Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Letters and Numbers, plus ‘Things to Make'

Letters and Numbers, plus ‘Things to Make'
Restructuring (Indian) Education

by Remigius de Souza


THE FORMAL EDUCATION IN INDIA HAS FAILED TO REACH THE INDIAN MAINSTREAM because it is not formed, nor designed for the people. There are now a billion people in India. The majority is illiterate, but not necessarily uneducated. A few are educated but many of them may be ignorant. The tribal belongs to the Fourth World India, having high culture, but not comprehended by others. These three worlds in India, somewhere sometimes are at cross-purposes with each other. Although the powerful may force others someday to accept their ways through the "formal education", the gulf between them seems to widen perpetually. There are millions below the "poverty line".

This paper veraciously uses 'eligibility for architectural course' as a reference point, as a case study. It is because architecture is considered to be "the expression of time, place and people". It is almost a holy affirmation of the discipline. Besides being a most expensive commodity, it is also an agglomeration of many skills, trades, vocations, applied sciences, industry and large number of unskilled labourers, both. It is the most complex among the disciplines of humanities. It is also because it stands in the middle of "farming" (agriculture) and the "spaceship" and "missile" programs. In India it hangs midway, like "Trishanku"* neither on ground nor in the paradise of utopia promised by "Vishwamitra"* of modern technology. There are millions of house-less people in India. Ironically some of them work on building projects.

The Council of Architecture (CA) in 1998 initiated workshops in different cities in India on "Restructuring Architectural Education for 21st Century. Recently All India Council for Technical Education" (AICTE), through an advertisement, called for papers for ideas from Indian Nationals on "How to Instil Quality in Technical Education (a Practical Approach" in a national competition. Declining standards in education is a common cry to be heard these days. It is almost fashionable to complain. But who is ready to take revolutionary step if need be? Is it the Legislation, the Bureaucracy or the People? Within its limited space the paper moves between general and particular areas of field of education.

The Missing Third Element of Learning

It is known that infants from early stage start instinctively to develop their motor abilities. That is a natural process. The children however receive schooling from the first standard, or even prior to it, which begin with letters and numbers and continue to do so happily ever after. What is missing in the primary and secondary schooling and onwards is the third element of learning, that is, Making Things That Work. This lacuna has not only eclipsed the architectural education, but entire education, therefore, life at large. It has caused tremendous joblessness, exploitation and marginalisation of many, alienation of the educated, loss of creativity and loss of respect for the manual labour, therefore, for the fellow human beings, in the nation of a billion people.

This is so in spite of humankind has made millions of objects over past fifty thousand years or more, outside the present style of education prevailing in India. This education is only capable of letters and numbers, and perhaps collaborations to borrow development from the west.

Work, leisure, education and health are four broad aspects functioning of life of man, animal or plant. Fixed borders neither confined to compartments does separate these. In the natural process they flow into each other or overlap. Institutionalised mass education, fitted into compartments of division of labour is the by-product of industrialisation. It not only brought assault on skills, knowledge, traditions and cultures of people, but also tends to create monoculture. It is, also, not without causing the heartburn to the creative and the spontaneous. By and by education has also fallen prey to consumerism. Architectural education is not an exception to this trend.

While thinking about restructuring education (general or architectural) one tends to think within the prevailing frame or system or mind-set. Institutionalisation is so powerful, that it is spreading and taking charge of every area of public or private or personal life, particularly in the mass type industrial society. Hence, institutional overtake of education. It happens when there is lack of creativity and of leisure in an individual and the society. We are, of course, aware that this education is not universal, and a large section of Indian society yet remains outside its dragnet.

Status of Architectural course and Eligibility Criteria

Presently the architectural education seems to be a classroom activity, intellectual pursuit and abstract discipline on paper. Yet for lay people architecture may still be a decorative art. The boom in the real estate market (in big cities) generated money and power, therefore, glamour to the field of architectural profession. Building industry, it is rumour, alleged to be one of the major channels of parallel economy. It is power and money, and not the poverty, which generate corruption, parallel economy and pollution - environmental or economic. Poverty and the holes in the sky are but refuse from power, money and machine, whether at global or local level.

When architectural education was tied up with prerequisite of physics, chemistry and mathematics (PCM) at Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) level for admission, perhaps nobody studied the horoscope of architectural (and general education) in India then. Perhaps this was conceived then to raise the status of architecture to that of engineering courses as technology. (I am told by unconfirmed sources that this was to facilitate higher grants for the course.)

PCM requisite for admission made the course of architecture a monopolised area, an exclusive area, like engineering etc. Some of the left over candidates from admission to engineering and medicine joined architecture as second option. Architecture, however, in its primeval form as hut in vernacular architecture has been household action of millions of people. It is like making one's own bread or meal beginning from sowing seed in the farm or yard of the house. Now by the Architects Act 1972, "the term 'architect' is enshrined in law. Fortunately the word 'architecture' has no legal protection (Jonathan Hill, 'Occupying Architecture', Routledge, 1998, p.6). Now architect, who is 'trained' in the classroom and 'works' in the office, takes over, e.g. to design housing for masses
(Mass housing) across the country in "modern idiom" for what they are groomed. This is how the institutionalising works. No wonder Latur (Maharashtra State) experienced social and cultural quake following natural earthquake. Housing, there, remains to be tested by time. Certainly the modern city of Kobe (Japan) must have used superior technology in the land of perpetual earthquake than at Latur prior to its collapse there in the last earthquake.

We wonder that at least in the age of democracy, whatever it is, the budding architects may learn the relevance subjects and theories are related, experienced and examined on site; that they may realise that architecture requires not only spatial imagination but also social imagination; that it has dimension of anthropology in the domain of bio-regions.

Thanks to the 50 to 70% strength of ladies in the classroom of some of the colleges of architecture, that now "architecture" will be a household word and add to the cultural dimension of the urban society.

Policy-makers may some day take note that the creative ability in architecture, or any discipline, dose not depend solely on science stream or marks obtained in PCM or HSCE. "Talent is extremely difficult to diagnose. It can not be tested by examination (Allsopp, 1977, p.83). Though everyone possesses creative ability, but there should be identifying it in the candidate and nurturing it in the society. Is it not enough to spend ten/twelve years of schooling to nurture and identify talents and creative abilities in a student leading to SSCE and HSCE?

New Formula
(10) plus (2+5) for Architectural Course: Not (10+2) plus (5)

"Had you started the study of architecture after the 10th (SSCE) what would you have missed? What would you have gained?" I have been asking this question to the fresh graduates for a decade. Summarily the response, has been, "Missed nothing. The gains: I would have started early and come to the grip of the discipline early." They had lost most sensitive years of their early life in cramming information and ready answers supplied by the books.

Until the education turned into mass schooling the start had always been early, whether in arts, crafts, trades, vocations...through the guilds or family traditions. The education was supported by the experience. The gains have been many, particularly in acquiring and testing life-supporting skills and developing perceptions at an early age. The issue of "child labour" is irrelevant here.

Presently in the privileged class of society, a 12th standard student has knowledge (!) of architecture and planning accessed through 'Internet', 'chat-room', 'web surfing', whenever needed, though not by experiencing, and of course, 'Tajmahal' etc, travel and multimedia are there. Will IT improve the quality of education of architecture? Will introduction of one more subject ‘appreciation of architecture’ (at SSC or HSC levels (10+2) help to identify talents?

Some academicians have started propaganda to make the course of architecture of four years duration instead of 5 years. When there is increasing complexity in life and society, such an idea will only lead to self-denial. It may result in bringing out a super-draftsman rather than an architect, compelling student take further formal education, perhaps under the pretext of specialisation. Besides increasing the burden on exchequer and the infrastructure, it will only increase the stress on the student.

On the contrary the increasing complexity needs more periods of time and contact with ground reality for its comprehension. Is it possible to start the architectural education early? Is it possible to start after the 10th (SSCE)? It will thereby increase the course to seven years, i.e. 2 plus 5, where the first two years will be multidisciplinary preparatory year for the aspirant who plunges into the discipline of architecture. It will eliminate first year of the present five-year course.

Open up New Streams

Although SSC and HSC have, as many as 70 subjects, each, there is great demand for, or rather supply of 'Arts, Science and Commerce' streams. This is so not only in the urban areas but also in the rural areas where mainly the agrarian society dwells. It is as if whole cultural ethos of modern India is contained in this holy trinity: Arts-Science-Commerce! These are dominant stars in the horoscope of Indian education, irrespective of their potential in imparting the life supporting skills and securing employment or self-employment in the market of demand and supply.

It is high time to divert this traffic from Arts-Science-Commerce to other disciplines by creating new streams at SSC, HSC and graduate levels. To do this it is necessary to change the mind set. In India the higher education, even though highly subsidised, has remained with certain section of the society, and has been denied to a large majority. It is so since ancient times. "Ekalavya"* is classic example of victimisation by the monopoly. The so-called Arabic numerals in the west were originated in India and were adapted there sometime in the 9th century. But a large number of people in India remained illiterate. Literacy was associated with learning Vedas. In the modern times even this literacy, which was denied to ‘masses’, has not been achieved in spite of slogans, such as, 'education for all' on paper. In the coming times will it be a case of 'computer literacy? It is anybody's guess.

Some of the Possible "New" Streams


Almost half the population of the country needs this stream. This has been ignored by the institutions. The work and the job opportunities in private and public sector and higher education opportunities are aplenty. If the system is appropriately designed it will certainly motivate women, whether illiterate or literate or educated. In fact 'Home Science' will be most effective instrument to bring literacy, not vice versa, to bring literacy to whole country in a shortest possible time, if appropriately designed. It means that the age is no bar for education. It is then; another slogan "30% reservation for women" may actually materialise. Neglect of 50 % population is the legacy of "Manu", which continues...


Considering the proportion of the land and vocation of the majority people across the country, this stream namely "Farming" should have been on the priority of the country's educational policy, program and practice. By now we have known that the wand of science and industrialisation has not worked magic in the country. But unfortunately the large section of the society is treated in practice as second class citizens.
"Farming", as stream of education, should broadly include Agriculture, Aquaculture and Horticulture, and Agro-forestry leading to serve many areas of life of people and land (and waters). If bamboo alone has more than thousand uses, how many fields the FARMING should offer! Ironically most technical course through ITIs, Polytechnics, Engineering colleges, IITs etc lead to industry; so also the scientists and Pundits in education can only think of farming none other than mechanisation. Agro-technology or so-called agro-industries are only a small fraction of FARMING SECTOR. But our politicians, educationists, scientists, policymakers are there to serve science and technology, even if irrelevant, rather than the people.


Creative arts are thus called only to differentiate from the other so-called "Arts" stream. This stream would comprise of Visual and Performing Arts, Architecture being one of them. The 2-year (11th and 12th) course should qualify students for job, as well as further education. It should lead to graduation of different disciplines in different time spans. The graduation time span could be 2, 3, 4, or 5 years according to the intensity of the course. Some of them: pottery, sculpture, painting, dance, music, drama, cinema, television, product design, applied arts, etc. and architecture.

The two-year stream of Creative Arts will not teach merely architecture, but will be a multi-disciplinary course in visual and performing arts. Hence there is no need of conducting such a course leading to HSCE in any college of architecture. This will largely help in de-monopolising architecture from the architects. It will also help architects to be user-oriented or people-oriented.

Architecture as Humanities

Architecture is most complex among the disciplines of humanities by virtue of people living in it, not merely with it. Work of architecture, may it be good, bad, popular, award winning, mundane, regional, vernacular, or western-post-modern, etc. is, however, an expression of time, place and people (whether they are slaves or master - physically or ideologically). Architecture is history written in concrete form.

By calling it humanities, one need not be apprehensive about loss of scientific way or technology or engineering aspect of architecture. Humanities or any other discipline need not be devoid of science for (physical, mental and spiritual) health of man, product or place {Land or Water). Architecture is beyond the building systems and building products supplied by the industry. We are slowly coming to realise that some of the industrially produced building materials are hazardous to (physical} health. It is now being slowly revealed the injuries caused by technology to the environment, ecology and energy and therefore Life.

Myth 0f Science Education

The present 12 years of "class-room, black-board oriented" education, may it be PCM or any other subject, is a major stumbling block in the way of creative thinking and action. Students tend to seek formulae, ready answers, dogma, and authority. The process of unlearning undesirable part of 12-year grooming is a hard task for many students of architecture as creativity is the essence of the discipline. Some may never even get over it for lifetime. Between zero to five to eighteen years of age is the period of rapid growth of brain and to nurture creativity. The present trend in formal education is far too questionable in this regard.

Many advocate 'science' and 'scientific way' for the Indian society. Rightly so in principle; but it is far from practice. Indeed pure sciences are the foundation of modern technology. Hence, so much emphasis on PCM! The present situation, however, is far from satisfactory. J. V. Naralikar laments that there decline of pure sciences in India and the future is bleak ('No Fizz and Spark: Decline of Science Education in India', The Times of India, 6.5.1999). At the same time one must note that without humanities the society will be lame. There is basic difference in science and humanities. Science requires explanation; humanities require understanding (Gombrich). The discipline of architecture does not belong to pure sciences. Therefore it can not function in the premise of laboratory, nor by deductive method. Science however is intrinsic with any discipline; that is how, that is where, it should be. Water is needed for survival, not H2O. Otherwise separating science from the rest will result only in the loss of sensitivity; Matter without Soul.

Now 'economics' has been added as a compulsory subject for the SSC examination in Maharashtra. By this way, who could guarantee prosperity of India in science and wealth (money)? How desperate are the policy-makers indeed! Perhaps what calls for urgent attention are the subjects of Hygiene and Civic Sense in the face of growing population and swelling cities of India?

The Challenge

The crux of the issue by beginning the foundation course of Creative Arts and other streams i.e. Home Science, Farming etc. at higher secondary level is to create freedom for the people by creating appropriate changes at the elementary and secondary levels. It is matter of policy and practice, both. It is to include the element of learning: To Make Things That Work, in equal proportion to the present formula of letters and numbers. This should be made compulsory in all regions, irrespective of urban or rural, city or village. This will compel parents and teachers to give right attention to their wards and pupils and to the growth of their talents. This will remove present irrelevance of education felt, but never expressed loudly, by the Indian mainstream. This will positively bring down the 'drop out rate' from the schools. There is no lack of personnel to join the schools to take over to teach "How To Make Things That Work", to join the regiment of present stock of teachers who give letters and numbers. Indeed there are millions, men and women, who know and can teach how to make things that work, may be they are called illiterate. And there are millions of useful things to make. They shall add, also, another missing element, contemplation, particularly in the mechanised civil society, which no Goodman or gurus could impart, in spite of hundreds of books, audio-video tapes sold in the market place of education and entertainment.

Needless to say the teachers and the flourishing business of coaching classes will have to sharpen their tools of trade! Parents will have to find precious leisure time to contemplate upon parenting!

No one so far has given serious thought to illiteracy and the high rate of school dropouts. Nor one has found any viable answer. Neither the Gandhians have taken further Gandhiji's concept of 'Basic Education'. The "Mid-Day Meal" to allure the children for schooling is an insult and humiliation to the dignity of fellow human being. The children are more sensitive to the fact that their kin at home are hungry. This has originated out of aping western formula of charity. Many Christian Missionary Organisations are running schools in the rural and tribal areas, having several acres of land. They are supposed to have been doing wonderful work in education. But they do not have farming on their agenda in their schools.
'To Make Things That Work'

Add to the curriculum, "To Make Things That Work" and the dropout number of students will go down.

The advocates of 'free market' and 'liberalisation' have curiously kept away from the field of education, of course, except for marketing higher education, not without their vested interest. "Operation Black Board", "Navodaya Vidyalaya", "Free and Compulsory Education”: where are these slogans heading? Neither have we heard that auctions at Sotheby's, or distribution of ‘RIBA Gold Medals' or Nobel Prizes have inspired anybody to go for the disciplines of creative arts or sciences. Creativity and ambition, either in arts or sciences do not go together. Ambition is a premise of politicians. "Creative Arts", however, is a misnomer, because the very foundation of arts and sciences is creativity. The young are subjected to politics of education through allurements of merits through examinations, marks, and degrees, keeping them away from creativity and independent thinking.

Restructuring architectural education is not possible by any piecemeal solutions, such as, reducing the course of 5 years to 4 years, which will only result in endless adjustments and re-adjustments of rules and regulations and bureaucratic tangles. It can neither be done by remaining in the "ghetto" by isolating "architectural education" from the "general education'. It is also not possible to improve it by monopolising and compartmentalising it.

Architecture in its wider context as habitat planning influences and modifies built environment, consumes energy and manipulates ecology, not only the Third Ecology but also the ecology of the biotic and abiotic nature. Architecture as building is one of the major consumers of the world's resources. In India though there are hundreds of colleges and polytechnics of architecture and engineering, the problem of mere shelter has not been resolved. There are increasing number of the house-less, the displaced and those below poverty line. It is not enough to satisfy one's ego by pointing to the percentages. Could policies, theories and skills work on a common platform?

Albert Spears, Hitler's state architect and the minister of industries in war time, pleaded "innocent", saying that he did not know the poison gas was being used in the gas chambers to kill the Jews. After the life-term in prison, walking through the streets of Berlin, he realised, he said, that among all his work as architect, only the vent pipes for street drains were worth calling a good design. In the face of collapsing environment-ecology-energy, where millions are facing slow death, how long, how many architects all over the world shall continue to say, "I am innocent", in the age of Information Technology?

Reforming Education

The change, reformation, restructuring of education has to start from the bottom, because the country's resources and the exchequer pay for it directly or indirectly. Architectural as well as other areas of education are highly subsidised.

Students, during their architectural course, design several projects, dissertations and thesis designs. The worth of this work could be several lakhs of rupees, may be crores. As the system expects it have to be simulation of real architecture, the concept imported from wealthy west. Obviously none of the projects go beyond being paper plans and paper models. None of the projects are ever tested either at site or at workshop. I am not certain if it is ever questioned.

Vital youth energy, five precious years of early adult life and the direct and indirect cost (considered to be about rupees ten lakhs) of making an architect certainly deserves better deal. The only answer presently possible to support the present 'class-room-education' by attaching 'full-scale live models' i.e. by witnessing "materials - construction - services - use - maintenance - aesthetics' of various building types, architecture and planning regularly at site. This should be part of curriculum for all the relevant subjects, for all the five years of present course and should be subjected to regular assessment. The records of these site visit reports should be maintained in the form of monograms for future reference.

A major shortfall of present outcome is the lack of realisation, on the part of the students of human aspect of localisation of architecture. In the words of John C. Jones, they produce 'homogenised' stock of designs. Looking at the diversity, long traditions of building, architecture and planning and the rich skills in arts, crafts and technologies of India, architectural education should be supported by inclusion of the master-craftsmen and the master-builders in the faculty (with status at par with architects and other professional in the faculty); and with appropriate facilities to include in the curriculum "to make things that work".

Reformation in education has to start from the bottom, to include all the citizens without age bar, and from the top by changing the mind set of the policy makers and pundits. Education has to be liberated by respecting the bio-diversity. To begin with, from primary / elementary to the higher levels the education must include that missing element " to make things that work" to the letters and numbers, for all aspirants, including those aspiring for degrees, masters, doctorates, irrespective of their age, sex, caste, and class. It should be mandatory in higher complexity in higher education in any discipline. The scholarship should be supported by field test, not merely libraries and laboratories; for the arts and sciences alike. The merits and talents then will come to the surface. Could CA, UGC, NCERT, AICTE, universities and other educational institutions initiate change to liberate education!
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© Remigius de Souza 1999-2007
1 - 4 - 1999

ARCHETYPES, 69/243 S. B. Marg Mumbai 400028 India

* The characters from the Puranas
* The characters from the Puranas

1 comment:

  1. You said it....but who listens