Friday, October 16, 2015

Five hundred gallons of New England rum

A couple of weeks ago, a young college teacher of English came to me with a set of General English textbooks prescribed by his university for undergraduate students. The course, the cover pages of the books said, was part of the common-core curriculum (CCC) under the choice-based credit system. The CCC factor and the fact that the authors of the books belonged to different universities indicated that the books were in use in all the universities in the State.

I glanced through the books and felt sad. Underlying the instructional materials was a retrogressive literary-humanistic approach on the knowledge-transmission model of teaching with restricted opportunities for students to practise their English, let alone real-world English. Students have to process -- and answer content-based questions on -- turgid literary or semi-literary essays (e.g. Oliver Goldsmith's 'The man in black,' written 270 years ago), lengthy philosophical lectures urging one to remain unattached (e.g. Swami Vivekananda's lecture on 'The secret of work,' given over 120 years ago), modern prose of the kind written by people like Dr Kalam, and poetry of the kind written in days of yore which has been lectured on and exhausted so much so that there is no life left in it. Another book gave plenty of theoretical information on communication and on how speech sounds are produced for good measure, and yet another book preached sermons on soft skills. The books were one big yawn from start to finish. They reminded me of the sad reality that the undergraduate English classroom is still primitive.

Around the same time I watched on TV Prime Minister Modi being given a rock-star reception in Silicon Valley: Apple, Tesla, Google and Microsoft were rolling out the red-carpet for him. It was because they were able to see India leapfrogging into the latest technologies and becoming the fastest-growing market in the world in technology.

These are conflicting images -- the image of the country becoming technologically so advanced and that of the undergraduate English classroom remaining so primitive, obstinately clinging to the past, impervious to the technological advancement all around it. It reminded me of a hilarious poem by Richard Hovey I had come across about three-and-a-half decades ago when I quit a lucrative career as a sarkari babu in order to become an English teacher:

Oh, Eleazar Wheelcock was a very pious man;
He went into the wilderness to teach the Indians,
With a Gradus ad Parnassum, a Bible and a drum,
And five hundred gallons of New England rum.
Eleazar was the faculty, and the whole curriculum
Was five hundred gallons of New England rum.
Fill the Bowl up! Fill the bowl up!

The five-hundred gallons of New England rum that Eleazar brought is still flowing merrily in our English classrooms -- metaphorically speaking.

Isn't it time this flow was stopped? Our students deserve a better deal. If they are to function successfully in a job market that sets a high premium on communication skills, then, English teachers must get their act together.

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