A Sick Society That Manufactures Failures – the True Face of Education in India

Young minds in India are being destroyed by a faulty pattern of education, parental ambitions, the aggression of hyper-competitiveness and a flawed idea of 'success'. In such a system that brings about the death of creativity, there is no real winner.

To gain awareness of the presence of things other than “me and what is mine”, in other words to develop sympathy for the outside world is a way to liberate oneself from egocentricity. To have such a character is the sign of good education.

                                                 – Devi Prasad, Art: The Basis of Education

Board exams… Entrance tests for medical/engineering colleges… College admissions: where are the youngsters moving? What does growing up mean with the euphoria of success and the stigma of failure? What is the experience of walking through a path defined by others – regimented schools and market-driven forces?

Let me begin with the story of a young boy I have been interacting with for quite some time. Yes, he is in the ‘science’ stream; what is popularly known as PCM (Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics) is his religion and possibly a road to what the aspirational middle class society regards as ‘success’ – or the moment of being ‘settled’.

With a series of private tutors, coaching centres and exam after exam for getting entry into any of the engineering/medical colleges, there is no breathing space in the life of this 17-year old boy. He is anxious; his parents are worried. Sometimes I feel like talking to him about poetry and cinema, literature and travelogue; he thinks it is useless and his parents too are not very interested in these ‘softer’ dimensions of life. Every moment, they are compelled to think, has to be utilised for achieving ‘success’.

With my sociological sensibilities, I know that he is not alone – he symbolises a social fact, he is the product of an oppressive reality characterised by a faulty pattern of education, parental ambitions and the aggression of hyper-competitiveness resulting from the increasing gap between the number of aspirants and availability of opportunities in an over-populated and uneven society like ours.

Let us try to understand the resultant malady destroying the possibilities innate in the young mind.

‘Success’ has failed them

What is the nature of the mythical ‘success’ they are striving for?

First, in the age of trade and economic utility, it is based on the hierarchy of disciplines. Science/commerce is seen to be superior, practical and lucrative, but a negative orientation is attached to arts/humanities – these ‘soft’/’feminine’ disciplines, it is thought, have no ‘future’, and ‘intelligent’ students are not supposed to opt for these branches of knowledge.

Anyone familiar with school education in India knows how parents and teachers pressurise children to opt for science/commerce even if they are not inclined to it. In fact, many of them are never given the space to look at themselves, and understand their unique traits and aptitudes. This is the beginning of alienation in the child’s life. This alienation is further intensified when the societal pressure restricts their imagination, and forces them to believe that life is necessarily dark and bleak without medical science/engineering/management.

In this reckless preparation for ‘success’ their alienated selves find no joy, no ecstasy; coaching centres have no humour, guide books are devoid of creative imagination, ‘success mantras’ require war strategies, not the spirit of wonder, and the joy of learning is replaced by the neurotic urge to be a ‘topper’. 

Second, this ‘success’ is centred on the hierarchy of professions. Money, technocratic sleekness and state power – these three factors play a key role in the making of this hierarchy. In fact, if one is courageous enough to decipher the folk tale of the ‘IIT-IIM syndrome’, one would realise that a mix of money and technological sleekness transforms their ‘products’ into corporate professionals with a good pay package.

In fact, ‘placement’ (your destiny is to find yourself as a well-fed/well-paid employee of the gigantic corporation) is the success index in a society that sanctifies technocratic capitalism; everything revolves around it. No wonder, in popular imagination a youngster – hardly 23-years-old – working as an IT professional in a multinational company and living in a gated community in Bengaluru is considered to be more ‘successful’ than, say, a 50-year old college teacher living in the suburb of Mumbai, and writing a scholarly book on medieval Indian history.

Furthermore, state power still has its aura. In our society, it reinforces the legacy of feudal aristocracy. No wonder, as the UPSC phenomenon suggests, the job of a district collector or a superintendent of police or an income tax officer (imagine their bungalows, office vehicles with red lights, and the brigade of police constables saluting them) continues to fascinate the young mind, particularly from the small towns.

No wonder, like the IIT/IIM entrance test, the UPSC civil service examination seems to have become one of the major national events – the most dominant evaluator for certifying one’s ‘success’ in life. 

However, this ‘success’, as I wish to argue, has its own discontents. The reason is that, for most of them, it is an immensely alienating experience. It kills one’s creativity; it makes one one-dimensional; it robs one of the spirit of positive life-energy. Writing all sorts of mock tests conducted by the coaching centres endlessly, or transforming everything – be it the Olympics or the installation of a nuclear reactor or an international conference on climate change – into a typical ‘general studies’ stuff of the UPSC type is by no means a life-affirming experience.

See the march of the other-directed crowd at Kota in Rajasthan – a notorious site of inflated expectations and broken dreams. Or, for that matter, visit the tiny rooms in the narrow lanes of Mukherjee Nagar and Katwaria Sarai in Delhi, and meet the tired/exhausted youngsters from Bihar, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh trying to grapple with the Rao’s IAS notes. You realise that to achieve this sort of ‘success’, one fails as a creative being.

Students attend class at a coaching institute in Kota, Rajasthan. Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

No wonder, corruption is rooted in this ‘success manufacturing machine’. The heavy cost of coaching centres, the exorbitant tuition fees in many of these medical/engineering/management colleges, and above all, the burden of donations and capitation fee: from where do you compensate the money you have spent? Is it the inflated dowry rate in a society that has not yet eradicated its patriarchal ethos? Or is it the normalisation of bribery and other malpractices in workplaces—from hospitals to construction sites, from block development offices to police stations? 

Likewise, the very nature of this race is that your ‘success’ is assured at the cost of someone else’s failure. The fact is that most of the applicants would fail in this race. Imagine every year the number of ‘failures’ we create. They acquire a sense of stigmatised identity; this affects severely their life-trajectories filled with psychic wound and a sense of loss.

Finally, in this system, there is actually no winner; everyone is a loser. It redefines failure; everyone suffers from a sense of lagging behind. Hence, these days if you get 90% in the board exam, you are sad and depressed because your friends have got more than 95%. Likewise, if instead of pursuing economics at Shri Ram College of Commerce, you do Physics at Hindu College, you are a failure. Or for that matter, despite being in IIT, if you could not make it to the United states, you have failed in life.

In a way, ‘success’ has failed them.

Redefining the calling of life

It is not easy to come out of this trap. As the spectre of unemployment or the notion of a superficial notion of ‘social prestige’ haunts the young mind and their over-protective parents, it becomes exceedingly difficult to strive for meaningful education. Yet, I would insist that no social transformation is possible without the creative spark of human agency; and even in difficult times, we need to try our best to give the young a different vision of life.

It is in this context that I wish to make three points. First, as teachers/educationists/adults we all need to tell them that nothing matters more in life than inner fulfilment. There is no external marker of success – to be truly successful in life is to find joy and meaning in whatever one does, be it farming, nursing and teaching. One need not become like somebody else, one need not be ‘big’ and ‘gorgeous’. One has to be oneself – simple, authentic and confident of one’s own path.

Second, it is important to appreciate the plurality of skills/intelligence/sensitivity needed in diverse modes of occupational and vocational engagement. There is no reason why everyone has to think of joining the IIT; there is no reason why every science student should think of becoming an IT professional. A mature society is one that needs a spectrum of possibilities – engineers as well as filmmakers, doctors, historians, economists and art critics. The task of teachers is to make the child aware of his/her potential.

Third, fear has to be overcome. Youngsters ought to be encouraged to think differently, to take ‘risks’, and experiment with life. Nothing meaningful in life is possible if one is continually pressurised to remain ‘normal’, and opt for a ‘safe/tasted/secure/non-risky’ path. Living meaningfully is to understand the call of the puzzling curves and turning points in life. Karl Marx did not live as a ‘respectable’ employee in a company; Mahatma Gandhi did not end his life as a lawyer; G.M. Muktibodh, despite economic hardships, did not give up poetry; and Medha Patkar did not become a professor of social work in a university.

As adults, we would betray our children if we do not offer anything positive to them, if we metamorphose them into, as Franz Kafka indicated in one of his heart-breaking short stories, ‘insects’ roaming around the four walls of an office cubicle.

Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at JNU.