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IN SEARCH OF NEW BENCHMARKS

It is a seasonal epidemic that comes round every year. In West Bengal, the timing cannot be predicted with precision, somewhat like the arrival of the monsoons. But it arrives nonetheless, with its mandatory fanfare of photographs of “topper sons and mothers”. Interviews on television, felicitation ceremonies, awards and advertisements (of coaching classes claiming credit for producing the toppers) follow in their wake.

In the midst of this overwhelming but routine mass hysteria, we never pause to think of the grave damage that this pointless annual exercise causes to our society. Firstly, the pressure on students to score higher and higher marks result in their opting for subjects that are perceived to be “scoring”, irrespective of their aptitude or interest.

Here the Indian School Certificate and the Central Board of Secondary Education systems of assessment have a definite advantage over the system adopted by the West Bengal Council of Higher Secondary Education, whereby subjects such as history, language and literature are not awarded marks on a par with subjects that are overtly quantifiable, such as mathematics or accountancy. The consequence is that students who have demonstrated excellence in the humanities or social sciences and have had the courage to choose these fields in a time when such subjects are regarded as “useless” or “interesting but not job-oriented”, receive no accolades at all. This is a very dangerous thing.

We must acknowledge the phenomenon of multiple intelligences. Excellence is pluralistic in nature and it comes in many forms. Yet at the school level, we tend to honour only a minuscule part of the full range. Just as we need excellent doctors and engineers, we also need excellent writers, historians, workmen and artists. Indeed, an excellent carpenter deserves much more admiration than a third-rate engineer. The very quality of our society depends on the pursuit of excellence in every sphere and in every kind of activity. And this must be recognized in the formative years — from the school level.

Performing well in a public examination is necessary for practical purposes. However, the recent “inflation” of marks, has taken away some of its practical value. More and more institutions are disregarding board results and designing their own admission procedures. In any case, the wisdom of judging students on the basis of a single examination is highly suspect. Many a student has scored higher than his or her intellectually superior peers by adopting smart examination-tackling strategies. It has been observed that the most influential factor in the process of learning in high school is students’ perceptions of the way marks are awarded. Thus, we have coaching centres sprouting all over our city and now they are mushrooming in the districts as well. They are reputed to be well armed with “good notes” and “sure-fire suggestions”(the jargon for likely examination questions).

The powers that be have tried to stop this business of private tuition but — expectedly — have not succeeded. After all, extrinsic motivation that sees education as merely a way of obtaining necessary qualifications for a bright, lucrative career is a potent force. But the pursuit of fast tracks, short cuts and instant gratification has led to widespread shallowness and mediocrity.

Much of our despair over mediocrity and the sorry absence of excellence in the present social scenario is a result of our failure to realize that mindless competition in education is damaging to intellect, imagination and health — physical as well as mental. There is no qualitative difference whatsoever between 977 and 971 — the marks of the Uchcha Madhyamik “topper” and the second position holder. This kind of ranking is an example of what Bertrand Russell calls “the social element” in school education that lays emphasis on “socially verifiable excellences”. (It is significant that the ISC system gives no division and makes no ranking in its results. Yet the media discovers “toppers” in this system as well).

In his essay, Competition in Education”, Russell writes that out of a class of 100, 90 learn from fear of punishment, 9 from a competitive desire for success, and only 1 from a love of knowledge or intrinsic motivation. John Holt, in his brilliant book entitled “How Children Fail”, refers to the strong motives of trying to please parents and that of the fear of failure. Most importantly, he talks of the fear of success which is likely to generate more pressure to perform even better. Both writers have asserted that if intrinsic motivation can be invoked, there will be less anxiety and less fatigue in the process of learning.

In Russell’s words, “If the acquisition of knowledge is felt as pleasure, it is likely to be continued after the period of formal education is ended.” And a universal objective of education is that learning should be a life-long process. A report to the United Nations educational, scientific and cultural organization of the International Commission on Education for the 21st century states, “A key to the 21st century, learning throughout life will be essential for adapting to the evolving requirements of the labour market and for better mastery of the changing time-frames and rhythms of individual existence.”

Every year, at the time of the seasonal epidemic we express our shock at the crop of examination-related suicides. Every year, at this time we felicitate our “toppers” and ignore students who are intellectually imaginative, intellectually adventurous and creative. Yet, every once in a while the uncomfortable question is asked, “Why don’t we produce thinkers and inventors any more'” The answer is: we do but they have to go abroad to discover this. We are quick to claim Nobel, Booker and Pulitzer Prize winners as our own on account of their “Indian origin”, but they are certainly not a result of our examination system.

It is because we do not promote intrinsic motivation in education that we are failing to establish standards of intellectual excellence. The emotional, social, mental and physical strain of having to perform in terms of marks is taking its toll. We are producing students who are uninspired, cynical and conditioned to give the right answers to right questions from the right books, whereas from an early age they should be excited about learning and be infused with enthusiasm for discovery and research.

They must be encouraged to demonstrate intellectual initiative, ask questions fearlessly and make mistakes fearlessly. They must be led to understand that in many areas there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. In short, they need to excel in their own way. But for all this to happen, it is imperative that we free them from intellectual slavery. The first step towards this end is to change our method of assessment — unless of course we wish to keep churning out assembly-line intellects.

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