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Published in The Hindu on 17th June 2016.

Rohit Dhankar

Once again, it is that time of the year when the examination results season may be just ending and the admissions season is in progress, and marked by a cacophony of two contradictory voices — often from the same people — that rose to deafening levels from April to May when the results of various school boards were declared. The first voice celebrated those who succeeded and did wondrously well. Newspaper articles were published on which sections of students did better than the other. Did girls do better than the boys? Did school system ‘X’ do better than school system ‘Y’? Pictures of individual students who topped the examinations were published and their parents, teachers and schools eulogised. Once the general ‘results fever’ subsided, this shrill voice was echoed by private schools which claimed to have taught some of the toppers, with their posters appearing in every possible place, from roadside electric poles to walls.

In general, this celebration of success in an examination goes on for the whole year, till the next results season when the old faces are replaced with new ones to valorise.

Pressure of expectations

More importantly, the second voice is one of lamentation as many students, wilting under stress and pressure, burnout and even commit suicide in this season, simply because they could not fulfil their parents’ expectations.

The loss of these young, and often bright, people must make us ponder. They have moved up all the way from nursery class to high school to fulfil their parents’ ambitions of seeing them grow into engineers, doctors or managers graduating from the so-called top-level institutions in the country. These children must have seen themselves only as exam-cracking “achievers” in order to make their parents happy. They lost out on their childhood play and free time; no pranks with their friends and no experience of the simple joy of just being a carefree child. This loss would have led to a narrow vision of human life guided by the all-important value of “success”; which is just defined as getting a top job. Period. These children, deprived of social development and trapped in an artificially developed world, choose death over struggle when that world suffers a rude shock with exam results that are less than expected.

There is very little recognition that the first voice I talked about creates a powerful environment wherein the trait of parents imposing their ambitions on the children becomes dominant. When they do not turn out to be as successful as their parents want them to, they fade away. This problem has two sides to it: the first is the examination-oriented Indian education system, and the second is competitive and cruel parents.

The ‘crushing weight of exams’

About 80 years ago, the Zakir Hussain report on National Basic Education noted that the “system of examinations prevailing in our country has proved a curse to education”. It pinpointed the malady by saying that a bad system is made worse by awarding examinations a place much beyond their utility. The problem, however, is much older than stated in the Zakir Hussain report.

For this, one has to go back as early as 1904 to the Indian Educational Policy issued by the then Governor General. This colonial document had a section titled “The abuse of examinations” and noted that “[e]xaminations, as now understood, are believed to have been unknown as an instrument of general education in ancient India”. It also claimed that examinations did not have a prominent place even in the Despatch of 1854, commonly known as Wood’s Despatch. The Hunter Commission report of 1882-83, which left examinations and promotions to the next class up to standard eight entirely to the schools, did not recommend any province-level or board exemptions. Still, the educational policy of 1904 noted that examinations had “grown to extravagant dimensions, and their influence has been allowed to dominate the whole system of education in India, with the result that instruction is confined within the rigid framework of prescribed courses, that all forms of training which do not admit of being tested by written examinations are liable to be neglected”. It further noted that the system was adopted on the precedence of English education which itself has “finally condemned” it; however, in India, it was proving to be “disastrous in its influence” on education. The policy recommended reforms that included abandoning public examination at the primary level, “more equitable tests of efficiency”, and “to relieve the schools and scholars from the heavy burden of recurring mechanical tests”.

The Indian Educational Policy of 1913 declared victory and stated that “the formerly crushing weight of examinations has been appreciably lightened”. It further declared that the “principal objects of the school final examination are adaptability to the course of study and avoidance of cram”.

All this shows that the devastating effects of this “curse to education” have been known quite well for over 100 years. There is no commission or committee report after Independence which does not acknowledge the burden of rote learning and the examination system on its students and its futility in assessing their real abilities. They all recommend examination reforms. The recent attempts, after Right to Education (RTE) stipulation, of no pass-fail and no board examinations till completion of elementary education in favour of a continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE) are well known.

However, the public education system has completely failed to implement these reforms and the private schools have never paid much attention to them. We have now reached a stage where no one in the country knows how the CCE can be implemented, and how we can measure progress of the child without pass-fail systems. Therefore, there has been a concerted effort to discard this half-hearted foraging into unknown territory as soon as the present government came to power at the Centre. The result is that many States have gone back to their familiar pass-fail system and board examinations at the end of eighth standard if not earlier.

Nexus of forces

The question that stares us in the face is, how is it that we haven’t cleansed our education system of a curse that has been well known for over a hundred years? There is never a single factor behind the persistence of such problems; it always has to be a nexus of forces. Some of the factors that lie within the education system are often mentioned. The lack of seriousness, of resources, teachers untrained in new methods, etc. form the routine list. One reason rarely mentioned is the inconsistency between the prevailing grade-wise curriculum and school structure on the one hand and the idea of progress on the learning continuum inherent in the CCE on the other. The CCE does not suit our authoritarian school organisation, administration and syllabus organisation.

But it seems that the biggest force behind the persistence of this curse and useless examination system is a social one which is grossly under-examined. We are a caste-based and strictly hierarchical society. In earlier times, this hierarchy had the iron-clad stability of the caste system. That determined the place, function, work and life of an Indian even before his/her birth. There are attempts now, which range from constitutional rights to political struggle, to break that mould. It may not have been dismantled yet, but is under tremendous pressure ever since the freedom movement began.

But social hierarchies involve privileges, prestige and goods of life that are cherished by all. None is ready to let go of the privileges one has. As a result, the attempts to maintain the old hierarchy as well as the ways to challenge it look toward education. Education, therefore, becomes a means of fierce competition either to remain in one’s position of privilege or to rise in the hierarchy. It completely stops being a self-motivated way of forming an authentic self and gaining an understanding of the world, and is reduced to a means to beat/best the neighbour. A more open and thoughtful system of education will challenge the hierarchies which are so dear to a caste-minded Indian. The result is that the authoritarian system of pass-fail stays.

The stand of intellectuals

One wonders why the intellectuals in Indian society, and who understand the ills of this education system and the implied curse of examinations, don’t make a beginning to dismantle it. The answer perhaps lies in the often noticed phenomenon of the very people who write scathing papers and offer opinion on the ills of the current examination system, hold seminars and give keynote addresses on it in conferences, taking leave and cancelling all their engagements to be at hand when their own children are to appear in the standard 10 and 12 board examinations. Interpreting this contradiction as a simple lack of commitment to ideals is a superficial understanding even if it has an element of truth. The malady is deeper. In spite of being convinced of the “truth” of their analysis of the education system and the ills of examinations, they see the possibility of privileges their children will get through success in these very examinations; and the dangers of losing the positions achieved by themselves.

To face this situation one requires courage of conviction which scholar Alberuni noted a thousand years ago, albeit in the context of religion, that Indians don’t have. In the context of theology Alberuni notes: “at the utmost, they [Indians] fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property in religious controversies”. Not putting at stake their soul, body and property in religious disputes may be considered a welcome openness; but it seems this tendency is applicable to all ideas that might bring change. Indians don’t stake their property and position on ideas that may collide with the existing system. Unfortunately, no change in the system is possible without there being a critical number of people in society who are ready to pay the price to make a beginning. We don’t seem to have that critical number yet. And till we reach that number, our children will continue to commit suicide and their parents will continue to disown the responsibility to push them to do it. And we will all continue to blame the rigid system without noticing that its roots are in our own souls.