Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Driving school- going children crazy with exams and scores is not the best preparation for life

IT IS perhaps an indicator of how the adult world regards schoolgoing children that few if any of them have been asked to write pieces analysing HRD Minister Kapil Sibal’s decision to do away with Class X board examinations.

There have been stories narrating the happiness and relief felt by children on account of the move but no real attempt to get a feel of what the adolescent minds have escaped due to Mr Sibal’s initiative.

This could stem from the same ‘ We know best’ attitude that has till now felt perfectly comfortable with subjecting children to the ordeal year after year, despite evidence that it was unhealthy and unfair to them.

And yet in one sense it is not the children facing these exams but those who have put it behind them who have a particular advantage in commenting on them. This is not just to do with the fact that 15 or 16 is hardly the age at which one can be called fully mature, having the required skills of articulation at one’s disposal. Immersed in the system as they are, children are also too close to the phenomenon to read it in perspective.

This is not the case when one has gone through the educational system and can look back at it with the benefit of hindsight.

And looking back, I am not particularly impressed with the educational planners and the grown- ups who were supposed to be in charge of my life at that point in time. I went to a boarding school that provided all the facilities that a boy of 12 could ask for. But in place of exploring its beautiful campus, enjoying the cricket on its greens or spending

time at the music school, my time there was spent cramming lessons.

Having been reared in the middle class, it no doubt seemed the aptest thing to do at that time, a goal in whose creation my guardians played no small part. But I wonder if it was worth it at all. Little of what I spent hours committing to my memory remains in my mind today — nothing does barring the mathematical tables and, perhaps, verses. One may have good scores to show from that period which look good on a CV but they are of no relevance in how well one does with one’s life.


In fact, several of my friends who did not take life so seriously — whom I thought no- gooders then — are having a much better shy at life than I am today.

This last bit can be attributed to what is called the burnout syndrome.

To use a sporting analogy, the team that does very well in the preliminary rounds of a competition rarely goes on to win the trophy. Just as you need to peak at the right time in sports, so can it be in case of academics and life in general. Sometimes working very hard and doing well at the early stages of one’s life can see fatigue set in when it matters the most. I have often as an adult rued the fact I don’t take my career and my life half as seriously as I took my lessons in school. And such moments are accompanied with the suspicion that it has something to do with the overexertions of childhood.

This can manifest itself in a different way. To take one example, it is not a very well known fact that the academic career of a good proportion of students who make it to the IITs ends the moment they are past its gates — the time it should be beginning rather. Since learning was never imparted and imbibed as a matter of joy, as a means to satisfy human curiosity, since it was merely a tool for securing one’s prospects in life and attaining respectability, its purpose ends with success in the IIT Joint Entrance Examination. It then boils down to clearing semester exams with some last- minute studies — as do non- science graduate students throughout India.

It is no wonder that we produce few first- rate scientists or engineers. It is also perhaps the reason why our IITs and other such institutions, despite the best of intellectual stock to work with, produce little original research.


Being in a boarding school, at least one doesn’t have one’s folks breathing down one’s neck about the Board or school- leaving exams. Children who stay with their parents have it much worse. Being in Class IX or X in middle class India translates into a nono as regards many things.

Games are off, movies are off, one is even supposed to keep socialising to a minimum.

It certainly doesn’t help that relatives and family friends want to be constantly posted on the ‘ exam preparations’ even as they cite tales of Mr X and Mr Y’s son or daughter having cracked it the previous year.

It appears that the exacting regimen that we put children through in school leaves most of them with a permanent distaste for learning of any sort later on in life. Most young people today are done with books the day they have an appointment letter in their hand — why else would reading be a dying pastime? Needless to say, this is hardly the right prescription for their evolution as adults.

There can also be an extreme reaction to the phenomenon of keeping kids on a tight leash as far as academics is concerned.

You can discipline a child of 15 or 16 and make him do your bidding but things change when she turns 18 or 20. For an adult can pretty much be a different kettle of fish. It is quite common to see children who have led highly disciplined lives run amok when they enter college where there is freedom of the highest order. In India this has a special ring to it.

Nearly all our non- science graduate courses are a breeze as far as clearing them is concerned. A curriculum which does not make special demands on one’s time and energy, coupled with the new found freedom of youth, can sometimes be a lethal combination.

I have vivid memories of bunking classes in graduation and law courses with the perverse pleasure of getting one’s own back from the system — at a stage in life when I should have begun taking academics seriously.


The preoccupation with exams and scores overlooks the fact that what is needed to do well in school may not be what makes for success in life. There are innumerable cases of people who were brilliant in school but fell by the wayside when they grew up.

For, life is far more complex than an exam and our schools fail utterly when it comes to imparting skills to negotiate it in the proper way. There is little training in emotional intelligence or mental hygiene, in handling situations and coping with people of different kinds, of nurturing a healthy and positive attitude towards life. Above all there is hardly any stress on cultivating proper values, of the significance of playing by the rules in any pursuit of success.

At another level, it is high time we understood that childhood is more than just a preparation for adult life, notwithstanding how nature might see it. It must also be cherished for its own sake. This places a responsibility on adults visa- vis children that is scarcely acknowledged.

And this failure sometimes leads to lasting regret when the children grow up, for having spent the best years of one’s life battling stress and performance pressure.