Of success and failure

If education is not saved, no economic progress and militaristic nationalism can heal us. We need to strive for more life-affirming practices.

“School makes alienation preparatory to life, thus depriving education of reality and work of creativity. School prepares for the alienating institutionalisation of life by teaching the need to be taught. Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence; they no longer find relatedness attractive and close themselves off to the surprises which life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition.”
— Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

Every year around this time, the results of school board examinations make us preoccupied with the narratives of ‘success’ — the stories of the ‘toppers’ — and the marginalisation of those who have ‘failed’, their depression, their poten­tial suicidal tendencies and bleak future.

And in an insecure/aspirational society like ours, the anxiety level of an average parent goes up leading to the proliferation of the business of private tutors, coaching centres and career counsellors. But then, amidst this nervous stimulation, we forget the malice of a schooled society. It is high time we began to reflect on this.

To begin with, as a teacher with some interest in critical pedagogy, I wish to make two significant points. First, allow me to be blunt, and say that a grade sheet of this kind — English 99; Mathematics 100; History 98; Economics 100; Psycho­logy 99 — proves nothing. The reason is that the prevalent culture of learning and the pattern of evaluation are absolutely incapable of arousing the faculty of crea­tive thinking and its articulation through the flow of an expressive language.

The standardised questions that demand instant/quick/’objective’ answers kill the abundant flow of language, literature and analytical thinking. And this deterioration has further been intensified because of this generation’s obsessive use of SMS language. In such a world filled with ‘success mantras’ and ‘to-the-point answers’, Dostoyevsky’s  ‘Ridiculous Man’ or Tagore’s ‘Peddler from Kabul’ cannot exist.

And it is dangerous. If our children lose their reflexivity, imagination, language and critical voice, they would grow up as mere passive consumers of packaged products — branded colleges, branded lifestyles, branded careers!

Second, apart from losing the language, they lose the spirit of science. We ought to fight the ongoing pretension that our ‘toppers’ are excelling in science, and accept that the way school science is taught and received by students has got nothing to do with its wonder, critical thinking, experimental orientation and daring innovation.

Instead, for the majority of them, science is what you need for all sorts of competitive examinations for medical/ engineering colleges — once again a set of numerical puzzles (a renowned professor of physics once told me that these tests were primarily for eliminating people, not for evaluating one’s inclination to scientific enquiry) to be solved by an efficient robot in the stipulated time.

You no longer need Niels Bohr and S N Bose to inspire you; the only thing required is that your parents have the sufficient money to have access to Aakash or Brilliant tutorials! Imagine its consequences. By the time they become ‘professionals’, they are completely burnt out; coaching centres, reckless drilling and then the ‘placement’ anxiety have already destroyed the spirit of innovation. Yes, transnational corporations prosper, the NRI generation becomes new Brahmins; but society loses critical thinking.

In fact, these discontents have to be situated in the dynamics of a schooled society itself. It is not about elite schools vs government schools. The schooled mind as such is conditioned; it has lear­ned to accept the life-negating principle of comparison with utter indifference to human uniqueness and autonomy; it gives its consent to hierarchy, competitiveness and the utility of measurement of the essence of human life through a standardised scale; and it accepts the ‘virtues’ of obedience and conformity.

And see its implications in a society like ours characterised by the all-pervading corruption, social/economic hierarchy, growing marketisation of every sphere of life, media simulations and a culture of instantaneity stimulated through fancy gadgets and irresistible social media. Are schools capable of making children sensitive, and encouraging them to see the world differently?

How many times have you seen a ‘topper’ seeing beyond the ‘peer pressure’, and taking active interest in the life-trajectory of a John Lenon or a Mahatma Gandhi or an Albert Einstein? How many times have you seen a school teacher acquiring the courage and conviction to tell the child what the likes of Jiddu Krishnamurti thought: What would you do with 99% in mathematics if you have lost the eyes to see the amazing sunset, or appreciate a Herman Hesse story?

Silent conformists
If exceptions exist, it is because they are lucky to find a life-affirming/supporting milieu outside institutionalised schooling. Otherwise, the fact is that schools have reduced us into a bunch of silent conformists leading to the reproduction of social hierarchy and inequality.

We need to rethink education and strive for more life-affirming pedagogic practices. A look at our society would suggest that it is becoming increasingly violent. Here greed is normalised, corruption is taken for granted, and hyper-masculine aggression is sanctified. Here is a society that kills the spirit of Tagore’s Shantiniketan, and valorises the phenomenon called Kota — a town in Rajasthan known for its coaching centres, guide books and black education market.

Here is a society that hires heavily funded NGOs to evolve special apps for digital learning when, paradoxically, a significant time is spent for arranging mid-day meal for rural school kids. We live amidst these absurdities.

And that is why the challenges are severe. Those who love dialogic teaching-learning, those who believe that there is no failure because each of us is a possibility, those who see education as a lifelong quest, and those who believe that the only merit that matters is that of love, compassion, sensitivity and understanding — we need a great alliance to save education from the profit-driven techno-managers and indifferent government bureaucrats.

Because if education is not saved no doctrine of economic progress and militaristic nationalism can heal us.

(The writer is Professor, Centre for the St­udy of Social Systems, JNU, New Delhi)

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