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Learning and Assessment. Back to the future.

Every summer my father, R F Gombrich, gives a course in Pali for anyone who is interested. Typically about 14-20 students come on the programme. They come from all over the world and are of all ages, cultures and educational backgrounds. He is not remunerated for the course, although there are fees to cover other costs. He loves the experience and finds the students dedicated, attentive, interesting and interested.

This is what he tells them about studying, learning and assessment:

‘(1) Every human being on earth is, quite literally, infinitely ignorant. Having been around a long time, I may know Pali comparatively well, but you will see that even so I constantly revert to looking things up to make sure — and you should do the same. Meanwhile, there are in the room 15 learners and 15 teachers. You should all try to learn not just from me but also from each other. For example, I encourage you to change seats every day or nearly every day, to work with your neighbours and to change those neighbours.

(2) This issue is not just epistemological but also moral. Like most human endeavours, learning Pali should be not a matter of competition but of co-operation; the latter is both more efficient and should also be far more satisfying. This in fact applies to all education.

(3) Moreover, you are here because you want to learn to read Pali. Whether others learn it too, or learn it better or worse, is not relevant to your aim. For this reason I give no marks, there is no final exam, and there are no compulsory tests during the course. There are little exercises to test and practise your understanding, and of course we think it our duty to inform you when you have made mistakes. The only relevant judge of your progress is you. Incidentally, in our context speed is virtually irrelevant.

(4) Progress depends on the honesty to keep testing yourself to make sure that you really have understood things; then if the answer is No or Not Sure, to ask. In practical terms, this  means asking questions all the time. Never be embarrassed to ask a question. Even if it is a very elementary one, you can be sure that if you are uncertain about a point, someone else in the class is also uncertain. I expect everyone to arrive in the morning with questions to ask.

(5) Where or how one acquires knowledge and understanding is totally irrelevant. [See Karl Popper.] Understanding of a piece of Pali is not affected by whether it comes from me, from a fellow pupil, from a book, from the internet, from a dream … In each and every case it must be checked as well as possible. There is no ultimately authoritative source of correct knowledge, now that the Buddha is no longer with us!

(6) Connected with this is the  fact that since we have so many books etc. to hand, it is rarely necessary to try to learn things by heart. Things you often need you will in any case probably learn by heart without setting out to do so.

(7) With subject matter like ours, there is very often no one “right answer”; there are however an infinite number of wrong answers. I shall keep illustrating this throughout the course, often even varying my translation of simple words. For instance, Pali mukha may sometimes be best translated “mouth” and sometimes “face”; but the translation “carrot” or “poverty” will always be wrong. The variation depends both on context and on the profound but initially less obvious fact that languages have hardly any one-to-one matches. There is also the even more advanced point, which we may learn from the Buddha later in the course, that in many contexts it is a mistake to ask for perfect exactitude: in many important matters a certain measure of vagueness is as far as one can get.

I am always aware of this programme and it does seem to work.’

This seems to me an ideal of higher education. Shouldn’t we be working towards this ideal?

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