How do birds fly? How does a train chug along? Why is the sky blue? As a young child of the digital era, the internet must seem like a shiny pixel-perfect world of information. For children in India, though, especially in Kerala, there’s another friend now, with a more human touch: First Question, a telephone helpline launched by the Kerala Forest Research Institute on February 28, National Science Day.
The helpline encourages children to call in and ask questions related mostly to nature and science. It is being handled by 20 research scholars from the institute with help from subject experts and scientists. The initiative draws inspiration from an observation made by social scientist Rajan Gurukkal during a lecture on the “history of learning” in Kozhikode in February. Gurukkal had remarked on the inability of India’s education system to encourage students to ask questions. This project carries a contrarian resonance. Digital natives are increasingly reliant on AI-assisted technology to answer queries and help navigate through life. The exchange of dialogue with another thinking individual who understands not just the “factual” nature of a child’s query, but also the curiosity of the human mind, cannot be replicated by a string of algorithms.
Denis Diderot had said in 1755 that “one can predict a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe.” Diderot found the baggage of knowledge from books too much, then. What chance do young minds have now as they navigate the sea of information in the digital age? A human filter may be the answer in a digitally immersive world.