upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In a Rashomon like narrative structure, the play flits across time and space, interpreting and re-interpreting that fateful meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg, as multiple attempts are made to answer the crucial question – why did Heisenberg meet Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941? Each dramatic interpretation presents a different answer to the audience. Among others, the answers include – (1) that Heisenberg tried to appeal to Bohr’s conscience as a scientist hoping that he would be able to influence the allies to stop the Manhattan Project (2) that Heisenberg tried to pick Bohr’s brains to understand the physics of fission so that he could build the bomb himself (3) that he came to explain how he was preventing the Nazi scientists from building the bomb and why he had to stay on in Germany.

The play operates at many levels – personal, political and scientific. It explores the personal and professional relationship between Bohr and Heisenberg, once friends and colleagues, but now pitted against each other. It brings out the very human dilemmas before the scientist, who engrossed in his research doesn’t care “what the truth will lead to” but suddenly discovers that he is forced to care because of his innate humaneness.
Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is a incredibly complex and nuanced work – a three hour long play liberally peppered with references to abstruse concepts such as the uncertainty principle, Schrodinger’s Cat, matrix mechanics, the diffusion equation and so on, which make it a bizarrely difficult and intellectually demanding experience for any audience.  When the play opened we were fairly sure that people would start leaving after half an hour.

Yet much to our surprise, we had packed houses and people sat attentively (the odd yawn apart) through the play. Audience members terrified of science said that they had no idea that atomic physics could be so interesting.  Yet others said that they were fascinated by how history had come alive before them.  Students with advanced degrees in science remarked how they had finally understood what quantum mechanics was really about (although this must be taken with a pinch of salt).

Starry Turns
On the other hand, Brecht’s ‘Life of Galileo’, which describes Galileo’s struggles against the Church to establish the doctrine of heliocentrism, is much more accessible. To begin with, the science bits are mostly about stellar and planetary motions – much easier on the mind than quantum mechanics.  The storyline is linear, there are light moments and the themes are epic and dramatic  – the battle between science and superstition, the power of the state versus the power of ideas, the needs of the flesh versus the yearnings of the soul, love versus integrity and so on.

However, it is a very verbose and a very long play that runs for nearly three hours. Not your usual Saturday night entertainment in an age where Twitter-length attention spans abound. Once again we were queasy when the play opened and once again the audience surprised us with their numbers and continued presence. What delighted us most was that many children attended and how several of them later remarked that they had enjoyed the play.

Children are the best and most honest of critics. They don’t care for names. Brecht and Galileo might as well be Martians in pink suits to them. If they get bored they make it amply clear very quickly. I wondered what would make a child of eleven or twelve sit still for three hours, to watch the story of a discovery that any eight year old knows about.  

The answer of course, lies in the power of storytelling.  And theatre tells the story of science in a different way altogether. 

Equations and Emotions
In school text books, Galileo’s epic struggles are reduced to a single page of dry text with perhaps a diagram or two.  But Brecht, in his masterly prose, explores many different dimensions of science and scientific thinking – the rejection of authority (“truth is the child of time, not of authority”), the hollowness of theory without experimental evidence (“would you care to observe those impossible and unnecessary stars through the telescope”), the test of repeatability when validating theory (“fifty times the man weighs his pieces of ice”) and the responsibility of science towards humanity (when Galileo describes  scientists as “inventive dwarves”).

Theatre can be a powerful means of communicating the excitement and richness of science. But what makes it a unique medium is its ability to uncover the messy human emotions that accompany the discovery of the cold and elegant equations that explain our world – the conflicts and the choices, the disappointments and the euphoria of people whom we know of, but do not really know.

Theatre provides the possibility of bridging the divide between science and art that Snow spoke of. Can it stimulate both the right and left brains and help develop more well rounded children? Can it excite more young people into considering science as a profession as opposed to engineering, medicine or management? Can it persuade painters in taking a greater interest in the science of colours? The experience of science theatre in India is too recent and the scale too tiny, to even attempt any answers.

But to my mind, the real value of theatre to science lies elsewhere.

We live in a country where superstitions and irrational thinking abound and frequently surface in many unpleasant ways – in the form of mobs stampeding to worship milk drinking Ganeshas, Chief Ministers who feed crows to ward off evil, lovers separated by uncooperative horoscopes and children who are made to fear eclipses.

If the theatre of science can provoke people to think about the world in which they live, in a scientific and rational way, it will have played its part well.

1.       Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn
2.       Life of Galileo, by Bertolt Brecht

(The author thanks Prakash Belawadi of the Centre for Film and Drama (CFD) for his valuable insights and suggestions.)

(The entire issue of Learning Curve is available here: http://www.azimpremjifoundation.org/Foundation_Newsletters)


What Does it Take to Educate India?

- By Nilanjan P Choudhury

(From Times of India, Education Times, Sep 17 2012)

School Education in India / Industry Status
India’s school education system is unparalleled in scale and diversity. It comprises of 1.3 million schools, 220 million children and 5.5 million teachers. 80% of the schools are run by the Government. They are scattered across 640 districts, where each district is dramatically different from the other – ecologically, culturally and socio-economically. Throw in 438 living languages, scattered tribal populations, minorities, remote habitations, children with special needs and the challenge of providing universal quality education increases manifold.
In spite of these challenges, remarkable progress has been made in areas such as access, infrastructure and enrolment. 99% of the population now is within walking distance of a school, enrolment is 100% and education is now a Fundamental Right of every citizen.  
Yet quality, equity and retention remain as elusive as ever. For example, a recent survey conducted among 89 so called ‘top schools' in five Indian metros, revealed that about 40% of middle school students believed that education for a girl is not as important as family responsibilities. About half thought that the shape of square object changes if it is tilted. The misery continued as a global test assessing academic abilities of school children ranked India at 72 among 73 participating countries. Girls and socially disadvantaged children continue to face much discrimination and their literacy levels are typically 20% lower.
To paraphrase Charles Dickens, Indian education today appears to be caught between the spring of hope and the winter of despair. And nothing short of a deep rooted systemic transformation will do, if the idea of India to become a reality in our lifetimes.

Critical Priorities / Growth areas
While there are many interventions and improvements are required to address these challenges, a few critical ones include:
1.       Radical Overhaul of Teacher Education: The pre-service and in-service teacher education systems in India are in disarray. An estimated 80% of existing B.Ed. colleges are defunct with uncontrolled mushrooming of low quality teacher training institutes. The curriculum, pedagogy, leadership and regulation of teacher education needs to be revamped and revitalized urgently.

2.       Teacher Professional Development: There must be profound improvement in a range of related areas in Teacher Education and Professional Development. This includes teacher selection, teacher preparation, ongoing professional development and academic support.

3.       Education Leadership and Management: A small percentage of government schools provide high quality education to their students – often because of the leadership provided by head teachers involved. Improving the leadership qualities of Head Teachers to equip them for the task of leading their school to quality performance is a critical need.

4.       Assessment Reforms: The RTE Act talks about Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) for assessing learning. Yet this is a poorly understood concept across the country. Examinations continue to test rote learning in a conventional way and stress out children. Changing assessment methods to test conceptual understanding and analysis can lead to improved teaching methods and better learning outcomes.

Career Opportunities
The government, CSR units of companies and the many NGOs working in education have realized the importance of such interventions and are making significant investments in these areas. In addition, the RTE Act has mandated a pupil teacher ratio of 1:30 and the deployment of adequately trained and qualified teachers. In several states, this has resulted in the need to recruit thousands of new teachers and training of the existing teachers.
Fulfilling career opportunities have thus emerged for Teachers, Teacher Educators and Trainers, Pedagogy and Subject Matter Experts, Assessment Experts etc.  Multiple openings exist in various government organizations, private and public schools, NGOs, teacher training institutes and CSR functions.

Skill-sets required
Strong perspectives in education through actual teaching experience or formal qualifications (B.Ed., B.El.Ed., MA (Edu) etc.), a graduate or post-graduate degree in any subject, a love of learning and the desire to make a difference.

An entry level government school teacher could draw Rs. 13,000 to Rs. 20, 000 per month. A Head Teacher could earn about Rs. 40,000 per month. Salaries in private schools vary widely. NGOs and CSR functions could offer entry level salaries of Rs. 20, 000 per month which may go up to Rs 60,000 or more at senior levels. While salaries in this sector are not the highest, the satisfaction of making a difference to the world in which one lives can be immense.

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