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Are India's Toppers Ready For Life?

May 31, 2023 10:33 IST
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I feel it is utterly silly to disproportionately celebrate academic achievements in school and college when there is so much life and transformation by life yet to happen, states Shyam G Menon.

All illustrations: Dominic Xavier/

May 2023. The results of the civil service exam were published and along with that the media in Kerala highlighted those securing top ranks from the state.

Podium finishes in such competitive exams and school and university exams have long fascinated people here.

Not a year has gone by since memory took root in my head, of academic achievements not celebrated big time.

The celebration has a lot to do with equation of exam scores to bright career ahead, which in turn has various other connotations ranging from social status to well settled life.

Years ago, very average performers like this author had approached exams with trepidation.

With top ranks the stuff of front-page news, a benchmark to decide shortfall in performance stood cast in concrete from 10th standard onward.

Two years later, there would be the pre-degree (today's 12th standard) results playing out to similar fanfare, exultation, and misery, as the case may be.

Three years thereafter, would come the degree results, then the post graduate exam results - all to similar praise for the academically brilliant.

Even those completing their MPhil and PhD were not spared.

They found space in newspapers in the form of passport size-photos with small write-up alongside (for some strange reason, although research attempted something new or original, shining the limelight on it was never as front page as a top rank in exams from tenth to graduation, engineering and medicine).

The numbers of such eminent folk witnessed in my times should be in the hundreds. I assume they all enjoyed first class careers afterwards.

Several years ago, I remember, a publication had attempted to track down some of these brilliant performers and profile what they did subsequently. I don't remember the details.

Regardless of its findings, nothing diluted the routine celebration of the academically strong in 10th and 12th standard exams and in the stages that followed.

If anything, the tendency got stronger with the ascent of coaching classes and training institutions. The affliction was nationwide.

I remember standing on the platform at a Mumbai railway station and staring at a hoarding filled with the photos of youngsters who had cleared the entrance exam to the Indian Institute of Technology.

That was a direct product of excellence in academics having fostered an industry; nowadays the industry also encompasses civil service exams, bank tests and so on.

Townships have thrived around this industry. Films have been made on the phenomenon.

In subsequent years, as politics grew more and more narrow-cast, I saw congratulatory messages featuring the photos of students from the neighborhood who scored well in one exam or the other, put up at junctions in Kerala.

That one's school and college years may be hardly indicative of life as a whole, has been consistently overlooked.

Equally ignored has been how little academic performance has to do with an interesting life or a life useful to others.

For instance, no exam captures how caring or compassionate an individual is and if an exam tried doing that, it risks reducing these human qualities to the stuff of intelligently subverted, industrially recreated traits.

I never forget an aunt contrasting the specter of so many rushing to be doctors and few of them staying around to help in a time of need.

To that extent, the aftertaste of academic brilliance in Kerala, has been the same as the aftertaste of money.

In relatively prosperous Kerala, sporting decent per capita income and low levels of poverty, money and what money does have created a transaction-based society that is increasingly short of human warmth.

But this isn't the only shortcoming one sees in a life measured by exam scores and money.

For India as a whole, neither exam scores nor money has helped to conspicuously check wrongdoing and injustice.

Some of the trends one sees in daily news, fail to reconcile.

For example, academically brilliant students securing record-breaking salary is frequent topic of reportage.

However, the infusion of such brilliance in the corporate world hasn't resulted in corporate aspirations that are more relevant to human well-being or well-being of the planet.

It hasn't spawned companies that aspire for goals nobler than shareholder returns or a notion of business that exceeds the thirst for fantastic profit.

We have seen financial inequality grow and industry being partner in the transformation of democracy to models harking of despotism and monarchy.

At this stage if we revisit the record-breaking salary offered, one suspects that the intelligence recognised was very likely a specific ability relevant to the company and not the package of intelligence and awareness we have known a conscious human being to be.

Simply put, in India's rat race, academic qualifications measured by exam scores and prospective income have largely served to save one's butt and author a good life for self and family.

Even that vicious trolling, a weapon widely used to promote polarising politics and familiar to us since the past decade of character assassinating social media posts, had as its proponents many who suffered no lack of education by academic qualification.

Weaponising communication came easily to them. How many of those who had their photos stuck on the front page of newspapers and on the hoardings of coaching class businesses (for clearing exams with flying colors), developed the courage to adopt a cultured, educated, inclusive view of humanity and planet?

I feel it is utterly silly to disproportionately celebrate academic achievements in school and college when there is so much life and transformation by life yet to happen.

In fact, success is easy. What is tough, is -- awareness.

At times like now resonant with authoritarianism, megalomania and democracy caricatured by those in power to shades of royalty, the results of the civil service exams captured one's attention in a manner not comparable to the regular announcement of rank holders.

How many of the youngsters featured in the pages of newspapers for topping said exams, may be counted on to be whistleblowers and checks on the misuse of power?

How many will stand up to wily, destructive regimes stealing the people's power for personal aggrandisement?

Or, will the goal be merely great career achieved?

Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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