In 1776, the United States of America declared itself a free nation, no longer a colony of the British rule. It got into the business of building itself. Only a century and half later, it was in a position to send troops in World War II and save Britain, its one time coloniser, from annihilation at the hands of the Nazi forces. (The Americans fought off Germans from the edge of the English Channel. Drove them back from the edge and helped save Britain. By then, Britain was down to a much smaller number of soldiers who were also battle weary. Had Franklin D. Roosevelt not sent Dwight D. Eisenhower not arrived, England would have fallen too.)
How was America able to do so? How was a country that was a colony only a 150-year ago, become so strong?
The growth and prosperity of any nation depends on its industry, economic health, infrastructure and how it is able to look after its citizens. Expansion in every field, be it medicine, healthcare, education, entertainment, science and technology and a vast open field for growth of its people are primary to a developed nation and economy.
This is common knowledge and I have reiterated it here for a specific purpose.
By comparison, in India, the structure of society and its aspirations grew only in a few verticals. To find success in these limited fields, our youth and children have perhaps only one ladder to climb. One misstep on this ladder to success can have them plummet into the abyss of failure, never able to claw their way out of darkness that then engulfs them.
This ladder is that of the school exams.
We must applaud and celebrate children who score well, by getting phenomenal marks in their Class 10 and 12 board exams. This exam is their ticket to the world of prosperity, travel, money and success in all its manifestations. And children who are our toppers have aced it. They will go on to rule any career of their choice — they can become IAS officers, engineers from IITs, doctors from AIIMS and even go abroad to study. Their lives are made and their trajectory is straight up, the sky is their limit. Their parents are filled with pride, joy, relief and satisfaction. It is their life’s earning to see their children and wards do so well. They can sit back with the certainly that their children will achieve what perhaps they could not.
These aspirations are largely of the colossal number of families that make up our middle class.
For example, a peon who works in a government office leaves no stone unturned to make sure his child gets whatever it takes to make a success in life. The family will scrounge all their lives, denying themselves simple pleasures, because they will send the child to the best coaching classes, to as best a school as possible. The entire family’s orientation is towards the studies of the child, leading to perhaps an immensely skewed and lopsided way to life. It only takes one conversation to see how enjoyment, entertainment even laughter are sometimes considered a waste of time. All the children and the families do is study towards each exam and pore over mark sheets, resulting in extreme stress and heavy expectation from the children.
The peon wants to make sure that his aspirations are fulfilled by his children. That if he has to stand outside the officer’s cabin and fill water in his aircooler, his child will one day become the officer who sits inside the cabin.
The highways to success in India are few. Schools and the people who send their children to them can’t see beyond their noses. All that is visible and available are the streams of engineering, medicine and a few more. If the child is not able to get a grade that ensures him an entry into these haloed fields, it is safe to say his life is considered doomed.
The idea of success and a life led successfully is different in what we call the advanced nations of the world. Because it is possible to do other things there and not be seen as a failure.
Whereas the idea of success in this country is centred around the age-old core of success at school, leading to success in college eventually leading to a high paying job or a job with power and its trappings. The choices are either medicine, engineering, management, or IFS, IAS, IPS. There are only those many jobs available for this clump put together, everybody else is left to scramble for itself. Some of them find success in business; art and other spheres of life and the others vanish into the crowd of faceless millions. The formula is simple: stick to the book and earn your key to success. What you like is irrelevant; your talent is irrelevant in this cut and dried system. Innovation is out of the question. We don’t allow for failure. That is one reason why America is a leader in innovations and inventions. Because even in failing, the average American has food, shelter and heating. That is the atmosphere that nurtures experimenting and intellectual, creative adventures. That is why it does not matter much if you don’t have the highest marks at school-level exams. Life isn’t only about being a doctor, engineer, etc… there is enterprise, things to do, things to create and so much else. The markers of success and failures are elastic.
Having said this, the easiest route to take is the one of studying and then studying more to success. Forget that you want to be an inventor or a writer or an artist. Because the whole world will look down upon you and praise others who followed the conventional route. When a child is secure that he will not be chastised for not fitting the societal straight jacket, he will have the freedom to experiment and grow.
This problem is with the middle class. The lower economic classes don’t face this dilemma. A carpenter’s son, only for the sake of example, knows he will follow his father’s trade. The rich people can buy the best. In the middle classes the only door, which will open, will open with marks. A child is hardly ever asked his deepest desires — he is only told about the dire consequences of so-called failure. The father has no time to think about the need of the child. Choice is luxury.
As people who educate and contribute to society, we must make a concerted effort to make our children feel secure and never feel the need of ending their lives over an exam result.
The writer is the chairperson of the AICC grievance cell. The views expressed here are personal.