Meera Issacs is someone all of us as parents should doff our hats to. She is the Principal of Cathedral and John Conon High School in south Mumbai, who has taken the momentous decision of doing away with exams for children in class five and six. It is an extremely sane decision, and a well-thought one at that
Rewind back to our school days when all of us used to dread the word exams. Every few weeks we would have the dreaded “unit tests”, with a “half-yearly” interspersed in between, followed by the most feared “finals” at the end of the term. I used to be absolutely terrified of these exams, as I am sure most of you would have been. That was the time when my mother, would put her enviable lung power to test and the tensile strength of her knuckles would be utilized to the maximum. The unfortunate target of her knuckles or the ruler that would be used sometime, would invariably be my cranium or other parts of my body. My father was more of the silent kind, using his taciturnity, and occasional vituperative barbs, to remind me of my position in life, and how life would give me eggs (metaphorically speaking) if I did not study well. Being the timid son that I was then, I never responded to these gibes, but today if I were to repeat this to my daughter she would promptly respond that she would make an omelet with it! The exam days were the most stressful for not just me, but for everyone at home. My mother would go ballistic over every little thing, while father became even more mordant and acerbic. Every time I went to school and saw a smile on the faces of some of my happy-go-lucky friends, I would get even more nervous. Then there was the ranking system, which according to me, was the worst torture anyone can inflict on school students! This led to regular comparisons between ranks scored by students, and inevitably to jealousy and unavoidable bitterness between friends. This ranking system must have been solely responsible for the spread of hatred and animosity within several Indian households. The stress level that these exams induced in us as students was incomparable. The situation has improved a bit – now the ranking system has been done away with, and they now term these tests as “assessments”, but believe me the stress levels are the same. So yes, Meera Issacs has taken a small but important step in the right direction. Also encouraging is the initiative I read about in the papers, wherein our HRD Ministry is contemplating an overhaul of our secondary education system and making school education gratis till class ten. Not sure if this too will remain a pipe-dream, but let us hope for the best. After our country survives solely on hope!
Our parents’ life revolved around making sure that their wards take up “respectable” professions like doctors, engineers, Chartered Accountants or (as a last resort) teachers. Of course, there were some exceptions to this rule. I remember a friend who was a wonderful sketch artist, utilizing the most boring of classes in making amazingly lovely pencil sketches. His father too insisted that he become an engineer, but he put his foot down and followed his true love and is now a fairly successful interior designer. Another friend loved to read and refused to be bracketed into the then acceptable professions, and is today a successful copywriter. But for most of us, we had our aspirational parents wanting us to live their unfulfilled dreams through us – all in the name of “doing well” for ourselves in our lives. Maybe they did have our best interests in mind… or maybe they didn’t, but standing at this juncture in life I cannot be the one to judge them. In addition to ambitious parents, also to blame is our skewed education system which promotes mediocrity and learning by rote in students, while ignoring creativity and innovative thinking. This is the same education system which produces gems like Ruby Rai, who topped the Bihar class twelve board exams in the Arts stream “thinking” all along that Political Science was a synonym for cooking! I am no advocate for the teaching standards abroad – for example our nephew in UK knows much lesser than my daughter who is a year younger than him. But the teaching methods used there are fairly modernistic and highly inventive.
Now when I reflect upon it, I have never found any practical use of most subjects that I learned in school. Other than English, Hindi, Math and Science (which I had to compulsorily study for engineering), I have almost never had the occasion to use my facile knowledge of other subjects. In fact, the only use of my handicraft skills are in helping my ten-year-old with her school projects. So what purpose did learning all these subjects serve – only to “mug up” and give exams? Would it not make more sense in making children understand these subjects for increasing their general knowledge rather than for giving exams? Are these exams… sorry assessments so important that it replaces the smile on children’s faces with frowns of worry and despair? Is it surprising then that the statistics on the number of students ending their lives after not scoring well in board exams, is steadily going northwards? Is it not time for us as parents to stop dreaming dreams for our children and let them live theirs? Time to clear the cobwebs of our mind…