The problem with the education system is the emphasis on marks as an indicator of a student’s intelligence and eligibility.

Thanks for the encouragement Modi ji but heres why exams are anything but festivalsNarendra Modi/Facebook
Voices Education Monday, January 30, 2017 - 18:45

A few years ago, I remember standing in the sun outside my house. I had just received my pre-board marksheet and I was almost flunking in two subjects. I knew in my head that pre-boards weren’t the real deal but my heart was thumping madly at the prospect of getting my answer sheets signed by my parents.

Fortunately, my parents did not make a fuss about it, merely telling me to focus better for my boards. But every year, come exam time and there are plenty of stories of jittery students breaking under pressure. On social media, there are jokes and memes galore about the size of the syllabus, comparisons to Sharma uncle’s brother’s son and parents’ dissatisfied reactions to ninety per cent marks.

So, I couldn’t help but be confused about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s advice to students on this year’s first Mann Ki Baat. Not only did he tell students to celebrate exams like festivals, he also warned that when students are under stress, knowledge takes a back seat. “A happy mind is the secret for a good marksheet,” Modi said.

To your credit, Modi ji, you did tell parents also to “accept” rather than “expect”. But what you forgot to address – the root of the emphasis on marks as an indicator of a student’s intelligence and eligibility – is the education system itself.

Year after year, there are cases of students taking extreme steps due to academic pressure. In August 2016 for instance, Bengaluru teen MK Pujitha ran away from home fearing the ire of her parents for not performing well in a school test. She was only 13. Luckily, she was found and convinced to return home without mishap.

In another case, a 17-year-old girl jumped to her death a day after she secured a seat in IIT because she was “disappointed” with her results. In August, an Andhra student studying in IIT Kanpur consumed poison after facing termination from the institute. He came back home but didn’t tell his parents about his expulsion thinking it would hurt them. His friends said he was suffering from depression as well.  

The problem isn’t solved with good scores either. Come June and students from all over the country make a beeline for Delhi University. They secure admission to most courses based on cut-offs or the percentage they score in class 12 board exams. And there was a time when scoring over 90% was considered good. But now, that’s not enough to get you in any of the top colleges.

What’s more, the prestige of the college is directly proportional to how high a cut-off they can declare. Other students are forced to become second class students of sorts, going to less prestigious colleges which will pre-empt their worth when they apply for their first jobs.

But tell me Modi ji, for all the prestige in the world, how can a few digits tell you about the overall emotional intelligence and as you said, ‘knowledge’ of a student?

Let's take the example of two siblings I have, both class 10 students. Let’s call them A and B. A has been going to a coaching for kids who want to crack IIT and other top institutes for two years now. His knowledge of science and mathematics is beyond his syllabus. B did not go for coaching classes till he was in class 8. He loves to draw and colour. He’s a sensitive, conscientious child who loves reading about the environment and outer space.

B does not do as well in academics as A and while that did not bother him until a year ago, B started taking tuitions last year to improve his academic performance. He doesn’t have as much time to colour and draw now, or even play with his friends. He is too young to understand that he too has given in to the rat-race but says he is happier because his marks have improved.

The problem is not just that bright, young people are being reduced to numbers, but also about inculcating the idea that these numbers are equivalent to talent and worth.

I don’t mean to debunk academics altogether, but making students believe that there’s only one road to success is problematic. Not only does that disillusion them, but makes them question their self-worth when the mirage is shattered.

My own family was surprised when I chose to take humanities after scoring a 92% in my class 10 boards. My parents, both straight A engineers, were apprehensive but supportive. It was only later that I realized the barrage of questions they had to field from relatives so that I could pursue what I wanted at the right time, and not after a degree in engineering or medicine.

And honestly, I understand my parents’ and family’s concern. Not everyone gets to do science and commerce from prestigious schools, even if they want to. So, when I had the opportunity to do so, I must have looked silly to let it go, regardless of my interests. They’re products of the society they live in. And when everyone around them is looking at marks (which is not the same as merit), they’re bound to be worried about the kid who’s going the ‘wrong’ way.

You see Modi ji, we’re far, far away from celebrating exams as festivals. Because for the young, modern India, their value still depends on how well they can reproduce textbooks. Exams continue to be memory tests, with little regard for critical thinking. Most parents continue to worry about their children’s future based on standardized report cards.

Festivals are about inclusiveness and celebration. And there's very little to celebrate when the youngest minds in our country are disillusioned.

Note: Views expressed are personal opinions of the author.

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