Learning outside the syllabus, beyond the board exams - Hindustan Times

Learning outside the syllabus, beyond the board exams

Feb 28, 2024 11:05 PM IST

On urging this anxiety-ridden generation to expand their mental horizons, redefine their life pursuits, and strive for a sane society.

A young student I know is writing his Class XII CBSE Board Examination. The other day I talked to him, sent my prayers, and conveyed my best wishes. Even though I believe he will do extremely well, satisfy his parents and impress his teachers, I am disturbed by some questions. Will he be able to find his swadharma, and live creatively and meaningfully with a life-affirming relationship with the world, even if with, say, 99% marks in the exam, he manages to get admission in a branded medical/engineering college or a top-ranking university?

What frightens me further is the dark world these youngsters — even the successful ones — will eventually enter after their board exams (Harsimar Pal Singh/HT) PREMIUM
What frightens me further is the dark world these youngsters — even the successful ones — will eventually enter after their board exams (Harsimar Pal Singh/HT)

It is not that I am concerned only about him. As a teacher and keen observer of the prevalent societal neurosis, I think of the fate of this entire generation, a terribly tense and anxiety-ridden one. Schools sell their success stories; coaching centres transform the toppers into brand ambassadors of their heavily commodified success manuals; and even the brigade of lucky parents seek to enhance their status in the neighbourhood through the mythologies of their children’s success stories. But then, some of us must ask a series of critical questions, and rethink education.

In this context, let me make three points.

First, I have no hesitation in saying that the kind of education we have normalised is essentially life-killing. Far from encouraging our children to remain peaceful and meditative with creative ecstasy, it causes chronic nervousness, restlessness and fear of lagging behind in the hyper-competitive rat race. We seem to have forgotten that education is not merely about the acquisition of a set of academic, technical and logical-mathematical skills but is essentially about the cultivation of a mind that is empathic, sensitive, dialogic and compassionate. Physics and Mathematics, or History and Sociology are definitely important. But then, the intelligence sharpened through the study of these disciplines need not be reduced to mere instrumental/technocratic reasoning — or, just a skill for cracking all sorts of standardised tests. Instead, science, technology, arts, literature and social sciences should equip children with theories and practices for nurturing the spirit of a humane and egalitarian world.

Possibly, some of our finest educationists — from Rabindranath Tagore to Jiddu Krishnamurti — repeatedly reminded us of these higher objectives of education. But then, think of our fall, our collective decadence. We have normalised the phenomenon called the Kota coaching factory, the tales of suicide in the IITs and other institutions no longer puzzle us, and while posh international schools in Gurugram and Noida charm the aspiring class from our gated communities, the lucrative business of psychiatrists, counsellors and motivational speakers goes on to manage our children’s mental health.

Second, what frightens me further is the dark world these youngsters — even the successful ones — will eventually enter after their board exams. Possibly, they will eventually become either self-centred/non-reflexive careerists or cynics/defeatists living without any project of a better world. Think of the nature of the world (beyond the protective milieu of their families) they will enter. They will be eventually told that their 99% marks in Physics or English mean nothing if they do not manage to get appropriate jobs with lucrative salary packages. Hence, they will be advised to be practical, forget their unique traits and aptitudes, choose a place of learning (or, training?) from the supermall of medical/engineering colleges, and lead a one-dimensional life for somehow managing a lucrative job through the mechanism of the much-hyped campus placement. Time and again, they will be advised to handle the resultant nervous disorder and stand up as tough exam warriors.

Three, they will find themselves in a world in which there is no higher ideal to pursue. They will realise that whatever their school principals told them on the eve of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary or Independence Day makes no sense in the real world. In fact, they will see how everything has been turned into its opposite – patriotism into the violence of hyper-nationalism; spirituality into toxic/divisive politics; democracy into electoral autocracy; ethical/moral principles into stupidity; and smartness into narcissistic aggression. Yes, they will confront a high-risk society filled with war and hunger, climate crisis and rising authoritarianism.

All these apprehensions and anxieties were making me somewhat uneasy when I offered my best wishes to the young student appearing for the board examination. Yet, amid this culture of disillusionment, I feel like recalling the wisdom of some of our finest thinkers and visionaries and urging this anxiety-ridden generation to expand their mental horizons, redefine their life pursuits, and strive for a sane society. I wish to tell them that no coaching factory will make them aware of the liberating potential of Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy — the kind of education that activates the learner’s creative agency and inspires them to resist all sorts of domination and strive for a humane and egalitarian world.

I want to tell them about social psychologist Erich Fromm’s reminder: The “having mode of existence” (the ceaseless craving for more money, more fame, or more property) the culture of consumerism normalises is a kind of neurosis, and to live meaningfully is to find the treasure inside, or to realise that, as Schumacher would have said, “small is beautiful”. And I feel like appealing to them to see beyond the reduction of Gandhi into his spectacles and relive the spirit of non-cooperation with the culture of greed and violence. But this is outside the official syllabus of board exams.

Avijit Pathak taught sociology at JNU for more than three decades. The views expressed are personal

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