Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Public (Government) School in Bihar

From a recent New York Times article on India's public education system, is a public school in Lahtora, which I believe is in the state of Bihar:


Ouch. (Click on the photo to see the original, larger version at the Times.)

Interestingly, the article (again by Somini Sengupta), shows that the problems in the system aren't necessarily simply created by a lack of funds. Quite a bit of money is being spent by the central and state governments to improve government schools -- this particular village had been allotted $15,000 to build a new school. The problem is that the funds often remain unspent, sometimes because of the famously thick and impenetrable Indian government bureaucracy, and sometimes simply because of corruption and nepotism at the local level.

Sengupta does sound some positive notes along the way. The sheer scale of the effort to improve the schools is mind-boggling:

India has lately begun investing in education. Public spending on schools has steadily increased over the last few years, and the government now proposes to triple its financial commitment over the next five years. At present, education spending is about 4 percent of the gross domestic product. Every village with more than 1,000 residents has a primary school. There is money for free lunch every day.

Even in a state like Bihar, which had an estimated population of 83 million in 2001 and where schools are in particularly bad shape, the scale of the effort is staggering. In the last year or so, 100,000 new teachers have been hired. Unemployed villagers are paid to recruit children who have never been to school. A village education committee has been created, in theory to keep the school and its principal accountable to the community. And buckets of money have been thrown at education, to buy swings and benches, to paint classrooms, even to put up fences around the campus to keep children from running away. (link)

It doesn't always help. The free lunch program in this village, for instance, doesn't work because the principal says the rice he's been sent (lying in stacks in the classroom) isn't "officially reflected in his books." But the recently released Pratham study finds that free lunch is working in 90% of schools, which is pretty good -- again if you consider the scale of the project.

Incidentally, some Indian newspapers have also covered the findings of this year's Pratham survey, in somewhat rosier terms -- and, needless to say, no reporters or photographers going out to see actual village schools. The Economic Times, for instance, is impressed that teacher attendance has improved from 38% in 2005, to 53% in 2007. Improvement is great, but it's still hard to imagine children learning very much when their teachers only show up every other day!

Finally, the full 2007 Pratham Survey is here (PDF); I haven't had a chance to look at it yet. Overall, Pratham looks like an important NGO; I'm considering donating something to them to support their efforts.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Noah Feldman's Complex Definition of "Secular"

Noah Feldman has a piece on Religion in Schools in the New York Times, focusing primarily on the question of the controversial Muslim-themed charter school proposed in New York, the Khalil Gibran International Academy. Feldman's definition of what constitutes a secular space is a complex one:

The source of the confusion is the mistaken notion that the categories “religious” and “secular” are strictly binary, like an on-off switch. It’s true that some things are inherently religious, like a prayer or a church or a Torah scroll. (It would be impossible to make heads or tails of them without reference to their religious nature.) But it’s also true that many things that are not inherently religious are not inevitably secular either: they can be infused with religious meaning through the intention of a believer. A gymnasium or a warehouse has a perfectly secular use but also can be consecrated by worshipers who invoke God’s name there for purposes of worship. Examples of what you might call “dual use,” such things can be at once secular to one person and religious to another.

The most convincing interpretation of our constitutional tradition is that the government may not engage in or pay for conduct that is inherently religious but may accommodate religion when the steps taken to do so are not inherently religious in themselves. The phenomenon of dual use suggests a helpful way of restating this requirement: the state may expend resources to accommodate activities that are religious in the eyes of the believers as long as those activities can still be performed by the general public that interprets them as secular. (link)

This might seem wishy-washy, but actually I think it makes a good deal of sense. In the end, Feldman does come out against public funding for the Khalil Gibran Academy, as well as a Jewish-themed charter school proposed in Los Angeles.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Congratulations to ... Lehigh

Yes, one shouldn't take these things too seriously, but it's kind of cool that Lehigh's U.S. News ranking is now 31 in the nation for research universities -- the highest it's ever been.

Several colleges in the Lehigh Valley signed on to the anti-rankings campaign group (Lafayette, Moravian, Muhlenberg), generally referred to as the "Annapolis Group." Nationwide, most of the colleges that are rejecting the U.S. News approach are small liberal arts colleges, which frequently have excellent undergraduate teaching, but not the kinds of material resources that lead to a high ranking.

There's also the whole dubious matter of the "reputation" survey, where college presidents are asked to do their own ranking based on reputation. I think the U.S. News system would gain back quite a number of schools in the Annapolis Group if it were to simply remove this aspect of the surveys that are used to compile the rankings.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

What did Guru Nanak look like? Textbooks in California

In California, the Times reports that the School Board unanimously voted last week to alter a seventh grade textbook image relating to Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion (or panth), after protests from the Sikh community.

The controversial image isn't the big one pictured, but the small one (I've added a circle to make it clearer). The image is a 19th century painting of Guru Nanak wearing a crown and what looks like a somewhat cropped beard. Both the crown and the beard shape are troubling to Sikhs, who are accustomed to seeing images of Guru Nanak more along the lines of the bigger image to the right -- flowing white beard, and humble attire.

Though the New York Times has good interviews with community members on this, the Contra Costa Times actually spells out the issue more clearly:

The image is taken from a 19th-century painting made after Muslims ruled India. The publisher used it because it complies with the company's policy of using only historical images in historical texts, said Tom Adams, director of curriculum for the Department of Education.

After Sikhs complained that the picture more closely reflected a Muslim man than a Sikh, Oxford offered to substitute it with an 18th-century portrait showing Guru Nanak with a red hat and trimmed beard. But Sikhs said that picture made their founder look like a Hindu.

The publisher now wants to scrap the picture entirely from the textbook, which was approved for use in California classrooms in 2005. There are about 250,000 Sikhs in California.

Sikh leaders say they want a new, more representative image of Guru Nanak, similar to the ones they place in Sikh temples and in their homes. The publisher has rejected those images as historically inaccurate. No images exist from the founder's lifetime, 1469 to 1538. (link)

All of this raises the question -- what, in fact, did Guru Nanak look like? We don't have any images from his lifetime, and the later ones are clearly products of the values of their eras. What, historically, do we actually know? I went to Navtej Sarna's recent book, The Book of Nanak, to see what I could find out.

First off, I would recommend Navtej Sarna's book -- it's part of a series Penguin is doing, that also includes The Book of Mohammed. It's short, but it's well-written and accessible.

Secondly, Sarna states the obvious problem with any historical account of Guru Nanak: we don't have official (as in modernized, chronological) histories to work with, but rather a series of Janamsakhis, some of which were written down shortly after Guru Nanak's lifetime by personal associates, while others were written down a bit later -- at two or three degrees of separation. Some of the relevant manuscripts are mentioned, sketchily, at the Wikipedia site for Janamsakhis. (This Wikipedia entry could be improved!)

Some professional historians simply opt out of saying anything concrete about Guru Nanak's life. J.S. Grewal, for instance, in The Sikhs of the Punjab, goes right into textual analysis of passages from the Adi Granth, and doesn't mention any Janamsakhis. Sarna, for his part, acknowledges that his own work is based on the Janamsakhi materials, and proceeds on the basis that some of what is described is factual, while some must be under the category of folklore, and educated guesses have to be made. Along those lines, he comes up with a surprising description of Guru Nanak's attire:

Nanak was accompanied by Mardana on his travels, who carried his rabab. He dressed in strange clothes that could not be identified with any sect and symbolized the universality of his mesage. He wore the long, loose shirt of a Muslim dervish but in the brownish red colour of the Hindu sanyasi. Around his waist he wore a white kafni or cloth belt like a faqir. A flat, short truban partly covered a Qalandar's cap on his head in the manner of Sufi wanderers. On his feet, he wore wooden sandals, each of a different design and colour. Sometimes, it is said, he wore a necklace of bones around his neck. (53-54)

Unfortunately, Sarna does not tell us which Janamsakhi this derives from -- and I'm sure people would be interested to know, since this is a bit different from the common image of Guru Nanak. Sarna does later mention that at the end of his travels, Guru Nanak gave up these "travel clothes" and adopted the ordinary dress of a "householder."

At every point, however, what's emphasized is the strength of Guru Nanak's personal humility and his rejection of personal wealth or political power (which is not the same as a rejection of the material world). So the crown that's pictured in the first version of the California textbook is certainly incorrect. The rest, however, is probably open to conjecture and argument.


One other thought: this controversy is obviously part of a new pattern of textbook contestation in California. An earlier chapter occurred last year, when the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation wrote long reports offering their criticisms and suggestions of the representation of Hinduism in California school textbooks. In a post on the subject, I reviewed the details of those reports, and came to feel that some were good suggestions, while others seemed to be cases of whitewashing history. Though some of the dynamics are similar, this is a very different (and indeed, much simpler) case.

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