If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

In defence of "the mediocre"

[This essay has been written by Anindya Ghose Choudhury and me. The basic idea came from Anindya]

In the USA, there is a saying: “About everything that some Americans have achieved in life is to send a son to Harvard.” Replace Americans with Indians and Harvard with IIT, and you see that the adage holds good for us too. Come July every year one sees anxious parents pushing their children across the country in search of admission to top-notch engineering and medical colleges, which are considered magical doors that open up a dazzling future for the children of greater gods! Most of the remaining students too get absorbed into medical and engineering colleges of varying standards, some good, some indifferent, some without teachers or basic infrastructure, run purely as education factories. At the very bottom, like the dregs, remain the colleges for basic sciences and humanities. No one goes there if they have a choice. For example, in Karnataka this year (2010), no student has enrolled in dozens of such colleges. In a place like West Bengal, where there are not enough even substandard medical/engineering colleges to meet the demand, thousands flock to the “general” colleges.

We are indeed proud of the bright young Indians who, after graduating from premier Indian institutes, have proved their worth on the frontiers of technology and commerce in many parts of the world. But still, let’s stop and think: does the mad rush for the best of higher education have anything to do with pursuit of excellence or knowledge? Can we, by any stretch of imagination, claim this is a continuation of our age-old tradition of learners trudging hundreds of miles in search of a gurukul to pursue knowledge and enlightenment? Or is it a naked pursuit of lucre, a six-figure salary and the trappings of the neo-rich?

Satisfaction glows on the faces of proud parents, secure in the knowledge of having obtained a comfortable future for their offspring. The young heroes are feted and showered with accolades. Amidst the din, we not only forget those who haven’t made it, but also, brand them as “mediocre”, a patently unjust and untenable label, as most labels are!

Indeed, there are a significantly large number of bright and intelligent students who refuse to submit to parental pressures and/or societal conditioning to become doctors or engineers. It is also a fact that the few who go into the best technical and professional colleges are not necessarily the best products of the system of secondary education. On the contrary, many of them are beneficiaries of a highly commercialised mechanism of private coaching that is available only to people with deep pockets.

This article is in defence of those who prefer not to be a part of the rat race and who are courageous enough to stand up against the imposed prescriptions of dubious merit.

In the eighties and nineties, the pursuit of humanities was considered such a waste of time and effort that it simply wasn’t recognised as a worthy pursuit. Technology was making great strides and anyone with an iota of intelligence was expected to be a part if the new world. (After years of recession, the enthusiasm has ebbed a bit!) Philosophy, ethics and poetry were passé. Study of political science, geography, and even history was relegated to the backburner. Basic sciences, well, they were for either the queer folk with super intelligence or who weren’t good enough to be techies. No one spared a thought for the plight of a society fed on a diet of only bits and bytes.

In this hustle for technical education, no one questions the perpetuation of a system where on an average 40% students fail in any public examination. More importantly, the dichotomy of a country having some of the finest educational institutes (IITs, TIFR, IISc, ISI, AIIMS, and so on) and the largest population of illiterates in the world troubles none. The pathetic systems of basic and secondary education plods on backwards, unnoticed.

In this overpopulated country with scarce resources, mere survival requires a higher degree of intelligence and emotional maturity than in affluent countries that offer much wider opportunities. We have far too many problems and we badly need people who are not only intelligent and skilled, but also morally strong and intellectually honest to improve our squalid systems. And yet, we have an education system that relies more on rote learning than independent thinking; a system that in its misplaced sense of nurturing excellence, crushes even the feeblest of new ideas in their infancy. To wit, the system has the temerity to brand all those who haven't fallen in line, as failures.

To summarise, on the one hand, we have some high-cost, exclusive institutes that prepare students largely for the global commercial world, and on the other hand, there is a shamefully neglected basic, secondary, and higher education system that doesn’t equip students with the necessary skills to survive in this increasingly competitive world. It should also be mentioned that the vast majority of undergraduate colleges offering “general” courses are no better than the “general” compartments of the Indian Railways, overcrowded and stifling. In sharp contrast, the high-end colleges and institutes thrive in glorious isolation.

The fundamental facts of life don’t change, and they haven’t in India, notwithstanding the hoopla about nine percent GDP growth and the concomitant widening chasm between the rich and the poor. Education should bring out the best in every person. It should not only equip people with knowledge and skills, but also ensure that they become strong individuals with impeccable values. Our education system should ensure that individuals don’t grow into selfish creatures in pursuit of corporeal comforts alone, but contribute to the best of their ability to their respective fields of endeavour. The nation needs good agriculturists, teachers, nurses, policemen, economists, mathematicians, scientists, writers and artists, not just technocrats and managers. Nature has endowed humans with multifarious talents and aptitudes. And no society can sustain itself with uni-dimensional human resources. Therefore, we should encourage people to bring out their best in whichever fields they choose to excel in, instead of putting them in straight jackets of irrational expectations. The dubious debate on mediocrity will then stop troubling a vast multitude of our younger generation who are brave enough not to conform to imposed standards of an unthinking society.

Money makes the world go round, but it doesn’t build national character!


  1. Big hurrah.

    Though I have long erased any doubt from my mind that any education system, indeed any external agent, can develop moral character.

    As an engineering student, I'm constantly surprised that we value so little ingenuity and practical sense. For example, I've never understood why obsolete methods that have been ruled out of professional practice in civil engineering years ago are still part of our syllabus. (Especially since we are anyway not concerned with historical importance of these old methods, which might have made quite an interesting subject of academic interest.)

  2. Quite thought provoking!
    We are into a vicious cycle. Parents want best for their kid and If you are from IIT your market value is that much higher vs a writer/teacher or who are in those general categories. Social status of the parents get boost if you have a kid from IIT/IIM or other top notch universities. In the process kid get into something he doesnt like, but rakes in lot of money. Kids aren't able to follow their passion, being in this rat race. I remembered the movie 3 idiots, which fits is with the theme here!

  3. Classrooms can only inform, while education actually happens outside the classroom.

    Moreover, it's in communities that shared ethics, knowledge, and wisdom percolates down generations, rounding a person in ways classroom education cannot.

    Bereft of collective wisdom, bereft of native language (which in turn is a repository of behavioural nuances assimilated into the community's body ethic over time) obviously cannot help matters much.

  4. Thank you all for your comments. Long ago, in a place that looks so distant today, we used to have these debates over cups of tea with the accompaniment of unfiltered Charminars. Times, they have changed, but the issues remain.

    Sudipto and Anil, you are basically making the same point -- that real education doesn't happen in classrooms, which is meant for transfer of knowledge and information. Yes, of course, for real education, we all have to go to what Gorky called The University of Life.

    But I disagree with you that classrooms don't educate at all. I bow to some of the teachers I had in my school and later. Looking back, I do think they taught me many things -- I was a bad learner, but that was not their fault. Some of them were wonderful specimens of human beings too. "Some" in the last two sentences need to be underlined and typed in bold italics.

    I have realised one thing. You have to be a good person in order to be a good teacher. Counterfeit men or women do not make good teachers. The teachers I am talking about were ramrod straight both physically and morally. Being near them was an educating experience. Maybe, the percentage of such people is coming down, but isn't it part of a downhill journey?

    Sudipto, your second point is quite revealing. More on that later.

    Sujith, we are in a vicious circle. Following one's passions is a certain recipe for disaster, or that is what we have learnt to believe. Is there a way out?

  5. I doubt there is any quick fix. We need to go a long way to reform our education system. One fundamental problem i see in education is, its mostly theoretical and lacks practical aspects of real life. Part of the problem is our educators/teachers are born as teachers and they havent been to any other real life workplace (like a company). This absolutely limits the knowledge delivered.
    Secondly i believe, we need to educate our kids beyond subjects and areas like communication, presentation skills, management skills etc etc, which comes in handy any job you land!

    By the way i didnt quite understood, why following ones passion will lead to disater?


I will be happy to read your views, approving or otherwise. Please feel free to speak your mind. Let me add that it might take a day or two for your comments to get published.