Sunday, March 27, 2005

Education and literacy

They were all silent, even those who had not committed the sins I had attributed to them. I dismissed the class early, although the culprits and a few others stayed back to plead their case. They were docile even in their pleas: they wanted to be forgiven, they did not know any better, this was what most professors expected. Two were in tears. What could they do? They had never learned any better. From the first day they had set foot in elementary school, they had been told to memorize. They had been told that their own opinions counted for nothing.

- Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

How does it feel when you have ideas and thoughts simmering inside you, but you never have the encouragement or the platform to give vent to them? I know what it feels like. In school, when I was mesmerized by the beauty of billowing clouds on a sun-drenched day, or the romance of the pearl-grey sky throwing forth pricks of happy moisture on a hot evening, I often felt privileged and lonely at the same time. Privileged because as anyone with the ‘heart of a poet’ will understand (as years later a friend from college put it), those fleeting moments when Nature is at her resplendent best are genuinely special, and lonely because at the time, poetry to most in my school meant unwelcome lines that you had to mug up to get extra marks in exams. We were never asked to comment on anything, argue or even paraphrase. It went to the extent that Maths – MATHS for heaven’s sake – was sometime learnt by rote. Today when my 16-year-old cousin tells me that mugging is the only way to get marks in exams – and marks are ultimately the deciding factor for admission to college – I start off arguing forcefully about the need for him to actually understand what he is learning, but slowly my energy peters out. Because he is right. I went through the rigmarole of Indian education and he is still at it, years later, and nothing has changed. I have nothing to support my point of view, apart from my passion for what I call ‘real’ education, as opposed to ‘engineered’ literacy.

The Indian education system – and by that I mean primarily Indian state examination boards, because I don’t have the experience of anything else – are seriously flawed. I certainly don’t remember very much of what I studied in school, and I was a pretty good student all through. What is the point of this education then? It doesn’t teach confidence or encourage innovation or talent. It creates factory-moulded robots – and when you hear about the saffronisation of education, that is even scarier. George Orwell’s ‘1984’, anyone?

Today the stress placed on students during exams leads them to take their lives, and nowadays parents are turning to that as a solution to their wards’ problems as well. Arjun Singh’s HRD Ministry convened a meeting with representatives from the IIM’s, IIT’s, NGO’s and other institutes last week in New Delhi to debate the issue. Lots of solutions are being bandied about – from doing away with exams till Class 8, to introducing a grading system. Whether mere discussions will translate into effective action remains to be seen, but till then ‘Ten thousand saw I at a glance’ could be written by Mark Twain for all anyone cared.

And years down the lane, another person like me will feel forcefully angry and hopelessly sad at the same time, for growing years having gone un-nurtured.

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