Dr. Varghese Devassy Pynadath: the Man and his Legacy

G lifetime given to duty, dedication, responsibility, ethics, integrity, and love is an abbreviated version of the meticulous life of Dr. Varghese Devassy Pynadath. It is easy to imagine him chuckling at this grandiose description of himself.  He was the most unassuming of all the people I have come across in my life and the most effective in all his undertakings. Before his untimely demise, he managed to leave some indelible footprints.

As we knew him as Varghese, let us speak of him so.

Varghese was the second son of Devassy Varkey and Elizabeth (Elya Nalkara) Pynadath of Karukutty.  His mother passed away when he was a little more than three years old.  His father, brother, and he made up his family. He attended the St. Joseph’s Primary School in Karukutty and matriculated from Mar Augustine Memorial High School in Koratty.  He completed his Intermediate in Joseph’s College, Thiruchirapally, and received his BSc in Physics in 1958 from St. Albert’s College, Ernamkulam.  Both institutions were under the University of Madras in those years. His MSc in Physics was from the Sardar Vallabhai University, Anand, Gujarat.

Very soon, Varghese elected to further his studies in the US.  In 1961, he came to New York City and enrolled in Fordham University and secured his MS in Physics.  He continued his graduate work and was doing research in solid state physics at Adelphi when the field of education swam into his vision.  He was offered a Teaching Assistant’s position during his graduate work.  The rest is history.  Varghese comes from a family tradition of education.  His maternal grandfather was a schoolteacher and his brother, P. D. Ouseph, is a retired math Professor and Principal of Bharatha Matha College in Thrikkakara near Ernakulam.

City life did not hold much attraction for Varghese.  He lived at first in Bronx and later in Garden City and yearned for country life.   In 1967, he accepted a faculty position to teach Physics and Engineering Science at the fairly new Fulton-Montgomery Community College (FMCC) in Johnstown in Upstate New York. This was a career that lasted almost forty-six years, an unprecedented feat in this institution which is about to mark its half century.

In its infancy, FMCC was still conducting its classes in the old Johnstown High School building while the new campus was being built.  Varghese was the only person in the field of Physics.  This opened up several possibilities to a goal-oriented Varghese.  He was in a position to plan courses and curriculum along with designing an ultra modern laboratory.  He did just that. He was careful in managing the allotted funds for his labs and was able to upgrade them by clinical management.  The AS in Engineering Science was his to mold.  The program has lasted till his departure.

Education became Varghese’s life.  He was the quintessential educator.  One has to be a great optimist to be a student-centered educator.  Varghese believed in a systematic and unifying approach that provided students with many opportunities to improve their conceptual learning and performance in the academe.  As years went by, he continued to develop many courses that formed a firm foundation for not only Engineering Science but also for other majors, in addition to the courses for non-science majors.  He believed in science literacy for all.  Along with the three physics courses, he taught Mechanics (Statics and Dynamics), Electric Circuits, Materials Science, Science, Technology & Society, and Environmental Physics. He adjusted his lessons for the changes taking place among the student milieu.  Even when he could have taught upper level courses, he chose to teach the incoming freshmen in order to provide them with a solid foundation for further college courses.  But, he never sacrificed the high standards he maintained and was insistent on academic integrity. Some of the students rating their professors acknowledged that he may be hard, but one learned more in his classes and he was always available if help was needed.

Varghese was interested in interdisciplinary courses and integrated learning.  So, he developed courses like “Science, Technology & Society” and “Environmental Physics” especially for those who suffered great anxiety about science and technology.  He believed that students deserved to be comfortable with these subjects which have become essential to their lives in the modern age.

In his new field of education, Varghese recognized the use of computers in classrooms.  To enhance his techniques, in 1971, he attended the summer institute at the Illinois Institute of Technology to augment his teaching and the efficacy of his labs.  He did not waste his opportunities and made sure that he practiced the new knowledge he acquired by including at least one computer programming language, FORTRAN, as a required course in those early days.

Varghese’s efforts in the academic world were acknowledged when, in 1979, he received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. He became a full Professor of Physics and Engineering and continued his professorial duties till 1985.  In addition to teaching, he served in many committees and leadership positions.  He was the Advisor for International Students and had many international dinners held at the college and at home.  He tried to invite as many people as possible for these dinners.  It was important for him that the college kept a meticulous standard and maintained precise academic policies.  He served as the Chairman of the Academic Standards Committee for almost ten years.  A lot of the current policies at FMCC came into effect in those years.  For example, students were weaving in and out of courses willy-nilly without any repercussions.   He worked towards crafting a clear, but definitive policy towards withdrawing from and dropping courses and the step-by-step academic and financial liabilities involved.

Varghese, eventually, came to realize that,  in order to transform FMCC effectively, he had  to be in a position of authority.  With that thought in mind, he had already garnered a PhD in college administration from the University of Sarasota in 1971. His dissertation was titled, The Present Status and Future of Physics at Public Two Year Colleges.  He accepted the position of FMCC’s Dean of Arts and Sciences in 1985 and continued till 1996 when he resumed the position of Professor and went back to his first love of teaching.

Varghese believed that the community colleges will serve the students better if their degrees are transferrable to the four year colleges or universities, without losing credits, and if they can continue their education in the Junior level.  Until this period, FMCC did not emphasize the transferability of their courses.   He believed in the concept of a community college as an institution that opens up doors for those who were hitherto unable to obtain higher education degrees.  He perceived the community college as an affordable transfer institute to four year colleges and universities. He spent his years as Dean to communicate with other colleges and maintained dialogues with other college administrators.  He reached agreements with these colleges to accept students with the AS or AA degrees from FMCC to Junior levels without dropping any FMCC-acquired credits.  This saved the students from disputes about the acceptability of their courses.  FMCC’s desirability and esteem rose with this action.  According to the then Vice President of the college, Dr. Robert Kucek, Varghese tripled the academic programs at the college.  Some of the degree programs were the Mathematics A.S., Science A.S., and the Health, Physical Education, & Recreation A.S. and the one year programs were the Early Child A.A.S. and Human Services A.A.S., to name a few.  He was helpful in developing the college’s Television Studio and the number of courses which led to today’s Media Communications Program.

This was also the period when Varghese focused on programs to encourage girls into choosing science and math in their careers to counter some existing gender prejudices.  He received a grant to provide annual summer program for girls selected from area high schools to attend FMCC and receive math and science college credits which were transferable even to out of state institutions.  To make it easier for underage students to access the FMCC campus, the students from the two sponsoring counties were provided with transportation . The program lasted for some years.

While the academic programs were being looked after, Varghese did not forget the other duties of an administrator. In 1989, he chaired the Steering Committee for FMCC’s 25th Anniversary Celebration.  He also chaired the Middle States Steering Committee for accreditation twice in his career.  He took all the responsibility for organizing the materials in accordance with the official directives so that the process will be seamless when finally presented.  Most of his free time was dedicated for this effort even at the expense of his physical comfort.

When Varghese went back to teaching, he realized, to his dismay, that his eleven years away from classroom was long enough for changes in attitudes and academic preparedness among the new students.  But, he was ready.  He learned that the current students needed more precise instructions. He kept up with the times and upgraded his labs.  He introduced the software MATLAB to the laboratory experiments and the students were getting ready for the 21st century.  The Clean Room Technology and the nanotechnology became part of FMCC’s curricula and he was an active participant.  He never spared efforts in improving his instructional material.  Every year, he spent a great deal of his time in retooling his lessons.  He developed learning strategies for students, very clearly delineated in his website.  In all the years he had been teaching, he never repeated his tests.He came to the classroom ten minutes before the session started and wrote on the board the salient information the students should have reviewed before the class.  If anyone took the time to come early, they would be preparing for the next lecture.  His labs were times for inductive reasoning.  The data had to be presented to him by the lab partners and he would quiz them on what they learned from the empirical results.  Only if he was satisfied by their understanding would he accept the data and give his signature of approval. Only the instructor-signed data would be allowed to accompany the lab report for grade.  Thus, he managed to maintain academic integrity in the lab by pruning away the opportunities for copying data from other students.  Any student who was willing to put in the time and attend his classes had every opportunity to get a good grade.  I know this because I was mandated to take two semesters of Physics for my Computer Science degree.  It is interesting to note that, if I needed any help or to receive my final exam paper, I had to meet him at the office like any other student.  There was no special treatment for a family member!

The engineering students from FMCC were sought after by colleges like RPI and Union.  The transfer rate for his students was hundred percent.   The students transferred not only to all New York colleges and universities, but also to institutions in other states like Florida, California, Arizona, Colorado, etc. One even transferred to Harvard.  His students could be from any of the local schools including some Valedictorians or international students from Japan, the Middle East, Russia, Bulgaria, or some other European, Asian, or South American country.  Varghese wished not only for good grades for his students, but also the understanding  of what they were exposed to learn and happiness in their chosen fields.  Many of them came back to tell him of their successes and he came home with the joy he experienced in seeing them flourish.  Many ended in high positions after furthering their education in other institutions. Not being one to toot his horn, he did not keep a log of those successes.

As an academician and professional, Varghese kept up with other professionals and trends. He maintained memberships in American Physics Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association of Physics Teachers, American Physical Society, National Science Teachers Association, and the New York State Association of Two Year College Physics Teachers.  He published articles and abstracts in the The Journal of College Science TeachingThe Journal of Two Year College Physics, and The Physics Teacher, many pertaining to new methods and techniques.  He attended AAPT, APS, and the Association of Two Year College conferences and presented papers on diverse subjects like the practical success in the Use of Berkeley Physics at his labs, “The Consistent use of symbols in Introductory Physics”, Heat Transfer experiments, “The Trends in Physics Education in a Two Year College”, and the introduction of the interdisciplinary courses such as Science, Technology, and Society  and “Environmental Physics”(to name a few).

While the student interests were being nurtured, Varghese did not forget to try to strengthen the institution he served so assiduously.  He chaired committees for not only   the academic standards and assessments, but also for the future projects for science and technology.   His latest was the Engineering Technology Plus Project.  This was the result of an NSF grant to Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES for TEPP (Technological Education Pathways Partnership) to work in conjunction with FMCC.  The planning itself was of three year duration and he chose to retire after its completion.  The paper work for this project was enormous and the time involved was immeasurable.  Since the present emphasis is on a P – 16 vertical alignment in curriculum, it became imperative to establish a career pathway for technicians that started in the 11th  and 12th grade levels to carry through the two years at FMCC.  This project was his last footprint.

Varghese was a family man.  After his first year at FMCC, he went to India and, on August 21, 1968, we were married.  I was the fifth daughter of Prof. V. M. Joseph and Elizabeth (both of Vadakkethala family, Kandassankadavu).  I had just completed my MA in English Language and Literature (Vimala College, Thrissur) from Kerala University and had just been hired as a Lecturer at Vimala College.  It was the beginning of a married life of forty-four and a half years.  We have two sons, David and Joseph, and a daughter, Elizabeth.  Varghese instilled in his children the sense of the value of education, responsibility, and independence.  They had the option to choose the field of study and the institution of study.  It was up to them to secure the admission and he supported them throughout their studies.  As a parent, he considered education as the best gift he can bestow on his children.    The oldest, Dr. David V Pynadath, is a Research Scientist at the Institute of Creative Technologies (associated with USC) in California and does his research in Artificial Intelligence.  He has Bachelor’s degrees in both Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT and MS and PhD in Computer Science from the University of Michigan. Joseph attended Boston University and has a BS in Mechanical Engineering.  He enrolled in George Washington University for his graduate studies. He worked at INTEL, Mercury Interactive, Hewlett-Packard, and VMware and progressed from Process Engineer to Vice President.  He is married to the former Jackie Walsh and has two sons, Joshua Joseph and Jason Joseph. Joshua is playing soccer with Real Madrid’s Alevin A team for the coming year and the family has moved to Madrid. Our daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Serena Bentley, attended Cornell University, LeHigh and the University of Buffalo to secure BS, MS, and PhD in Electrical Engineering respectively and is a Research Engineer at the Air Force Research Lab at Rome, NY.  She is married to Robert Bentley and has three children, Eliana Rose, Aliyah Marie, and Elijah Davis. To Varghese, his children and grandchildren provided a great sense of joy and pride.  His familial love was deep and unconditional.

Loyalty to his family and friends was an elemental part of Varghese.  He cultivated a few friends and he held them dear.  Honesty and integrity played a role in his relations with his family and friends just as they did in his professional life.
Varghese was socially conscious and placed great importance on his community.  He believed that we should give always something back to the community we belonged to whether it is geographical or cultural.  He tried to shop locally as much as possible.  He donated to charitable organizations such as the Habitat for Humanity, March of Dimes, the Jeevan Fund, etc and WMHT.  He gave financial assistance to the Johnstown Public Library and was very generous to the Fulton County YMCA and FMCC Foundation.   He supported these organizations and institutions because they strove for the common good of the people.  He did not stop at financial assistance to community organizations. In the 70’s when Gloversville’s Bishop Burke Catholic High School was at the point of giving up, he tried to pump some blood into this institution by volunteering his time to teach physics.  He did it for one year, but the end was in sight for that school.  He served as the President of the Literacy Volunteers of America of Fulton County for two terms.  He was a member of the Capital District Malayalee Association and was active at the inception and coordinating of the Jeevan Fund and was a member in its seminal Board.  If weather permitted, he always attended the cultural activities.  He enjoyed his time with his Malayalee friends at these functions and at the India Bazaar.  He was also a member of the TRICIA.
Varghese had a great sense of humor and could have been a stand-up comedian.  At retirement gatherings, his speeches sent the audience to roll in the aisles. I was slow in catching his dry sense of humor and it gave him extra pleasure to see how long it took me to appreciate his wit.  He enjoyed music and the whole house was gently resonating with music.  His musical tastes were eclectic.  They ranged from Gregorian Chants to Bhajans and from Malayalam movie songs to Beetles.  He enjoyed programs at Proctors and the SPAC and derived great pleasure from musical programs, ballets, and performances of Shakespeare and Company and such.  He preferred light musicals and comedies.  James Bond movies were always welcomed.  He had no interest in TV, but listened to the radio news broadcasts and music. He read avidly from a range of publications spanning from scientific journals and news magazines to ‘The Evangelist’. He was good with plants and was proud of his ‘green thumb’. He loved flowers, especially roses.  When the roses were in bloom, he used to point them out to me and teased, “I never promised you a rose garden, yet here it is”.

Varghese was very neat and tidy.  He took care in organizing everything.  All his paperwork and documents are neatly labeled and filed.  His closets and dresser drawers were organized.  He did not have to search for anything.  They were exactly where he placed them.   He was punctilious and meticulous.  He took care to dress with decorum and taste.  In college, he was known as the best dressed Faculty member.  He always followed strict diets and exercises and always followed the doctors’ orders.

I only recounted what I knew before Varghese’ demise.  It was gratifying to find out more and more about the impact of his influence even after his passing.  I encountered people who spoke about the students whom he trained and who had taken important roles in the new industries and high tech companies like the Global Foundry moving into the area.  Someone I recently met  spoke about how Varghese made the effort to find out about the skills these companies were seeking and made his students well prepared for the new challenges.  Johnstown High School has ventured into a new phase following his strictures for energizing students towards careers with their  “Learning Center” at the former Jansen Avenue School building.

It is very hard to find words to narrate a lifetime spent in service and a person full of complexities.   He never wasted his time, bust was industrious to the core.  He was grading papers even before the ambulance was called.  Everyone saw only a very small portion of Varghese.  There was no pomposity in Varghese.  He was not concerned that people forgot to add ‘Dr.’ in front of his name.  He did not see the need to push himself forward for public notice.  He was what he was.  His thoughts were his own and he shared them when it was necessary.  He did not wish harm to anyone, but was righteous in his dealings.  He epitomized honor and dignity.  In the tribute paid by his colleagues, what became crystal clear was his kindness and geniality.  His passing away on  February 25, 2013 was sudden.  The Trustees of FMCC posthumously awarded him the Professor Emeritus status in honor of his service.  The copious tributes paid to him by co workers, administrators, and students were heartwarming and often tender.  It is appropriate that his epitaph is, “The righteous shall go into eternal life”, Matthew 25:46.  He has left a void, but love and respect for him remain.

Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar   (14 April 1891 – 6 December 1956): The Architect of India’s Constitution

There are very few people in the world who could go against established norms and come out victorious.  Dr, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is one of the rare exceptions.  Known popularly as Babasaheb, Ambedkar fought hard and worked industriously as a social reformer, jurist, economist and political activist.  Champion for the rights of the untouchables  and other minorities and the architect of independent India’s Constitution, Ambedkar should have a prominent position in any studies dealing with the history of India.

The fourteenth child of parents of the Mahar caste, Ambedkar was born on April 14, 1891 in the military cantonment town of Mhow in the Central Provinces (today in Madhya Pradesh) to Subhedar Ramji Maloji Sakpal and Bhimabai Murbadkar Sakpal.  His family was of Marathi origin, hailing from Ambavade in the Ratnagiri District in modern-day Maharashtra.  Even though they are from the poor ‘untouchable’ caste, his ancestors had traditionally worked for the British army. This enabled him to attend the British Army School even though, to avoid repercussions, the students were segregated by caste.  Often, the lower castes had to attend class from outside the classroom in order not to contaminate the Brahmins and other higher caste students inside the class.  They had to bring gunny sacks to sit on and had to take them back home every day.  The lower caste students were banned from getting water themselves.  It had to be poured for them by a higher caste individual and they had to hide their mouths while drinking.  In Ambedkar’s time, it was the peon who poured the water for them.  Later in his writings, Ambedkar wrote, “No peon, no water”.  Even in a British government- run school, these discriminations were common place.  Two years after his father’s retirement, the family moved to Satara in 1896.   His mother’s death followed.  Ambedkar attended the local school.  But the experience in the previous school continued.

The motherless children were cared for by a paternal aunt. Life was difficult for the Ambavadekar  children.  Of his surviving three brothers and two sisters, only Ambedkar passed the exams and graduated to high school.  His last name was changed in school records from Ambavadekar that indicated his village to Ambedkar by a Brahmin teacher, Mahadev Ambedkar, who was fond of this brilliant student.

Ambedkar’s family moved to the then Bombay in 1907. He enrolled in the Elphinstone High School.  He was the only ‘untouchable’ in the school.  His home was in the poorest of poor section.  The whole house consisted of one room.  He woke up after his father went to bed and studied in the light of an open kerosene lamp.  In school, he suffered a great deprivation.  He was denied the learning of Sanskrit because he was from the ‘untouchable’ caste.  He felt very bitter about this, but he learned Sanskrit later in life.

When he was fifteen years old, his marriage to the nine-year old Ramabai was arranged.

In 1907, Ambedkar was the first untouchable to complete his matriculation and enter Elphinstone College which was affiliated to the Bombay University.  He had been quite successful in his examinations.  This was a special occasion for the lower castes and they celebrated.  From the author and family friend, Dada Keluskar, he received a biography of Buddha.  Maybe there was something prophetic in that gesture.  In 1912, he received his degree from the Bombay University, majoring in Political Science and Economics.  He was prepared to take up a job with the Baroda state government.  His wife was fifteen then and he moved his young family to Baroda and began his work.  He was called back to Bombay because his father was ailing.  His father died subsequently in 1913.

Ambedkar secured a scholarship of 11.50 sterling pounds a month for three years under a scheme to provide graduate studies at the Columbia University in New York, set up by Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda.  He was only twenty-two years old and he moved to the USA in 1913. He settled in the Livingston Hall and made a lifelong friend of Naval Bathena, a Parsi..  He secured his first MA in Economics in 1915,  In India, he had added English and Persian languages to strengthen the base of his knowledge.  In USA, his studies included ethics, history, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology.  His thesis was titled, Ancient Indian Commerce.  He was greatly influenced by John Dewey and his views on democracy and understood the extent of the injustice perpetrated in the name of Hindu caste system.  For another MA, his second thesis was titled, National Dividend of India-A Historic and Analytical Study.  Soon, he left for London.

In 1916,  he had enrolled at the Gray’s Inn to qualify to be a barrister. He, simultaneously, enrolled in the London School of Economics for a doctorate.  But, his scholarship had ended and he had to return to India.  With a promise to complete his dissertation within four years, he left in 1917 shipping his large collection of books.  But, the ship was torpedoed by Germans and he lost his cherished collection.

Since he was educated by the Princely Sate of Baroda, Dr. Ambedkar owed his time to the state.  He took up the position as the Military Secretary to the King of Baroda.  More discrimination followed because of his caste despite his eminent learning.  Even non-Hindus and servants showed no respect.  He quit this position.  He described the incident in his autobiography as “Waiting for Visa”.  He tried to earn a living to support his family by working as a private tutor, as an accountant, and by establishing an investment consulting business. But it failed because some clients objected to have dealings with an untouchable.

With the help of the former Bombay Governor, Dr. Ambedkar received the post of Professor of Political Economy at the Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics in Bombay.  Although successful with his students, some professors objected to his serving of water from the same jug.  In 1920, he left for London to complete his higher studies at his own expense. In 1921, he earned his MA and completed his D.Sc in Economics in 1923. His research was on the problem of rupee, its origin and its solution.  He also became a barrister in Gray’s Inn in the same year.  He spent a few months in the University of Bonn studying economics.  He received his PhD from Columbia on June 8, 1927 after he read his dissertation, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development before a seminar.

On Ambedkar’s part , returning to India was the beginning for a lot of ideological moves focused on the current social establishments and cultural interpretations of inequity, which were dividing India. In 1918,  he was invited to testify before the Southborough Committee which was preparing the Government of India Act of 1919.  He argued in favor of establishing separate electorates and reservations for the oppressed classes of the time: the untouchables and other minorities such as Christians.

Dr. Ambedkar looked for ways of reaching the minorities or ‘dalit’s as the untouchables are known in Indian parlance. He wished to provide a voice for this silent strata of society and, in 1920,  started the publication of a weekly titled Mook Nayak( the leader of the silent). The Maharaja of Kohlapur, Shahaji II, supported him. The Maharaja, after listening to his speech, took time to dine with him and created a social and political upheaval.  This was also the time when Dr. Ambedkar was vigorously practicing law in Bombay High Court.  He defended three non-Brahmins who accused the Brahmin community of destroying India.  Both the barrister and  clients experienced vindication and personal and individual victories.

Words were not enough for Dr. Ambedkar.  While his legal profession continued to function, he became very active in promoting education for the untouchables.  His first effort in this direction resulted in the establishment of a central institution, Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha.  Its function was to promote education, socio-economic development and welfare of the depressed classes.  This was also the time for the birth of more periodicals like Bahishkrit Barath  and Equality Janta in order to promote the ‘dalit’ rights.

In 1925, Dr. Ambedkar was appointed to the Presidency Committee to work with the all European Simon Commission which was set up to look into the constitutional reforms in India. There was nationwide protest against the Commission and its report was mostly ignored, but he had already construed what was needed in a constitution for India.

In 1927, actions instead of words gained foremost importance. Civil disobedience has already caught the imagination of the nation.   Movements against untouchability was called for.  The first of these was the march to open up public drinking water.  The Satyagraha in Mahad  at the Chowdar Tank was an active protest to let the untouchables draw water from the town water tank.  The Bombay Legislature had already passed a bill allowing open access to water and the Mahad Municipality had decreed that even untouchables can take water from the tank; but till that day, no one had dared to do it because even going near the tank had been forbidden to these people.  As planned, Dr. Ambedkar went to the tank and touched the water and others followed.  But after a couple of hours, someone spread a rumor that the untouchables were going to enter the Veereshwara temple.  The traditionalists took physical action and beat up the Satyagraha participants and even Dr. Ambedkar was wounded in this violent episode.  But the incident brought social awareness to many Hindus who decided that denying water to anyone because of their castes was not right.

In a Conference in 1927, in public, Dr. Ambedkar condemned Manusmriti (The code of Manu) which was justifying the authority of the caste system. On December 25, 1927, in the presence of multitudes, he conducted a ceremony for burning the ancient texts.  Twenty-fifth of December came to be known as the Manusmriti Dahan Din (Manusmriti Burning Day).  Another bone of contention was the denial of entry into the temples for the ‘dalits’.  In 1930, after three months of preparation, he marched to Kalaram Temple in Nashik.  He was accompanied by fifteen thousand followers and with great fanfare, he marched to the temple.  When the procession reached the temple, the gates were already closed by the Brahmin authorities.

In 1932, Dr. Ambedkar’s demand for separate electorates was recognized by the British government which allowed separate electorates for the depressed classes.  By now, he had become the most prominent champions of the untouchables. Gandhi objected vehemently, his reason being that it would divide the Hindu community.  Eventually, while Gandhi was fasting in the jail, a meeting was arranged and the result was the Poona Pact which was reached on September 25 and was signed by various representatives including  Dr. Ambedkar representing the untouchables and tribals.   In 1935 and 1950, the term for the ‘depressed classes’ was changed to ‘scheduled castes and scheduled tribes’.

Dr. Ambedkar was never far from being an academic.  In 1935, he was appointed as the Principal of Government Law College and stayed there for two years.  He was also the Chairman of the governing body of Ramjas College in Delhi.  He settled in Bombay and housed his personal collection of 500,000 books.  Meanwhile, he suffered the loss of his wife owing to prolonged illness.  He had already lost his sons in their infancy.

Even those who condemned untouchability, did not see the need for equality for them.  He found neither Gandhi nor some leaders of Congress supporting the minorities and the untouchables. He lost faith in the religion he was born into and declared publicly his intention not to remain in it.  He was searching for a religion which will provide him equality when he accepted it.

Political activities of Dr. Ambedkar had become more pronounced.  He established the Independent Labor Party in 1936. It won fifteen seats in the 1937 elections to the General Legislative Assembly.  He also published the book, The Annihilation of Caste.  In it, he was very strong in his condemnation of religion and caste system.  The book was a roaring success.  He was against the term “Harijan” (God’s People) for the untouchables.  He considered it to be discriminatory and blasted the hypocrisy of Gandhi and Congress.  In his work, Who were the Shudra?,  he rejected the Aryan invasion theory of Max Müller.  He preferred the interpretation of Sayanacharya who read ‘an-asa’ instead of ‘anasa’ from Rig Veda, the differences between the Aryans and Shudras being more to do with the speech than in racial differences like a flat nose.    His scholarship and leadership earned him the position of Minister of Labor in the Defense Advisory Committee and the Viceroy’s Executive Council.

Dr. Ambedkar oversaw the morphing of his party into The Scheduled Castes Federation.  Before Independence, in the 1946 election for the Constituent Assembly, its performance was poor.  But, he was elected later in Bengal where Muslim League was extra powerful.  In 1952, he contested in Bombay, and lost to his former assistant.  He became a member of Rajya Sabha, the upper house. He tried again to enter Lok Sabha in 1954 and was only placed third.  Before the next general election in 1957, he was no more.

The intellect and deep knowledge base of Dr. Ambedkar made him the ideal choice for the position of the first Law Minister of Independent India.    On November 29, 1947, he was appointed the Chairman for the Constitution Drafting Committee.  To all practical purposes, he was the main architect of the Indian Constitution.  It was socially revolutionizing and  provided constitutional guarantees and protection for individual civil liberties and rights like freedom of religion, women’s social rights for marriage and inheritance  and it outlawed all discriminatory practices however ancient they were. He tried to introduce a uniform civil code and strove for a virtual bridge between classes.  So he interjected affirmative action such as equal opportunity for education and job reservation for the scheduled castes and tribes.  The Constitution was adopted on November 26, 1949.  He resigned from the parliament when it stalled on the Hindu Code of Law he had introduced with the purpose of equal social and civic rights.  Equality without prejudice of gender, race, and caste was what he was aiming for.

With his farsighted legal mind, Dr. Ambedkar  opposed Article 370 that gave special status to Kashmir. He pointed out the contradiction where Kashmir got equal status with India while the Indian government had only limited power and the Indian people had no rights in that region. We still experience the contention that remains as the result. It was a politically maneuvered choice.

As the first Indian  who secured a doctorate in economics abroad, Dr. Ambedkar’s standing as an eminent economist was unquestionable.  Industrial development and agricultural growth were his watchwords in enhancing Indian economy.  In 1951, he established the Finance Commission of India.  He stressed public health,  public hygiene, education, and residential facilities.  He advocated social developments to achieve economic growth.  The Reserve Bank of India was based on his ideas.

Health became a big concern for Dr. Ambedkar..  He suffered from diabetes from 1948 and he had been taking insulin.  He suffered from neuropathic pain in his legs and lack of sleep.  He went to Bombay for treatment and met Dr. Sharada Kabir, a Brahmin.  He married her in New Delhi on April 15, 1948.  She took the name, Dr. Savita Ambedkar.

Not to continue as a Hindu became very important.  Dr. Ambedkar was a seeker of knowledge and he studied about several religions.  He had been studying Buddhism all his life and ultimately chose to convert to Buddhism.  On October 14, 1956, in a public ceremony in Nagpur, he accepted the Three Refuges and Five Precepts from a Buddhist monk and converted along with his wifeHe then proceeded to convert the 500,000 followers who were present at the ceremony.

The political issues took a toll on Dr.Ambedkar.  His eyesight had been deteriorating and his passion for reading could not be sated.  Side effects of medications had plagued him and, since June to October, 1954, he had been bedridden.  Yet, he continued his efforts and writing.  Three days after he completed his book, Buddha and His Dharma, he passed away in his sleep on December 6, 1956 at his home in New Delhi.  He was given a Buddhist style cremation on the next day and half a million people attended.  He was survived by his wife and son Yashwant. A coneversion ceremony was organized for December 16 so that the cremation attendees had the opportunity for converting to Buddhism.  He was awarded posthumously the Bharath Ratna, the highest civilian order, in 1990.  He had also received honoray degrees before his death: his third and fourth Doctorates (LL.D, Columbia, 1952 and D.Litt., Osmania, 1953).  His birthdate is the public holiday Ambedkar Jayanthi.

Here was a man who was a mover and shaker.  Dr. Ambedkar rose above his circumstances and outdistanced everyone.  He made maximum use of his educational opportunities and was tireless in his studies and in his efforts for social and political reforms.  His thirst for learning was phenomenal and he used his knowledge for persuasive arguments to establish the legitimacy of his reasoning.  A voracious reader, he was also a prolific writer.  He was voted the “Greatest Indian” in a 2012 poll organized by History TV18 and CNN IBN and in which nearly 20 million votes were cast. During his 2010 visit to the Indian Parliament, President Obama extolled Dr. Ambedkar as the greatest human rights champion.  He was erudite, daring, articulate, and compassionate.  Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen claimed that Dr. Ambedkar was the father of his economics.

It was Dr. Ambedkar’s compassion towards human beings who were deprived of the basic rights of their existence that drove him to his ventures into the social, political, civil, and political arenas to fight tirelessly.  He made things happen.  When he visited Aurangabad, he was appalled at the lack of greenery around the college.  He did not hesitate to demand that anyone who wished to visit him to bring a sapling.  Hundred saplings appeared and he himself took a pick-axe and prepared the ground.  His message to his followers and to everyone else is, “Educate, Organize, Agitate”.

Works by Dr. Ambedkar:  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B._R._Ambedkar)

The Education Department, Government of Maharashtra (Mumbai) published the collection of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches in different volumes.

  • Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Developmentand 11 Other Essays
  • Ambedkar in the Bombay Legislature, with the Simon Commission and at the Round Table Conferences, 1927–1939
  • Philosophy of Hinduism; India and the Pre-requisites of Communism; Revolution and Counter-revolution; Buddha or Karl Marx
  • Riddles in Hinduism[132]
  • Essays on Untouchables and Untouchability
  • The Evolution of Provincial Finance in British India
  • Who Were the Shudras?
  • The Untouchables Who Were They And Why They Became Untouchables ?
  • The Annihilation of Caste(1936)
  • Pakistan or the Partition of India
  • What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables; Mr. Gandhi and the Emancipation of the Untouchables
  • Ambedkar as member of the Governor General’s Executive Council, 1942–46
  • The Buddha and his Dhamma
  • Unpublished Writings; Ancient Indian Commerce; Notes on laws;Waiting for a Visa ; Miscellaneous notes, etc.
  • Ambedkar as the principal architect of the Constitution of India
  • (2 parts) Dr. Ambedkar and The Hindu Code Bill
  • Ambedkar as Free India’s First Law Minister and Member of Opposition in Indian Parliament(1947–1956)
  • The Pali Grammar
  • Ambedkar and his Egalitarian Revolution – Struggle for Human Rights. Events starting from March 1927 to 17 November 1956 in the chronological order; Ambedkar and his Egalitarian Revolution – Socio-political and religious activities. Events starting from November 1929 to 8 May 1956 in the chronological order; Ambedkar and his Egalitarian Revolution – Speeches. (Events starting from 1 January to 20 November 1956 in the chronological order.)
  • Ambedkar’s Speeches and writing in Marathi
  • Ambedkar’s Photo Album and Correspondence

Indebted to:




Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Interview-1955 – YouTube


Classroom Vagaries and Administrative Onus

We always believed that learning took place in the classroom. But does it?

To me, education focuses on the mental, personal, intellectual, social, and cultural development of the young. When  graduating students come out of the educational institutions with lifelong skills which often lead them to careers that will help to achieve the living standards of their futures.  But, that involves a lot of aspects which are not assessed by the standardized, multiple choice tests of today. These tests are supposedly capable of determining whether the students have completed their learning!

Are today’s classrooms ready for this?

Even though I am retired, I enjoy being in a real classroom and the only available venue is substitute teaching.  My academic preparation is for higher education, but I have found great enjoyment in going to the upper elementary school classes.  The students are old enough to take care of themselves and young enough to be full of curiosity and readiness to venture into the various aspects of learning.  I let them know that it is a pleasure for me to come to their classes and that I like learning for sheer pleasure..

There is joy in teaching when one is not fettered by spurious regulations.  It is exciting to watch the young minds open up to the new learning served  up to them.  There are many teachers who go through these rewarding experiences.  But, I also notice the drastic changes taking place in the classrooms.  I see some new teachers and some old caught up in the plethora of testing and missing the focus on what their true roles are.

I had the misfortune to go to a classroom in the high school.  I did not know the teacher and the the subjects were some subdivisions of math.  The classes were of low level, possibly the result of some tracking.  I was appalled at the practices in the room.  Students did not change their group work seats for test taking.  Right away I could see that the integrity of the test was compromised. When I saw their answers in the tests I collected, the poor state of their learning became painfully apparent.   Most of them did not know that they had to add an angle sign when they named an angle and they could not identify the side of the triangle with two vertices or, in common language, with two points.  They appeared not to know the very rudimentary facts that a single letter indicates a point and two points define a line.   The inadequacy of the classroom was shocking and I wondered whether the principal or the department coordinator supervised these classes. The integrity of the assessment and the integrity of the content were thoroughly compromised.

To add to to the pandemonium in the classrooms, some technology advocates have converged on a popular device: the cell phone. Educational conferences are imbued with the discord about the applicability of these mobile devices in their capacity to reach  information with  fingertips.  But, do these advocates realize what truly happens in a classroom?  They will blame the teachers for the failure of these policies.  But, what I saw was disheartening.  The students claim that they are using cell phones as calculators and it is a permissible practice.  Did it occur to anyone that they may be used to text the answers?  How many teachers can monitor the use of cell phones in the classroom? The students have the dexterity to use their fingers without looking at the devices.  I have seen some students texting under the desks, inside their bags, and inside their pockets.  None is so omniscient that they know to whom the students are communicating with and about what. Evaluations are unreliable if cell phones are allowed during tests. Irresponsible parents are texting to their children while they are in scheduled classes.  The distractions of all these external communications are wreaking havoc in the classroom and it is hard for a teacher to introduce subjects in a classroom when they have no support from the administrators about the most distracting device to date.  Finally, many give in and stop fighting the battles without any victory in sight.

When I hear the clamor against tenure, I always place the blame at the school administrators’ doors.  If they had done their jobs with integrity and professionalism, they would have been monitoring the teachers and documenting the results.  It is time consuming, but vital. It is important to hire teachers who have a mastery of the subject they are going to teach. Tenure should be given to only those who deserve them. It is understandable that the new teacher may not be at the top of the form.  That is why it is imperative to observe the teacher and offer useful suggestions to encourage the good practices and correct the flaws to improve classroom education.  Only if there are concerted efforts to improve should any person with flawed teaching practices be allowed to continue in the district.  The administrators should collect sufficient proof  to retain the new teacher or not.  Even tenured teachers should be observed periodically to ensure that quality is maintained. That means that the administrators should get out of their offices and be actively involved in the process of education in their buildings. They are the leaders of education in their districts and it is up to them to take up the onus of  leadership and make the difference. It is up to them to hold up academic standards and academic policies conducive to learning. We need educators as administrators in school districts,, not simple officeholders in name only.


Shortfalls of US Education

My Comment:
NYTimes EDITORIAL, Dec 17, 2013

Why Other Countries Teach Better – Why Students Do Better Overseas


What is shocking in the filed of education in the United States is the shortsightedness. There is the hue and cry about the fall of education and some quick fixes are soon brought in. Soon greed takes over and profit making companies step into the arena with products to fix the “wrongs” in education. For example, districts are paying out a great deal of money to the Pearson Group for their Common Core Modules, their tests, and their software like “Successmaker”. But, any educator can see that the modules are slipshod and the tests are not addressing what was learned. It becomes evident that these supporting materials were not prepared by experienced educators and the final products are shoddy and sloppy. The Gates Foundation monies are available for these and districts are eager to embrace them looking for the dangling money. But the local school boards do not take the voices of their own educators into considerations in their decision making.

Continue reading

Test Scores and Education – a comment

Comment on “SAT scores hit eight-year high in Va.; D.C. also sees gains” By Donna St. George and Nick Anderson, Thursday, September 26, 12:01 AM

I agree with ecat1246@gmail.com.  I have seen grade inflation and poor quality content areas.  The state test scores for my students aligned with my own grades while many of my colleagues had students who “excelled” in their classes and failed the state exams.  This is in New York state.  The brightest in the schools escape if they take their own studies in hand without depending on the  teachers.  But, they are shortchanged when they do not receive exposure to more academic challenges.  I advice my students to wean themselves from teachers and learn to stand on their own feet as much as they can.  Canned tests and scripted lessons do not create an educated graduate.  The nation is inclining to this mode of teaching.  Luckily, there are still some vestiges of good teaching left where students may be able to delve deeper into their subjects.  True education is not memorizing and regurgitating some answers, but being able to acquire a discipline that could be applied to any situation the student faces in life and career.

The Common Core is not the problem

The problem is not with the Common Core and high standards. The problem is with the process of implementation.

Local school districts connect the Common Core with the monies they receive. So, the focus from the administrators is on the test scores only. This leads to coaching for tests and the scripted lessons provided by profit making companies through State Education Departments. The educational process narrows down and the students in many schools are going to be exposed to less and are going to be constricted to rote learning. The exploration, discussion, and ratiocination will not receive much emphasis. The constant barrage of tests prepared by Pearson’s non classroom educators is going to have a stranglehold on the process of learning.

One has to know what is actually happening in classrooms to be able to assess the impact of the Common Core. The high standards are worthy to be attained. But, are they going to be attained to be attained in the slipshod methods adopted by school districts?

In response to:


War on the Core by Bill Keller, New York Times, August 19, 2013

The Miasma of Standardized Tests

The testing frenzy and the ‘one size fits all’ mentality have coagulated the venues of learning and education. It brings to mind “Harrison Bergeron”, the short story by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., first published in October 1961.
Only bureaucrats, politicians, opportunists, robber baron philanthropists, and seat-warming administrators would think up the kind of test-based education formula that is being thrust at the future of our society. We do not need any more incentive for institutional fraud.

Comment for

Bush, Obama focus on standardized testing leads to ‘opt-out’ parents’ movement

Teachers and Content Areas

After watching teachers who did not major in the subjects they were teaching,  I was sorry for the students for the pitiful education they were receiving.  Teachers without much knowledge in English literature are teaching Honors courses and refuse to use the authentic Shakespeare plays by substituting some simplified, insipid “version” of the great Bard.  They do not want to use the Honors vocabulary list because they do not know the words themselves and refuse to look them up.  Teachers who did not major in mathematics are teaching Honors math courses.  Teachers who studied US History exclusively are teaching Global Studies without much understanding of the world. There are Physics teachers who majored in Biology or Math. Some students educate themselves in spite of these conditions.  Those who do not have the initiative suffer.  Hence we observe achievements below what could have been accomplished.  While the teacher unions are warring about benefits, they should also look at the competence of their members.  Maybe, if the compensations are worthwhile, people who are academically conscientious will choose to become teachers.

Teacher, Teacher

Everywhere we hear about teachers and test scores. We seem to have forgotten the most important element in education: the student. Why is there no discussion on the student responsibility? When is the student going to be held responsible for learning? Teachers can do all they want, but if the student is not willing to learn, all the work is done for nothing. We hear people discuss about  teachers motivating the students. What happened to the home environment? What happened to the value system that is developed in the young people in their formative years at home? What are the responsibilities of the parents?

Many opponents of teachers complain about teacher tenures.  All educational institutions have administrators.  The Board of Education and the administrators make the decisions on giving tenures to teachers.  They have enough time to observe teachers, document their activities, and hold conferences with them.  There should be enough information in the habitual three year period to come to some reasonable decisions.  Even after providing tenures, the administrators should continue their administrative duties which include supervision.  Tenures may be and can be broken if proper documentation is maintained and provided.  Everything involves effort.  Recently, many administrators  (not all) are seen to sequester themselves in their ivory towers.  They seem to forget that an educational institution works efficiently only if the supervisors and the faculty members work as a team for the common goal.  The parents should also shoulders their responsibilities from the home end.


How can all the multitudes of discussions take place without considering all aspects of learning and education? Education is a human endeavor with all the intangibles thrown in. How can a standardized test evaluate learning?

Bill Gates talks about training teachers. It would be wise to attract bright people into the teaching profession. Most teachers these days lack in the content area of their subjects. A teacher should master the subject and be in a position to transmit the thirst for and acquisition of knowledge to the students.

The problem of education cannot be solved with stop gap measures; it needs some gargantuan overhaul.

Why is the New York SED so bent upon paying a profit making corporation to dictate the syllabi and tests of the state?

It was astonishing to find out that many among the teaching faculty were not aware of the Pearson Group’s presence in the New York state’s education scene.

Do the educators in the state have any say in what is going on?

Why is this private company getting paid enormous amounts of money when there are so many educators paid around the year for the Regents?

The tests themselves address minimal requirements.  The grading is sketchy and cannot stand closer scrutiny.  Often exams are not administered in properly proctored environments.  The gravest malaise is the general tendency to teach for the tests without any concern about the long range learning and retention.

The state appears to be pushing for a cookie-cutter scenario.  The barrage of testing is going to debilitate the incentives and creativity in learning.  The inventive teachers are losing precious time and energy in the endless paper chase.  There is an art of teaching and a science of teaching.   When I attended school, each period was a distinct experience.  At the same time, I preferred teachers who mastered their subjects and could conduct a class without notes and could freely let ideas flow and lead interactive discussion.

The state has to do better than what it is doing now if we are looking towards a higher standing in the field of international education and a better educated future society in the country.