‘By heart it!’

There are many examples of Indian English that one comes across in schools across the country. One of the most outrageous uses of the language, for a number of reasons, is ‘by heart it’ – an expression that encapsulates the wish of most teachers (and parents) that their children commit to memory large amounts of text only to regurgitate the same when they are appear for their examinations. 

The other day I accompanied my wife to my first ‘parent-teacher’ meeting in 5-years. While some of you may find this odd, particularly since my daughter graduated to secondary school last year, I must say I am a firm believer in the philosophy that excessive pressure and attention doesn’t make for a happy or successful child. Besides, I am more than happy leaving her education in the capable hands of my wife. The reason why I chose to accompany her on this occasion was that my daughter had come home in tears a couple of days ago. The reason? Well, she had evidently been chastised in public by her teacher for ‘forgetting’ an explanation, which she was expected to have ‘by-hearted’ like all the other children in her class. What made it worse is that many of her classmates decided to take advantage of the situation and bully her, which only made her feel even more miserable. 

Now, I know how unpleasant young children can be when they set their minds to it; I also understand how children can resort to the hyperbole when faced with a difficult explanation; I also appreciate that teacher’s could occasionally correct an errant child, but to push a child to tears for failing to reproduce a word perfect explanation seemed to be taking things a bit far. The fact that neither my wife nor I have ever learned by rote, and do not believe in the ideology of reading (and having the ability to reproduce things nearly verbatim) without necessarily understanding what you are reading, didn’t help matters. So I took an hour off from work to have a chat with her teacher.

While her teacher was initially wary at having received our untimely meeting request from us, she seemed to relax very quickly when she heard that we were keen to know how our daughter was doing in school and what had happened at the Assembly last week as she seemed quite demoralized. “Demoralized?” She asked in amazement, “Why should she seem demoralized? Yes, I had told her that I was giving her a chance of a lifetime by selecting her to present at the inter-class assembly last week. And yes, both her classmates and I were very disappointed that she failed to give an adequate explanation of the chemical reaction asked of her, which cost us the inter class prize. Children have to understand that in today’s competitive world you have to grab every opportunity you are given or you get left behind. After all, I could have chosen someone else…”

Both my wife and I looked at her in disbelief.

“What do you mean by adequate?” I asked searchingly, having seen her presentation and listened to her explanation the day before the Assembly.

“Adequate, as given in her text book. The ICSE Board requires you to remember all the key words that are given in the book. That’s how marks are awarded in the exams. The only way you can do this – with the size of the portions that children have to study – is to by heart the text book.  Children must be ready to do this. Your daughter failed to do this.” 

“Well, perhaps my wife and I are to blame for that”, I said, as I started to feel slightly warm under the collar, “we have never studied like that and don’t believe children should have to memorize their text books to do well in class. Are you telling us that that is the only way to do well in school?”

I surely wasn’t expecting the matter of fact answer I was given.

“Well, yes. Don’t compare the education system of today with that of your times. Times of changed. You have to by heart your texts and produce word perfect answers to get the marks required to compete with others and get admission into good colleges. If you or your daughter has a problem with that, you might want to consider moving her to an IB school. Perhaps she is better suited for that.”

My wife and I looked at each other in silence.

After another few minutes in this vein, the meeting was over. We had been told in no uncertain terms that the only way our daughter would succeed in the Indian education system was to do what we abhorred – by resorting to ‘by hearting’ her text books and regurgitating the same during her exams. After all, wasn’t the qualifying criterion at one of the better colleges in New Delhi last year 100 per cent? What could this criterion possibly climb to over the next 5-years when it would be time for our daughter to sit for her board exams? And how would she possibly fare in her examinations when we didn’t want her to become a virtual Photostat machine?

Strange as it may sound, we walked away from school that afternoon even stronger in our resolve that we would not subject our daughter to this form of learning. And though we are yet to take a final decision about moving her out of our hallowed Indian education system or moving her to another school, the fact is that it has set us thinking seriously about her future.  

Much has been said and written about the need to revamp the Indian education system to make it reflect the needs of today, and to bridge the acute shortfall of seats in our colleges and universities, particularly institutions that can be truly called world-class institutions. As a country that continues to produce amongst the highest numbers of engineers, doctors and PhDs in the world, and perhaps sends the highest number of students overseas to colleges in the US and the UK every year, are we setting ourselves up for another significant migration of talent by continuing to follow our archaic systems of education?

While the alarming proportions of our current and projected national skill gap is a definite reflection of the growth and bullishness of the Indian economy, it is also a reflection of the number of our young professionals who go overseas to study and often choose to stay on in their adopted countries. Is this something we wish to continue to live with? Isn’t it time we dusted off the cobwebs from our educational reform bill that continues to stay gridlocked in our upper house of Parliament and let in a breath of fresh air into the way we run things in the education arena? If we wait too long, our demographic dividend, which is often touted as one of greatest assets, could soon become one of our greatest liabilities. 

Image credit: www.colourbox.com

This post first appeared on my Times of India blog: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/time-travellers-log/entry/by-heart-it

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