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Why our education system needs a fix!

By Vivek Kaul and Priyanka Pulla
April 06, 2005 12:50 IST
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'He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.' ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Pink Floyd's We don't need no education was not just a song of a genre or a generation. It became an anthem for a reason. Deep within, all of us see those images of drably coloured schoolgirls and boys being packaged into sausages along an assembly line, and absent-mindedly register the truth that glares through.

Like Newton's gravity, we take that truth for granted. A truth that doesn't need re-affirmation yet refuses to lie dead and buried.

And that is the truth of our social structure, what it is designed to achieve and the most potent tool it uses to do so: education.

This article focuses narrowly, like a magnifying glass, on some of the trends today in Indian education and the impact they have. While we leave alone the bigger, deeper pattern that pervades all of society, we delve primarily into the area of higher education: one of the most powerful manifestations of the procrustean tendencies of society today.

Of course, by tweaking just this parameter, we will be cleaning the river's estuarial filth at a point where most damage is done. But then again, higher-education choices affect the lives of all individuals at the stage when they are complete, suffrage possessing, decision-making adults.

And to observe the systematic conflict in the minds of a society's most influential sub-group, is to appreciate most sharply what is going wrong with the society.

The Big Question

Higher education -- the area an individual decides to graduate/ post-graduate in. This is perhaps one of the most important selections a person makes during his lifetime. It determines the course of one of the largest investments in terms of irrecoverable time, money and commitment a person will ever make.

Higher education decisions, by sheer inertia, remain with a person very far in life. In a watertight educational system like ours, it becomes a veritable vedic caste system. One that does not permit inter-caste mingling or marriages; a system of pure breds, for better or for worse.

A decision of such extreme importance needs some amount of thinking on the individual's part. 'Why do I want to do this?' is a question that needs to be answered.

Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that what is happening today, amazingly, is completely to the contrary. At what point in life do people ask themselves the question, 'Where do I want to go with my life and will my education take me there?'

The fact that most individuals do not answer the big question has led to more questions cropping up. Why the early burnouts when designer human resource policies and booming economies are pushing employee perks/job variety and pay-cheques to unprecedented highs?

Why today, in the day of paternity leaves, free office lunches, and five-star office premises, is the job loyalty of the MBAs/engineers lesser than yesterday's white-collar employee?

The 'too-late' realisation and the feeling of disillusionment is a direct outcome of unconsidered early-life decisions. Higher education and career decisions. When faced with the question of what to do in life, what usually happens falls into two categories.

The individual does what others want him to do (defined as ' totalitarianism') or he does what everybody around him seems to be doing (defined as 'conformism').


The pressure to get into one field of study or another usually comes from the individual's parents and people around him. Instances where everybody in the family has been an engineer/doctor and so should the individual (even though he is not interested) are fairly common. At other times it's because one of the parents could not become an engineer/doctor and now the child is supposed to fulfill this wish.

People who have been in such situations and have not conformed to wishes of their elders know the problems it can cause within the immediate family. The so-called 'sense of pride' of the elders gets hurt and they keep acting wise about the issue for years to come.

If a few years down the line, things go wrong, with what the individual chooses to do; no effort is spared by the elders in reminding the individual of their earlier efforts to warn him of the same. The 'I told you so' attitude prevails all along.


At any point in time people are influenced by people around them, their acquaintances, neighbours, relatives. . . Psychological research shows that the desire to conform to the behaviour and opinions of others is a fundamental human trait.

If everybody around the individual is getting into engineering or wants to be an MBA, the tendency is join the herd without actually giving the entire thing a thought. When individuals resort to conformism they are trying to be someone they are not.

This someone might be an elder sibling or for that matter even a distant relative, who has supposedly made it big in life. This happens because it's easier going along with the prevailing conventions rather than think through what one wants to do with one's life.

This desire to conform has made education a big business and explains the cropping up of a huge number of business schools and engineering colleges all across the country.

The Existential Vacuum

The negative consequences of totalitarianism/conformism show up over a period of time. One of the consequences is an existential vacuum. Victor E. Frankl, in his all time classic, Man's Search for Meaning, defines individuals facing existential vacuum as having 'the lack of awareness of a meaning worth living for.' He adds, 'They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves.'

The existential vacuum starts showing up sometime after the individual has started working and starts to think, 'Is this what I wanted to do? Do I really want to slog it out so much just to sell a few extra cases of liquor or run a few extra lines of code?'

A reason could be that this is when the individual has the true luxury to think for himself. Financial and social independence from family ensures, it does not dictate his/her thoughts anymore. And suddenly, he/she finds that the logic that remained unquestioned so many years ago, fails to convince now.

There are other parameters that determine success and happiness in his eyes, and conspicuously, they are nowhere close to being fulfilled. The existential vacuum is a painful climacteric, a redefinition of rules that determine life.

It is a return to that infantile sense of insecurity that exists when a child is newly born, and before the mother and family moves in with their structures to re-assure and cloister the child. Once again, a person has to create his own sense of security, fulfillment and actualisation.

Crisis is our idea of progress

'Money is like sugar, no point in hoarding it, it's usually goes bad, or you have to make quite unnecessary cakes to use it up.' ~ Charles Handy in his book The Empty Raincoat.

The existential vacuum in life is vicariously compensated for by more money. Money compensates for the uncertainty in lives, no longer remaining a means of living but becoming the point of it.

The dominance of the economic imperative has created a society where success is now equated to material success.

The more one earns the more uses one finds for money. The Japanese word 'chindogu' explains the situation very well (it means the unnecessary things that one buys). If we look closely at our lives, many of us have such goods slashed up in our houses. E.g.: windscreen wipers for spectacles.

And then there are positional goods to buy as well. Goods that set us apart from our colleagues, friends, neighbours, etc. And that's how a consumption economy works.

Individuals want more and more of money and fall into this infinite loop, making life a marathon, which they can neither quit nor win.

And when the individual looks around; everybody seems to be doing the same. The individual gets the feeling that he is not moving at all. A sense of determinism overtakes him and then nothing really matters and he starts flowing with the tide, jumping from one job to another hoping to find a sense of purpose. Guess, when you don't know where you are going, the journey is the reward.

Organisations employ fewer people these days because it saves them money, while individuals want more and more money. This has created an infinite loop of work and spend. Consumption gives satisfaction to people, even meaning to their lives. The paradox is most working professionals realise this.

Beyond a certain point working professionals do not need the money they earn; but they want it to show how successful they are. Money becomes their idea of success.

Research shows that relative wealth matters more to individuals than absolute wealth does. And as long as the society has a few measures of success there will be more individuals who will be failures in life.

Such a society can never be contented and life will boil down to a series of rat races. As Lily Tomlin famously remarked 'the trouble with being in the rat race is that if you win you are still a rat.'

In a world where one is as good as the last job, all thinking happens in the short term. When the sense of purpose is missing in an individual short-term plans come in and there is no reason to compromise today for an unknown tomorrow.

This explains to a large extent why individuals jump so many jobs these days. And why the question of 'What I really want to do in life?' is put on the backburner.

The root cause: Where it all begins

'Disciplines are habit forming, define boundaries. The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.' -- Prof. O. Reilly

Just as every society goes through cycles of rigidity and control that give way to freedom and flexibility, so does the educational system of the society.

The Indian education system today is still one of rigidity and control. This system as we define it, is not just schools, colleges, syllabi and students. It is also trends, popular opinion and considerations for decision making which students employ, that ultimately pushes a whole generation in a certain way.

Engineering and medicine are today, the two holy rivers of the Indian educational culture. Although the situation is changing in the bigger cities for most of small town India the choice remains between the two. The two rivers into which all meandering streams must meet, the only salvation for the majority of students.

For the engineering and medicine aspirants the day starts with early morning coaching classes, with depressed looking bleary-eyed boys and girls, struggling to stay awake through inhumanly long hours of a very exquisite kind of drilling. 'Exquisite' because this is not regular education.

There is only one purpose to the mathematics formulae and chemistry equations the teenagers learnt by-heart. To make it through to the IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) or other engineering or medical colleges.

It is exquisite because nobody cares if it is mathematics or biology, only that it has to be learnt by rote well enough to be spewed out when it matters. Students learn an exquisite skill, not a vast and unique subject.

These classes are more like apprenticeships to a magician. They teach a trade, a craft. Not a science, not the ability to think.

In any case, these are only a prelude to the real thing. The real thing is the engineering and the medicine courses. Fair enough. Those who make it through to the haloed professional colleges, fall out of line. They are promoted and 'settled.' The others, of course, remain struggling rookies.

The struggling rookies stick around long enough to finish up with their respective BAs, BScs and BComs until the trends mature into something newer. It is then they are hit with the MBA flush.

There is still hope for the rookies who are in the ranks. Stories are rife about the BCom graduate who passed out of IIM Ahmedabad and got a starting salary of Rs 11 lakh. Again there is mass migration towards management, with uncountable management schools churning out uncountable managers.

The more the concentration in one stream, the greater the inefficiency, since people are simply not homogenous enough that they would all fit one profile equally. There are, therefore, a number of failures who would probably have performed brilliantly, had they chosen more discerningly.

We are put through nearly two decades of non-stop education. Our education system was conceived by Macaulay to produce babus for the British administration in India. The tragedy of our times is that it is still being followed.

It does not encourage the thinking process. The process of taking exams never seems to end, i.e. the Indian way. The exams essentially test an individual's prowess at learning by rote rather than applying what one has learnt.

By the time individuals clears the 10th/12th standard very few remain unscathed and most of them would conform to the norm rather than do their own thing. The rat race these days starts as early as class VI / VII.

From a very early age the life of youngsters is so crammed with activities to make them ready for all the exams that they have to take in the days to come that it becomes difficult for them to find time to think. And after a point they simply stop thinking and do what the world around them is doing.

Further, since marks remain the only parameter for success, a lot of students pass out of schools with their self-confidence heavily dented. The tendency for them is to conform to the herd.

Reviving the big question

'The perfect form lies in the block of stone; all that is needed to chip away until it is revealed.' -- Michelangelo

Life is more than just surviving and even if its just surviving, it still begs the question, survival for what? The lack of sense of purpose has led to more and more people chasing spiritual gurus.

As Javed Akhtar remarked in a recent speech, 'In the spiritual supermarket you get instant nirvana.' The good part is that a new business has come up which increases employment opportunities in a nation that is starved of jobs, but the bad part is the big question still remains unanswered.

The process of finding a sense of purpose in life, like other important things can only be encouraged and not taught. There is no science for this and an individual has to think his way out.

There are no perfect answers for this question and we must forever keep searching. An individual should truly believe that life will not be always be like it is and that in a few years time a new direction will be needed.

In this day and age when employees have become fast moving consumer goods there is seldom a sense of belonging to the organisation they work for. This makes it increasingly difficult to find a sense of purpose at the workplace. Individuals have to look much beyond that.

To find one's true purpose in life, individuals have to look beyond textbooks, to be able to experiment and make mistakes, to learn from one's actions, to take feedback and start again. Learning happens only when we sit back and think and analyse our actions. This helps in realising our sense of purpose in life.

Life could be divided into series of activities (other than obviously what an individual does for a living). Individuals should try and get different things from the different bits. Once we start exploring the chances of finding true meaning in life go up.

Having said this it's easier to make money if that is all one is bothered about than to combine it with other activities that one likes doing. Jobs these days cannot be done if one is not prepared to give them all the time.

Our work places are our new ghettos. The final choice though always lies with the individual. To have a sense of purpose in life individuals need to draw up their definitions of success rather than go with how others define it. There is only one life and that has to be lived well.

Our education system obviously needs reform. It just tests individuals on one parameter -- and that is 'learning by rote.' Just exams that define whether an individual is a success or a failure need to be relooked at.

The thinking process in individuals has to be encouraged. There should be scope for experimentation to help the students determine their real potential in life so that they can take it up as a career rather than just follow the herd.

In closing

'The only kingdom that makes any man a king is the kingdom of his own soul. The only power that has any real meaning is the power to better the world.' -- Gregory David Roberts in his book Shantaram.

Looking into the future is not easy and people will come around and tell us that only crystal gazers and astrologers can do that. Ordinary mortals just go ahead and do what comes their way. But life always gives us two choices: One that we make and one that we should make.

Having said this, we also agree that education degrees are treated as a passport to our big buck dreams. This is a kind of brainwashing that goes on in our country. We always aspire for better quality of life without knowing what the betterment that we are looking for is.

We start believing owning things is good. More money is good. More commercialism is good. More is good. More is better. We repeat it and have it repeated to us-over and over again till nobody bothers to think otherwise. The average person is so befogged by this that he has no perspective on what is important anymore. We put our values in the wrong things that lead to disillusioned lives. Hence one keeps changing jobs to find that elusive 'perfect, happy life' balancing professional and personal times -- to find satisfaction.

Do we know what really gives us satisfaction? Once we figure that out, maybe we would encounter stability -- adapt to a state of contentment. It's important to have a meaningful life -- to devote yourself to create something that gives you purpose and meaning. Degrees can be exploited to find a new constructive dimension in life, moving from individualism to collectivism and leaving behind a legacy of building a better future.

It's not about trying to change the world but just nudging it a little as we go along, trying to make a little difference in our own way.

The world around us does not recognise the morality of enough. We must recognise the fact that more of money is not always personal growth. And it always comes with costs associated with it. There are people around us who have a sense of purpose in life, trying to do something more than what they do for a living.

Money, however necessary they might deem it to be, is not their measure of success. We can, if we wish, write our own scripts, for our lives, instead of living out those that someone else wrote for us.

Vivek Kaul is Research Scholar, ICFAI; and Priyanka Pulla is a freelance writer. The views expressed in the article are personal.
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