July 05, 2020
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Marks Of Insecurity

Why do top results-- in boards, JEE or UPSC-- matter to us so much?

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Marks Of Insecurity
R. Prasad
Marks Of Insecurity
Judging by the hoopla surrounding the board examination results, Indian school education is in decline. What we are witnessing is a kind of decadence. The media is only helping construct this decadence. It has little or no understanding of education, focuses on the most sensational and trivial aspects of school life, and is fetishising learning. Unfortunately, it is not just the media. The government, the examining boards, school managements, teachers, and, yes, parents have combined to bring Indian education to this pass.

We think that Indian schools are world-class institutions in the making, that our science and mathematics are the envy of others, and that Indian students are smarter and harder working than anyone else. None of this is true. Indian schools are in a shambles; our science and mathematics teaching are appalling; and our students, while intelligent and diligent, are of the same genetic material as other human beings and, given the burden of our curriculum, are in danger of losing their creativity and energy by the time they "succeed" in school examinations.

Our annual board results, IIT results and civil service examination results are feeding the frenzy over the search for the smartest and the most likely to succeed. This year, the frenzy over who "topped" the exams, which school produced the best results, how many students got into engineering colleges or got the best SAT results (the US college entrance test which is a 10th standard exam, at best!), and who headed the IIT entrance lists has been worse than ever.

The question is: how can it possibly be interesting educationally that student X got 95.6 per cent and was at the top of an examination list when it is likely that the next person, who never features in the public adulation, got 95.5 per cent? Does anyone seriously think that there can be any difference intellectually and in terms of life chances and attainments based on these infinitesimal differences? Indeed, is there much difference between someone who scored 95 per cent and 89 per cent? Has anyone bothered to track all these "toppers"? Where do they end up on the scales of life—income, professional satisfaction, social status, personal happiness? What do they contribute to the good of society around them?

This is not to denigrate those who have topped. It is to ask what this frenzy of interest is about. It is not about education, whatever else it is about. It is a circus, without a circus master. Each of us helps make this spectacle, though some are more responsible than others. For instance, why does the CBSE, the most reported board, splash the name of the toppers around and feed media comparisons relating to this year's average as against last year's, how many passed and how many did not, and so on? Why do school principals like me and school managements tell the media who amongst our students topped the results and what our averages are? Why do school managements base their judgement of their school's success so massively on the board results? Why do parents, most of whom did not do particularly well themselves in the board examination in their own day, and who know that school examination results do not count for much in the game of life, become so drunken over the results, losing all sense of proportion?

One reason for this fetish relating to marks and averages is scarcity. In a country of scarcities, even a marginal difference, we conclude, can make an enormous difference to our children: that extra mark will mean extra consideration when colleges admit (somewhat true, at least in India) and when employers hire (largely not true).

Another reason for the fetish of results is our paranoia. We are convinced that people out there are conspiring to deny our meritorious children what they rightly deserve. What can stop them from doing so except a marksheet in front of them? After all, who can quarrel with the numbers? It is another matter that the numbers we fetishise are only one indication of the quality of a student's mind, and no one, with any sense, would go only by numbers, at least for the purpose of hiring.

Finally, we urban, "educated", middle-class Indians have made the board results into a fetish because we need a clear, simple and apparently unassailable index of success. So much in India seems second-rate and bleak (it is not, but we have persuaded ourselves that our country is a collective failure) that we must have some golden eggs. It does not matter that the eggs are in someone else's basket, that someone else's son or daughter has topped. We hunger for an affirmation that there are "successes" amongst us capable of transcending the "mediocrity" around. We are in search of supermen so that we can feel better.

(The author is the Headmaster of the Doon School.)
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