Two tough months are ahead. No, I am not referring to the oncoming summer. Not even to the elections, although the heat generated by the elections seems to be rivalling that of nature. However warm the rhetoric of the elections is going to be, I am actually referring to the annual, national stress-creator called “Exams”. The country is in the midst of exams, all kinds of exams. Millions of students are writing all kinds of stuff on paper; dreams are going to blossom or die in the next few months for these millions.
The state of examinations today is an indicator of the kind of nation we have become. As is well known, exams are not only stressful for the students but more so for parents, particularly mothers. Countless mothers pamper their children during this time, including feeding them if necessary! No wonder some believe that it is the dreams of mothers, more than those of their children, that are really driving the state of education in India today.
It is sad, really sad, to see what we have done to bright young minds and grown up adults, both of whom lose the basic sense of their selves in the face of exams. Anybody with aspirations, and with enough financial support, writes not just one exam but many. Days are measured — not by coffee spoons — but by the number of coaching classes for the different exams that the students go to.
I know parents who break down during this time. I am absolutely amazed that the same questions asked decades ago are still so important today: will my child get into medical or engineering college? Will s/he pass the IIT exam? Along with these anxieties, another constant one: I hope my child does not want to do arts!
If I were to be a little more suspicious, I would think that there is a great conspiracy by many Parents of India along with the Government of India to make sure that young kids do not take to arts and humanities. Ironically, the examination system is intimidating to such students but at the same time it also pushes more students towards these disciplines. It is this fundamental flaw of the exam system that makes exam season a bigger tamasha than the election season. At least the latter comes only once in five years.
There are at least three major flaws of the exam system across India. First is the exam itself: the content, what it hopes to test and how the test is administered. Second is the evaluation of these exams and the method of evaluation by overworked teachers having to grade thousands of exam papers. Third is the obsession of entrance tests with mathematics, particularly the emphasis on high speed calculation in competitive exams. While these may seem to be flaws of only the exam system, I would suggest that they exemplify a deeper disease pervading our nation.
From our schools to our colleges, students have stopped reading texts. The fascination with guidebooks as the primary source of all knowledge continues. Today, I am told, guide books sell in lakhs and are one of the most profitable resources in publishing. Given the unceasing march of these books, many school exam systems have removed any pretence of having textbooks for students to read. Exams are already anticipated and performed by the students through these guides and tutorial classes that are meant not for learning but only for writing exams.
The fact that such practices not only encourage but also sustain the culture of ‘mugging’ is one of the oldest stereotypes of education in India but we don’t seem to have made any dent in its progress. Part of the reason is the centralisation of exams and the need to grade thousands of papers. When machine grading replaced human ones, the exam system in some cases replaced reproduction of notes by the moronic MCQs (multiple choice questions).
Competitive exams add another dimension to this tamasha. Mimicking exams like GRE, many of these entrance exams introduced questions in mathematics. So if you want to do MBA, you not only have to solve some inane arithmetic and geometry questions but you also have to do them at great speed. What does solving 100 basic mathematical questions in 30 minutes tell us about a student? The belief that logical or critical thinking skills are tested through such tests is another myth that we don’t even want to question. The enormous effect this practice has had on students who do not do well in mathematics should not be underestimated.
This myth about the apparent importance of speed solving of mathematical problems as an indicator of something (haven’t figured what that is yet!) is based on certain myths about mathematics itself. Examiners are well aware that most often the way to solve these problems so fast is to be aware of specific tricks to solve them. It does not have much to do with thinking about these problems since there is no time given for thinking. This is another way of reproduction without thought and has now become the bane of students who do not solve these problems so rapidly. It has also led to skewed representation of students and has served to exclude specific communities and groups in large numbers.
So my hope this sweltering summer is just this: I want a party that will first reform our examination system. I want an exam system — if we need one in the first place — to test whether students can write two lines of poetry, or see a colour in the world around them, or show a capacity for reflective thinking about issues that surround them instead of testing them in their skills of mugging up texts or learning tricks to solving meaningless puzzles. If a political party is willing to do this, I am ready to even wear one of those funny looking caps.
The author is director of the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University