With the aggressive return of COVID-19, we are experiencing heightened anxiety. And amid this turmoil, we are also witnessing the breakdown of “normalcy” in our education system. As board exams get cancelled or postponed around the country, students, parents and teachers are at a loss. Possibly, many of them, conditioned to believe that education is incomplete without standardised tests or exams, are worried that these young students, apart from the mental agony of the pandemic, will miss what this hyper-competitive society needs: The willingness or the stamina to take part in this exam war, accept the logic of grading, ranking and hierarchising, or the duality of “success” and “failure”.
However, this breakdown of “normalcy” should make us introspect and ask disturbing questions: Can the ritualisation of standardised tests and exams be regarded as the ultimate substance of education? Or is there more in the life of a learner than the technique of learning exam-strategy, or the competitive urge to be declared as a “topper”? Paradoxically, at this moment of deep existential crisis, this question has acquired significance. It is in this context that three issues need to be raised.
To begin with, let it be stated clearly that these standardised tests or exams are by no means neutral. It doesn’t require much politico-cultural insight to realise that a child from a municipality school located in Delhi’s Trilokpuri slum, and a child from a fancy “international” school in Bengaluru are by no means equal, even though both of them are required to master the same texts, equate knowledge with the same official curriculum irrespective of diverse and asymmetrical socio-cultural contexts, and write the same CBSE exam. With a huge difference in their access to social/cultural/economic capital, their performances are bound to differ. And we cannot hide the story of this perpetual reproduction of social inequality through the so-called neutral and uniform exams simply because, occasionally, the child of a rickshaw puller or street vendor gets 90 per cent, and her picture is published in newspapers. Moreover, the absurdity of these “neutral” exams becomes clear as we look at the digital divide in the country, and accept that the much-hyped “online” teaching/learning is a myth and has done injustice to those who cannot afford it. Do these tests exist only to eliminate people, choose the select few, valorise their “success stories” and, in the name of “meritocracy”, sanctify the logic of a recklessly divided society?
Second, it is important to deconstruct our schooled mind, and realise that the kind of exams we are familiar with is by no means the substance of meaningful education. Instead, the ritualisation and tyranny of exams cause immense psychic anxiety, generate widespread fear, and, above all, deprive the entire experience of learning/unlearning/exploring of a sense of joy, wonder and self-discovery. Instead, they transform one into a clever strategist; one is trained (by coaching centres as well as school teachers obsessed with the exam performance of their students) to master the technique of giving the “right” answer. Hence, every subject is reduced to a set of exam riddles. Seldom does one find the time and space to, say, read a story by Premchand in one’s own rhythm, or look at the sunset and explore the scientific reasons for the amazing colour of the sky, or do things with one’s hands, and feel the integration of the mental and the physical. Instead, the one-sided emphasis on exam performance kills the very spirit of learning as self-exploration.
Third, this exam-centric education breeds fear, envy and superiority/inferiority complex. In a way, it legitimises hyper-competitiveness as a way of life; it is inherently against the spirit of reciprocity, symmetry and cooperation. Hence, its “successful” products — the bunch of “toppers” and “gold medallists” — tend to be egoistic. The art of relatedness, humility, the ethos of sharing, and trust in the innate possibility and uniqueness of every human soul — we do not allow our children to develop these qualities. Instead, schools orient them to be warriors. It would not be entirely wrong to say that the sort of exams we have taken for granted is the worst form of violence we inflict on the consciousness of young children.
Isn’t this also a time when the coronavirus has compelled us to rethink our modes of living, and hence the very meaning of education? Feel the intensity of pain and agony we are passing through. Feel the hollowness of what our inflated egos take for granted — our superiority, almost a sense of immortality. Feel the trauma of meaninglessness as we are reduced to numbers. Death becomes mere statistics, and living is only a survival strategy with masks, sanitisers and vaccines. Feel the all-pervading fear and loneliness that surrounds our existence when crematoriums are chaotic, and hospitals are unmanageable. Education ought to sensitise our children, make them humble wanderers, activate their patience and endurance, cultivate the ethics of care, and prepare them to pass through existence with the songs of collective redemption. No harm will be done if standardised tests and exams do not quantify their performance in algebra and geometry. And we will not fall if television channels do not get the opportunity to interview the “toppers” amid the suicide narratives of those who “fail”.
When do we realise that our children need something truly challenging and life-affirming rather than the neurosis of exam-centric education?
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 28, 2021 under the title ‘Let’s go out of syllabus’. Pathak is professor of sociology at JNU.