Category: Education


AMDG

P1050059This a month of exciting new beginnings and sad farewells in Manchester.  When I started this job the provincial used a great image of the university chaplain being like the person who stands at the feeding station at the marathon.  You are there to give whatever help you can and then they are gone …. flying past, into the adventure of life.  We have already met some wonderful new students in welcome week – and I am filled with optimism for the year ahead.  We have great potential to build a special community.  However that optimism is tinged with sadness as we say farewell to some special friends.  One in particular has gone back to Damascus to be a lecturer.  As there are no flights into Syria – her father met her in Beirut and they drove across the border together.  We have all been praying for her on this dangerous journey – but she arrived back safe, and has sent us an email that I have permission to share ( an edited version)

 

Dear Fathers, I hope you are all well and in good health. I arrived to Damascus on Thursday; it was a long but safe journey. Today I went with my dad to university because I do not feel confident enough to be on my own in a city that I no longer know. Damascus has changed so much. Most women wear veils and this makes me feel very sick and very angry. Public transport is quite expensive because of the situation. It is relatively safe in my town where I live with my family. In the city centre and near university it is quite safe at the moment.  I still feel very scared every time I hear the M16, drones and all sort of weapons. It seems talking about weapons has become very familiar here among people. Relatives come to see me and all they talk about is weapons or war. I went to a small catholic church near my house this evening; it was lovely to be there and to be able to say the liturgy in Arabic. I do miss Holy Name.  I have to start preparing and designing my lectures.  Please do stay in touch!  May God bless you all and deliver you from every evil.  United in Jesus,  ******* .

So we keep her in our prayers at daily mass and her family – I have told her that she will be one of the keys in rebuilding Syria and bringing peace back.  Turning back to Manchester  I spied a great bit of advice for new Catholic students on the Jesuit homepage, created by Henry Longbottom who was with us for a few months.  It is an excellent reflection…. pass it on.

AMDG

_75733908_75733906With the rise of ‘Jihad Tourism’ in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, we are told in the UK that the majority of the resources of MI5 is now spent on tracking British Jihadists. Whilst it is alarming to see masked young men with British accents calling for others to join them, I haven’t seen many intelligent reflections on what is attracting them.  What are the underlying causes?  Sadly sectarian hatred between Sunni and Shia Muslims is out of our hands.  However close behind is a hatred of  ‘the West’.  Some of the disillusionment is justified,  most of it isn’t.  Perhaps our culture excludes more that it includes – with a jaded consumerism, a morally bankrupt celebrity culture and a pornography addled internet with an increasingly toxic and angry social media. Secularists seem to be in denial of all of this and the public debate about faith becomes shriller,  with religion being marginalised and often portrayed as being  problematic.

As well as some mosques there seem to be three places were radicalisation often occurs, prisons, the internet and universities.  A brief look at the history of university education in this country may be in order at this point.  Up until the middle ages the universities in these isles were places of theological formation – often run by monastic orders.  Of the seven ancient universities (founded before 1600), three of them were founded by papal bulls (Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen) the rest by royal charters (Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Dublin). After Henry VIII’s schism, Catholics were banned from attending many of these universities, and they became exclusive to Anglican students. In the 19th Century, the new generation of ‘redbrick’ universities, based in the growing industrial cities saw it as their civic duty to accept any students without reference to religious belief, and so were proudly secular.

hospital-chaplain-officeThe universities in Manchester fall into this category and because of this secular background they have an uneasy relationship with religion and its presence on campus.  It is time for them to rethink this. It maybe that things are changing as they realise how chaplaincy services provide valuable student support and can be at a basic level be a useful addition to student welfare provision.   Generally in universities with huge populations of students, (In Manchester 40,000+) – this support for students welfare is inadequate.  More importantly universities need to realise that their most effective weapon against radicalisation is well-funded and supported chaplaincy provision.  Most young people who are serious about faith will adopt a more conservative/traditional religious identity in order to distinguish themselves in a secular and sometimes hostile culture.  A good chaplain can bring experience and wisdom to smooth of some of the harder edges….  universities don’s seem to realise that, students unions often put chaplains in backwaters in freshers week, or their offices in out-of-the-way, hard to find places.  Chaplains often complain of institutional apathy, or obstruction and tokenism from the institutions.  This needs to change.

AMDG

2 of our students with a representative of the myriad foundation

2 of our students with a representative of the myriad foundation

One of the beautiful things to see emerging the last few months is how students of different faiths are helping us with the foodbank. Every few weeks or so a couple of Muslim lads drop by with a car full of food that they have collected from various mosques.  The same day when they paid their last visit we received a cheque for £250 from the local synagogue.  Neither donations had been solicited from either faith community and they were gladly received.  The Muslims run an excellent charity called the Myriad Foundation which aims ‘ To make a positive impact on society and a significant contribution to the community’.  

Another story which was heart-warming  was when two young ladies turned up with two boxes of cakes.  I gratefully received them and asked them what had motivated them to donate them. It turned out that their mother had recently used the foodbank.  She was so grateful that now that she had got out of her temporary crisis, she had held a cake sale to raise money for our foodbank, and so the next week a cheque arrived for a few hundred pounds.

At the recent National Conference of the Trussel Trust – I attended a workshop on how to receive the stories of our clients.  At first we were reluctant to ‘pry’ into the reasons why people were coming for the foodbank.  However we have since learnt that we actually have a duty to give people the option to tell their stories.  It seems that about 80% of the users are all to keen to tell their stories (we have had been able to help over 1,300 people so far).  The Trussel Trust are keen to get their stories’out there’ in order to challenge the negative stereotypes and myths of ‘scroungers’ that seems to poison the public debate about poverty in this country.  The stories initially are taken anonymously and will be posted up on our blog (link), and then the majority of clients give permission to use them with media outlets / or journalists who get in touch – this time with some independent verification.

Facebook & Status Anxiety

AMDG

This is a scheduled blog – posted automatically – I’m on a silent retreat at the moment so will only be able to moderate or reply to comments when I finish (14th)

Thumbs down.It was reported last week that Facebook spreads unhappiness (examples here and here).  Research in Michigan, US,  suggested using the site makes people less satisfied with their lives. This resonates with other research that claims Facebook usage increases feelings of isolation, jealousy and depression. It is not clear whether this is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation… i.e. it is not facebook that causes isolation but rather those who feel isolated who are more likely to spend more time on facebook. However let’s remember the genesis of facebook, dreamed up in the dorms of Harvard, a high-pressure tank of adolescent insecurity, competitiveness and astronomical expectations. This was portrayed warts and all in the film The Social Network – and perhaps explains why  the architecture of Facebook Pages are often carefully designed to suggest a great and exciting life and therefore can be misleading.

status anxietyCould it be that Facebook is hyper-charging ‘status anxiety’. This idea came from a fascinating book of the same title by (atheist) philosopher Alain de Botton. Most unhappiness comes from this status anxiety and explains why the rich are often unhappier than those with much more modest lifestyles. Because we are always comparing ourselves to those who are one step above us on the wealth ladder. Rather than being satisfied with what we have, we become anxious because we don’t have as nice a car, as big a house etc as this or that friend. You can see how that works on facebook – X’s status updates/ photos indicate they are having a more exciting life than me. Look at his photo in a club surrounded by those beautiful girls whilst I am stuck at home (probably doing something much more interesting or fulfilling). Why has she got twice as many friends as me. So if you want to be happy – don’t fall into the trap of Facebook Status Anxiety!

By the way if you have read this through my facebook link and think it’s a bit hypocritical – my blog posts go onto facebook and twitter automatically. My policy with facebook is to ‘raid’ every week – get in and get out as quickly as I can – and do my business before I get sucked in…(honest) !!

Amazing Dedication to Education

When I was at school – one of the most inspiring teachers was a sports teacher Jimmy Highton who at the age of 70 lead us on a training run.  He had been a teacher at the school for 50 years, had a great attitude and in his mind was younger than many of the others!  Any way I stumbled upon some great news from Australia this week which I share below.

St Aloysius’ College‘s Father Geoffrey Schneider, who turns 100 on December 23, is the world’s oldest serving teacher. The Australian representative for Guinness World Records Chris Sheedy ,who is a former Aloysius’ student (1980-88), presented the world record certificate at the school in Kirribilli tonight. Father Schneider featured on the front page of the Mosman Daily as Australia’s oldest teacher but this world record will give him global fame. Eight hundred members of the school community including parents, past parents and students gathered at the college for a Celebration of a Century to honour Father Schneider’s life. He grew up in Melbourne and came to live at the college in 1965. The children have nicknamed him Father Schnitzel and both a classroom and trophy are named in his honour.  He takes 15-minute religious instruction classes at the college and is chaplain of the junior school. The Jesuit priest has no intention of retiring from his teaching career. “I’ve been gifted with strengths,” Father Schneider said.Of the fuss being made, Father Schneider said he “lets it all flow by” while he awaits his telegram from the queen for turning 100.

 

AMDG

Chandra Observatory launched in 1991, at the time the heaviest payload, designed for 5 years, still going strong …pic from NASA

It is striking how well drilled Indian students are in learning and knowing about the lives of the towering figures of Indian History. Gandhi, Ambedkar (the Dalit author of the constitution), Roy, Nehru, the list goes on and on.  I was surprised yesterday in the Hostel with a conversation I had with a very bright student who has just returned. I had put up a display of images of the Solar System, rockets, astronauts, observatories and satellites, with a special focus on Indian hardware.  One of the three space observatories left is the Chandra X Ray Satellite.  NASA named this satellite after a great Indian physicist Chandraseka and it allows us to collect data from deep space.  I was trying to explain this to a gaggle of students who were pressing around, and one older girl knew all about him. I was surprised and very impressed.  Knowledge of these great figures serves to instill national pride and shared identity, a unifying factor to combat communal violence.  However as one of the Jesuits said to me, the education system, still heavily based on rote learning is not geared to encouraging a similar creativity and ingenuity in the majority of students.  Widespread corruption in the examination system is also preventing good practice and good schools to be identified and copied, especially in areas far from the metropolis.

My favourite among these Indian giants is the poet and educationalist, and author of the National Anthem,  Rabindrath Tagore (right).  He is known in India as ‘gurudeb’ – the great teacher.  I remember discovering his poetry at university and at once being mesmerised by its beauty and mysticism.  Tagore won the Nobel  Prize for Literature in 1913 after  Yeats did a lot to get translations of his work published and promoted on a visit to London.   He was knighted in 1915 but repudiated the honour four years later after a terrible massacre by British troops.  Like Ghandi his thoughts on Christ have always fascinated me, although remaining a Hindu he admired Christ greatly. However he did not admire Christians whom he identified with the British Imperial power he was working to overthrow.  In a letter to E J Thompson he said  ‘Do you know I have often felt that if we were not Hindus…I should like my people to be Christians? Indeed, it is a great pity that Europeans have come to us as imperialists rather than as Christians and so have deprived our people of their true contact with the religion of Jesus Christ…What a mental torture it is to know that men are capable of loving each other and adding to one another’s joy, and yet would not!”

I am currently reading a biography of his – so imagine my delight when I found out that he was sent to a Jesuit school - St Xavier’s in Kolkota. It would be nice to say he loved school, this was by no means the case. He hated formal education and being a ‘mere pupil’.  In fact he was sent to St Xaviers as a last desperate attempt by his mother after other institutions had failed. At least it had some impact on him, in a previous school ‘the presidency college’  he only lasted one day! When his mother died he gave up school for good at the age of 13. Ironically he became one of Indias greatest educationalists setting up his own school in Santiniketan. In his memoirs, however I have discovered one reminiscence which I find beautiful ….

2010 – 150 year anniversary

One precious memory of St. Xavier’s I still hold fresh and pure—the memory of its teachers……. This is the memory of Father DePeneranda. He had very little to do with us—if I remember right he had only for a while taken the place of one of the masters of our class. He was a Spaniard and seemed to have an impediment in speaking English. It was perhaps for this reason that the boys paid but little heed to what he was saying. It seemed to me that this inattentiveness of his pupils hurt him, but he bore it meekly day after day. I know not why, but my heart went out to him in sympathy. His features were not handsome, but his countenance had for me a strange attraction. Whenever I looked on him his spirit seemed to be in prayer, a deep peace to pervade him within and without.We had half-an-hour for writing our copybooks; that was a time when, pen in hand, I used to become absent-minded and my thoughts wandered hither and thither. One day Father DePeneranda was in charge of this class. He was pacing up and down behind our benches. He must have noticed more than once that my pen was not moving. All of a sudden he stopped behind my seat. Bending over me he gently laid his hand on my shoulder and tenderly inquired: “Are you not well, Tagore?” It was only a simple question, but one I have never been able to forget. I cannot speak for the other boys but I felt in him the presence of a great soul, and even to-day the recollection of it seems to give me a passport into the silent seclusion of the temple of God.

Teachers often do not realise the impact they are having for good or ill, and what we think is success or failure might turn out different in the grand scheme of things!

——————

Educating Tribals

AMDG

The school and college are buzzing again as term started yesterday. It will take a few days for all the children to return, time keeping and calendars do not exert a big influence in village life.  The Jesuits have been pleasantly surprised by the numbers of new students and there are talking about opening a fourth class for the youngest children – we will have to find a temporary classroom somewhere.  All of this is a great sign that the value and importance of education is beginning to take root in families that have been illiterate for generations.  What has been particularly striking for me, as the parents accompany their children into school for the first days, is the amount of Lambadi women.  As you can see by the photograph their dress, with the mirrors, long hair and jewellery is very striking, easy to notice amongst the throng of parents.  When I asked the headmaster, Fr Rohan, he told with a proud smile that over a hundred of the students are from Lambadi families.  The Lambadis are one of 645 ‘Scheduled’ tribes in India. These are indigenous people who now account for nearly 8% of India’s population, and along with Dalits are the poorest people in India.  A nomadic people, the Lambadis where originally forest dwellers, when India had extensive forests, deforestation has forced them out and now many are nomadic cattle grazers.

Some of our proud Lambadi students on culture day

I have to confess when I first stumbled upon some local Lambadi villages on my evening cycle ride I was a little scared. Their appearance makes quite an impression, particularly with the mirrors glinting in the sun.  I asked one of our social workers  about the mirrors and she said it was to do with warding of evil spirits.  However this now seems untrue, the mirrors are actually to protect the women when they stumbled upon wild animals in the forests.  With the men folk often away hunting – the women could not call them for help, however the many mirrors would reflect multiple images of wild animals thus scaring them away. During the British Rule both the Dalits and the Tribals were known as the ‘Depressed Classes’ however things are changing. Much of what we know about these tribal cultures is due to the pioneering work of a Jesuit, Fr Lawrence Desouza, living and working with them, often under the auspices of UNESCO, he published many books about the different tribes, his obituary is here – click.  Now in India there is a big movement to protect their cultures, in school we have a Culture Day once a year where students are encouraged to dress in their costumes and they take pride in their beautiful and distinctive music and dancing.

When I asked how they were doing in school, their performance is average.  Having been told that their parents have a reputation for being very loving of their children ( as they are not tainted by any sense of inferiority from the caste system) I was also surprised to be told that they are often getting into fights, and many complaints have been made about their filthy language.  Surely this doesn’t add up with coming from these loving families – I though to myself. Ah – I was told – with a grin, they are not Hindus, in fact their religious beliefs are animist.  There is no taboo about drinking alcohol, so they brew it themselves and the men and women often get drunk and end up fighting.  The children are just copying that behaviour.  I suppose that the light and the shadows of tribal life!  A good note to end on is what Fr Eric told me about a Lambadi women who came into his office this week.  She wanted to enrol her daughter into school, and was prepared to pay what it took, passionately she said, I want to give her a chance, I don’t want her to be like me!

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Success against the odds

AMDG

Yesterday was a day of celebration here in Manvi as the school received the first set of exam results.  The SSLC exams are the equivalent of GCSE‘s (public exams for 16 year olds).  Taken at the state level. The school achieved a remarkable 100% pass rate, making it top out of more than 60 schools in Manvi District.  Fr Rohan Almeida S.J. the Director of the school has written today about what this achievement means and putting it into perspective.  

Fr Rohan :  Yet again our students who appeared for the SSLC examinations have come out with flying colours. All who sat the examination from our school have passed with good marks. It gives me immense joy to tell you that some of them were grazing cows and sheep few years ago. For them to come to school and achieve this, especially in English medium is a great thing. According to me it is mainly because of the high motivation of these children that come from the remote villages and are mainly Dalits have. They have a great desire to prove that they too can achieve great things in their lives.  I thank all the teaching and non–teaching staff for motivating and encouraging these children and helping them achieve this great feat. This is a message from one of our boys, (Manesh).

 I am very delighted that I have got good marks in board exams. I am thankful to Loyola school, all the fathers and teachers who have given me an opportunity to study and encouraged me to write the exams. I want to continue my studies here in this institution and want to be an Engineer. Few years ago I was grazing cows in my village and now because of Loyola school I can dream of becoming an engineer.

The SSLC is a public examination, formulated by the regional board of education that the school is affiliated with ( i.e not an internal exam set by members of the faculty of the school).  The performance of a student in the SSLC examination is one of the factors in admission to Pre University Courses in India. Therefore, the SSLC is often regarded as the first important examination that a student undertakes. After successful completion of SSLC, a student wishing to pursue his education further would join a course based on the specialization he chooses and which gives him knowledge sufficient for him to enter an university which is sometimes called a Pre-University Course (PUC), for two years. After this a student may enter a university for undergraduate studies. Alternatively, after obtaining the SSLC, a student may choose to attend an industrial training institute where one can be trained in skills necessary for technical occupations. The other options include joining a polytechnic for a three year course of diploma in engineering and then further pursing degree in engineering after the completion of diploma. Many of our students want to do their PUC and go for the engineering and medical studies.

Many Dalit children are left to a life of illiteracy and looking after sheep or goats

Mustur Rayappa one of the parents says “Really you have brought the light to our children by starting Loyola school in Manvi. You have given us a ray of hope that even our Dalit children can study and stand equal to other children. I am grateful to Jesuit fathers who started this school and brought the best education to the poor and downtrodden in the society.”

I thank almighty God for giving us strength to carry out this Mission to educate the poorest of the poor and the marginalized in the society. I thank all the teaching and non–teaching staff for motivating and encouraging these children and helping them achieve this great feat. I thank all the benefactors and the well wishers without whose support these children would have been still grazing cows and sheep or might be working as child labourers in their villages.

New website of the school – just launched – click here www.xaviermanvi.in

To support these children – click here www.supportingdalitchildren.com

AMDG

In my opinion the transformative power of hope is not given enough credit . The population of India is an incredible 1.2billion and growing by 17 million a year.  The majority of Indians (70%) live in rural villages.  The recent census showed that majority of these rural dwellers survive on less than 35 rupees a day (or 40pence / 60cents).    Talking to some of the families in the villages here, and students and teachers it is very clear that an absence of optimism is one of the most debilitating factors in peoples lives.  Of course it understandable – rates of malnutriton, illiteracy, infant mortality and a lack of clean water are all at shameful levels in rural India. The biggest ministry in India’s Government is that for Rural Development, and to their credit they have instigated important schemes such as subsidised grain and a guaranteed programme of 100 days paid work a year for unskilled labour.

Both schemes, well meant, are crippled by corruption.  Many of the grain is pocketed by middle men, and much of the Public Works Scheme money is siphoned off by ‘ghost workers’ – invented by corrupt local officials in order to pocket their wages. This is the biggest flaw in India’s politics – that so many see it as legitimate to exploit the state in order to redistribute patronage to their kin.  Plundering the state is terrible for development.  So those worst effected, at the bottom of the pile,  feel hopeless and helpless. When you have no mental space to see beyond day-to day-survival it can lead to a certain listlessness, lack of motivation and depression. This also manifests itself in a kind of chronic conservatism, often culturally expressed, and jealousy of anyone who dares to be too successful from your village.

However there is hope…. just the witness of our children when they go back to their villages, speaking English, clean, confident, well fed seems to be having a big impact on changing this mindset.  This week many parents are bringing their children in to seek for admission for the next school year. The Jesuits are giving priority to those from the poorest families, the Dalits, the Devadasis.  At the early stages of the mission, much time and energy was put into forming womens groups in the villages, with the belief that they value education more, and more likely to ensure that the girls will not lose out.  The picture on the right shows the leaders from a womens group in a local village who brought in a large group of children to register for admission this year. Maybe they wouldn’t have come had it just been left to their families. The dynamic leaders of the women’s cooperative are ensuring that education is starting to be valued more. However this is on a macro level –  I believe change is also coming to India at a macro level.

The worlds biggest biometric database is being set up in India.  This is based on the realisation that the rural poor have no identity – no drivers licence, no passport,no bank account,  many live in villages shared by so many people with the same surname.  This makes it impossible for them to open a bank account.  If they want to migrate to work in another state, in the dead time between harvest and replanting,  they have to spend hours queuing in the sun, to pay bribes to get papers.

Things are changing: the UID (Universal Id) or Aadhar number is drastically improving rural welfare.  With iris, fingerprint and face scanners, their identity is robust, it means that they can open bank accounts, state support goes straight to them, cutting out the middleman and the loss of so much due to corruption.  Their medical and school records can become mobile. As a voluntary scheme it has been embraced enthusiastically by the poor with already 400 million enrolled into it. Observers have suggested the changes are already evident with more land coming under cultivation, dietary habits slowly changing. Sadly we have not seen this in Karnataka, when I ask the villages here they shrug and shake their heads. The sad truth is that the schemes spread is being blocked by powerful forces including the Home Minister. Why? some claim arguments that would be more familiar in the developed world, data protection, civil liberties, privacy – these all seem out of place when you share a one roomed hut with 10 others!! I suspect the real reason it is being blocked is because it is so effective at cutting out the middle man and reducing corruption.

India’s Digital Divide

AMDG

“The future is here …… it is just not evenly distributed”  William Gibson

Amit Singhal, Google

Amit Singhal, Google (Photo credit: niallkennedy)

It may be that Silicon Valley in California is the most influential place on earth. As a high tech center – it is the working home of the most influential people driving forward the Digital Age.  It is fascinating to see the success and influence that Indian immigrants have had there. The role call is impressive – Pradeep Sindhu who some claim is responsible for broadband, Nikesh Arora and Amit Singhal at Google, Salman Khan the inventor of an incredible online academy recently putting him into Time magazines most influential list.  It is clear that the immigrants who have the most clout in Silicon Valley and who are the largest group are Indians.  15% of startups in Silicon Valley are of Indian origin according to this commentator.  Many of them come from the six IIT’s  (Indian Institutes of Technology), created in the 1940s by Prime Minister Nehru. These elite institutions produce some of the world’s smartest techies. They are more competitive than most of the West elite universities. Last year about 3% of the students who applied to anIIT got in.

Pre digital India….. in 2012

However the situation here in Manvi couldn’t be further from the case. If you go into the villages apart from sporadic electricity the only think that reminds you that we have entered a digital age are the ubiquitous mobile phone.  I have spent the last couple of weeks opening email accounts for the older and brighter students.  They are keen to have them but they do not know how to use them.  So when I explain how it will be necessary at college, for finding out job opportunities it is a strange experience for me, I feel like I have landed on another planet.  Even this Christmas in the remote mountains of the Phillipines I was amazed to find out that many of the villagers (who had only been persuaded to put aside their headhunting traditions 20 years ago)  had facebook accounts.  Many of them would walk up to 24 hours to get to the nearest internet cafe – something that amazed me.  But here in rural India, people are definitely not plugged in.

From an educational point of view, there is a great danger of  creating a digital divide.  The Digital Economy, the Knowledge Economy all seem to indicate that digital skills are very important for kids.  Marj Prensky calls them Digital Natives, children born after the internet.  If anything we digital immigrants, born before, are only just becoming aware of the dark side of the digital revolution – addiction, pornography, isolation etc.  Despite of all this I get a sense that many of the students are just being left behind.  So there are two challenged here in Manvi. Not only is it the first generation of students – they will quickly need to become digitally savvy.  The world is changing at a bewildering pace. If anything Digital Technology – the internet, projectors, allows access to greater educational resources, like the fabulous Kahn Academy. No longer does a teacher have to be in the same physical location as their students. There has also been some talk of the Jesuits creating a virtual university, as we probably have the greatest international educational network, why not get some of the best teachers / lecturers giving one day a month on-line tutoring to children in refugee camps or the school here?

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