Exams are the Symptom, Not the Cause
Is the school-exam-certificate-job culture really what we need, as a nation, and as a planet plummeting toward ecological destruction?
The intense and competitive culture of examinations in our country has inspired much commentary, and even some books. Some of these books aim to teach clever strategies for doing better in school, and others, like the one penned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urge children and parents to step back a bit and approach exams creatively and cheerfully. Given the stories of exam stress and suicide we hear, a kind word to cultivate detachment is indeed welcome.
There is however a bigger picture beyond merely coping with exams. Is the whole school-exam-certificate-job culture we have today really what we need, as a nation, and as a planet plummeting toward ecological destruction through relentless ‘development’?As technocratic ideologies and commercial forces get increasingly normalised in education, we must look beyond the ‘battle’ of the exam hall to the ‘war’ being waged against the planet and life itself through indoctrination into docile consumerism of a whole new generation of students distracted from the planetary reality they will face as grown-ups. A shaking off of complacency is necessary. To this end, it is important that parents and educators read two books that remind us of the big picture.
Ganesh Devy’s The Crisis Within: Knowledge and Education offers a sharp critique of the absence of a decolonising vision in our education. Higher and technical education institutes have grown in numbers, but we have hardly healed at our system’s core the “mortal wounds of casteism and colonialism”. As he writes, “Unfortunately, after independence, none of the greater visions of education suitable for sustaining the innate strengths of Indian society were organically integrated with education.”
Instead, “The idea of producing engineers and doctors as manpower for economic development gained ground, and all secondary school education got bogged down under its crushing pressure.” What we have today, and what children face each year as if there were no other way possible, is a “scrutiny regime” aimed at producing economic producers.
Parents are either happy with this (or at least feel there is no choice), and maybe children too learn to think of happiness in these narrow ways; as a consumerist destination to be bought at the shopping mall regardless of environmental, familial, and social consequences once they have paid their dues of memorising and regurgitating testable facts. This system of deferring the pleasure of learning for future happiness must be questioned: is happiness not possible along the way too, in and through the process of learning?
Educator Salman Khan’s YouTube academy has become a global phenomenon in self-learning. In his book, The One World School House, Khan talks about his personal experiences of tutoring that led to his questioning of the way we teach our children.
Although he writes mainly about the American system, parents and educators in India are also familiar with the “Prussian model” we follow today thinking of it as modernity and “progress”. We break up children unnaturally into age cohorts, we fragment and compartmentalise their learning experience into subjects and periods, and of course, we test them not for “mastery learning” but for a mere pass mark that lets them move into the next year. He calls this a “broken model”. Prussian schools, whether in America or India, are aimed at producing obedience, workers and soldiers in the old days, and employees and consumers now.
Khan implores that we are in a “once in a millennium turning point” where we have an opportunity to replace mass education with “active processing,” to change a system where students, overwhelmed with fragmentation, repetition, boredom, and a “dumbed down popular culture,” simply forget much of what they supposedly learn. In any case, as he reminds us, 65 per cent of future jobs have not even been invented. We have no idea if the engineering/management rat-race into which many parents push their children today will turn out to be economically sustainable when they grow up. What is important is not “what they learn,” but “how they learn to teach themselves” in a future that is not yet clear to us beyond signs that the air, water, lands and trees will all be in far worse shape than even what they are now.
I draw our attention to the ecological dimension of the future rather than the usual jobs dimension because there is perhaps no other grand idea that needs to be worked on by the world as a whole.
“Development” in economic terms through engineering might have been a fair goal for the first generation that grew up after Independence, but it cannot be the reigning ideal for the cohort of India’s children born after liberalisation. The sheer ecological footprint of their entry into a consumer culture is something that we must teach them about. We must encourage them to think of themselves as a planetary catastrophe-averting generation (and try to set some examples too).
As a professor, and as a parent, I believe we need a serious change. Instead of reducing education to “getting ahead” (for survival or for aspirational status signalling), we might, following Devy, recognise the value of consciousness itself as the field, purpose, and destination of education. A goal of “cheto vistar,” of education as “aesthetic and spiritual ascension,” inspired by Aurobindo, Gandhi and Tagore, and anchored reflexively to the ground of real-world social inequities as urged on by Ambedkar and others, will make decolonisation a reality not only for the seemingly interminably (and ecologically expensively) being built nation, but also for the mothers, fathers, and children, most of all, who constitute it.
Author and Professor of Media Studies,University of San Francisco