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Coached for disaster

Whatever the how, here’s the now. It is a truth acknowledged that any standardised examination in possession of a large professional benefit must be in want of a coaching centre

Saikat Majumdar Published 30.05.24, 07:32 AM
A still from Kota Factory: Season 2.

A still from Kota Factory: Season 2. Sourced by the Telegraph.

Anyone who has brought up children is likely to have heard questions like these: ‘Did you have electricity when you were small?’ ‘Were there cows in your home when you were a child?’ And my favourite — ‘Were dinosaurs around when you were little?’

A friend of mine, a professor at a leading Indian Institute of Management, tells me that there are now many candidates qualifying through the MBA entrance test, CAT, whose sense of the past, as revealed in the final interviews, is rather similar. Asked when Rana Pratap fought the Mughals, one of them thoughtfully named 1960 as the approximate year. When prompted to ask if they thought their grandfather had fought in that war, they said it’s very likely but they would definitely find out once home. When asked to name the year when women got voting rights in India, another candidate specified 1995. And here’s one that echoes the dinosaurs, or almost — when asked whether Darwin came before or after Christ, one interviewee was confident that Jesus was born long after the evolutionary biologist had finished his work.


And the fairy tale answers proliferate, occasionally turning the CAT interview room into a miraculous crèche. Except that these are people in their twenties, and future corporate employees who have already qualified at 97/98 percentile through the Common Admission Test to do their MBA at top institutions in the country. It is a small surprise when my friend tells me that major corporate employers have started to complain that the quality of IIM graduates they are recruiting now, but for exceptions, is not a patch on the IIM graduates of the past. And friends in senior positions in the corporate world echo very similar grievances from the other side of the table.

Studying to the test with a tunnel vision strategy is a reality all over the world — including the United States of America where coaches claiming to train kindergarteners for Ivy-League colleges charge hundreds of dollars per hour. It’s the reality of the anxious world in which we live today. But it takes an acute shape in India where education and social mobility are linked in ways that are sometimes deeply empowering and, sometimes, killingly claustrophobic. Educationists such as André Beteille have traced this desperate exam culture to British colonial education policy that sought to produce clerks. Others like Sanjay Seth have read rote learning as rooted in older cultures of memorialisation that were part of both religious and secular learning traditions. The ‘why’ is a debate for another day, and there is some interesting scholarly research on the subject for anyone who is interested.

Whatever the how, here’s the now. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any standardised examination in possession of a large professional benefit must be in want of a coaching centre. Whether blinkered candidates ranking high, blind to defining historical, political and cultural realities, is too steep a price to pay for this coaching culture is a concern not just for educators but also for prospective employers. The most pointed worry today is that as the Indian economy fails to generate enough jobs in the private sector, the desperation for government jobs attainable through competitive exams reaches a state of frenzy. And this is wonderful news for at least one sector of the economy — the private coaching industry.

Notwithstanding the crisis at anxiety-exploiting businesses like BYJU’s, the growing popularity of films and OTT shows about training and coaching for competitive exams (Aspirants, 12th Fail, Kota Factory) and their humorous as well as life-affirming qualities tell us that coaching culture in India is more prosperous than ever. This creates a vicious cycle. The failure of the private economy to create jobs foregrounds the old model of competition for scant government positions. The prospering industry of coaching centres deepens and widens the culture of strategic studying-to-the-test that creates inferior employees for the private sector.

This is the entangled mutual relation between education and economy that prevails in any country. In the earlier years of the 21st century, when India was sometimes mentioned in the same breath as China, many people, entrepreneurs and educationists alike, became excited about new models of undergraduate education driven by research and interdisciplinary connections in interactive classrooms. Promising to move beyond the passive and the faceless examination-driven, single-subject curricula, the new liberal education models felt relevant to the emergent giant of the Asian economy and India’s place in it. But as that economy fails for most Indians, barring a handful of billionaires, millions of young Indians, particularly from rural and provincial locations, see no new job prospects in the private sector. Falling back on the scramble for government jobs is also falling back on the Kota factories that do not distinguish among UPSC, CAT, and JEE. All anxieties create profit. But the uniformity of this coaching is doomed to show up in corporate and government corridors alike, and far beyond ignorance of all knowledge unclaimed by the test-prep manuals. There is no doubt that given the Indian middle class’s serious preoccupation with education and the sheer numbers game of these exams, there will always be a steady supply of brilliant exceptions. But for each genuinely deserving candidate, I worry, there will be many who will master the science of scoring in the 99th percentile without any idea of whether Darwin was BC or AD.

The continuing proliferation of digital resources and Artificial Intelligence are the likeliest to first render irrelevant the people who depend the most on them. These are folks who wonder what’s the big deal about dates and names when Google, Siri, and ChatGPT will give it to you at one prompt. I hear many new-age EdTech gurus repeat the mantra that information doesn’t matter anymore, only critical thinking does. But critical thinking is an empty phrase when divorced from knowledge. For John Dewey, critical thinking was a shapeless fluid that became real only when poured into vessels of different shapes — be it physics, philosophy, or psychology. Our disciplines still offer the best vehicles of critical thinking. Neither test-taking talent nor the motivational LinkedIn post on EdTech can replace it.

Saikat Majumdar is Professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University. Views are personal

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