Most people are surprised when I tell them that by 12th grade I'd studied in 10 different schools. Yes, 10 schools. From fancy Air Force schools to Kendriya Vidyalayas that have students from all classes, religions and backgrounds to a state-syllabus school in Karnataka to an Indian embassy school in 'the Gulf', I have seen most of what our system has to offer. And I'm sad to say that it is not enough. Our education system is flawed.
In school, history was firmly contained to rote learning of dates and places. We were forced to learn the dates when wars started and ended instead of why they happened or what could have stopped them. Mathematics was about Sonu having more apples than he could eat, or finding angles of triangles without being told how doing so was useful, or calculating the speed of trains going in the opposite directions. English was about memorizing select poems and writing down the notes the teacher dictated instead of being asked what our interpretation was. Scoring more involved writing the longest, most convoluted answers for simple questions. (As students all over India are taught, answers for five mark questions should have more words than those for other questions.)
I've had my books thrown at my face for not completing my homework, had subjective answers marked down because they weren't what the teacher taught us…
Then there were the teachers, usually underpaid people who took the job as a last resort. Men and women who were clearly not interested in what and how they taught their students. While I did have some exceptional teachers who made me fall in love with the subject, I do not remember most other teachers fondly. Why? Because I've had my books thrown at my face for not completing my homework, had subjective answers marked down because they weren't what the teacher taught us, was asked to solve problems with no heed paid to whether I'd understood the concept. And this is the case for millions of students across India.
In 14 years of school, here's what I was NOT taught:
- How to manage my finances/budget
- What are taxes/how to do them
- Sex-education that was not just a token chapter about male and female genitalia and reproductive systems
- How to do self-guided research and review
- Independent thought and how to articulate my own opinion in speech and writing
- Other basic skills that adults require to navigate life.
Yet, by the time I was 18 I was expected to choose a college degree that would establish the course of my life and determine where I end up.
Luckily, I am blessed with parents who did not care as much about the report card as they cared about their children becoming well-rounded individuals. This is a privilege not afforded to many. I had my open-minded family behind me when I went off course and studied something other than engineering/medicine. However, it was when I started studying in a university abroad that I realised the full extent of damage done by my schooling. For instance, in my first year I could not turn in an English literature essay of substance. In the 12th board exams I'd scored 94 out of 100 in English because I had good handwriting and wrote exactly what the teacher taught me. In my first year of university I got a disappointing 58 for my literature essay. I was devastated. I'd expected that the flowery language that my English teachers had encouraged in school could substitute independent research and critical analysis.
How many children know algebraic equations by heart but cower in front of real life problems? How many children's innate curiosity and imagination is snuffed out everyday…?
My university education became the beginning of my un-schooling. It was where I began to love learning, where I realised that more than one answer can exist to most questions, and that I can actually enjoy studying history instead of falling asleep in the class. But how many of us have this opportunity to undergo this un-schooling? I did three years of BA, followed by a year of postgraduation studies, and I still feel the effects of this schooling on me. So what of others?
For the parents and educators reading this, ask yourselves:
How many of our of kids lose themselves at the production line that is school; expected to excel in things they have no interest or aptitude in and punished when they fall short in an arbitrary competency marking scale? How many of our students hate books because they were thrown at their faces for a spelling mistake or an incomplete answer? How many children fear speaking up because every time they opened their mouths they were told they are wrong since it isn't in the text books? How many children know algebraic equations by heart but cower in front of real life problems? How many children's innate curiosity and imagination is snuffed out everyday under the pressure to score more than the neighbour Sharma's kids? How many potential writers, painters, social workers and entrepreneurs were sacrificed to amass engineering and medical degrees? How many children sacrifice every waking hour to realise their parents' dream of a professional degree? How many children are made to believe that a 9-5 desk job is the ultimate success they can achieve in life?
Answer just this one question, if nothing else:
How many more children's spirits will we sacrifice at the altar of "education"?
What have we done?
What are we doing?
What can we do now?