Sunday, April 14, 2013

An Infinity Unknown

Take a minute & answer these question before proceeding to read: How was your time in school? What are the top 3 things you recall of your time there?

A dear friend asked me how I recall my days in school. I would have imagined a response like "It was fun" or "So much fun & play" or at least "It was so depressing" or "I met my husband/wife there" or something like that escape my lips but none of that sorts did. To my very surprise, I realised & muttered that my days in school were a string of shining & achieving. While I did enjoy myself thoroughly & had my own share of spats & mud-fights & puppy-love & infatuation for some teachers (some I am still in touch with), I don't seem to recall my school days as a span of learning & shock. What I mean by shock is what an old villager feels when he is shown how email works. The excitement with which he claps his hands when he gets a smiley on the chat screen from thousands of miles away is missing from my memory of school. To think that that is where I learnt nearly everything of life's fundamentals. It is poor solace that most people around me too recognise their school as something other than where they were surprised at what life had in store for them. It should not be immediately deemed an issue with the school system. Let us not view it as a problem.

Perhaps what surprises me is my mental romantic want that school would be remembered as an excursion where we discovered so many new things. Math, for instance, opened the doors to the world of numbers. Geometry & mensuration made the world of shapes so amazingly beautiful. Literature & the world of words which I play in was woven tale by tale throughout my schooling days. The human body & photosynthesis is still a magical realm to me. Refraction & how we would all tilt our head to view the pencil under water was brought to my eyes then. While I do not deny that I learnt all of this in school, I do not recall the awe or the surprise in discovering how echoes were produced. It was a fact that we were exposed to & then provided with the formula to compute various aspects of a problem using the time taken to hear an echo.

I remember a simple boyish conversation amongst a few of us who were exposed to the speed of light. We proposed that if I was 20 feet away from a candle (which was covered) and moved at the speed of light, then would I ever see the candlelight if I began moving away from the candle as soon as it was uncovered. The point was, since the light from the candle & I would move at the same speed, there will always be a difference of 20 feet between me and light. To think of light being held back like a stream of molten silver was amazing in conception & even today makes me nearly want to move that fast. That is the awe I refer to. The sheer amazement of using & studying a boomerang (yes, I went to YouTube to see how a boomerang is thrown).

I am not sure if the younger days in school are meant to provide the necessary tools so that those who are sensitive might explore & be amazed & those who aren't will make a living anyway. I would think that the initial years are when the child is likely to be stunned & amazed. To utilise the natural inclination for wonder is what I would think all of education should be about. Even if we eliminated tests & grades, our current approach to introducing a child to the wonders of this world would not focus on stunning the child.

It is not entirely clear to me whether wonder & amazement is best in retrospect. Do children merely see & get used, like a child using a smart-phone and thereafter finding nothing amazing about long distance communication or mobile apps or processor technologies? Adults who see a smart-phone for the first time are indeed amused & amazed at "how much technology has advanced" and hearken back to days when "all we had was a rotary phone & long distance trunk calls". Is amazement always in contrast? I recall the first time I saw a bike in a cage/steel sphere, I was amazed & also thoroughly interested in the notion of centripetal forces. I had nothing to compare it to - sheer adrenaline racing act! But a growing plant is hardly an awe-inspiring thing to a child until she sows the seeds & watches it grow, understanding all that it goes through.

I think schools denature knowing. Whether they do it consciously or not is secondary to this exploration. By capturing the flight of a bird into paragraphs of text about hollow bones & air currents we seem to steal away the opportunity from a child to watch birds & ask questions & seek to understand. By insisting that one be provided all possible knowledge even before curiosity or need arises, we are in essence removing the wonder of first encounter. I might never see a polar bear but I have studied so much about it that perhaps if I saw it in real life, I might be less amazed than if I knew nothing about it.

I think the question that remains is, can we essentially remain ignorant till need arises? What is the price we have to pay for that? Why can we not spend the early years in wonder & then grow organically & apprentice?


  1. It works the other way for me. The fact that I know what keeps the bird in the air provides an added thrill while observing it, my knowledge of history helps me appreciate a visit to an old fort or temple better, and knowing what causes rainbows and lightning has never detracted from marvelling at the spectacle.

    Consider our generation - we grew up with TV and telephones, perhaps seeing them for the first time during early childhood. And we thought nothing of it while watching Spiderman cartoons in the 80s or calling up school friends to ask about homework. It's the same lack of wonder for kids today using the internet/smartphones/tablets. The older you are, the more scope for appreciating such things since you actually remember what it was like before.

  2. Dear R,
    I do not question or doubt that possibility you refer to. To know & then experience is beautiful too. What I was rambling about, was this whole lack of recalling my school days as a phase of awe or stumbling upon the new which I thought would be what childhood would be filled with. Instead, it was an accumulation of knowledge & shining. To your second point, I wonder the same (in the post as well). Is all awe an exercise in contrasting?

  3. I think one would have to invoke Arthur C Clarke's quote about any sufficiently advanced technology seeming indistinguishable from magic. The further removed something is from our realm of experience, the more scope it has for plain slack jawed awe and wonder, since one doesn't have a frame of reference to compare it with.