The Indian student in Class X is perhaps better equipped to understand and learn from Schopenhauer than any woke university hipster. The university student might need to lean on mind-altering substances to grasp what the school student knows by merely looking at his/her glowering parents: humans have no free will.
This absolute lack of agency in an Indian student’s life is well brought out in Biswa Kalyan Rath’s Laakhon Mein Ek, a new show on Amazon Prime. It traces the life and longings of Akshay Gupta, a student about to sit for his Class XII board examinations. His parents send him off to a coaching institute that prepares students for the IIT entrance tests. His parents’ belief in the possibility of their son cracking IIT through hard work is inversely proportional to Akshay’s interest in and ability to comprehend what he is being taught.
For many students forced to take up subjects they have no aptitude for, Akshay’s predicament is all too familiar. Ours is a culture where such freedom to choose is still an alien concept. Our education system pushes young, enquiring minds towards chasing borrowed ambitions.
Growing up in a middle-class Bengali household, I, too, had to endure all the endearing dreams of my parents, teachers and relatives, who kept looking for the doctor and engineer in me, much like I kept looking for Santa Claus when I was younger. (The same set of relatives/neighbours have, over the years, gone from assailing me with the binary of “studying for engineering or medical?” to “are you married or dating someone?”)
But I digress. School was no different. Most of the teachers would dish out ominous threats about how you are doomed if you can’t perform well in the sciences. In Classes IX and X, we had a “popular” maths teacher. For ’ol times sake, I’ll just call him Mr D. Now Mr D had a unique way of publicly announcing the marks a class had got in an exam — in ascending order. His cheerfulness was, needless to say, very high every time he started with the results, which would start with zero.
“Joseph zero, Saikat three, Deb seven” he would go on, smiling knowingly, like a bearded cherub. It would peak around the 35-mark level. He was most satisfied at the pain writ large on a student’s face when s/he realises that s/he’s fallen short by just a mark or two. After a point, I suspect we all enjoyed this collective shaming of our fellow students.
The school also paid us Rs 100 for every subject we topped on the awards day. I was in Class XI, experiencing the first flush of failure, that too consistently in any subject (the sciences, which I had to take, of course). I must’ve failed in all subjects barring two — English and Bengali, which I topped. Imagine the consternation of the principal, who called out my name in front of the whole assembly to give me Rs 200 for exemplary performance, and then looked at the rest of my report card. She couldn’t decide what to focus on — the bit about topping two subjects or failing four others. I enjoyed the conflict apparent on her face more than the money.
Also, you learnt quickly that you weren’t man enough if you were an arts student. In Class X, when students had to decide what they would study, boys — and sometimes their parents — would line up outside influential teachers’ offices, requesting that they be allowed to study science. When parents were out of earshot, some teachers would snigger at some boys, asking them to take “home science” because they weren’t good enough for “real” science.
Today, when you listen to debates over the under-representation of women in leadership roles, especially in the field of science, I think it makes no sense to address that in isolation. You have to go back to school, and ensure there’s a cultural shift. Not just to fight the prejudice that holds women back but also to make an entire generation learn how to think for themselves and not just follow the herd.