If there’s one thing I am sure about in life, apart from my parent’s unwavering love and support for a lost cause such as myself, it is the fact that I had aced India’s school education system. It was never that hard for me; Literature, History and Geography I loved, devoted all my free time to those subjects, Dad made sure Sciences were on track, Mom made sure extra-curricular was not neglected, so I was, in a nutshell, product that schools take pride in, family, society, everyone else who did not matter then (or now) took pride in, only till the “but she was such a bright child, what happened to her?” or “you see how bad our education system is in gauging talent? There were those who it marked as failure and see how well they have done in life, and look at her, she did nothing” happened. I don’t remember the last time I defended myself to anyone, in fact I preempted criticism by accepting defeat and “failure” in all its forms myself. This prologue was to assure that when I talk about the Indian education system, the criticism does not stem from any sour grapes syndrome, I got the grapes pretty easily and after having them it felt I would rather have had wine. If you ask me, Billy Joel’s Vienna and Gary Jules’ Mad World have more (life) lessons than our entire education system. When I asked my roommate her opinion, her response was: “It’s sad that I do not have one good thing to say about it, except SUPW, which was the only useful thing in that entire setup.” What follows is the opinion of my friends and myself, a selection bias that I should caution against: we were all “hyper bright children” who decided to follow our heart, read not become engineers, decided to do our own thing at our own pace, so we definitely do not represent the entire population or their opinion, nor aspire towards this latter goal. Another point I should make at the very outset: while the essay might make one feel that everything is wrong with the system, it is a critical essay which focuses on the shortcomings, things we need to contemplate on and improve upon in the existing system. I am not making a case to overthrow the system but I am definitely not going to agree with “all is well” either.
False Urgency and Superficial Aspirations
A friend and I were talking about life wherein he casually mentioned he can never forget 2008, how the crash of Lehman Brothers changed his life forever. He asked me about any such monumental event, my response: the year 2007, nothing really happened that year, except that it was my Xth Board examination, but you mention 2007 and even now it sends a chill down my spine, that was the extent to which I was made to be scared of ICSE exams. Since 2004, teachers in school spoke of the Boards exams in 2007, I think parents caught on a bit later, but sure as hell they did. What seems bizarre now (and to some extent even then), is the whole hype and false sense of urgency around an exam that mattered so little in my life trajectory. As much as I would want my life to be determined by my stellar performance in the Xth board, absolutely nothing it determined. Of course, I understand that if you want to study science and don’t score well, those scores might make a difference, but usually all those decisions are also taken before those blessed results come out. If anything, it condemned me to an IIT coaching center that I went for a full three days before creating a huge ruckus at home, threatening folks at home of “consequences” if I was made to go for those classes.
Our school system trains us to meet targets and deadlines based on an artificially created and almost inhuman urgency. The whole “don’t question, obey” work ethic gets drilled into us from school. There is just one attempt if you wish to stay “respectable.” You have a personal crisis, too bad. If you have a double digit rank, try to get into single digits. If you have a rank in the single digits, you have it in you to come first. Put in a little extra effort. If you come first: Saat khoon maaf. The only thing of consequence that we have one attempt at is Life, the only thing we don’t give any serious thought to. I appreciate the SAT, GMAT and GRE system for its flexibility. The repercussions of a bad day cannot be made as big as the system has made it in India. Chance cannot and should not be made to play such a big role.
What is the point of this course if you won’t get a decent job? Xyz did abc, has a package of klm. In a country of 1.3 billion, you perform or perish. These are middle class Commandments we grow up on. Way back in the 7th grade, the day of my 2nd term geography exam, as I was stepping out of home I knew that the Vet was going to come to put my pet to sleep because his health was irredeemable and that was the only “humane” way out. I cried through my exam but missing an exam meant missing my rank, meant missing the year end prize night, meant a question mark on my identity! I came back home to see no trace of my pet anywhere, leash, ball, bowl, everything had been cleared. Five years later: XIIth Boards, Spitz fell sick, entire family running pillar to post to save him while I would only observe from the balcony, tell myself “we need to focus on the Boards” and “they will save him, he is only five years old, he cannot die.” It was the day of my chemistry exam when my pet was lying weak and miserable under his favorite dining chair and I offered him water before leaving for my exam. He made an effort to have it, licked my hand and put his head down, that is the last I saw of him. My mom tells me that the moment she dropped me to school she received a call from my brother and understood what it was about. Her reaction: poor boy, he took care of her exam, had he passed away a few minutes ago, she would not have been able to make it for her exam and then imagine what would have happened. Exactly, imagine what would have happened?! Because our system gives us just one chance to succeed and everything else is “You were not good enough.” Get it right the first time, no scope for mistakes. My ability to not let adversity come in the way of my achievements was pitched as a virtue, professionalism if you will. That my pets were dying while I was “achieving” was a virtue, and then elders complain of children being ungrateful, of neglecting their ageing parents. I ask the people raising children, the innuendo of “society” that we often use in the context, if you raise a body of flesh as a machine designed to achieve, then design old age care as a package of achievement because we have been trained to achieve, not to care. The process of unlearning to stop being a machine of achievement and to start “living” has been the most difficult and ongoing process of my life. Everyday efforts are made towards becoming a sensitive human being, at the cost of being called a “failure” or “bizarre”.
An insensitive and almost inhuman education system is likely to produce products that are in sync with its fundamental ethos: assembly line production of a bundle of aspirations and truck loads of ambition. It teaches people all the right things to say, walking the talk being someone else’s business. “I hate wasting food” while you over order and keep throwing it, “Fast fashion is unethical” while you revamp your wardrobe every season, discarding perfectly wearable clothes for no reason, “We need to do something about climate change” but have you even given a thought to the carbon footprint of your existence? When will you do something about it? Our system teaches us the answer to that as well: One fine day. One fine day after the exams, one fine day after the boards, one fine day after I get a job, one fine day after I retire, one fine day when the planet is beyond redemption I shall start living according to my need. Our education system teaches us the art of living a dual life: there is a moral science class, but it is freely available for an extra class or a free period if needed.
We are raised with the belief that life is a struggle, a ruthless competition. That life is nothing by itself, it is how we perceive it and choose to define it for ourselves somehow was never told to me while growing up. My ability to identify myself with a cause, with a belief system, with an ideology, are things the education system totally missed. It presented a particular theory as an absolute universal unconditional truth. It made me an individual looking for coherent believable causal stories, difficult multi-faceted reality was not something I was prepared for. Environmental Education is to be studied because Act of God introduced it into our syllabus, now live with it, mug it up or make it up during exam, but focus on science because environment does not get you a job (when I was in school that is what they believed). That some of us manage to build an identity beyond our factual resume is through chance encounters with brilliant teachers, family members or stray individuals we came across who we admire through the rest of our existence. I wish I could give you hard statistics on how often my friends call me up to help them with “Dude, this form I am filling, it asks for a passion, please tell me one” or “Listen, what should I write in hobby” or “Bro, I have to write about myself, I don’t know what to write, please help” or “I’m writing traveling as my hobby, if I am asked a question on it, what should I say?” The number of people who say traveling is their hobby has made traveling a prostitute among hobbies. Take down social media, and lets see how many people travel for traveling’s sake. Our education system created individuals who go to a pristine island and not ask themselves before throwing their non-biodegradable waste or opening those tiny shampoo bottles it’s final destination. Ethical tourism. Ethical living. Absolutely anything to do with ethics takes a backseat, grades and rank in school, salary and comfort later.
The system of ranks. I would love to know why they exist. What purpose do they serve. Why did I have to know my exact position in the hierarchy? Why was it not sufficient to know I was “good enough.” I am sure there would be a valid reason, or may be not, but what it did to me was this: I went from doing well in one exam to another, never really asking myself what I wanted to become in life. Given my temperament, to make sure doing well remained desirable, my father always put a prize on my rank. The prize was always something I really wanted: A recently released Harry Potter or Dan Brown or some fountain pen I had really liked, anything. It feels like an achievement that I outgrew this Pavlovian conditioning. But then, I had my mother’s head, is what I have realized after intense introspection. “I won’t do it if I don’t want to do it” was tamed in the initial years but it started coming off age with age and ironically, it was my mother that I had the most intense battles with. That I was doing well academically meant that to even say I like studying history and would want to continue would meet societal opprobrium. So Science I was made to study and whenever I would opine on the dinner table that I hate Mathematics, I am in love with Physics but Mathematics is just blah, I was always met with “What do you mean? You score really well.” So you might be passionate for Physics but not do well in Chemistry and others, but passion in our system counts for nothing, give it away as complementary snacks with chai, so you are not allowed to enter the hallowed corridors of Science if your overall score is not good enough. Or you might be me: I appreciate Science, I enjoy it, its neat, scientific temper is what I aspire for, but I love Social Sciences more, but my grades condemned me to deal with Heisenberg and his uncertainty principle. My only fond memory of those days is the organic chemistry experiments: that is the closest I ever got to feeling like I was a Harry Potter character in Hogwarts, those color changes were magical!
There are people I know who would have loved to pursue Science, were really passionate about it, wanted to become a Physicist or Pilot, but because of their “score” were forced to take another stream. Just to highlight a certain fallacy, I find it immensely amusing that the “not so well of” scores are asked to take Commerce or Humanities in school, grapple with Economics and Psychology, and the commanding heights of school academia who study Science go on to become whatever till they eventually opt for an MBA and study what the not-so-well-offs were studying in school! What benchmarks had you created? If a student is pleading, declaring her passion for science, what is the problem if we allow her to? In the worst case, if she fails miserably, she would have at least tried. She would not live life with a “What if?” In all other scenarios, you would have enabled a person pursue and realize her passion, helping demolish the whole Brahmanical elitism that has been created around Science.
A Caste System of Courses
If you have been through Indian education you know the caste system. Dignity of Labor kind of concepts are anyway beyond Indian grey matter. The problem with the scholastic caste system is the same as that with the societal caste system. The person you considered a Shudra was performing a vital task to make your Brahmin life possible, instead of thanking the former, you resorted to demeaning her existence and usurping her rights. The historians are actively trying to make sense of our past so that with every election a change in party does not mean a change in our history. The political scientists and lawyers are scrutinizing policies which affect the life of citizens. I feel amused by a particular incident: That engineer friend who had mocked my fascination for History stating it is Science which engages the brain in any meaningful way, is today sitting with the NCERT text books to crack the Civil Services, and stands in defense of the Civils syllabus. So much for History being a Subaltern! When and how do we learn to look down on a subject or field of inquiry? I wish I had an answer to this question.
I am an ardent George Orwell fan. If you have read 1984, particularly its Appendix, you would know the power of language. Of course, you can know it by reading Michel Foucault as well, or a host of other sources, but since 1984 is a popular classic, I’d expect a lot of people to have read it, or if not, then would request them to, at the very least its Appendix. By now, most of us are aware, that our system does not ask us to question, reason, least of all critique. One of the things we always take for granted is language. If you have read the 1984 Appendix or Foucault or anything to do with Linguistics, you would know that language is anything but neutral and benign. It’s only once you acknowledge the power that Language wields do you ask why is scoring less than 40 or 33 or 30 “FAIL”? We know full well the connotations of the word “failure,” it is a heavy word to be dealt with at that young age. Also, I like to look upon Failure as a static concept that has very limited application in our dynamic life, that should never be allowed to be associated with an ongoing process of one’ achievements. As long as you don’t stop trying, as long as you don’t put an end to your life (in which case also you will have to be successful in that last one attempt) there is no “failure,” temporary setbacks yes, but “failure”? We are too small and insignificant to deal with a word as big as that. There is no failing, it is only a process of figuring out what you are good at, what you want to be good at, do you find it worth your while….There are mistakes and there is the process of learning from them, where is the “failure.” I did not want to study Science the way it was being taught to me. I left it. I felt Economics was doing a disservice to humanity, I decided to do something about it. I made mistakes in the process, ended up “wasting time” but do I consider it “failure?” No, because I don’t view life through the binaries of success and failure. If you take risks, there will be chances of setbacks. But as Bill Hayes has summarised, “But taking wrong trains, encountering unexpected delays, and suffering occasional mechanical breakdowns are inevitable to any journey really worth taking. One learns to get oneself turned around and headed the right way.”
Let me invoke Foucault once again “...if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal , then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing.” We frequently substitute one concept for another without realizing the implications of making those substitutions. Our education does not train us to be on the lookout for these dangerous substitutions. A critical Indian is an anti-national Indian, the recent fad.
To explain with another example, which often resonates: You’re going through shit and your friend or well wisher would invoke Nietzsche (usually without knowing it was him), “Don’t worry, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” Have you ever paused to wonder “…and what makes you think stronger is necessarily better? Is strength a universal virtue? Is weakness a universal flaw?” We don’t pause to consider the implications of the way we speak or certain ideas. Why does everything to do with a man is virtue: valor, strength, work; everything with a feminine connotation is associated with weakness and hence vice? If men are bull headed and cannot think craftily like women, why are they diplomats? If they are straight thinking, wearing their heart on their sleeve creature, and if women scheme, then shouldn’t diplomacy be our domain? Thinking things through or critical thinking does not get you a job. Good score is equal to good college is equal to good job is equal to success is equal to happiness. It is when people check the first three and realize that they had imagined success to feel different or that they had imagined happiness to be different, our system is responsible for the disillusionment.
I understand that the human mind tries to understand things by making categories and searching for similarities. But it also tries to make sense by making a narrative. My General Knowledge and Social Science books said India has four religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism. Very nice. Judgement has already been made that a child’s mind is too simple to deal with complexities of religion, so let us be reductionist to the point of being bizarre. I came from a non-practicing Hindu family, where there was no time for religion: middle class ethics was what dictated everything. For the longest time I thought Parsis were some sort of Christians, they had to be, they don’t “look” like any of the other three. “Jews” were another mystery. Is Judaism a religion? Or is it something within Christianity? Till very recently I thought Jews were just another sect of Christianity. The best of it all: if this book says there are four religions, then what the hell is or where the hell is Buddhism and Jainism, which the history books devoted separate chapters to. Doesn’t something not feel right when you explain them away as part of the Hindu fold when History books explicitly mentioned them as a reaction and response to Hinduism? That B.R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism because he was “done” with Hinduism would suggest Buddhism is a distinct faith. The point is, that very often, my education never told me the meaning of things. It taught by telling me the categories within it. The standard answer I have always received is that a child’s mind cannot grapple with the complexities, we need to introduce them to the world in a way that they can understand. However, these things are deeply problematic. Apart from underestimating a child’s capacity to understand, if religion is a topic that is too complicated then it can also wait in the green room with calculus, but then religion is too basic and a bit too dangerous to be left there with calculus. Why can we not present religion as a narrative: human evolution, our desire to understand the world, make sense of things happening around us, provide us with a theory to help us cope with loss, uncertainty, fear and to meet these needs, since time immemorial different religions evolved, different in nature but serving the same purpose. Keep that the dominant narrative about religion. But you make a mess of religion and then make a mess of the meaning of Secularism. Michel Foucault was not exaggerating when he said “Schools serve the same social functions as prisons and mental institutions- to define, classify, control, and regulate people.”
A State, a Nation, a Nation-State and a Country were concepts I grappled with. At home I was told they were the same, mug-up civics. In school I never asked because it felt that everyone knew and what I now realize, no one did. Had I asked the question then, had most of us asked these questions then, we would be less gullible citizens of India today. To explain: State is a territorial unit, Nation is a group of people who “feel” bound by a common culture or a common history or something common to them all. Had our education taught us this, you would question what makes India a Nation? Your answer would be a shared and common history of freedom struggle against the British. It is them that make us a Nation. You denigrate the Mughals, call them outsiders and worship Queen Victoria, it is you who are anti-national my friend!
Fine and fluent English is a measure of achievement in itself, no questions asked. For those of us who began questioning our childhood, serious pitfalls arose. I asked my friends their opinion about our system and one of them mailed me the following:
Coming from a family where my parents were first generation English speakers who had huge expectations from their child, I was mandated to speak in English at home. The irony: I must speak in English, but I can’t hum an English tune, that’s too unsanskari. My parents’ accent and very often mine, gave away the Indian mother tongue. How disgraceful was that? I’d drag the awww and say drauyyer instead of rolling the Rs and getting drawr (for the work drawer).
My experiences are surely not representative, and not even true to my own experiences, but that’s how they are now!
Critically Engaged Human Beings versus Mass production of Believers
Our education system fails to produce critically engaged citizens, let alone human beings. When people say “I am not political” bursting with pride at their homo economicus status, I do not understand what is there to be proud of. The fact that apart from being a human being you happen to be a citizen of a State which by its very nature is a political entity, you are political. That you are shirking your responsibilities is another matter. Please don’t wear it as a badge that you are proud of, just like you wore that badge of “I hate History/Literature/Geography” as a part of your scholastic chauvinism. As most people found out much later that those subjects they considered Shudra in school were quite interesting and fascinating, hence the popularity of Ramchandra Guha and Yuval Noah Harari, with age and maybe more common sense you will realize or at least learn to be thankful to people who are political and fighting for your rights on your behalf without you knowing, understanding or acknowledging their efforts. The strong emotions on Pulwama, an affair drenched in politics, made me wonder how Indians allow themselves to get offended on Pulwama and sleep over Dantewada. Have you asked yourself why and how we learnt to hate Pakistan and not Myanmar? As a Nation we didn’t get outraged by Naxals blowing up 75 CRPF men in 2010. My point is you cannot just wake up political one day and a-political the next. You felt strongly about Pulwama, then at least go cast your vote, we shall fight battles another day.
My education never taught me to question, it trained me to believe. So good I was at what I was being trained to do that I failed to notice glaring inconsistencies. I never thought that there might be another version. I read in the Preamble that India is Secular. I mugged up that Secularism means the State does not interfere in Religion. Then I read the articles of the Constitution specifically dealing with Religion, which definitely involve the State in Religion (Article 17 that abolishes Untouchability, Article 25 to 28 which deal with Religious rights). Then I heard political parties invoke religion in their election campaigns and I still did not ask myself how are we Secular. Moreover, because I mugged up Secularism I never learnt why was it desirable, if at all? I never questioned the desirability and worth of concepts being thrown at me. Something as basic as Democracy. I mugged up Abraham Lincoln’s definition of Democracy, said that India is a Democracy; because India chose to be Democracy, India is Good, Democracy is also Good, Goodness everywhere, but from where is all this Goodness coming, read legitimacy? Why is Democracy a virtue? You might say that there is only so much that we can teach students, only so much time. This really does not take time. The in-house examination question paper, the summer project, the assignments, just ask how does Democracy give you a voice in your own politics, or why does minority need special protection in a Democracy or how do you think Indian secularism is different from Secularism as understood in Europe and why the difference. Ask students why Secularism is desirable, if at all. Do this particularly for the Science students, because this is their only chance to understand things they are going to condemn for a substantial portion of their life. Let them figure it out for themselves so that in the future a Political ideology finds it a tad bit more difficult to make people hate the other, a tad bit more difficult to vilify an entire university as anti-national. As another friend wrote:
The attack on the credibility of JNU as a reaction to the 2016 Protests was given a nationalistic hue, exposing the insecurity of the government and the poor understanding of the masses of India towards the importance of social sciences. Last year the struggle of otherwise ‘passive’ TISS students, who were left with no other recourse but to take to the streets in protest against the hike in dining and hostel fee and the withdrawal of financial assistance to SC, ST and OBC students, were brushed under the rug by our mainstream media. How many people know about the ongoing struggle of the undergraduate students of Magadh University against their slothful administration, who have been even denied the permission to peacefully protest for the fulfillment of their fundamental rights? The traditional predilection of the Indian society towards science and commerce related education has been exploited and rationalized by the powers that be by discrediting arts and social sciences, to create not even an Orwellian socio-economic system, but a dangerously exploitative simulacrum of it, where the question of unemployment and poor education is now at the mercy of the proof of your unquestioned ‘national devotion’.