Saturday, June 23, 2012

Of content and context - HT 24-06-12

Of content and context

Content and Context

Information for its own sake mere is a bane of textbooks. A recent report in the local press told us that the Civics Book of Class 6, in a reputed public school in Allahabad , mentions the term of office of a mayor as one year, though it is five years in all the districts of U.P. The information is not incorrect; it’s only that it is out of context for a student in U.P.; it is of course all right for one in a metro. Learning is becoming a casualty in information explosion. Just sample this question from the G.K. book of class 1, my child was mugging up – “Can you name a famous cartoon movie which is about a fish?”  Impressive for a child to know the answer isn’t it!

   Book writing is both an art and science and, so is the prescription of the correct one for the kids. The writer has to be aware for whom he is writing – the age and the milieu. The experience of a teacher in a Government school in a resettlement colony in Delhi , published in the Public Report on Basic Education in India (PROBE), is pertinent- “The curriculum, for its part, is drastically at variance with the life these children live. By focusing on upper- middle class experiences, it further alienates them from the world of knowledge. They are simply unable to relate to the finer subtleties of birthday parties, balanced diets, family holiday, or multistoried homes. Being a teacher of English, I have come to realize that the curriculum is utterly incomprehensible to these underprivileged children.” It has also been my experience, during the training sessions of the teachers  posted in the rural schools in U.P, that many references in our texts like 'fireplace', 'mantelpiece' (in the chapter on ‘Our  Home’) and, the activities such as 'camping', 'hiking', 'fishing', evoke questioning glances not only by the pupil but, also by the teachers.  Similarly, the references to 'Santa Claus' and, 'basketball' as 'our favourite game’, is found difficult by the teachers to relate to and explain.

  Since language is embedded in culture, it is in the course of learning English that the cultural interference is clearly felt. Culture and communication are intertwined and it determines how people encode messages, the meanings they have for messages and, how they get interpreted.  For instance, as different from the West, in our country,  a teacher or elder is not addressed by his name/surname, instead, family friends are identified through some relationship – 'Uncle', 'Aunty', 'Chacha', 'Mama' etc. and, in Hindi, there are two different ways of addressing an elder and the younger – 'Aap' (for former) and 'Tum' (for younger). Associative contexts in which a word is used in a place might evoke a different understanding of that word. The word 'darling', I remember, raised shy smiles among us when a teacher addressed a student lovingly by this term. As 10 years old we had heard it being used in the Hindi films in only one connotation. The various nuances of meaning given to the word ‘sexy’, ranging from obscenity to aesthetics, are only a matter of one’s cultural environs. Just imagine the reaction of Shakespeare’s beloved on hearing the sonnet- ‘Shall I compare thee to the summer’s day’, had her experience of summer was only of the Indian plains

published in HT Lko 24-6-12