A couple of days back, Delhi University released its fourth cut-off list. One of the colleges had asked for a whopping 97.25% for admission to a B.A. (H) course (that too in the 4th list), eliciting a surprised, almost vicious laugh from my belly. I decided that I was better off not imagining the first cut-off for the sake of my sanity if nothing else. With this trend of hyper-inflated grades on the rise, a new dilemma hovers over the student community: just how good is good enough? How much more? A cursory glance through mark sheets nowadays would confound one: have they printed the marks of the student or the rising prices of petrol?
This maddening, upward spiral of inflated grades has been the common denominator cementing our education system. Schools and boards hike marks, so that students may cater to the soaring cut-offs specified by reputed institutions of higher education. An entire industry thrives on this practice – coaching hubs, publishing houses that churn out volumes of guidebooks year after year, mock-test mayhems, and what not. And yet, you can never be sure if that coveted seat would go to the next person having 0.0001% higher because this exactly is what they had in mind when they coined the term ‘rat-race’.
Apparently, the fever for college admissions runs deep in our veins. Even a hundred years back, the situation was just as tight as this gem of an Anglo-Bengali doggerel from the turn of the century attests:
Right, right, right, suncchey day and night
Kagojey, counciley, cholchhey fight
Gaslighter aaloy, becche, bolchhey gas lighter dol,
Galo matric teen to hajar, chhela kamacchey egjaminey
Medical college meley na seat, law joto tight admit.
(Right, right, right, I hear all day and night,
The fight goes on in the press and the Council.
Sitting under the gas light, gangs of boys say,
Three thousand have appeared in the matriculation exam today,
You can’t get a seat in the Medical college, and admission to the law is just as tight.)
(Excerpt from “The Vintage Sardar“, by Khushwant Singh)
The situation has clearly taken a turn for the worse. But the spirit of the song remains evergreen, thanks to a system which grinds and grates its subjects into a commoditized existence on a routine basis.
The situation has gravitated to a point where the ideological bankruptcy of the education system is laid bare for all to see. The inflation of grades has become so commonplace, that we no longer find it appalling that students are earning cent-per-cent scores in subjects like English or History. This, I believe, deflates the purpose of these subjects – they are not meant to attain the exactitude of pure sciences, and the marking scheme, as such, rejects the possibility of abstraction present in these disciplines. Social sciences are supposed to have a personal, as well as political dimension, and to expect students to adhere to pre-packaged content and to regurgitate verbatim in the exams is nothing short of a travesty. It goes on to show the facile state of Indian education, with extremity marking both ends of the spectrum. On one hand, there is no dearth of brilliant academic performances from the student body, while on the other hand, the rates of unemployment show a hyperbolic growth. Who is to blame for this debilitating lapse, except a faulty system that treats academia like a mass certification course, devaluing the concepts of creativity and independent thinking ipso facto?
The construction of an informed, socially conscientious citizenry has been the least of the education system’s concerns in our country. Education here has mostly been a cesspool of corporatisation and conformism, with a deep lack of respect for dissension. As an institutional network, it is severely delimiting in its approach; the focus on understanding and application is replaced by a discourse resembling a kind of catechism, as eminent historian Romila Thapar puts it. It isn’t difficult to detect a totalitarian stench here, and true enough, this system has negative tolerance for deviants who cannot cope with a curriculum tailored to hamper the hunger for critical enquiry amongst students. If such a system produces charlatans in the name of intellectuals, it is not the individual who is at fault, it is the lacuna of the system that needs redressal.
This system of education is a ritualistic venture to dissuade the thinking individual. The need for inflated grades stems from a narcissistic and myopic attitude towards education. It is time to wallow in self-pity if we, as a nation, have endorsed education as a vehicle solely for personal advancement and growth. I believe that the need of the hour is to rise above the inclination to think of education as an individualistic and materialistic endeavour. It is high time to take into consideration its social, ethical and political significance. We need to admit the fact that one of the prime imperatives of the education system should be to instil a sense of social and moral obligation amongst students.
Ours is an age of unrest, of recurrent upheavals and crises. It is important to make sure that the products of educational institutions understand the power and vitality of the training they receive, and recognise the propensity for change in their hands. Education should not only be able to pay dividends but should also act as a platform to cultivate responsibility and empathy towards the ground realities of the society. And that is an impossible ideal unless we view education as a power above and beyond the confines of marks and marksheets.
We need to recognise and value education for what it is – a door to enlightenment. On it, rests the development of the society, and the well-being of the democracy. We need to let knowledge remain untainted by the lure of vested interests and superficiality, for, in the words of Bertrand Russell,
“Without knowledge, the world of our hopes cannot be built.”