By Devang Pathak Apr. 25, 2018
There’s so much wrong with our education system. Indian kids are repeatedly told that rote learning is bad, but no efforts are made to establish a system where it’s not rewarded.
“What is the capital of Afghanistan?” read the question on the exam paper, as my pen hovered hesitantly over the page. I was nearly certain that the answer was Kabul, but the nervousness was getting to me.
In those tense moments, I remembered the shape of my geography textbook. I remembered having to immerse myself in the words and paragraphs in front of me, torturing myself with repetition. I remembered going back a few pages every few minutes and quiz myself to see whether I remembered the text as it appeared.
But I didn’t remember the capital of Afghanistan.
Being an Indian student is like living a lie. We are rarely informed that the things we study at school will be almost completely inconsequential in adulthood. So the conscientious ones approach schoolwork as a matter of life and death. You wake up at 3.30 am to memorise entire books, trying to forget the hunger and the sleep, waiting until you can be in the exam hall and be done with it. Win, draw, or lose.
My classmates were capable of pulling all-nighters and doing revisions before the paper. Me, I’m dysfunctional without some sleep, so the best I could manage was entering the exam hall after barely going through the syllabus once. These physically demanding and mentally numbing efforts, through school and college, were often rewarded with good grades and ranks. It fooled many people, except one especially sharp school teacher who told my folks at a parent-teacher meeting that I seemed to just vomit everything I knew onto the paper.
As the illusion of academic excellence faded, I felt a deep sense of anger and regret for all that I had endured.
Indian kids are repeatedly told that rote learning is bad, but no efforts are made to establish a system where it’s not rewarded. The debates surrounding the quality of education quickly evaporate as the results are announced, with toppers being celebrated on newspaper front pages and on television news.
There was a time when I wanted to be one of those kids. I’d well-nigh torture myself to be the best, fostering jealousy for every student who scored more than me, a constant state of self-loathing. I remember coming home and crying after every 12th board exam paper. Academic success was supposed to be “my thing”, but I was still aware of something not feeling right after I finished writing every exam. At times, in between sleepless nights of “mugging”, I would fantasise about documenting this experience as a warning for future students.
Exams in the Indian higher education system are equal parts chaotic and traumatic, and one feels blessed by fate when a pass certificate is awarded and you’re exempted from facing those dire circumstances again. Exam season was followed by a short break before anxiety for the next level of education took over; a vicious cycle which repeated itself.
There’s no one to turn when you’re stuck in the churn of this cycle. Stories in the Indian media often focus on the end results, the toppers, the cheating, the suicides, and the placement packages, but rarely is one told about the conversations teachers have with their students in the lead up to the papers. The paltry sum paid to invigilators per paper, the inadequate minutes they spend on each, and the tricks to get the maximum marks for your answers which go beyond just giving the correct one, are filed under the unofficial guide to Indian examinations and play an equal, if not a more vital role in deciding the marksheet of a student.
During the fifth semester examinations at my Bachelor of Management Studies course, I scraped through my Logistics paper by scoring only five marks over the fail grade, dragging down my precious average. The result shattered me. I walked around after the result as if I’d just seen the ghost of my future job prospects and academic excellence walking side by side. I couldn’t feign any joy for my friends who got great results – I was lost in mourning.
I applied for re-evaluation, and while waiting on the results, a faculty member informed me that he believed 15 marks more had been awarded to me. I was ecstatic. But when the final results came in, I was awarded just one extra mark. To add insult to injury, the reevaluated marks weren’t even added to my final score due to some bureaucratic mistake. I still don’t know whether I deserved 15 marks or one.
As the illusion of academic excellence faded, I felt a deep sense of anger and regret for all that I had endured. I’d shut myself off from lifelong passions, friendships, and practical life lessons to chase something which wasn’t worth it. When I read the front pages of newspapers in May and June, decked out with happy toppers, I imagine what those who have failed or received low marks must be going through. If the front pages offered hope to those who failed, asked for their stories, and investigated the tyranny of 100 per cent cut-offs, could we prevent the spate of student suicides in the post-results season?
Of course, I come from privilege and could have afforded the luxury of failing. But the lesser privilege you have in India, the more important education becomes to you. When a Dalit girl commits suicide in Devirahalli in Tamil Nadu after her examination hall ticket is torn by two boys, you feel incensed at the helplessness this system fosters. Good marks are crucial to creating a sustainable livelihood and fulfilling dreams, and this necessity creates a mechanism which ensures that those who stay within the rules of the system and ace the predetermined standards of excellence are rewarded with a career.
Former US President Barack Obama was of the opinion that India and China had beaten the United States in education. Befuddling, considering our outdated syllabi and absence of critical thinking in our primary and secondary education. The real reformation of the way our education system is structured, lies away from macro numbers – by either creating a system which discourages rote learning and encourages innovation, as well as eases the stress of examinations on students as the only path to achieving a successful life.
Students are much more than their seat numbers. It’s time educational institutions realised that.
Devang Pathak is a writer who even at 50 will insist "I am not quite there yet". He frequently resigns from reality by traversing into films, TV shows, and sometimes books. He is the founder and editor of "Was That Funny?", a publication which writes about Indian stand-up comedy. Twitter: @DevangPat