Sunday, June 29, 2008

Don't Judge Me!

It's the easiest job in the world for me. Judging other people, their behaviour, their performances, their actions. It's the one task where you need no certification for the role, simply privilege of position. You stand to lose nothing as a judge, while the judged stand to lose everything. You need no tools or statistics to guide you, only a personal point of view. How easier can it get? Everyday, we expose ourselves to the world, where every step we take is watched, each failure we encounter is counted, every shortcoming we disclose is noticed. The society is divided into two buckets - winners and losers - and who wants to be in the losers bucket?

When did living become synonymous with winning? When did tryers become synonymous with losers? I am not sure. Maybe as I was growing up?

My Judge is a Superstar

I recently read a disturbing news item, where a teenage girl, with an established dance background, walked into a TV show for performing in a televised contest, and was rebuked by the "star" judges for her performance. Young minds don't need this kind of treatment, not in front of millions of vicarious hounds sitting in front of their TV sets, waiting for someone to slip-up and be virtually slapped in public. Yeah, this is entertainment, alright. Ask the parents of the girl, as they wait in agony day and night at the hospital, awaiting their daughter to come out of shock which has dragged her into post-depression semi-paralysis and muteness.

Shows in the West often add spice by adding high-profile judges who are given liberty to exercise no restraint on verbal extremities when chiding a contestant. It makes great prime-time television as you watch the wheat separated from the chaff, and the chaff gets a nice whack on the stone in the process too. Shows like American Idol, The Apprentice, Hell's Kitchen and numerous other reality-based shows have grabbed the attention of eyeballs and eardrums by thumping participants in public. If you are good, you are showered in gold. If you are less than good, you are soaked in manure, thrown into a pig-sty, and left to dry in the hot sun. It's sad to see, these kind of barbaric television antics are being fed to entertainment-hungry Indians too now. And how they are lapping it all up!

Who are you to wave your finger?

Who defines "good"? How do you know how far less than good is considered bad? Is a successful endeavour one where a single person excels and the whole world is left in awe, or one where no single person wins and everyone ends up better for the effort? The premise of judgement is so murky and left to individual perspectives, one is surprised why we give it so much importance in our daily lives.

Why do I get affected when someone glances scornfully at my attire? Fashion to one, is rags to the other.
Why are grades in school given more weight than what the student actually learns? We all know Einsteins are not produced in schools.
When did overcoming stage-fear and putting up a public performance start producing rebuke instead of applause? When I was a kid, you were a winner even if you stood mute on the stage and walked out when the bell rang.

If I continue listing all the judgement one has to face in a lifetime, I could write a book on it. The real question is, why are we, as humans, both ready to dish out verdicts and to succumb under their burden? More importantly, why do we let every single person who cares to judge us, judge us? Just because they achieved something which is noteworthy? Just because that is how they command respect? Oh how great it must feel to tell someone what you think of them and then bask in the thoughts that she will be better for it, for setbacks trigger fightbacks to success!

I Will Be The Judge Now

Here, then is my verdict! It is the natural tendency of a competitive human species to push down the others when they themselves feel threatened. Sometimes, pushing down the weak, makes the strong feel stronger. Sometimes, they stand up and "frankly" point out weaknesses, believing it will earn them respect. We have to learn to accept this nature, and have a strong filter to only let through those statements that matter. Building the filter itself, is an act that can take a lifetime, but we can get to work on it today.

I should admit, for all that I write here, I have been known to be highly susceptible to negative feedback, and hugely reliant on positive ones. But, I believe I have learnt a lot in the process. The simplest way is to only trust feedback from the ones you know really care about you - your family and the closest friends in whom you can always confide in. It's true that there could be so much feedback you miss out on because not everyone in your circle is good at everything, and can comment on everything. But, one will learn in time to tune their ears to the right feedback, both positive and negative, from all around. It is always important to know that negative feedback should never affect your spirits, and should only be treated as course-correction at best, not a disaster of titanic proportions.

What is sad though, is that many a time, I have witnessed parents push their children past the limits to pedestals where they are exposed to such chiding. Victory is sometimes more important for the parents, than for the kid. Where can a youngster hide, if eventually, he has to face the wrath of his father for losing a tennis match or the ladle of her mom for slipping during the dance recital? For people to be safe of all that is bad in the world, there needs to be a home that they can always be accepted in, without any judging. Without that, no filter will ever be good enough.

Nevertheless, it helps to remember, if there's one thing Einstein has taught us, it is that everything the human mind can discern is relative, and nothing in that realm is absolute. Judgements too, are after all, creations of the human mind.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Oranje Locomotive

The Oranje Locomotive is hurtling down the tracks at Euro 2008 and crushing everything that comes in its way!

Yes, the UEFA Euro 2008 football competition is underway (and there is no way you will make me call it Soccer) and the draw pitted three of European football's giants in the same group, which then had to be called, in a rather cliched fashion, the Group of Death. World Cup champions Italy, Runners-up France and the mighty Netherlands were all drawn together in Group C, alongside Romania, who for all their underdog tags, did of course win their qualifying group ahead of the Dutch. All eyes were on this group to produce the tight games and nerve-wrecking climaxes. However, it has been a let-down in that respect! But, thrown at us, especially those of us who were born after the Johan Cruyff era, an exhibition of Total Football from the nation that invented it, but has rarely been able to put together in recent times.

The Colour

When I was a kid, I would be asked to pick a favourite colour, and I would always plump for Orange. I believe it must have been the striking flashiness, and the unconventional nature of the colour, that caught my roving eye. I was distraught there was no "Orange house" (a house is like a fraternity) in my primary school, while they had Red, Yellow, Green and Blue. I did choose the closest colour house of course, Red. I would always paint my Suns a bright orange, and never a yellow.

Little wonder then, that when I was first exposed to a football World Cup, I took a look at the jerseys the Dutch put on, and I elected to be a fan. If there is one thing about Orange, it is that it never goes unnoticed. And I read in the football history books, that the same could be said of some of the football the Oranje had played - easy on the eye, exciting and attacking from the back. I needed no more reassuring, especially given Homeland was, and still is, decades away from qualifying.

Total Football

The concept of Total Football is very Dutch. The team is composed of 11 players who are all technically able to pick out passes and have supreme ball control skills. This enables even the defenders to start pushing from the back, defending high up the field, and playing a crucial part in the attack. Why attack with 6 when you can as well attack with 10? The full-backs are as good wingers, as they are defenders. The midfield will have a couple of master technicians and the frontmen will be clinical finishers. When all of this works, oh, what joy it is to watch!

Sadly, ever since I started following the Dutch at major tournaments, they have been mostly disappointing. The Total Football has not been as brilliant, or sometimes missing, and they have on occasion failed to even qualify for the big-uns. But, come Euro 2008, that has all turned around on a heel.

Teed up against World Cup winners Italy, and arguably the best defence in World football, they gave them a 3-0 drubbing. The latter two goals bore fruit from swift counter-attack manoeuvres, where Italy came ever-so-close to scoring themselves, but instead of heaving a sigh of relief, the Dutch decided to break forward and punish them, and they scored within 20 seconds of the chance at the other end. Those goals were phenomenal, and lightning fast, built with team work and individual skills and pace, and clinical finishing. Coach Marco Van Basten, a clinical finisher himself, from the excellent Dutch team of the 80s, must have been proud.

The show continued, as World Cup runners-up France, hoped to prove the Oranje were a one-hit wonder, but instead got a lesson themselves. This time, the scoreline read 4-1.

The players

It wasn't all looking rosy (of course, the rose here is Orange too), for the Dutch prior to the tournament. Yes, they qualified comfortably, but did not win their group. Nor did they stir up a hornet's nest with their performances. There were grumbles all over the Dutch media and fans were not happy with the way the team was shaping up. They qualified with not only the least goals conceded, but also the least scored. That doesn't sound Dutch at all.

However, once the tournament kicked off, the young stars all came to life, wanting to prove why they are in the Dutch team! Youngsters Rafael Van Der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben have been the orchestrators from midfield, while the aging star Ruud Van Nistelrooy still puts them away up front. Robin Van Persie looks a promising striker himself. But, most surprising has been the performance of Giovani Van Bronkchorst, who has been springing forward from left-back whenever he can, and not just putting in the final cross, but also scoring himself. He looks a shadow of the player that left Arsenal, and then Barcelona, a few years ago. And so does Khalid Boulahrouz on the right, who hardly won fans over at Chelsea a season ago.

It must be the coach, Van Basten, who is motivating this team with so many young performers, toward glory. He's been there with the greats - Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard - and been a part of a team that excelled at Total Football. He knows how important it is to peak at the right team for a competition as big as this, and most importantly, knows how to win, Even if they do not win the cup, they have surely won over a few more fans who will not be shy to wear Oranje anymore!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

An IIT for a vote

It sounds incredible - 20 years of education. I seem to have spent the major portion of my life "occupied" as a student in the schools and colleges of Homeland. I have studied in 3 different schools, one junior college, one engineering college and finally an IIT.

As I look back, how many teachers jump to mind that make you feel proud for even being in their presence? How many moments can I recollect from these institutes where I went 'A-ha' because I grasped something magical? How much did we actually learn from this huge investment of our lives, other than the stuff we crammed in from text books just to regurgitate it out on the exam papers? What did we finally earn other than glorious degree certificates, that do not say we know something, but that we made the examiner believe we do? Did we undergo higher education, or was it just "hire" education?

Textbooks - A student's best friend?

Teaching to the book. Sticking to the curriculum. Covering the syllabus in time. These are "mantras" I have seen most teachers in my life follow. My experiences might be too specific; perhaps down to the choice of schools I went to. But, I am in no doubt as to why I learnt nothing at school, but more from the Time-Life series of Illustrated Encyclopedia and the World Book Encyclopedia. The textbooks served up facts in a totally unmotivating fashion, while these other books encouraged you to do experiments and learn for yourself. Isn't that the best way to learn - doing stuff?

Aren't textbooks merely meant to be guides to what a kid needs to learn? Why then do schools stick to only cramming little heads with sequence of words from a textbook, when they don't understand the sentence? Doesn't that show them the trees in the forest, without them knowing they are looking at a forest? And that there are more trees they would never be shown unless they tread forward on their own?

Quantity not quality

One of the problems, especially in higher education, is the fact that the HRD (Human Resources Development) or the Education ministry, needs to show numbers. "A million graduate seats over the country, half a million engineering graduates, fifty thousand engineering post-grads. Ok, that meets the demand. Students are happy, industry is happy." I have personally watched the number of engineering seats, in Maharashtra alone, multiply over the years, as new colleges get immediate sanction and mushroom all over the place. I watched as folks two years senior struggled to get admitted, and again watched a few years later as most who wanted a seat did get one, albeit in remotely accessible, poorly developed institutes.

The colleges that sprout up all over the country, do not all meet the high standards setup by the AICTE, but still get sanction by pressure from politicians that back them. Some of these colleges are blatantly named after politicians or their mentors, and there is nothing left to one's imagination as to why they are still standing. Higher education is good business.

Take my engineering college for example. Facility-wise, it was among the best around. Splendid class rooms, well-equipped labs, and a sparkling building that reminds one of a four-star hotel. When the classes begin, some teachers fumble around calling a "semi-colon" a "semi-comma", while others just leave us in awe, not because they are exemplary, but because they are only a couple of years older than we are. In four years, I can remember maybe two lecturers who stood to gain my respect, and that is poor considering I sat through at least twenty different lecturers.

Notably, the Commission on Growth and Development, in its report on Strategies for Sustained Growth and Development noted as one of the essential "sins" that economies that fail to sustain growth commit - "Measuring educational progress solely by the construction of school infrastructure or higher enrollments, instead of focusing on the extent of learning."

Haste is waste

Of the 20 years of education, I can say without doubt that the culminating final two years were simply the best. I would say that of the 15-odd professors I learnt from, maybe two weren't impressive enough, but you still respected them. The rest, just blow you away with their delivery styles and the grasp of their subjects. You get absorbed into the lectures and you want to solve their assignments because you are enjoying the learning experience. Simply put, even for a Master's graduate, IIT is definitely the best place to be at if you want to study in Homeland. The atmosphere, the culture, the class-mates, the teachers, the facilities are out of this world. And everyone deserves to get that experience before diving into the rat race of the real world.

That said, there is a reason why those institutes are so good today. Pandit Nehru saw a dream once that India would be self-sufficient in science and technology, and nurtured the IIT system as a means to fulfill his dream. It is over the years that IIT has learnt to adapt itself and become an institute of world renown. Today, most of them are self-sufficient and do not depend on huge government grants. But, to think that the formula can be replicated overnight to meet the growing demand, seems farcical. It reeks of the same desperate numbers game that saw poor third-rate engineering colleges mushroom in the first place.

It will take years before the new IITs can come up to speed with the rest. Assigning mentor IITs to each of the 6 new IITs is not a solution. Professors, labs, computers, hostels, hell even classrooms aren't ready. Sites for 2 of the IITs are not yet finalised, but soon students may be getting admitted to them.

None of the IIT directors have a say, as they didn't when the controversial quotas were implemented, which in fact, seems to be the sole reason behind this hastiness. The government had an election-manifesto promise of implementing 27% OBC quota in higher institutes of knowledge, and to implement that in the IITs before the coming election early next year, is a way to salvage pride. At what cost? Will the standards associated with the IITs still hold? Or will they be politicised and entrapped in gimmicks too?