Can a Student's Suicide Note Make Us Rethink the IIT Dream?

Unless we value qualities like kindness and empathy, we are looking at future generations of egotistic individuals.

“We notice that the mind is a restless bird; the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied.”

– M.K. Gandhi.

“Sorry, I turned out to be a waste,” wrote Mark Andrew Charles.

The suicide note of the boy who was pursuing a Masters in designing at the IIT Hyderabad disturbs me. It also makes me want to strike at the mythology of what IITs have grown to mean for the anxiety-ridden aspirations of the middle class. It means merit, success, mobility and achievement.

But at what point do we gain the maturity to reflect on the psychological, cultural and educational price we pay for this IIT dream?

When do we become sufficiently sensitive to hear the pain, agony and loneliness which students who enter this world of reckless speed, hyper-competitiveness and performance anxiety feel?

Mark’s suicide, I know, will be forgotten soon. The race will go on. And then, another suicide, another breakdown, another loss. Meanwhile, coaching centres will do their business. Traders, bankers and section officers will send their children to Kota, that notorious town in Rajasthan which symbolises all that is dark in Indian education.

Billboards in small towns and cities will display the faces of IIT toppers. Parents of the ‘lucky’ ones will boast of their children’s ‘placement and package’. And in our families, children will continue to be compared, praised, condemned, loved and hated on the basis of their academic performances.

Also read: Why Student Suicide Is Such A Sensitive Subject

With the standardisation of life’s pursuits, we will write the obituaries of those who wanted to be unique; or to use Nirendranath Chakraborty’s poetic metaphor, those who thought they could live like ‘sunlight’.

Roots of sickness

This is sickness in the name of education. It dehumanises the learner and makes her one-dimensional. As a teacher, I find that this is primarily for two reasons.

To begin with, the mode of preparation for the IIT entrance test needs to be critically scrutinised. For an average aspirant, it ends in complete burn out by the time she cracks the test. A careful look at the learning strategies that coaching centres — an integral component of this tedious journey — employ, indicates that students are essentially reduced into recklessly disciplined machines.

Writing mock tests endlessly kills the spirit of scientific enquiry which need wonder and curiosity. Instead, it reduces physics, mathematics and chemistry into a set of numerical problems, to be solved as quickly as possible.

As the exam strategy becomes dominant, aspirants tend to insulate themselves from the ‘softer’ domains of life. They no longer know the joys of a sunset, an old leaf falling from a tree, or an old woman with a wrinkled face walking slowly with her grandchild.

Even schools, particularly at higher classes, become irrelevant as interactive modes of socialisation because of the routines that coaching centres impose on students.

The system reduces your intelligence into something which is violent. It has no wonder, no poetry, no music. It is war. It cannot make sense of what William Wordsworth felt:

Sweet is the lore that Nature brings,
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things;
We murder to dissect.

The second reason is related to the psychological transformation that the entire process leads you through. If you finally join an IIT, it becomes a heavy burden.

Your ‘success’ has to be continuously redefined. Society valorises and also pressurises you. You have to run faster. The path to ‘success’, you realise, does not seem to have an end.

Students are prepared to struggle from Class 8 to Class 12. In the process, they miss good cinema and good music and are told by parents, coaching centre ‘gurus’ and school principals that once they are in an IIT, they will be ‘settled’. But then they realise that the race would only get more aggressive.

Students, once they reach the IITs, realise that the path to success does not have an end. Photo: Harini Calamur/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Classes, tutorials, labs, exams, placement anxiety…this sort of life-killing routine transforms everyone into a competitor and has devastating consequences. There is no rest, no celebration of what Bertrand Russell would praise as ‘idleness’.

There is no listening to others, no friendship. Everything is instrumental and strategic. Failure is ugly. Mark’s suicide note speaks of it.

Should we rethink education and ambition?

Mark has killed himself. But the ‘survivors’ too are compelled to kill their souls. In this game, there is no winner.

I am aware of the harsh constraints of living in an over-populated country like ours. I know that for a middle-class person, education seems to be the only road to socio-economic mobility.

For many, there is no escape from ‘job anxiety’. No wonder, the appeal of job-oriented and technical education is always high. Yet, at this juncture, we ought to rethink the meaning of education.

First, we have to learn to run slow. We are always in a hurry. The reckless speed implicit in the neoliberal and technocratic era has made it impossible for us to live our lives peacefully at our own rhythm.

Also read: JNU Aspirants, I Feel Sorry For You

Imagine the horror. Even in a play school, a three-year-old kid is burdened with homework. Summer vacations are for meaningless projects and Saturdays and Sundays have to be ‘utilised’ properly at piano classes!

Second, we have to redefine ‘merit’ and ‘intelligence’. Unless we begin to value qualities like empathy, reflexivity, receptivity and spirit of communion, the cult of ‘meritocracy’ will further intensify violence in society.

This violence manifests itself through egotistic individualism, consumerism and brute indifference. Even ‘cultural evenings’ at educational institutions cannot stop students from feeling more and more lonely then.

Should we not wake up? Or should we continue to celebrate what Erich Fromm would have regarded as the ‘pathology of normalcy’, until our dearest ones, even after passing through the archways of celebrated tutorials and IIT itself, are found dead in their hostel rooms with suicide notes?

Avijit Pathak is a professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University.