Reading Comprehension, and the Nutty Generalizations About India it Inspired (A Guest Post)

I was talking to a Ph.D. student I work with, Colleen Clemens, about her experience working as a grader for the AP English exam. She had been assigned to work on a question about an Indian author, Anita Desai (the passage was from Fasting, Feasting), and she was shocked at how the students tended to use the passage as an excuse to throw out a series of flagrant generalizations about India and Indian culture. Incidentally, Colleen went with a group of first-year students to India last December, so she’s seen parts of the country herself. The following post, then, is a one-off essay by Colleen:

Recently, I served as a reader for the AP English exam. Imagine a room with 1500 college and high school teachers sitting on folding chairs (with no lumbar support) for eight hours a day, seven days straight, reading the almost one million essays written by nervous, twitchy high school students hoping to test out of their first-year college English course. In a stroke of luck and irony, I was assigned Question Two on this year’s exam, in which students were asked to read a passage from Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting and do a close reading to glean insight into Arun’s experience as “an exchange student.”

As an AP grader, I read the same question all week (over 1100 essays.) In order to make us efficient grading machines, we spent a morning calibrating our responses to the 0 to 9 grading scale—we could see right away that we had much to learn about India from these high school students. Though reading 1100 essays has dulled my memory, I still know that several times I had to stop and mutter to myself comments such as “Yes, there are trees in India” or “No, India is not all trees.” I admit, after traveling there in December, much of India made little sense to my western sensibilities—I am still not sure why I saw an elephant walking in Hyderabad traffic or how people can cross the street with such confidence in Delhi—and I am certainly not an expert on India. But I know that there are bound to be trees in a country of over a million square miles.

I haven’t read the Desai book, but looked it up after I got home. The passage on the exam comes right at the end of Desai’s novel:
[FROM Fasting, Feasting]It is Saturday. Arun cannot plead work. He stands despondent, and when Melanie comes to the door, dressed in her bathing suit with a big shirt drawn over her shoulders, and stares at him challengingly, he starts wildly to find excuses.

Mrs Patton will not hear them. No, she will not. Absolutely not. So she says, with her hands spread out and pressing against the air. ‘No, no, no. We’re all three of us going. Rod and Daddy have gone sailing on Lake Wyola and we’re not going to sit here waiting for them to come home—oh no.’

Arun must go back upstairs and collect his towel and swimming trunks. Then he follows Melanie to the driveway where Mrs Patton is waiting with baskets of equipment—oils and lotions, paperbacks and dark glasses, sandwiches and lemonade. With that new and animated prance galvanising her dwindled shanks, she leads the way through a gap in the bushes to one of the woodland paths.

Melanie and Arun follow silently. They try to find a way to walk that will no compel them to be side by side or in any way close together. But who is to follow whom? It is an awkward problem. Arun finally stops trying to lag behind her— she can lag even better—and goes ahead to catch up with Mrs Patton. He ought to help carry those baskets anyway. He takes one from her hands and she throws him a radiant, lipsticked smile. Then she swings away and goes confidently forwards.

‘Summertime,’ he hears her singing, ‘when the living is eeh-zee–’

They make their way along scuffed paths through layers of old soft pine needles. The woods are thrumming with cicadas: they shrill and shrill as if the sun is playing on their sinews, as if they were small harps suspended in the tress. A bird shrieks, hoarsely, flies on, shrieks elsewhere, further off—that ugly, jarring note that does not vary. But there are no birds to be seen, nor animals. It is as if they are in hiding, or have fled. Perhaps they have because the houses of Edge Hill do intrude and one can glimpse a bit of wall here or roof there, a washing line hung with sheets or a plastic gnome, finger to nose, enigmatically winking. Arun finds the hair on the back of his neck begin to prickle, as if in warning. He is sweating, and the palms of his hands are becoming puffy and damps. Why must people live in the vicinity of such benighted wilderness and become a part of it? The town may be small and have little to offer, but how passionately he prefers its post office, its shops, its dry-cleaning stores and picture framers to this creeping curtain of insidious green, these grasses stiffing with insidious life, and bushes with poisonous berries—so bright or else so pale. Nearly tripping upon a root, he stumbles and has to steady himself so as not to spill the contents of the basket. [Anita Desai, From Fasting, Feasting]
Arun “cannot plead work” and must go on a Saturday excursion with Melanie and Mrs. Patton. Clearly, there is tension in the family (i.e., Melanie has an eating disorder, and Arun knows it), but Arun goes into the “insidious” wild though he would prefer to be back in town. The passage—though only a few paragraphs—evidently was all the students needed to make grand claims about India such as the ones that follow:

Arun cannot possibly speak English. He is so incapable, Mrs. Patton must speak in simple sentences (yes, they conflated the narrator with the character) so Arun has any chance of understanding her. And when she sings “Summertime…when the living is eeh-zee,” Arun doesn’t know the word “easy” so he mishears her (this is an example of “epizeuxis,” a word not one person at the table had seen before—lots of students gave us what we would call the “tour of literary devices,” i.e., “on your left you will see alliteration, on your right you will see pathetic fallacy”). Because he cannot speak English, he doesn’t want to go on the trip. In fact, Indians like to work so much, he wants to work on Saturday (missing the subtlety that he “cannot plead work”) instead of going to the beach, an all-American day that he does not understand because he wants to work; one must remember that Indians are very studious. He wants badly to go into town; India is so crowded, Arun is afraid of having the space available to him by being outdoors. But at the same time, India is a jungle (we saw this word so many times, we actually started a pool at our table, chipping in a quarter and the next person to see it would win the pot) full of wild animals such as tigers. Arun feared being in the wilderness—he couldn’t see the birds, so he didn’t know what else was lurking in the wild. And why go outside when he can be in town where he can enjoy the air conditioning, something he would not have seen in India (many students added this air conditioning detail though the passage does not mention it) even though India is REALLY hot? One student exclaimed “He actually got sweaty!” In fact, Indians live in deserts and are afraid of “woodsy” areas. Inside Arun wouldn’t have to see birds—a scary sight since there are no birds in India. Since India is a primarily urban country, Arun would not know how to be in nature, especially when people in India don’t go on picnics. How could they go on picnics? The women would have to walk behind the men and they would trip over their veils! That is, the few women Arun would have ever seen since Indian men don’t see Indian women, women who don’t wear makeup and are more “natural” than American women. Instead of picnicking, the Indian people who are mostly Muslim spend their time worshipping cows, which Arun would certainly have wanted to do on Saturday instead of going to the beach.

I wish I were making up or exaggerating in this pastiche, but I am sad to report I am not (and I didn’t even mention the students who read Arun as a Native American on the Trail of Tears). Ultimately, many students did note his “uncomfort,” “cultural electrocution,” “discomfortableness,” and “awkwardidity,” but of concern is how angry they were with Arun for not “getting on board” and enjoying an all-American day at the beach. Of when Arun trips over a branch, one student boldly stated “Finally Arun trips, putting a cherry on top of the ice cream sundae that is his misery.” The tenor of many of the essays was that Arun should see how lucky he is to be in the United States and get over his fear of the wild. Most kids saw that he felt uncomfortable, but the general attitude was he was just a spoiled brat—as our question’s skit writers put it, Arun is a “privileged little Punjab”—who doesn’t see the glory of the west. Scariest of all were the students who read Arun as an animal himself, so out of the range of human experience they couldn’t even see that he was a boy.

Some astute students did notice he is silenced by the overbearing Mrs. Patton, that the tension between him and Melanie may have been cultural and gendered, that he feels out of place because he is an exchange student, not simply because he is an Indian out of his “comfort zone”–“a stranger in a strange land.” In the end, the question writers did the students a disservice by writing “Indian writer Anita Desai” in the prompt: this subtle othering of the writer opened the door for students to make wild and unfounded claims about India using Arun—and Desai—as their vehicle. Those students who noticed the difficulty of negotiating between cultures scored well on the question and may perhaps be exempt from their first-year composition course. The others will be sitting in my class next year, and I will do all I can to debunk their repository of generalizations about India and the rest of the world.

Even if you haven’t read the novel, what do you think of the passage above? What does it tell us about the relationship between Arun, Melanie, and Mrs. Patton, and what is the author doing with all of the strange imagery about the “benighted wilderness”?

And — would this passage by the “Indian writer, Anita Desai” lead you to comment on whether there are trees in India, whether or not there are cities, electric power, English-speakers or automobiles there?

95 thoughts on “Reading Comprehension, and the Nutty Generalizations About India it Inspired (A Guest Post)

  1. Ok, I truly screwed up comment #48, so I will try again:

    Thirdly, I believe literature is the most beautiful thing there is, and the greatest achievement of mankind. But I have generally been disappointed in english majors. I wish literature classes would be the hardest to get into, because it is so rare to find a person who can think originally about a book, or write a really good one. But that does not seem to be the case.

    I kind of regret this comment from yesterday night. The world seems so much clearer at 2 in the morning after a long day. I am sure there are many smart english majors out there. Also perhaps I am just jealous cos I never got to study lit. texts formally ;)

    That’s all folks. Jeez, I need that coffee.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I was also an AP reader this year and have been for the last 3 years–for the U.S. History exam. We have similar problems when it comes to the histories of people of color in the United States. I see it every year. What I find more shocking than the huge number of essays that articulate racist assumptions, is the fact that a lot of the faculty actually believe some of these assumptions. And I’m assuming some of it gets taught in the classroom. For instance, a couple years ago, I was assigned to a question about Spanish colonization of native people in what is now the U.S. Southwest. Many (most?) of the teachers I spoke with thought that this question was irrelevant to U.S. History and should not have been asked. I could go on and on about this, but the point is, these are, in part, ideas that are learned in the classroom. And I share Colleen’s frustration.

  3. La rebelde, thanks for contributing as another AP reader. This was my first year, which is why my shock is probably so great. I hope you enjoyed Louisville as much as I did. I know the History folks shared some really interesting “facts” they learned that week as well.

  4. MD, I think the texts present all of those issues, and a responsible teacher is going to teach students to read with a critical lens, which often means discussing those sorts of content. It is fun and challenging.

    This is the time crunch I was trying to describe. Eng Lit, even more than Language, requires discussions on the political, social, and cultural background a work is written in, and my teacher had the responsibility of covering all of that because we hadn’t been exposed to the problems in El Salvador in the 1970′s or the disenfranchisement of the aborigines in Australia before. You really can’t teach all of this in school, most of it is up to the individual. Imagine having to cover all of that in a 50-minute class, so she tried her best to give us the basics. Like Colleen said (I feel like I should call you Ms. Colleen because you were a teacher), that’s a lot to cover. So I don’t blame her at all for what she had to do. I think you’re all making a huge deal out of this. It’s just easier to generalize because if I were to expand and create a context for Arun’s behaviour it would take up more time on the hardest question, when I could spend it on the easier 3rd question.

    If a teacher in India taught that “all american women are whores” – would you accept / defend it?

    I was in an Indian school in the Middle East till seventh grade. Maybe not “american women are whores” because an Indian teacher wouldn’t go anywhere near such a subject, but I think Indian teachers in humanities are much less knowledgeable than any teacher I’ve had in public schools here. History and language are a bit of a joke in the CBSE syllabus, so I wouldn’t even bother comparing the two and the work the teachers have to do.

  5. Toyota has done more for the Japanese image in the USA than Murakami and Mishima combined.Toyota has done more for the Japanese image in the USA than Murakami and Mishima combined.

    And isn’t that sad in a way, Sakshi? :) your comment #38 seemed very unusual, and apparently, your morning-after experience confirmed that.

    A few writers are exceptions, but fiction is not the way to learn about a different place or time: non-fiction is.

    yeah, but contemporary fiction is a fantastic primary source for the era one is trying to study. second, fiction really highlights the human fall-out of events. we all know about how indian soldiers fought for the allies during the second world war, but doesn’t ondaatje’s kip character in the english patient renders that fact solid, more concrete? just the existence of such a character makes you realize what a crazy thing imperialism was and the extent of its moral and tangible toll. even treatises on human rights and international law cannot sometimes capture moral complexities and implications that fiction (books and movies too) can drive home with a light touch. statistics, records, archives, and broad narratives that populate non-fiction are indispensable, but let’s not give short shrift to kind of learning or debate that fiction provokes.

    History and language are a bit of a joke in the CBSE syllabus, so I wouldn’t even bother comparing the two and the work the teachers have to do.

    some things never change. btw, your observation sheds light on the commentator#8 arrived at his incisive analysis. nice hearing from you, lea.

  6. my initial reaction to this entry was to feel appalled about the things the kids wrote about in this essay. however, after reading the comments from the students who took the exam–it made me remember what it felt like to take an AP exam, esp the essay portions for the Lit and History exams. i know i wrote some ridiculous things in my essays…alot of it is just about writing something and getting it over with. and despite the silly (and made-up things) i wrote, i still scored highly.

    shrug

  7. I can’t imagine teaching a text and not thinking about the ways ideology works in it.

    whose ideology. the teacher’s or the authors ?

    I think you’re all making a huge deal out of this.

    na mate. we are not. It is a big deal when prejudices are fostered and encouraged in schools. Given this background, is it any wonder that Ennis has the experience (kids calling him a terrorist).

    I had asked this question earlier – could someone please put up a standard AP English curriculum in the USA and how it works.

    So I don’t blame her at all for what she had to do.

    you are a good defender :)

  8. i think this shows the arrogance and state of this nation (the last eight years specifically) that we really do not have to have any specific and correct knowledge about others in the world. It is a self-centered society that has always wondered “why would this happen to us” with a president that did not even know the Shiites and the Sunnis were different. So to expect a bunch of AP students to give sophisticated answers about cultural nuances is really asking the moon.

  9. I agree with #59. I think its unfair to demand high school students to be able grasp all the nuances of Indian society. Yeah these students are uninformed about international affairs, but lets keep in mind that they are teenagers not policymakers.

    SM readers know more about India because our parents are from India and many of us have made an effort to learn about India. How many of us can intelligently write nuanced essays on life in Brazil, the Ukraine or Australia on a moment’s notice?

  10. to clarify, yes, these students are not policymakers. But you ask students in India about the capital of Brazil or Ukraine they will know the answer. They don’t need to know all the nuances of a culture, but by 12th grade, I think it is fair to ask of our students to know world affairs. THe idea is that we should not be so inward looking and just know about our part of the neighborhood, or town, or country but care about what is happening in the world and maybe have the basic knowledge that Hinduism is the predominant religion of India.

    Most teenagers in other parts of the world read the newspaper because they do not grow up with the arrogance that they are the greatest nation in the world. Our teenagers have it ingrained that they are the best in the world and then are surprised when they get out into the job market when they lose jobs to Indians, Russians, Chinese etc. This is what I was trying to say. Thanks!

  11. 60 · JGandhi said

    SM readers know more about India because our parents are from India and many of us have made an effort to learn about India. How many of us can intelligently write nuanced essays on life in Brazil, the Ukraine or Australia on a moment’s notice?

    Considering the countless times I’ve seen ABDs making HUGE sometimes borderline offensive generalizations about countries which are not USA/Canada, and not India, I’d wager to say that no, you can not.

  12. jaya said: i think this shows the arrogance and state of this nation (the last eight years specifically) that we really do not have to have any specific and correct knowledge about others in the world.

    That’s a statement breathtaking in it’s humility.

    *I don’t think some of the comments about Americans, or non-brown Americans here at SM, sound that much different from the AP papers highlighted above.

  13. SM readers know more about India because our parents are from India and many of us have made an effort to learn about India. How many of us can intelligently write nuanced essays on life in Brazil, the Ukraine or Australia on a moment’s notice? Considering the countless times I’ve seen ABDs making HUGE sometimes borderline offensive generalizations about countries which are not USA/Canada, and not India, I’d wager to say that no, you can not.

    I only know three things about the Netherregions: 1) Mayo is a food staple 2) It’s people suffer from all kinds of podiatric complaints due to prevalence of wooden shoes 3) Young children are often employed to maintain structural integrity of dykes & earthworks.

  14. 60 · JGandhi said

    I agree with #59. I think its unfair to demand high school students to be able grasp all the nuances of Indian society. Yeah these students are uninformed about international affairs, but lets keep in mind that they are teenagers not policymakers. SM readers know more about India because our parents are from India and many of us have made an effort to learn about India. How many of us can intelligently write nuanced essays on life in Brazil, the Ukraine or Australia on a moment’s notice?

    I don’t think the test prompt was asking students to be able to grasp all the nuances of Indian society, but that they chose that route and THEN chose to write about the specific things that they did (in mass trend) is no coincidence. Say the test takers knew that this story was based in country XYZ, would the students then feel like it was ok to make the same power assessments about XYZ that they did? More than anything else in these essays, what I see is this whole colonial mentality of “poor brown savages” being enforced and probably taught in schools (at least it did in my Texas public high school). English lit classes don’t have the obligation to teach everything about every culture, but they do teach you to look for power struggles and structures between the characters. It’s naive to think that in a post 9-11 world, these condescending visions of brown folks is not deliberately being taught.

  15. I love this debate! Especially # 63′s comment “breathtaking in it’s humility” The sarcasm is not lost on me :)

    I am an Indian-American and I went to high school in this country and I took the AP English exam. My comment is not a generalization but an observation about the current state of the nation. We live in a country where a culture of anti-intellectualism is embraced, where more teenagers (white, brown, black etc) are picking up People and Glamor than Time or the New Yorker. Research has shown this.. It is cooler to know who Britney Spears is dating than to know how our representatives voted on particular issues let alone about the gross human rights violations in Darfur. So when I point out the disappointment about most AP students not knowing much about India (and i don’t care just about India btw), it truly is a heart-felt disappointment because our kids have tremendous access and resources.

  16. 43 · MD said

    Colleen, Why is it your job to teach about sexuality, gender, and race, and other sorts of ideology, in an AP English class? Is that the current fashion among teachers? Serious question, I’m not trying to be snarky. Aren’t there better places for that sort of thing to be taught? (I hear a lot of complaints from supervisor/boss types about the level of written communication of students right out of school. They have to be re-trained to communicate effectively. I, as a bad writer, have no reason to look-down, however……)

    Usually students in literature and higher level English classes must be sensitive to the history, social conditions, cultural aspects and psychological make up of characters in a story. Understanding these helps a student analyze great literature, usually. Some students in the English and Lit classes may not have the chance to take a psychology or sociology class so the English teacher may need to help the students understand these concepts.

    “Gender, race… and other sorts of ideology” usually play a big part in most, if not all, aspects of literature. Look at the complex characters and social conditions in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Othello. I remember thinking to myself in AP English (many, many decades ago) that the materials and assignments sometimes resembled a psychology class applied to fiction.

    Of course, as previous posters noted, if the teacher/instructor is misinformed, then there’s not too much hope for the students learning accurately. My husband spent 5 years in India during his childhood. One of his teachers claimed that the USSR stands for “The United States of Soviet Russia”. Another teacher in the same Indian school once said that the hemp plant comes from “a camel’s hump” and is a delicacy enjoyed by some people in the world. I wonder if that teacher smoked some hemp like plants before class. None of the students questioned the teachers for whatever reason. Luckily, my husband, even as a young elementary school student, knew better because he is a voracious reader and very well read. Still, he didn’t want to challenge the teachers. (He has some horror stories of kids getting slapped and hit etc by teachers. But that’s another subject that’s off topic!)

    I can’t get over the idea of a Muslim who would rather worship cows on a Saturday or whatever idiotic and ignorant statement that was in one of the essays! That and other comments must have provided the AP English test graders some great comic relief (or make some want to tear their hair out.) Also, the average American might not realize that India is not Iran etc, so that might be why some of the AP English students wrote mixed up and weird statements about India.

  17. 29 Tom Sawyer ha ha don’t remind me now. When I first arrived in the US of A, we had an Orientation ceremony where all the foreign students chit-chatted with their American classmates & faculty. So I was there, in the front row. So this person asks me “Son, what did you learn about America in your school ?”. Now, in India, we had one big chapter on Tom Sawyer in our English textbook. So I tried to recall some of that – “Sir, I read about Tom Sawyer and his friend Huckleberry Finn. There will be one tall nigger and he will go with them in one ferry across the Mississippi river Sir”.

    Suddenly there was pin drop silence in the room like I had set off an atom bomb. They all stared at me and then I thought maybe it was the Missouri river and not Mississippi even though I was pretty sure it was the latter.

    Then this person said “Son you should not use the word nigger in this country.” So I said “But Sir it was in the textbook.” Then there was some hushed conversation, like what sort of country will print words like nigger in English textbook meant for kids etc. One of the faculty told me, “Tom Sawyer is a racist book. Indian students should not read it.”

    I knew nothing about racism in USA at that point. I thought racism was something to do with Africa ( later on I learnt that was apartheid ). I said, “okay sir”. Then they said they will write to my school, which I found quite ridiculous since CBSE is mandated by Indian government for all cbse schools of India, so they were talking about essentially changing curriculum of all of India, because they were not ok with some word.

    That night I called my former classmate back in India and we had a big laugh over that incident. Ofcourse then I told him about some of the miracles of USA, like how if you turn left side of tap hot water will come, right side cold water will come. He didn’t believe me at all and said there must be a heater somewhere, otherwise how automatically water is how in left side, but I looked everywhere and to this day I don’t know where that heater is.

  18. KP – ROFL. Very true. It is such a shame that folks dont enjoy Tom Sawyer. I still read it for laughs.

  19. 64 · louiecypher said

    SM readers know more about India because our parents are from India and many of us have made an effort to learn about India. How many of us can intelligently write nuanced essays on life in Brazil, the Ukraine or Australia on a moment’s notice? Considering the countless times I’ve seen ABDs making HUGE sometimes borderline offensive generalizations about countries which are not USA/Canada, and not India, I’d wager to say that no, you can not.
    I only know three things about the Netherregions: 1) Mayo is a food staple 2) It’s people suffer from all kinds of podiatric complaints due to prevalence of wooden shoes 3) Young children are often employed to maintain structural integrity of dykes & earthworks.

    lol :)

    You’re still wrong about the mayonnaise though :)

  20. 66 · jaya said

    I love this debate! Especially # 63′s comment “breathtaking in it’s humility” The sarcasm is not lost on me :) I am an Indian-American and I went to high school in this country and I took the AP English exam. My comment is not a generalization but an observation about the current state of the nation. We live in a country where a culture of anti-intellectualism is embraced, where more teenagers (white, brown, black etc) are picking up People and Glamor than Time or the New Yorker. Research has shown this.. It is cooler to know who Britney Spears is dating than to know how our representatives voted on particular issues let alone about the gross human rights violations in Darfur. So when I point out the disappointment about most AP students not knowing much about India (and i don’t care just about India btw), it truly is a heart-felt disappointment because our kids have tremendous access and resources.

    Considering that TIME magazine and its ilk are rags, the teenagers would be advised not to pick them up.

    And anyway, your condescension really, really stinks. Where you really all that perfect when you were young? Do you really think that knowledge of world affairs and celebrities are mutually exclusive? Clearly your youth was a long long time ago. Everytime I hear some middle-aged person talk about ‘kids these days’ I just roll my eyes, in Plato’s time people said the same things of their youth, and they still do, it will never go away.

  21. And anyway, your condescension really, really stinks. Where you really all that perfect when you were young? Do you really think that knowledge of world affairs and celebrities are mutually exclusive? Clearly your youth was a long long time ago. Everytime I hear some middle-aged person talk about ‘kids these days’ I just roll my eyes, in Plato’s time people said the same things of their youth, and they still do, it will never go away.

    I don’t think it was all that different 15-20 years ago when I was in this age group. But back then a lack of cultural knowldge couldn’t put you in harm’s way. Misdirection from the government will mean more conflicts and eventually a draft. These kids do have a vested interest in making sure they and their parents can distinguish between an Arab and a Persian, Shiite & Sunni, and secular and religious driven components of conflict in Mideast.

    Also from an economic perspective these kids are going to be at a disadvantage. I’ve always been skeptical of the economic value of learning 2nd languages (other than English), the opportunities open to non-Chinese speakers of Mandarin will not be the same as those open to Chinese-Americans (ditto for Korean, Japanese). But people in these markets will surely resent someone who doesn’t know even the basics of their culture & history. This is more important than ever given the rise of BRIC etc

  22. Maybe, but frankly most of us are really busy with our own lives, studying, being active in student life, working etc. We don’t have the time to do in-depth studies about the conflict of Darfur(except of course if you are a History or PolSci student). And really you are young only once. Why break your head in worrying so much about world affairs when you already have it all.

  23. Draft, i.e. forced conscription into the armed services, is a distinct possibility in America if the public continues to equate 9/11 with Iraq. This equation is due to lack of geographic/cultural knowledge and basic analytical skills. Being drafted into a war pretty much destroys your youth. Indepth analysis is not required, just basic background knowledge.

    Maybe, but frankly most of us are really busy with our own lives, studying, being active in student life, working etc. We don’t have the time to do in-depth studies about the conflict of Darfur(except of course if you are a History or PolSci student). And really you are young only once. Why break your head in worrying so much about world affairs when you already have it all.
  24. “Maybe, but frankly most of us are really busy with our own lives, studying, being active in student life, working etc. We don’t have the time to do in-depth studies about the conflict of Darfur(except of course if you are a History or PolSci student). And really you are young only once. Why break your head in worrying so much about world affairs when you already have it all.”

    WOW!!! It must be so nice not have to “break your head over things”. Luck you!! And you say in am condescending??

    In the future, do your homework youngin’. I am only 28. I am not middle-aged unless of course you are 10 and consider anyone over 20 middle aged.

  25. I do not like the connotation that this is an American kids problem. These are the views that you are likely to get from students and adults all around the world. I do not even dare to think about the perception of Indian people in India about different parts of India. If you ask an Indian metro city student to write about life in the boons, you are likely to get even wierder responses. This attitude certainly is deplorable. But as one of the earlier comments(#21) pointed out, their view is their world. The important fact, is that the kids and grown ups are learning!

    I studied in India, where the essay contents were pre-prepared by the teacher or the guides. Students used to memorize it and vomit it on the answer sheet. I would hate to be teacher who dictate the essay content to the students. But the students and parents liked those teachers better!

  26. I do not like the connotation that this is an American kids problem. These are the views that you are likely to get from students and adults all around the world. I do not even dare to think about the perception of Indian people in India about different parts of India.

    I will agree that the avg American kid probably knows more than the avg Indian given the horrible education system in India. But I hope you can agree that the consequences of this ignorance are decidely more serious in a superpower like the US whose power extends far beyond its borders

  27. Hi all. I think the main point is that the question itself invited these kinds of comments. I don’t expect kids to be able to know all about India–the question didn’t ask a lick about that, but the mentioning of Desai as an Indian author seemed to open some kind of can of worms that made students feel like they needed to talk about India instead of the text in front of them. Basically, any text that comes from outside the US people feel needs to speak for that country, whereas it is not expected that a text from the US talks about ALL of the US. This is something Amardeep and I discuss pretty much every time we meet. I don’t think it is ridiculous, however, to expect kids to understand that there are birds in India or that it is not a land filled with tigers. I don’t really think that is too much to ask. And yes, it is a timed testing situation, which is all the more scary that these kinds of generalizations are what the test-takers minds went to first. Nothing in the text even supports that Arun is from India (other than his name, potentially), but students spent much of their close reading time talking about India. What this says to me is that the idea of close reading is intimidating (which I see when teaching college) and that leaping to generalizations about a boy who just couldn’t see how great the US is is just easier for them. I don’t know that finding fault is the answer; more importantly, I see something interesting and what us to ask why it is happening. And as a side note, I love that the discussion has taken a turn to talk about the ways of teaching lit–a cool twist.

  28. 75 · jaya said

    WOW!!! It must be so nice not have to “break your head over things”. Luck you!! And you say in am condescending?? In the future, do your homework youngin’. I am only 28. I am not middle-aged unless of course you are 10 and consider anyone over 20 middle aged.

    Well then, you have even less right to talk about ‘kids these days’, since you were as old as these teens a mere ten years ago. Or were you the good little girl who studied at home while her friends had fun and lived all her youth with mummy and daddy huh? Because you sure sound like it.

    It’s always the same people who point fingers at the kids having a good time. I think they only want what they couldn’t have in their youth.

  29. 78 · Colleen said

    I don’t think it is ridiculous, however, to expect kids to understand that there are birds in India or that it is not a land filled with tigers. I don’t really think that is too much to ask.

    Yeah, I found that really bizarre. I mean, what person doesn’t know that India is tropical = ergo, lush rainforests, thus plenty of trees AND birds. What kind of person thinks there are no birds or trees anywhere in the world save for the polar regions? (And even there there are birds) What do they teach them in geography class?

    Slightly late, but:

    I only know three things about the Netherregions:

    That’s a new one. Is that what they call it in the States these days? Are you trying to worsen its sleazy reputation already? What will the aunties think next? :-)

  30. Do you really think that knowledge of world affairs and celebrities are mutually exclusive? Clearly your youth was a long long time ago. Everytime I hear some middle-aged person talk about ‘kids these days’ I just roll my eyes, in Plato’s time people said the same things of their youth, and they still do, it will never go away.

    Ah, eye-rolling from a youngun who don’t know as much as she thinks…even posted as a comment, it’s annoying. Mission accomplished, I suppose.

    I think I’m going to call my parents tonight and apologize to them for my own arrogant know-it-all phase.

  31. 79 · Meena said

    75 · jaya said
    WOW!!! It must be so nice not have to “break your head over things”. Luck you!! And you say in am condescending??
    In the future, do your homework youngin’. I am only 28. I am not middle-aged unless of course you are 10 and consider anyone over 20 middle aged. Well then, you have even less right to talk about ‘kids these days’, since you were as old as these teens a mere ten years ago. Or were you the good little girl who studied at home while her friends had fun and lived all her youth with mummy and daddy huh? Because you sure sound like it. It’s always the same people who point fingers at the kids having a good time. I think they only want what they couldn’t have in their youth.

    Meena,

    I hate to say this but Jaya is right. I mean go plug a dyke or something. Your posts are Condescending. Well I have to go now I have a Windmill to fight with. I think you might want to change your name to sound more “Dutch”, you know like Marieke. By the way I’m gonna get me a little “Asian” and since we are cheap, go “dutch”.

  32. 15 · PassingBy said

    I read Clear Light of Day and was done with Anita Desai, too moody for my taste. So is her daughter, though both are very evocative writers. What do you think would happen if Indian kids are given a similar exercise using a passage from Chinua Achebe?

    When I was preparing for my ICSE exams I noticed that a number of past question papers had passages from Wilbur Smith in the comprehension section. I distinctly remember one passage about a leopard caught in a trap that bit off its own leg to escape. But 25 years since, I don’t remember if any of them asked us to infer anything about African culture. If they did, perhaps I’d have written about elephant hunts and the superiority of the bwana!

  33. 81 · Salil Maniktahla said

    Ah, eye-rolling from a youngun who don’t know as much as she thinks…even posted as a comment, it’s annoying. Mission accomplished, I suppose. I think I’m going to call my parents tonight and apologize to them for my own arrogant know-it-all phase.

    I’m hardly the one who claimed to know it all – so you’re rather misplaced by putting the blame at my feet.

    But, what were you doing when you were 21? Pray, tell.

  34. 84 · Meena said

    But, what were you doing when you were 21? Pray, tell.

    Hey, meena…I recall a couple of years ago you claimed you where 19. Now your age suddenly changes to 21. Hmmm? you must be one of those dishonest women who walk down 5th ave in high heeled shoes complaining about the social construction of the patriarchy.

  35. Btw, my peers are some of the most idealist ‘younguns’ I think to exist in a long time. I think they’re comparable to the teens in the Sixties. A lot of them are really politically involved, and also want to travel the world, rough it out, helping out in ecoprojects and orphanages along the way. I’m thinking of taking a gap year and touring Asia myself. You can say about that whatever you like. But I think the efforts of my generation, you know the one which has condescendingly been painted as one which does not care about more than celebs and fashion, are incomparable to the one before me, the infamous ’80s generation. Of which many people here, it seems, belong to.

    Btw, I think there is a miscommunication here. By ‘you’ in my original post I meant it in a general way. Otherwise I’m lost how my comment could be ‘read’ as condescending while jaya‘s was not. Perhaps because her age group and older is in the majority here?

  36. 85 · Manju said

    84 · Meena said
    But, what were you doing when you were 21? Pray, tell.
    Hey, meena…I recall a couple of years ago you claimed you where 19. Now your age suddenly changes to 21. Hmmm? you must be one of those dishonest women who walk down 5th ave in high heeled shoes complaining about the social construction of the patriarchy.

    You’re right, real, down-to-earth, imported-from-desh women don’t age :<( that’s one of their perks…

  37. 81 · Salil Maniktahla said

    I think I’m going to call my parents tonight and apologize to them for my own arrogant know-it-all phase.

    Btw, your need to apologise to your parents says more about you than about me…

  38. Btw, my peers are some of the most idealist ‘younguns’ I think to exist in a long time

    mate, every generation thinks the same. It is a rare person who is not idealistic at 21 and an even rarer person who is idealistic at 50.
    You see the world in black and white but others see several shades of gray.

    I’m thinking of taking a gap year and touring Asia myself.

    and how is this idealistic? Give thanks that you can do it. There are hundreds of millions of young people of your age who struggle for the next meal.

  39. 86 · Meena said

    Btw, my peers are some of the most idealist ‘younguns’ I think to exist in a long time. I think they’re comparable to the teens in the Sixties. A lot of them are really politically involved, and also want to travel the world, rough it out, helping out in ecoprojects and orphanages along the way.

    I’m all for travel, adventure, and active involvement in your community, but you should check out this book and this film before you hit the road. Real, meaningful change happens at the local, grassroots level–it’s not quite as sexy as a global insurrection, but it’s far more tangible.

    The counter culture is just the cutting edge of capitalism. It should come as no surprise when hippies (individualists to the extreme) wake up one morning as yuppies–that is the natural trajectory. It should come as no surprise when the most rabble-rousing anthems are appropriated by advertisers.

  40. Responding kind of late, traveling incognito. Hope you are still around.

    Toyota has done more for the Japanese image in the USA than Murakami and Mishima combined.Toyota has done more for the Japanese image in the USA than Murakami and Mishima combined. And isn’t that sad in a way, Sakshi? :) your comment #38 seemed very unusual, and apparently, your morning-after experience confirmed that.

    Yes, I guess it is kind of sad, but I am not one to argue with people’s personal preferences or value systems. Also, I only regretted my last comment about english majors: I stand by the rest.

    A few writers are exceptions, but fiction is not the way to learn about a different place or time: non-fiction is. yeah, but contemporary fiction is a fantastic primary source for the era one is trying to study. second, fiction really highlights the human fall-out of events. we all know about how indian soldiers fought for the allies during the second world war, but doesn’t ondaatje’s kip character in the english patient renders that fact solid, more concrete? just the existence of such a character makes you realize what a crazy thing imperialism was and the extent of its moral and tangible toll. even treatises on human rights and international law cannot sometimes capture moral complexities and implications that fiction (books and movies too) can drive home with a light touch. statistics, records, archives, and broad narratives that populate non-fiction are indispensable, but let’s not give short shrift to kind of learning or debate that fiction provokes.

    But how would you understand the human fallout if you do not even know the events? How would you have read The English Patient if you knew next to nothing about WW2, and had hardly met an Indian in your life? Fiction by itself is a bad primary introduction to a new country/culture.

    When I read To Kill a Mockingbird as a kid in India, I didn’t know about slavery or about segregation, or about the gruesome practice of lynching. My understanding of the book was completely different when the mob attacks the prison to capture Tom, I read it as an aberration, it came as a complete surprise: an American OTOH might be expecting something like that to happen. Similarly the wrongful accusation of rape on a black man did not have any cultural resonance for me. A little later I found Faulkner’s ‘Intruder in the Dust’, and was surprised by how similar the two stories were: I never finished Faulkner’s book for that reason. It never occurred to me, as a member of an ‘inferior’ country and culture, that something like this could be a serious problem for enlightened and modern America: my preconceptions completely warped my reading, in a way that was very forgiving of American culture. I can see how someone coming from a ‘superior’ culture could go exactly the opposite way. Now perhaps I was not the most perspicacious reader, but that is sort of the point of this post, isn’t it?

    Literature is in a sense a conversation a culture has with itself: eavesdroppers are allowed of course, but they need to figure out the context for themselves, and it is not always straightforward. I don’t think many people realize this: I have friends who believe reading a book of fiction, even one book of fiction, about a country provides them with an understanding of the country. So Reading Lolita in Tehran is the stand-in for Iran, The Kite Runner for Afghanistan, Midnight’s Children for India, and so on. I don’t think it is that simple: it took me some time after I arrived to realize I had no clue about the US. And even 3 years later now, I am not sure how much I know. However I do believe history is the place to start: fiction comes last.

  41. Isn’t fiction a complement to history? I have understood historical “fact” only by having a human or humanity based connection to it. Maybe neither works well alone…

  42. Isn’t fiction a complement to history? I have understood historical “fact” only by having a human or humanity based connection to it. Maybe neither works well alone…

    Sometimes fiction is a complement to history, but there is also fiction that does not need history. Crime and Punishment taught me next to nothing about Russia, but that is so not the point. Then there is poetry, that can make nothing happen- and that’s a good thing ;) .

    The only thing I don’t like is fiction as the supposed shortcut to a culture. It can be a complement, but it cannot stand on its own.

  43. 80 · Meena said

    78 · Colleen said
    I don’t think it is ridiculous, however, to expect kids to understand that there are birds in India or that it is not a land filled with tigers. I don’t really think that is too much to ask.
    Yeah, I found that really bizarre. I mean, what person doesn’t know that India is tropical = ergo, lush rainforests, thus plenty of trees AND birds. What kind of person thinks there are no birds or trees anywhere in the world save for the polar regions? (And even there there are birds) What do they teach them in geography class? Slightly late, but:
    I only know three things about the Netherregions:
    That’s a new one. Is that what they call it in the States these days? Are you trying to worsen its sleazy reputation already? What will the aunties think next? :-)

    Aunties are having a good time, going Dutch with nice American men. This is a great place to retire in after having worked in India. No one observes my love affairs er nether regions. Now if only u young ones didn’t make me so mad….

  44. 73 · Meena said

    Maybe, but frankly most of us are really busy with our own lives, studying, being active in student life, working etc. We don’t have the time to do in-depth studies about the conflict of Darfur(except of course if you are a History or PolSci student). And really you are young only once. Why break your head in worrying so much about world affairs when you already have it all.

    Did u get it all because of intelligent, brown parents who worked hard, who were adventurous coming to a new land with temporary papers and whose accent shames you?