Are our children who go to school really learning something? Are they misled or not led at all? what do they learn about life? Is passing examinations all that we expect from the school and the teachers? Some usual questions and unusual answers:
Why exactly are we providing education to our children? This question emerged when I discovered a bizarre attitude of a seventh grader towards his education. He excitedly explained me how he would prompt his friends/competitors to write wrong things if they asked him questions inside the exam hall. That was the effective way to get the higher ranks in the final exams of the classes. Had he shown some remorse for having done a wrong thing by telling a lie, I would have tried to persuade him not to repeat the deed again. But he was so obsessed with scoring and ranking higher that the practice that I label 'reverse-cheating' was as acceptable as studying harder to memorize difficult things. Competition was all he saw in the exams because a higher rank was what was praised and glorified by the teachers as well as the parents.
I have no idea how prevalent this particular phenomenon of reverse-cheating is among all the students n Nepal. But it is a safe bet to state that 'Cheating' as such inside the exam hall is fairly prevalent at the exams of all levels. Cheating provides a faster, more convenient and often the only available alternative to a hard work. Even those who study sincerely prefer to carry 'cheats' just in case a need arises inside the exam hall. Helping the other students in the last hour of exam, particularly, by the bright students is even more common and less often punished. The events of indulgence of the guardians, the invigilators, the security personnel and so on in helping the students cheat in board exams come out frequently. Even the systematic efforts by the teachers to help their students inside the hall are now fairly common. But all these forms of 'cooperative' cheating methods are wrong only because they go against the spirit of a good examination that is supposed to measure how much of the knowledge or the skill the student has been able to grasp throughout the year or so of study. The instances in which the students verify their answers with their friends at the end of the exam are often more the result of their sociability rather than a bad intention to score higher than they are capable of.
But the process of reverse-cheating defies all the moral norms and the conscience expected from the school-goers. The social norm that the child bluntly defies is that one should not tell a lie to the others. The question whether telling a lie can be justified in cases where the act is associated with a tangible reward or incentive is answered in affirmative by the child. This also reflects the attitude of the child on other pressing moral issues that often trouble a teenager: can stealing things be justifiable in some instances? Is hurting some people more 'acceptable' than hurting others? Do all the elders deserve respect of the young people irrespective of their social position? Are the rewards justifiable without hard work? And the list is open. To put it mildly, the values that were earlier linked to the concept of reward or punishment by the omnipotent god for the good and bad deeds of human beings have now been seriously eroded. Even amid the sustained or rising proportion of young people who flock to the temples or other religious places, the reverence of the genuine religious values and their practice show a reverse trend.
Why not to tell a lie or steal things or abuse a poor old man or pass an examination without studying properly then? This is where our education system has failed miserably to instill proper values in the children at proper time. The competitiveness in terms of a scoring a relatively high score in the exams has dominated all other virtues associated with learning. The roll of education as something that helps one to understand and adapt better to the world is something still to be realized by the institutions as well as the bulk of teachers. And the situation is profoundly pathetic in the private schools that have sprouted throughout the country and boast to have provided a better quality of education than their government counterparts. 'Higher' rank in the school and proficiency in English means the entry to the 'better' colleges and ability to study the 'better' subjects that promise to provide 'better' jobs with 'higher' pay. One who rote-learns from the books and teacher's notes to regurgitate the words and lines on the answer sheets in the exam gets the highest reward along with praise and prestige.
Comparing my own schooldays in a typical government school in a rural area with the current high-tech education system primarily in the private schools, I have discovered few important insights that help explain the disparity in the attitudes of the students towards learning and education then and now. First is the difference in the values as well as the perception of education among the parents of the students. Then the majority of the parents of the students in the government schools (private schools were very scarce then) were literate at best, only few of the them well-educated and with livelihood other than peasantry. Education was the only thing they could hope would give their children a life different and thus better than their own. They had also plenty of leisure time to pass their conventional wisdom about life and moral issues to their children. Subsistence agriculture, as such demands a very high manual labor per unit productivity. The children and teenagers still form the main workforce in the villages for a variety of household and farming-related chores. So the parents had to make their children good students as well as laborious workers. Hard work, patience, perseverance were some of the important values that were subtly instilled by the parents to their children throughout a prolonged intercourse. Even when the fathers ventured away for some awkward job, the mothers interacted for about a decade after a child became aware of the world till he left home for higher education or some odd job or both.
My point is not to unduly glorify something that has passed. In a nutshell, rearing a child and educating in an average rural family meant much more than making him/her compete with colleagues in terms of scores in the exams. The bulk of parents who now send their children to the omnipresent private schools simply cannot afford to have the kind of interaction with their children that I referred above. The changed economic activities of a single family with often an employed or semi-employed mother, the pressure for the parents to devote all their efforts to earn as much as possible matches perfectly with their expectation from their children that they should somehow land up doing a job with high incentive. And that is what comes from the high scores, good ranks and a tough ability to compete and trick the others. Even though the parents may dislike their children telling a lie without remorse or hesitation, they cannot punish them for the act with a conviction of those who sincerely believe someone is up there to punish the wrong-doers of this world.
Second, cooperation and collaboration among families and individuals is far more important in the traditional societies than for the modern urban families staying in rented flats in big cities. While a child in a typical rural joint family internalizes the value of cooperating and helping others for a mutual benefit, the other child in a typical urban single family internalizes the value of competing with the others to gain a reward that cannot be shared but has to be won by one among many. The parents in a city, having seen the role of competition in the modern world are likely to prefer their child to score a 80% with first rank rather than a 85% with the third rank in the same examination.
Now comes the most important factor other than school that has huge impact in the learning process of a child: the Television. Though it was limited to the privileged and the wealthy only a decade and half back, now it is difficult to find a household of middle-class family without a TV set connected to a cable network. With increasing access to electricity, a TV is no longer a new thing for the rural areas and the lower class people. Fast food and TV are the two commodities that have enticed the young population with a vigor that the parents cannot control even if they want so. And most of the parents are barely aware of the long term impact in the physical and mental health of these gratifying commodities on their children and themselves. Those who cannot afford a TV will find it nearly impossible to prevent their children from sneaking into the neighbor's room that has a TV set.
What does a television teach the children then? It shows them wonderful things, wonderful people and wonderful events that resemble little with the real things surrounding them. And of course there are the advertisements many of which exploit the cute faces of the children. None of them teaches them to live within their means, to spend less or abstain from insisting to their parents to buy something that they can not afford. The only electronic means of entertainment for the earlier generation was a Radio and less frequently a Cassette-player. Reading books for knowledge and entertainment was fairly common among those who could read. None of these had an impact comparable to television in changing the attitude of the young people on how to live (and indeed how to consume!).
In recent years, the so called 'Reality Shows' have flooded the TV channels. They epitomize the complete objective of an 'ideal' program for entertainment in this obscenely profit-seeking world driven by capitalism. We can imagine just how much the child who reverse-cheated his friends would have been fascinated by the program 'Indian Idol' in which only the best among many good singers won the competition. What was deliberately hidden from the viewers like that child was that one whose fans could afford to vote him most could be the winner regardless of the talent in singing. While making many people apparently 'compete', the real motive of the organizers of such shows is to outsmart the other TV programs which earn from the advertisements only and their innovativeness helps them to amass further wealth from the stupefied viewers who feel they are watching a real emergence of talent through a program. This world of disguised deception is what has been able to obsess people, more so the young ones, with the Television.
To sum up, what the children do learn and what they fail to learn is no longer something controlled even partially by the parents in the urban and modern rural society with good access to the Television. Their imagination, their goal, the spectacle through which they view the world around them, everything is shaped by what they see not in the real world but in a deceptively skewed virtual world in the TV screens. And with the poor grasp of the scenario by the education-providers who are themselves enmeshed in a business of selling education by competing with others, the process is only reinforced. The parents who have a permanent headache of sustaining or improving their financial status by whatever means, can little care what their children learn by which means and what they fail to learn.
Reversing the boat that is traveling relentlessly to a world full of human beings devoid of ethics and conscience might have been almost infeasible now after centuries of capitalist teaching of 'everything to winners', 'compete or die' and 'shop till you drop'. That, however, does not prevent us from challenging the status quo or the deterioration of what is already a pretty bad situation. The voices of rebellion are now fairly common though forcefully sidelined or hidden by the extravagant 'conventional' modes of mass (mis)information. What is urgently needed now is the constructive attempt by the 'non-conventional' thinkers, educationists, sociologists and most importantly the rebellious students to seek an alternative paradigm of education in which the wild competition to earn higher is not the only objective. Countering the extravaganza of propaganda industry deceptively publicized as advertisement-entertainment industry is a real and tough challenge. Convincing the people like the boy who reverse-cheated in the exams that competition is not the eternal goal of human being may be pretty difficult now that he has internalized the calamitous values about life before seeing the real face of the world beyond the bright and colorful world on the TV screen. But that should not be impossible with a radically new approach to learning as well as the formal education which has been due for very long. If only we can endure and persevere. Let's not just see but act within our scopes as students if not as educationists or philosophers.