Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken it upon himself once again to dispense advice to India’s millions of school-going children. This time the subject is exam preparation and clearing their Board exams. While in itself this is a good and noble initiative, the irony inherent in the event was a bit hard to miss, given that the PM’s own academic history has been opaque at best and the matter of his own educational qualifications continues to remain a matter of controversy.
Coming on the heels of his newly-launched book, Exam Warriors, the event called “Pariksha Par Charcha” was held at New Delhi’s Talkatora stadium and was attended by thousands of school-going children and teachers and broadcast live around the country. The event, which lasted nearly two hours, saw the prime minister taking questions from students in the audience and from around the country, answering them in his avuncular manner, and peppering the interaction with anecdotes from his own life.
It was, of course, clear that here was yet another scripted and orchestrated event. The chaos that comes with a spontaneous question-and-answer session – specially with teenagers – was conspicuous by its absence. What we saw instead were rows of high school children sitting up straight, paying attention and applauding at all the right times.
Early on in the interaction, Modi credited his teachers for helping him “remain in learning mode and always keep[ing] the student within alive”. One would have to admit he has certainly learnt a thing or two about interacting with students since his first Teachers’ Day interaction with the country four years ago. (That event, it may be recalled, was mandatory viewing for school children around the country.) Doing away with much of the formality this time, the PM walked around on stage, relaxed and easy, much like a speaker at a TED event.
That much strategising and preparation had gone into the event was obvious by the fact that for several hours on the day the event occurred, Google’s home page featured a link right beneath the search bar pointing to a YouTube recording of the event.
While much of what the prime minister shared with the students was hardly new wisdom (rest, focus, do yoga, don’t compare yourself with others, etc.) there were eyebrow-raising moments in his interaction as well.
While he exhorted students to honour their teachers, and teachers to build relationships with the students and their families, Modi also unwittingly voiced a long-standing societal condescension towards the teaching profession while answering a question about parental pressure:
“The reason a parent puts pressure on his students,” he said, “is because of the ghost of unmet expectations. For example, a parent wanted to become a doctor but ended up becoming a teacher. That parent will then force his child to become a doctor.”
Ended up becoming a teacher! Surely an unfortunate choice of words, given that hundreds of thousands of teachers were watching the event along with their students and that just a few kilometers away teachers and students were protesting his government’s education policies on Parliament Street.
While one is glad that the prime minister encouraged students not to stress too much, get enough rest and not compare themselves with each other, some of what he said was downright bewildering, for example, his definitions of IQ and EQ. IQ he likened to a baby who can reach for a ghungroo on his own after his mother has tapped it once, and EQ was compared to the same baby being soothed by its mother’s voice. (Both IQ and EQ, incidentally, have precise definitions. IQ is a total score derived from several standardised tests designed to assess human intelligence and EQ consists of a person’s self-awareness, ability to self-regulate, empathize and build relations with others.)
Modi’s references to war in his interaction were also worrying. While talking about the tendency of students to compare themselves with each other, the prime minister exhorted them to stay in their own ‘field of ability’ and not venture out into other fields, much like how “in a war you bring the enemy into your own field and kill him.” Should a prime minister use war metaphors in a chat with young students? Was this a metaphor loosely used or was it a deliberately casual reference, aimed perhaps at valourising conflict?
The prime minister also exhorted the students to build “a free and open atmosphere” at home and even encouraged a student to take up journalism as a career. One wonders what kind of a journalist he had in mind, given the fact that India has now slipped to 136th place in the World Press Freedom Index and the National Investigation Agency’s view is that journalists have a “moral duty” to report the positive work of the government and that if they don’t, their credentials will always be suspect.
Peter Drucker, ‘father of modern management’ once said, “Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.” What Indian education needs more than anything is a leader who will take a good long hard look at the education system as a whole and have the courage to overhaul it. That is what the people of India want their prime minister to do, not waste his energies proffering advice that is readily available in dozens of self-help books. There are others who can help students crack their exams. There is no one else to do the job of ensuring India has a well-functioning, designed and resourced education system that can produce outcomes in terms of actual learning rather than exam results.
Rohit Kumar is an educator.