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Marks, qualifications, and meritocracy

Though marks and careers mean excellence, we cannot compromise the ideal of true education, writes K.D.P. Rao.

Marks, qualifications, and meritocracy
Education as a social institution is expected to create not only productive but also progressive manpower. According to Martin Luther King Jr, education helps 'critical thinking seasoned with character'. But over the years, this ideal seems to have been overpowered by the reality that meritocracy, in the name of marks, ranks and qualifications seem to define education. From kindergarten to graduation, there is a cutthroat competition for securing positions and respectable careers. The focus on a well-rounded development of personality, which was once a priority, is now a thing of antiquity. A career-specific knowledge is all that students focus on. No more Shakespeare, Kalidas, classical music or fine arts; it is all a race for career and corollary comfort. Often, this race turns brutal, driving the 'unsuccessful' down the path of suicidal depression. In Telangana, recently, quite a few instances of such unfortunate incidences were reported. Unfortunately this 'real' is perceived as the 'ideal' of education and all seem to acquiesce to it. Reasons behind this phenomena are chiefly socioeconomic.
In most developing countries, formal education is understood either as a means to secure white collared jobs or as a value addition to the existing family status. Besides, struggle for existence amid the geometric growth of population requires the 'survival of the fittest'. Naturally then, meritocracy steps in. Originally a state's monopoly as a social obligation, education gradually opened up to private entrepreneurship which transformed it into an apt commodity for sale. 'Good education' naturally meant 'good career'. Private schools, colleges, and coaching institutions began selling dreams of success, assuring the best percentages and ranks; more than a half of the enrolled though, embrace disappointment. As per the NSSO report (2016), spending on education in private unaided institutions was 22 times that of government institutions. Government schools and institutions are now only preferred by those who can't 'pay to learn'. As per the report, 7.1 crore students i.e. 26 per cent of the total number of students had taken private coaching wherein 12 per cent of the family income was spent and 89 per cent people stated that the purpose was "augmenting basic education"; obviously for future jobs. No matter 'beg, borrow or sell' parents want their children to be meritorious so that they become 'sahebs' on cushy jobs. Anything less in the bargain is no education. Interestingly, a similar enthusiasm is absent in vocational or skill development courses as more than 50 per cent seats are left vacant.
Two more factors responsible for the malady are the engagement with family business and the awakening of the middle classes. Professionals like doctors, lawyers and consultants largely run close-knit family businesses; degrees in the same subjects help the passage for hassle-free succession. Aspirants from middle classes aim for better careers than those of their parents to achieve inter-generational mobility. Not surprisingly, the market takes full advantage of the weakness of the clientele. Readymade guidebooks with solved questions and answers and audiovisual tablets swarmed the market. Regimented rote replaced true learning and intellectual bankruptcy took deep roots behind short-term 'achievements'.
Meritocratic orientation has also led to the subjugation of the youth to the dictates of the parents. In the name of family traditions, which essentially are caste values with occupational prescriptions, choices of learning and earning, as per aptitude, are largely denied. Instead of education grooming one's values and outlook, the predetermined value regime of society does the job. For instance, around 52,000 posts have been vacant in our Armed Forces. One of the obvious reasons is the presence of 'attractive' alternative careers. The presence of social hierarchy disregards the dignity of labour. Unlike in the west, blue collared and unconventional jobs aren't attractive here. The National Skill Development Mission Document admits that only 3.2 per cent of the 'educated workforce' is skilled, compared to 68 per cent in the UK, 75 per cent in Germany, 52 per cent in the USA, 80 per cent in Japan and 96 per cent in South Korea. Though there is no dearth of opportunities in skill-based areas such as tourism, hospitality, retail marketing, medical care, and a shortage of aspirants is evident in areas which do not prescribe to rigid entry tests.
Another conspicuous consequence is class polarisation in to 'haves and the have-nots'. The traditionally dominant classes with purchasing power could secure productive qualifications which helped reinforce their economic and social power. The minority of 'haves' seized a lion share of professions, trades, jobs and occupations. The 'have-nots', constitute the vast army of unemployed with unproductive qualifications. The rural-urban divide has aggravated the problem further.
It may not be incorrect to state that education as an institution, though made people literate, couldn't at the same time, create a desired productive manpower, let alone a progressive one.
The subject is too complicated to have instant solutions. Though it is impulsive in a democracy to blame the State when things go awry, society cannot disown its own share. More than a reform regime we need a change in the perceptions of the people. The media can play a constructive role in galvanising the collective thought process as it does on many social issues. Expansion in urbanisation is essential as it positively influences occupational mindsets. A uniform national education policy, wider than the scope of the RTE, is an important consideration. Equally, in the meantime, interim measures to control the unfettered education market are also no less important.
Children and the youth need the freedom to learn and grow, devoid of pressure for securing appropriate marks and careers. As agents of modernity, they need to be endowed, not only with knowledge but also with sufficient reason. Einstein aptly said 'I have no special talents, but I am passionately curious'. Aristotle's Golden mean is ever relevant as we need to maintain a balance between 'excellence and virtue'; though marks and careers mean excellence, we cannot compromise the virtue i.e. the ideal of true education.
(The author is a senior IAS officer from Chhattisgarh. The views are strictly personal.)
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