Saturday, 4 February 2012

An Elegy for our Education System


From Class V all the way to Class XII, my report card invariably had the same adjectives for me: ‘hardworking’, ‘conscientious’, ‘diligent’, ‘bright’, ‘intelligent’.  And the reason for that was that from class 5 onwards there was not a single year in school that I got below an average of 83%. I was often among the ‘top 5’ in my class. The CBSE wanted me to know everything in my text-book as anything could be asked in the exam. I figured that if I knew everything in the book, I could never go wrong. But even as a teenager, a part of me was aware that I was being rewarded, not for using my brain and thinking for myself, but for mastering a technique- the technique of cramming. 

Just for the record, home was where one mastered this art. School was definitely a place to socialise, fool around with friends, and perhaps poke fun at the teachers. Very little learning actually took place inside school premises.  The best teacher I ever had was a maths teacher who was a private tutor at home. Most of the teachers at school seemed to lack passion for the subjects they taught. In the 12 long years that I spent at school (not counting ‘nursery’) I was taught by approximately 30 teachers, only two of whom I found inspiring. 

Nevertheless, the system of education at the school level was convenient for me as it always yielded good results – a pat on the back from my teachers and friends, and a sense of personal satisfaction: I was a keen learner, always worked meticulously and was thrilled when it paid off.  

But as I grew older I became increasingly aware that our education system reduced knowledge to mere information that was to be memorised and absorbed. While a part of me enjoyed the compliments from teachers and friends, another (smaller) part resented that I was being praised simply for being an expert at memorising, recapitulating and reproducing information. I was being praised not for my insight or for the questions I raised but for how perfectly I regurgitated answers.

While this did worry me (and exasperated me- it was hard work, stuffing all that information into a small part of my brain), I also reflected on the fact that cramming had served me well all my life. It had got me 88-point-something in the 10th Boards and I was willing to fall back on it again for the 12th Boards, which, at the age of 17, seemed like a matter of life and death to me. An 85 could get one into St. Stephen’s College and falling short of the cut-off mark by .25 could condemn you forever to what everybody at least saw as a just little less impressive. Even if someone told you that it was “okay even if you didn’t make it to Stephens or LSR”, you would find it hard to believe that these same people wouldn’t be a little more impressed if you introduced yourself in the future as being from St. Stephens. The name mattered, and one cannot deny that at some small level it mattered for everyone – teachers, parents, friends, parents’ friends, friends’ parents. Apparently even universities abroad knew St. Stephens College but not the other colleges in Delhi University. If cramming got me the marks, I would rely on it. I was too scared to risk using my own brain.

And my well-honed skill of being able to stop myself from using my mind was rewarded again. After an interview that seemed to test my ability to withstand intimidation rather than independent thinking, I was offered admission to read History at St. Stephen’s college!

Delhi University claims to model itself on the Oxbridge System – combining lectures with tutorials. For each topic, one was given a reading list consisting of about 20 books and articles by different scholars, each giving their interpretation of history. Being unfamiliar with how one was to make this transition from school- where one studied one text-book for all topics in a subject - to College where we were assigned twenty books for one topic, some of the students asked a lecturer how one was to go about this. The answer was categorical: “you have to read each and every book and article, and there is no way around it”. 

How was I to read and know everything in these books and articles? I tried to read an article on archaeology and got thoroughly bored. How could I possibly read all twenty books when I couldn’t even go through one article! 

How was one supposed to read so much in such short a time? I had always read and made notes on everything in the CBSE textbook but how could one read every article as thoroughly? If one couldn’t read it thoroughly and understand each word, what was the point? How was one to make notes on ten hundred-page articles? How was it supposed to all fit together? The task seemed utterly daunting. But I found an easy way out: I just simply avoided reading and made myself busy with social life in College- there were new people to meet, and new things to be discovered!

But my awareness that, in school, I had always been lauded for my excellent ability to memorise and reproduce what Bipin Chandra said had happened in history grew stronger. And it was now turning into rather intense self-doubt. Since no teacher came forth to provide guidance, I dealt with it my own way: by losing myself in taking pleasure in the novelties of college life – the independence, the lack of emphasis on discipline, new people from different schools and even different colleges now ‘chilled’ together!  

My first year at Stephen’s brought me down from being a proud 80 percent-er to a 50 percent-er. And though I knew “marks didn’t mean everything”, I concluded that they did mean something. I knew the 80% in school did not prove my intelligence, but the 50% in college definitely was not helping my self-esteem. I decided to lose the treacherous ‘backbencher’ in me and bring back the ‘conscientious’ kid.

I attended every class, paid attention, took copious notes on whatever the lecturers said or dictated, read (definitely still not all of) the readings that were assigned, attended every tutorial and even ‘prepared’ for them. I realised that there was a technique to be learnt even in College. For most tutorials, one had to know the information that had been dictated in class as ‘notes’ and had to answer a sort of quiz based on it (if one hadn’t revised class notes, one could save oneself the awkwardness by raising some interesting questions of one’s own). For the three essays one had to write in a term, one merely had to summarise what a few of the major scholars had to say on the topic. Moreover, one was absolutely free to plagiarise from books and collude with ‘senior’ or fellow students! No one seemed to care very much about my opinion and judgement, and so I figured it didn’t matter what I thought (Who was I anyway?).

I passed out of Stephen’s with a first division, and came second in my class in my final year.

15 years of education in my country- first at a top-notch school and then at one of the best known colleges in India – tried very hard to make me believe that facts are more important than thought and imagination, that it’s more important to know the answers than think critically, that exams are more important than knowledge itself. Some may say that in College the majority of us chose the convenient way out and they are right: one could have gone through the trouble of coming up with an original and coherent argument, no one was stopping us. But the system did not seem to require it. One could be rewarded even if one chose the easy way out, so why not choose it?

And that is the saddest and most dangerous thing of all. Our system of education, even at the undergraduate level, does not encourage us - in fact, gives us every opportunity not to - think independently, critically, creatively or analytically. And so daily India produces citizens who lack the capacity to think for themselves and instead defer to some authority, who lack the ability to critically examine their own beliefs, habits, customs and traditions, who find it difficult to imagine what it is like to be in the shoes of a person who is different from them, citizens who live together but cannot deliberate or reason logically with each other, who do not know how to develop an argument but instead tend to express disagreement through assertions, diatribe or, worse, violence.


If one has somehow developed a capacity for critical thinking, this can be attributed to a conducive  environment at home, an intellectually adventurous peer group or a gifted teacher, an isolated figure in her department. One can be sure that one developed these skills in spite of our education system, and not because of it.







This article was published in The Hindu on April 25, 2012. Click on the link below to view it:   


http://www.thehindu.com/education/article3352093.ece

20 comments:

ilabose said...

What a great job at writing this vannu! You have hit the nail on the head with this one. Great blog!

aranyani said...

Written incredibly well...sensitively being brutally honest...about yourself, others and indeed, the entire system. Fantastic conclusion too! How true it is that so many of us would rather not think for ourselves. You've managed to connect how the education system, which our country unfortunately considers so trivial and unimportant, can completely shape the way a nation collectively deals with reality. Kudos!

Pranav said...

Very true.Nicely written. One always feels a sense of lack in our system. Tends to leave one dissatisfied. And by the end of the day the passion to learn diminishes.Sad but my experience too.

Karishma McDonald said...

Dude, you are SUCH a good writer. Must run in the family. More please! Also, might be interesting to look at what's happening in the west (specifically the UK) - it's swung completely the other way. So much focus on individual and hands-on learning, yet standards are falling. At least in schools, don't know about unis!

Gaurav Malik said...

Enjoyed reading this. More so, because I did not complete school or my undergraduate degree in India. Although I was given probably an equivalent amount of reading in University (which I almost never finished), 50% of the marks were always for creative, independent thought (at least in the humanities). That's what separated an 'A' student from a 'B' student. And perhaps, that's what the system here lacks. Instead of giving 90% for gross memorization, why not cap that at 80% and have the extra 10 to 20% come for creativity. In every system, at the end of the day, you have to have read the readings to be able to make a strong argument or to draw a valid conclusion. So, I will be the first to admit, that reading matters. But I agree with you that in India we lay too much emphasis on what was written on the 4th line of pg 36 rather than on, "what is the author trying to convey and has she doene so well"?

Shilpa Chikkars-Chivukula said...

You are such a good writer.. Excellent Article Vanya.

Adil Amin said...

ahh. so this is the bad experience you were talking about.
had the same experience till the end of undergrad. suprisingly my masters has been really fun and good

Max Kornblith said...

I totally agree with your take. When people ask me about Stephen's, I usually say that a lot of the kids were really smart and a lot of the professors were too, but they're trapped in a system of exams and bureaucracy which enforce that not much actually teaching or learning is going on. That's my first response, and my second is that the sheer acceptability of plagiarism was a shock. There is one interesting side effect, though, from my very limited experience, in the focus on drilling the syllabus into you word for word. It's that if you do an Indian undergrad and go on to become an academic, you have a great basis in foundational facts and theories to build off of that Americans don't necessarily ever acquire. For students who won't go on to become academics it wastes a lot of time having all these facts drilled in, and those students would be better served by a greater focus on critical thinking. But by holding off on the critical thinking until post-grad (as long as you still get it at that point), you end up with some academics who have the "total package"--mastering both the art of theory-building and the preexisting terrain--in a way that Americans trained from day one in putting their own arguments before the existing record maybe don't. I think that's a small component of the total picture which doesn't justify the system as a whole, though. Overall, I think you're spot on. (Although I wouldn't say American universities have it perfectly down either -- something's always lost by turning education into a competition for grades, even as there's not always much of an alternative).

H R Venkatesh Rao said...

bah! don't need another writer to compete with... very nice btw : )

Shivani Singhal said...

Max, I think you've actually hit upon the crux of the problem. The Indian education system does have a strength- most people who makes it through to the end of the system have a great background knowledge of facts, an able memory and perhaps most important the ability to sit and work for hours and hours (even when quite young). If any desire to learn, do well and think hasn't been crushed out of them, this is a fantastic place to start.
Unfortunately, as you say, this is a very small minority. Most kids drop off the bandwagon, or get to the end of 12th thinking "all this learning is bullshit" and don't have the appropriate critical skills to segue into the 'real world'.
The 'west' has swung the other way in my opinion- 'smart' kids, who grasp concept quickly, *can* (I'm not saying all do- many work hard etc etc) easily get to their first year of uni without ever really putting in long hours and accumulating that solid foundation. "winging it" so to speak- thus when they start hitting their real hurdles, they don't have the 'hard work, data focused' skill set to fall back on until they are able to keep up again.
The question in my mind is how that balance is achieved much lower down the educational scale- in primary and secondary schools. I don't really know enough about higher ed in India to comment, but it doesn't seem ideal. Btw did any of you guys see this article: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article2858027.ece?homepage=true

Fabian Mo said...

very interesting! first 4 paragraphs is exactly like I encountered school till 6th grade, in 7th grade I simply stopped studying at all :)

Akshay Goenka said...

Fantastic article ! Being from the same school and educational system , I couldn't agree more .

Amrita Kanunjna said...

it was really a very nice read vanya!

Shreya Sinha said...

must i say that it is an extremely well written article. I think anybody who was in that system and read your article would identify with it, in retrospect at least. I totally agree with the getting too comfortable bit. i don't know how much it holds for others, i had never known anybody to go about it differently frankly.

at another level, i also now feel that this system of (rote) learning is actually also quite convenient. So you teach coloured histories (whether saffronized or eulogizing the INC in the INM), you teach micro theory as 'the' economics without ever as much as suggesting that there is a body of socialist economics which can have some different assumptions, you talk about globalization and liberalisation as if it is the best thing but, alas, with a few hiccups on the way. So basically, you teach/create 'facts' and then create unthinking individuals. It's convenient politically. I am not suggesting a conscious conspiracy of sorts but it serves the purpose anyway right.

Shalini Advani said...

I read the blog first (am glad I did that) and then the Hindu piece. I loved the provocative and yet reflective tone - it's a difficult balance to get right and you do. Also, there are not a lot of writings which look with some specifics at both school and university. It is important to demonstrate as you do, that this is an entire process of shaping thinking. And the last two paragraphs are positively lyrical and elegaic in their style. Well done!

Rangnath Singh said...

Your conclusion made it a wonderful reading...Liked it too much.....

gaurav jain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bhaskar Chawla said...

I agree very strongly with almost every single word written here! I've always felt that the Indian education system focuses more on training and conditioning than actual education, possibly because of the socialist ideology India adopted after independence, where it was important to turn an extremely large population into a skilled workforce. As we've seen with ultra left wing ideologies all over the world, creativity and independent thinking tend to get stifled. I sometimes feel that unlike what most people think, what's truly holding India back is not "uneducated" people, but the supposedly educated ones, which is a far more worrying prospect.

Also, if I might add, another reason why one might have developed an independent and critical way of thinking is being so terribly out of place and doing so badly in the system that one begins to question it on a fundamental level. This obviously presupposes a certain level of intelligence.

Bhaskar Chawla said...

I agree very strongly with almost every single word written here! I've always felt that the Indian education system focuses more on training and conditioning than actual education, possibly because of the socialist ideology India adopted after independence, where it was important to turn an extremely large population into a skilled workforce. As we've seen with ultra left wing ideologies all over the world, creativity and independent thinking tend to get stifled. I sometimes feel that unlike what most people think, what's truly holding India back is not "uneducated" people, but the supposedly educated ones, which is a far more worrying prospect.

Also, if I might add, another reason why one might have developed an independent and critical way of thinking is being so terribly out of place and doing so badly in the system that one begins to question it on a fundamental level. This obviously presupposes a certain level of intelligence.

Bhaskar Chawla said...

I agree very strongly with almost every single word written here! I've always felt that the Indian education system focuses more on training and conditioning than actual education, possibly because of the socialist ideology India adopted after independence, where it was important to turn an extremely large population into a skilled workforce. As we've seen with ultra left wing ideologies all over the world, creativity and independent thinking tend to get stifled. I sometimes feel that unlike what most people think, what's truly holding India back is not "uneducated" people, but the supposedly educated ones, which is a far more worrying prospect.

Also, if I might add, another reason why one might have developed an independent and critical way of thinking is being so terribly out of place and doing so badly in the system that one begins to question it on a fundamental level. This obviously presupposes a certain level of intelligence.