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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tuning the media to science

Speech addressed by Professor Yash Pal,Chancellor, Jawaharlal Nehru University at Indian academy of social sciences October 5, 2007. (Original Link)

There was a time when we dreamt that someday we would have a countrywide TV channel that would be primarily used for education and science communication. This was also the time when we were preparing for the “satellite instructional television experiment”. At that time a foreign interlocutor once asked me whether we would be able to have programs like those on American network television. My reply was that perhaps we could but that would be a tragedy because we had different values and different needs. Perhaps the tragedy i talked about is already upon us – and with a vengeance. indeed we have gone much beyond the state of American TV in brainwashing people into buying goods, services and a great deal of tinsel. In the process of doing that with much song and dance, movie clips and news of crime, murder and corruption we do not have time for any serious thinking or analysis. TV programmers always ask for bytes and not any engagement with subject matter. All possibilities of understanding are scrupulously avoided because audiences tuned in that direction might even begin to question the veracity of the sales pitch that forms the backbone of the program. There is a great deal of mythology, very little historicity. great wonders of technology are sometimes introduced with a clear message that only demigods abroad can produce them and there is little point in understanding their soul. in any case any attempt at explanation is considered too lengthy, or boring, to be included in the programs.

All deficiencies in this regard may not be intentional. It is possible that most on them arise from an aberration that is common to our school education. We believe that education is belittled when connected with common concerns and curiosities of ordinary people outside the school. Because of this mind set we have tended to create two categories of knowledge. One is that of vernacular knowledge that is current outside the school and the other that is uncontaminated by outside and works and operates only within the school. Thus the school learning is largely discipline bound while innate curiosity of humans is not restricted by any such boundaries, because living itself is not. This mindset has done tremendous damage to school teaching. Not only to school teaching but all education. it has restricted the use of formal learning to problems of life and it has made the process of learning boring and bereft of joy. Children’s spontaneous curiosity is curbed to inculcate a belief that every thing is not to be understood. In this atmosphere superstitions and gullibility flower. Astrology has tremendous ascendance. Idols begin drinking milk. Dirty, polluted sea water at a sea beach begins to taste pure and sweet after a heavy rain. Images of gods seem to be seen in weathering marks on buildings. A pattern on an old tree trunk and its branches is seen as a signal for special appearance of gods.

I am not against mythology. Mythology represents creative layering of a society’s imagination and wonder. We cannot define human collectivities without their mythologies but we find it difficult to distinguish between historicity and mythology. Often times mythology gives a more endearing portrait of a society than history but history is history and cannot and should not be thrown away.

Let me share some personal experiences of science communication that I have found rewarding. The year was 1973 and we had to start planning the production of science programs for children for the forthcoming Satellite instructional television experiment. The audience was to be the school children in some of the most backward villages of India. By that time I had come to believe that science is learnt best through the discovery approach. After going around thousands of the target schools I felt extremely discouraged because none of these schools had even a rudiment of a laboratory. After months of agonosing thought and reflection i made a discovery! These schools might not have had formal laboratories but they were actually living within a gigantic laboratory all around them. The farms, hills, ponds, fruit trees, and of course the home kitchens, the bullock carts and bicycles, their flying kites and footballs could all be considered as components of a laboratory available to all. This emphasis persuaded me to frame a credo for our programs: Science is everywhere around us, to be experimented with and learnt from, and through the method of science this environment could be better understood and influenced. With the help of a number of friends all around the world we prepared a large number of briefs that young producers fresh from the film institute learnt to convert into programs. It was an exciting program and eminently successful.

Finally, I would like to share the rich experience of working with the television series “Turning Point”. I am amazed that more than a decade after that program was terminated, college students, even some school students and many of their teachers remember that program with great affection. In terms of its trip it was second only to the serial Ramayana that was running at that time. How come that a science program developed such an appeal? It is possible that there was an advantage in not having so many commercial channels to compete with. But none of the commercial channels have come up to offer any thing of that interest?

Turning Point was done in the company of a number of wonderful producers. There were several occasions when after going through a shining script I was forced to ask: “So what? What is that small bit of understanding that you are trying to get across?” if no positive answer emerged the script was revised or rejected. I do believe that such a demand was new in Indian program-making. In addition I started to answer questions from the audience. Pretty soon, there was a flood. I insisted that I would like to entertain questions that children and others in the audience had discovered. The questions kept coming, presenting me with much challenge, learning and enjoyment. There was a time when we were getting three to four hundred letters a day, mostly postcards from towns and villages spread across the country. These questions really tested me, but they also convinced me that true knowledge is built only on observation, perception, wonder and self-learning. I did not address questions whose answers could be easily looked up in textbooks. It was clear that the greatest interest lay in the world beyond those books, because the children sensed that their curiosity and confusion was somehow outside the ambit of what could be formulated as an intelligent school question. Most teachers I met seemed to agree with students – they accepted that the questions were not “school” questions. They either infringed the boundaries of syllabus or of the discipline being taught.

At the time I was engaged in this exercise, it was hard fun. But even now, years after that program ended, young teachers, researchers and students keep telling me that the reason they took to science and engineering was because of Turning Point! When asked about the reason for their remembering that program, they often turn around and say: “Sir, don’t you know, we are the Turning Point generation.” while there must be a strong element of courtesy in their remarks, perhaps something special was triggered through the efforts and insight of the production team lead by the executive producer Naazish Hussaini. I certainly learnt a great deal about the nature of our education in schools and colleges. Primarily, I learnt that we need to make the walls between disciplines porous, that learning from life and learning in schools must be connected, that contextual relevance is important to make learning and living more enjoyable and creative.

My question is why such programming cannot become the norm. Can we persuade the present day commercial media to go in that direction? At least the state supported channel that was subverted into going the way of the commercial channels can be brought back. The discoveries made were not personally mine. They belonged to the teams involved. Such teams should still be possible. I am delighted that this approach to science and education has been strongly supported by the National Curriculum Framework – 95. I recommend that every one connected with education, particularly science education – at any level – would gain by going through the documents of NCF – 95.

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