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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Failing the student

We need to ask if the school-leaver is prepared for the university — and vice versa

Written by Dev Lahiri |
Updated: April 7, 2017 12:00:30 am
Board examinations, Board exam, colleges, college admissions, schools, Universities, students, student education, student admissions, Student universities, college students, P chidambaram, education, india news, indian express news, indian express columns The other great challenge facing a young school-leaver is what I would call the “emotional” turmoil that one faces at university. (Representational photo)

As yet another round of board examinations comes to a close, and another generation heads to university, it is perhaps wise for schools and universities to reflect on how prepared the average school-leaver is for university, and equally important, how prepared is the university for the school-leaver?

P. Chidambaram, in an article in The Indian Express (IE, February 27), has opined, “A university is not a mere collection of buildings. It is also not a collection of colleges or centres of research. It is not constituted solely for the purpose of conferring degrees upon the young men and women who enter its portals, study subjects and pass examinations. It is a space designed to nurture knowledge and freedom, and beckon the children of the world to take from and give unto the reservoir of knowledge and freedom.”

If this is indeed so, how prepared are our school-leavers to take on this new ecosystem? The first element in this ecosystem is what one could broadly define as the intellectual/academic expectations of a university. A good university would look for students who are, for the most part, good “self-learners”, critical thinkers, can think laterally and ask questions. But what are we doing in our schools today? Whereas education should be a liberating experience that allows the mind to drink deeply at diverse fountains, be it music or math, we have created a system that is obsessed with certification through examinations, where percentages and the ability to clear entrance tests are the criteria for success. To do this requires children to be “boxed” in, from virtually class 9 onwards, into the pigeon holes of science, commerce, or for the “lesser gifted”, humanities.

The problem is further compounded by thrusting the young mind into the soul-destroying world of private tuitions. Given this scenario — of being trapped in a soul-less classroom and tuition centre obsessed with “teaching for the test”, and then being catapulted to university — what chance does the young mind have to grow, to ponder on the mysteries and perhaps injustices of the universe, or, as the poet said, to just “stop and stare”.

And it is not as if, even within the limitations of our system, it is impossible to imbue our students with the skills that universities and, in fact, adult life itself require. All it needs is an imaginative, motivated teacher, backed by an equally imaginative and perhaps daring principal. Alas, for reasons all too often catalogued, the school-teaching profession itself has been seriously emasculated. As for “daring” heads, most heads today have been reduced to managers, rather than leaders, whose main job is to ensure that the cash tills keep rolling.

The problem is exacerbated by the systematic manner in which we have steadily denigrated the study of the humanities. Since school education is viewed mainly as a means of securing a lucrative job in either engineering, medicine or commerce, the humanities are viewed as an option only for those not “good enough” for the other streams. The fact that the humanities are generally poorly taught in most schools (who would want to teach a subject with no tuition market?), does not help the cause. Yet, it is a well-known fact that the “liberal arts” programme or its equivalent has been the foundation on which some of the best universities in the world have built their reputation. And indeed, it has been so since the Renaissance. A study of the humanities fosters a deeper understanding of the world we live in and enhances feelings of mutual respect, empathy and tolerance. A lot is being said these days about the shrinking space for debate. What is shrinking is not the space — it is our hearts and minds.

So, what we succeed in churning out from our schools is a young mind thoroughly “pressure cooked” with liberal doses of examinations and tuitions, looking at an uncertain future and desperately gasping for freedom. Are we surprised when these impressionable and often confused young minds fall prey to the machinations of our politicians who stalk our universities? Students at the better-known universities all over the world also participate in political debate and discussion, and indeed go on to become eminent political leaders . But very rarely does one see the kind of “gang war” that one sees on our campuses.

The other great challenge facing a young school-leaver is what I would call the “emotional” turmoil that one faces at university. The school is a highly structured environment. A university is not. A school is, by and large, quite homogeneous in its socio-cultural mix of students. A university is not. For the young person leaving the cocoon of a school, university can, therefore, initially be a very lonely, alienating experience.

And how prepared are universities to hand-hold this bewildered young person? The very fact that most universities hand over this critical area of responsibility to a warden tells us what their priorities are. Wardens, by definition, belong to jails or wildlife reserves. Teaching faculty very rarely have either the time or inclination to take on the challenges that confront the student. At most universities, young people have to negotiate all the minefields on their own. And the sad fact is that many do not. The recent spate of suicides and student unrest in universities are only a symptom of this huge hiatus that exists in our system.

Tagore, the visionary, possibly had a premonition of this pitiable state of education when he wrote those iconic lines “Where the mind is without fear”. And unless we wake up to this reality, we will, like the famous American singer, Don Mclean, be left lamenting: And now I understand/What you tried to say to me/How you suffered for your sanity/How you tried to set them free/They would not listen/They are not listening still/Perhaps they never will.

The writer is Director, student development and welfare, O.P. Jindal Global University

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