Published in THE HINDU, 5th May 2015
A few weeks ago, the media captured the stark and shocking image of people — family members and friends — climbing and getting on to the ledges of the high-rise Vidya Niketan school in Mahnar village, 60 kilometres from Patna, Bihar, to pass on answer chits to students appearing for their school exams on March 18, 2015. Headlines such as “Scaling new heights to deliver cheat sheets” and scenes on TV made it clear that this could never have happened without the connivance of teachers and examination personnel, thus laying bare the deep flaws in the Indian education system. The incident caused the State Education Minister P.K. Shahi to admit that stopping malpractices in Board examinations was a huge task.
“If we try to stop unfair means at a centre, friends and family members of the examinees gang up to intimidate us,” said a schoolteacher. The incident at Mahar was not an isolated one. Reports also came in of people scaling compound walls of schools to help examinees at centres in Sharsha and Khagaria districts.
Just a few weeks after this, on April 15, BBC News published a story titled, “Jail for cheating Atlanta teachers”.
These two starkly different responses to unfair means in exams, in India and the United States, are startling. In spite of a difference between teachers adopting unfair means with regard to manipulating exam results and school authorities, including teachers, allowing students to use unfair methods in exams using help from outsiders.
Who is to blame? Who should be held responsible? In both these examples, one has to acknowledge the great pressure of competitive exams and the mark sheet-centric approach in academics as being a measure of human worth in trying to understand why this happens. One also has to look closely at the relationship between education, learning, exams and competition.
Authentic self and education
We often talk of education as being an instrument of economic development of self and society. Sometimes, we also allude to it as being an instrument to help one prepare for critical, democratic citizenship. But rarely do we talk of education being a process to help a person form his authentic self. When I talk about “formation of the authentic self”, I do not mean the oft-talked about character development and education in values. All three aims of education — economic, citizenship, and character/values — though necessary, fall short of helping one form one’s authentic self. Moreover, they can be used to work against it.
The three characteristics I would like to count as being a part of the authentic self of an individual are: autonomy, integrity and harmony. Apart from one’s intellectual capabilities, all three necessarily should manifest themselves as character traits of an individual. Further, their necessary ingredients are a deep, emotional investment as well as a dispassionate understanding.
Let’s examine these three. Autonomy means using one’s own mind in making choices whether they are personal or public. This is possible only with a robust understanding of the world and one’s situation in it. It also demands a level of self-confidence and self-respect without being conceited or indulgent.
Integrity is more than just autonomy as it involves a coherence in the results of one’s intellectual deliberations and taking them seriously while putting them in action and thus imparts an overall stability to one’s personality.
Harmony, metaphorically, may be termed as a state of internal peace. More precisely, it means an alignment between one’s emotional states, intellectual understanding and actions. I will also bring in “an absence of fragmentation”, which does not mean the complete absence of internal tension. There will always be a certain degree of tension as one constantly faces new situations and in utilising one’s emotional and intellectual energies to bear upon them. But this tension will always be confined to being within the limits of one’s strength of character. This wholesome development of an individual can be called the formation of an authentic self. Education is the primary means of helping an individual form such a self. Perhaps, it is also the highest goal of education. An alternative expression for an authentic self can be: manasa, vachaa, karmana; with the proviso that all three are governed by one’s own judgement.
Examinations and testing
So far there is no method by which to assess the development of an authentic self. The only test is life itself! Examinations are a severely limited means by which to assess educational development, even if the assessment of an authentic self is left out. First, they are limited to testing the present repertoire of knowledge of an individual; even this has severe problems of validity and reliability. Knowledge is a fully connected whole and it cannot be tested by seeking fragments of information as is usually done in examinations. Going deeper into the interconnections of concepts and beliefs of an individual is a time-consuming and subjective affair; subjective for both examiner and examinee. In order for it to be reliable, it demands objectivity across a sample of examinees. Therefore, validity and reliability vary inversely with each other. Large-scale tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Annual Student Assessment Report (ASER) can ensure a satisfactory level of reliability and validity only if the testing is limited to a very small portion of student learning. This makes them almost useless in understanding the development of an authentic self. However, to be fair, in such tests, this is not even the goal.
Competition, an endemic problem of everyday life, is aggravated through a system of testing and examination. In the name of pursuing “success”, schools start encouraging competition at the individual level right from standard one. Measuring one child against the other becomes the motivating factor in learning; in the process, immeasurable damage is done to the child’s self-image; in most cases, a child’s worth is reduced to a piece of paper signed by the class teacher. In schools, students become almost intellectual slaves, competing with each other for a greater share of the market. At another level, as in States, large-scale, unreliable and invalid methods of testing are used. Education is reduced to the level of “teaching for testing”. At the national level, it becomes the tool of one-upmanship and used in spurious predictions of future economic worth. In all this, the individual is completely lost. All that is visible are aggregates of a tiny part of the human capability, measured through tools of suspicious validity.
Education systems across the world are used to judge the worth of individuals. They issue certificates and mark-sheets and these documents are taken by employers and institutions of further education as the measure of an individual’s capabilities. Since societies reward individuals on the basis of their perceived capabilities (if we ignore nepotism and money power), these certificates become the measure of the worth of the individual. Thus a person ends up getting characterised on the basis of minuscule part of his/her self.
The disproportionate importance accorded to such certification pushes people — students, parents and teachers — to use all means possible to get that good certificate. Therefore, using unfair methods in an examination, for example, is often the easiest way to get that ideal mark-sheet. This tilts the balance of the learner’s personality; her development of reasoning, character and alignment of emotions are totally ignored. Her capability to reproduce so-called “important information” overwhelms everything else. Education, which is supposed to help her develop an authentic-self, creates disharmony within her soul.
Nonchalance versus righteous wrath
I come back to the incident and case I referred to in the beginning — in Bihar and the U.S. The typical Indian attitude/reaction if shown a picture of what happened in Bihar would have been one largely of a nonchalance borne out of apathy. The 15-minute flash of interest on social media around the incident does not belie this claim.
On the other hand, the American reaction, which resulted in jail terms of up to 20 years, seems to express a righteous wrath. We, as Indians, generally see ideas and actions in a flux, as specks that are unimportant in a gigantic cosmic flow. This often conceals from us the true significance of events. In the Bihar example, most of us seem to be unaffected by the possible harm it might cause to our collective understanding and growth of our children as individuals with potential. In contrast to this are the Americans who seem horrified by the prospect of the havoc cheating by teachers may cause to the national system of education.
However, both seem to ignore the distortion brought to education and its very purposes, and the root cause of it being testing for competition. Neither apathy nor righteous wrath can free education from the grip of competition, testing, and instances of using unfair methods. This atmosphere and character of education is what holds back a child’s growth, of autonomy, by limiting understanding to a tiny part of “testable” knowledge, which is grossly inadequate to understand one’s situation in the world. It tears apart the coherence of intellectual deliberations, values and actions. It completely destroys the harmony between the intellectual, moral and emotional self; it makes action a random response to the contingency of the moment.
The besieged state of education is what is reducing the child’s soul into a battlefield that results in fragmented pieces of the self. The child’s aspirations, understanding, moral dispositions and emotions are constantly at war with each other. We are reducing the child into becoming fake copies of what we aspire for rather than helping the child become a master of his or her own soul. One wonders whether cases of student suicides in India and the repeated instances of shooting sprees in American schools are a direct result of this disharmony in the soul created by present day education systems!