Exam-based learning has killed student creativity

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Every year around this time, when the results of the various board exams come in, a troubling question haunts me. By becoming “toppers”, have successful “exam warriors” lost something truly valuable to lead a meaningful life? Or have we – overly ambitious parents reducing our children to some kind of “investment” and coaching centers selling them as fancy “brands” – pampered them heavily and made it almost impossible for them to realize that there’s something more to life than what this market-driven age considers measurable “success”? And in the age of immediacy, who could stop television presenters from projecting these young people as sort of “gurus” advising their contemporaries on how to be “focused” and “successful”?

As I reflect on the deeper meaning of student status, I want to demystify these “success stories”. Yes, a student must have a sense of wonder in their eyes. It is only this wonder that can broaden his horizon, activate his curiosity and inspire him to enter the realm of science and poetry, history and geography, or music and carpentry. Likewise, with this marvel, a student should raise new questions – even disturbing questions that could upset the status quo.

However, the irony is that the widespread practice of education characterized by regimented schools and utilitarian coaching centers kills both of these qualities quite early in a student’s life. How can we be surprised if as early as kindergarten, children in the aspiring class are asked to internalize that everything has already been decided for them – say, “A” stands for America, “I” is IIT and “M” is MBA? Or, for that matter, how can they be encouraged to ask new questions about culture, ethics, and ways of life, if they are continually nudged into believing the narrative of one-dimensional existence – living, it is to be hyper-competitive; to live is to conquer others, and to go forward, and to live is to worship money? It is sad that the model of education we have standardized does not allow a flower to blossom; instead, it’s all about “strategic learning” and a “formula for success”. No wonder, in a society that reveres the visibility of “success,” these heavily pampered “toppers” often lose a sense of humility, the ability to realize that everyone, including those who have “failed,” has a story to tell.

Yes, in the process of becoming “successful”, the “toppers” – unless they are lucky enough to find immensely sensitive parents or daring teachers – have already been defeated. Recently, I was watching a TV interview with a “topper” from West Bengal. In addition to following the school routine, he attends seven private tutors; he devotes almost 10 to 12 hours a day to his studies, and he doesn’t have many friends because he doesn’t “waste” his time. I felt like crying. The system killed her childhood, her wonderful teenage years, her joy and wonder. In his mental landscape there is no whispering tree, no river telling a story, and there is no sunrise, no sunset. Are our “toppers” becoming like robotic interpreters – measuring the “usefulness” of every fragment of a second in solving a physics numeral, or improving the speed of ticking off “correct” answers in the OMR sheet?

Unsurprisingly, I see absolute homogenization or standardization in their life activities. Believe me, I had been waiting for quite a while: maybe one day a “topper” would enchant me with her dream: “Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Satyajit Ray fascinate me, I too want to become a filmmaker”; or “Medha Patkar and Sunderlal Bahuguna inspire me, and I want to work for sustainable development and ecological balance”; or “Professor CV Raman and Professor SN Bose are my role models and I want to become a scientist.” No, it hasn’t happened yet. Instead, almost like a parrot, a “topper,” it seems, would repeat stories of the same standardized ambition: “I want to be a doctor or an engineer or an IAS officer.” This standardization scares me. It’s really sad to see them without rebellion, without alternative imagination, and without the kind of madness that defies the pathology of normality.

What kind of society have we created! For us, religion is just a noisy and demonstrative ritualism, a kind of identity marker; patriotism is a violent gesture towards the invented “enemies” of the nation; mainstream politics is devoid of any trace of ethics and glaring inequalities are normalized. As creative dissidents are sent to prison, everything is turned into its opposite: vice into virtue, ugliness into beauty, or narcissism into humility. Such a society must kill all educational ideals and practices of emancipation. No wonder, today, the Shantiniketan of Tagore is like any other noisy and rowdy university; or, for that matter, it is difficult to spread the educational ideals of Jiddu Krishnamurti and take them beyond the centers of learning chosen by the elite; and as Gandhi has been fossilized and museumified, no one bothers to recall the educational experience he initiated in the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa.

The result is that Kota, the city of Rajasthan known for all that is ugly in our educational system, is seen as a place of salvation; Ed Tech companies with their magical “success manuals” hypnotize the middle class; and the assembly line of “toppers” reveals the emptiness of this deadly race.

Pathak, a retired JNU professor, writes on education and culture

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