Two 17-year-olds I know have scored 97 per cent in their Class XII board examinations. A third has got an aggregate of 93. The few more students I know have all scored in 90s but the common thread between all of these kids is a sense of disillusionment. None of them look particularly thrilled with their results or consider it a massive achievement (which it is). Whatever one’s opinion of the value of the CBSE or ICSE curriculum, a 90+ score is an indication of how hard a student is willing to work for something, which is a trusted predictor of success in life in general.
When I ask one 95-percenter why she doesn’t look thrilled to bits, and how could it possibly be any better, the sense I get is she seems to feel anything less than a perfect score doesn’t count. I proceed to lecture that she should be basking in the glory of this incredible score because she aced the first big test of her life, a terrific confidence booster that will stand anyone in good stead to deal with other, inevitable failures ahead. But she looks at me like I’m from Mars.
The academic culture in India sends the message that excellence isn’t good enough. You have to be perfect. It’s tragic the way schools are designed to just take the joy out of life and the kind of pressure kids put on themselves to score. It’s really time that message changes. Every Indian kid needs to be taught that it’s great to set the bar high but it isn’t human to be perfect.
When the 90-percenters are unhappy with their scores, it becomes somewhat logical to see the heartbreaking news that floods the papers with alarming regularity this time every year, of kids committing suicide because of bad grades. The Delhi government even had radio spots on how to cope with exam stress, with emphasis on the fact that a bad score isn’t the end of the world. But children in the country continue to suffer under an overwhelming burden of expectations. There is something seriously wrong if a teenager believes that life is not worth living after bad marks, or remains depressed with an excellent score. Students are fed this lie, that this one exam will lead to bigger, better things, and that your future will magically fall into place based on a score. That’s simply not true.
When we emphasise that outstanding academic achievement is the only yardstick to measure success, we fail to take into account all the other variables that go into creating a meaningful life. Getting 95 per cent is no guarantee that you will acquire all the problem-solving skills you need to deal with a bad boss, for example. Or that you will be spared the agonies that come with maintaining relationships. Many of the students who are acing exams are actually reaching college unprepared for critical thinking. We all are products of a system that has figured out how to educate the maximum numbers of children at the lowest possible cost, on a thoroughly unimaginative curriculum.
Even more worryingly, there seems to be almost no room for intellectual endeavours that don’t have an obvious monetary return. Who ever heard of anyone becoming a poet anymore?
It may be romanticising education to think that students should be encouraged to immerse themselves in what interests them. Because studying is an opportunity that you don’t get for the rest of your life: the gift of time to explore a subject in depth. Children must not be treated like programmed robots, to be fed exactly that, and made to do exactly what will please a future employer. That most frightening term “final exam” needs to go. That tick or cross from a red pen is ultimately meaningless. In reality, every single human being carries on facing big and small exams, successfully and unsuccessfully, all of their lives.