From Class V all the way to Class XII, my report card invariably had the same adjectives for me: ‘hardworking’, ‘conscientious’, ‘bright’, ‘intelligent’... And the reason for this was that from Class V onwards, there was not a single year in school that I got below an average of 83 per cent. I was often among the ‘Top 5’ in class.
The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) wanted me to know everything in my textbook as anything could be asked in the exam. I figured that if I knew everything in the book, I could never go wrong. But even as a teenager, a part of me was aware that I was being rewarded for mastering a technique - the technique of cramming.
Just for the record, home was where one mastered this art. School was definitely a place to socialise, fool around with friends, and perhaps poke fun at teachers. Very little learning took place inside school. Most of the teachers seemed to lack passion for the subjects they taught. In the 12 years I spent at school I was taught by approximately 30 teachers, only two of whom I found inspiring.
Nevertheless, the system of education at the school level was convenient for me as it always yielded good results - a pat on the back from my teachers and friends, and a sense of personal satisfaction. I was a keen learner, always worked meticulously and was thrilled when it paid off.
But as I grew older I became increasingly aware that our education system reduced knowledge to mere information that was to be memorised. While a part of me enjoyed the compliments, another (smaller) part resented that I was being praised simply for being an expert at memorising, recapitulating and reproducing information. I was being praised not for my insight or for the questions I raised but for how perfectly I regurgitated answers.
While this did worry me, I also reflected on the fact that cramming had served me well. It had got me 88-point-something in the 10th Boards and I was willing to fall back on it again for the 12th Boards, which, at the age of 17, seemed like a matter of life and death.
An 85 could get one into St. Stephen’s College and falling short of the cut-off mark by 0.25 could condemn you forever to what everybody saw as just a little less impressive. The name of the college mattered, and one cannot deny that at some small level it mattered for everyone - teachers, parents, friends, parents’ friends, friends’ parents. If cramming got me the marks, I would rely on it. I was too scared to risk using my own brain.
And my well-honed skill of being able to stop myself from using my mind was rewarded again. After an interview that seemed to test my ability to withstand intimidation rather than independent thinking, I was offered admission to read History at St. Stephen’s College!
Delhi University claims to model itself on the Oxbridge System - combining lectures with tutorials. For each topic, one was given a reading list consisting of about 20 books and articles by different scholars, each giving their interpretation of history.
Being unfamiliar with how one was to make this transition from school - where one studied one textbook for all topics in a subject - to college where we were assigned 20 books for one topic, some of the students asked a lecturer how one was to go about this. The answer was categorical: "You have to read each and every book and article."
How was I to read and know everything in these books and articles? I tried to read an article on archaeology and got thoroughly bored. How was one supposed to read so much in such short a time? I had always read and made notes on everything in the CBSE textbook but how could one read every article as thoroughly? If one couldn’t read it thoroughly and understand each word, what was the point? How was one to make notes on ten hundred-page articles? The task seemed utterly daunting.
But I found an easy way out: I just simply avoided reading and busied myself with the social life in college - there were new people to meet, new things to be discovered!
But my awareness that, in school, I had always been lauded for my excellent ability to memorise and reproduce what Bipin Chandra said had happened in history grew stronger. And it was now turning into rather intense self-doubt. Since no teacher came forth to provide guidance, I dealt with it in my own way: By losing myself in the novelties of college life.
My first year at Stephen’s brought me down from being a proud 80 percent-er to a 50 percent-er. And though I knew "marks didn’t mean everything", I concluded they did mean something. I knew the 80 per cent in school did not prove my intelligence, but the 50 per cent in college definitely was not helping my self-esteem. I decided to lose the treacherous ‘backbencher’ in me and bring back the ‘conscientious’ kid.
I attended every class, paid attention, took copious notes on whatever the lecturers said or dictated, read the readings assigned, attended every tutorial and even ‘prepared’ for them. I realised there was a technique to be learnt even in college. For most tutorials, one had to know the information that had been dictated in class as ‘notes’ and had to answer a sort of quiz based on it.
For the three essays one had to write in a term, one merely had to summarise what a few major scholars had to say on the topic. Moreover, one was absolutely free to plagiarise from books and collude with ‘senior’ or fellow students! No one seemed to care very much about my opinion, and so I figured it didn’t matter what I thought.
I passed out of Stephen’s with a first division, and came second in class in my final year. The message from 15 years of education in my country - first at a top-notch school and then at one of the best known colleges in India - was: Facts are more important than thought and imagination; that it’s more important to know the answers than think critically; that exams are more important than knowledge itself.
Some may say that in college the majority of us chose the convenient way out, and they are right: One could have gone through the trouble of coming up with an original and coherent argument, no one was stopping me. But the system did not seem to require it. One could be rewarded even if one chose the easy way out, so why not choose it?
And that is the saddest and most dangerous thing of all. Our system of education, even at the undergraduate level, does not encourage us - in fact, gives us every opportunity not to - think independently, critically, creatively or analytically. And so India produces citizens who lack the capacity to think for themselves and who defer to authority; who lack the ability to critically examine their own beliefs, habits, customs and traditions; who find it difficult to imagine what it is like to be in the shoes of a person who is different from them.
Citizens who live together but cannot deliberate or reason logically with each other, who do not know how to develop an argument but instead tend to express disagreement through assertions, diatribe or, worse, violence.
Capacity for critical thinking
If one somehow does develop a capacity for critical thinking, this can be attributed to a conducive environment at home, an intellectually adventurous peer group or a gifted teacher. One can certainly be sure that one developed this capacity in spite of the education system, not because of it.