The Entrance Exam Frenzy

Here in Kerala, the teenagers are the busiest people. They start their day at 7:00 in the morning with classes to prepare them for the brutal competition in the entrance examinations to publicly run colleges. 9:30 to 3:30 is school. Then its off to classes again. Often till 9 pm. Weekends are even busier. Classes the whole day. Then homework.

The competition to do well in the entrance exams is fierce. The most elite schools are the IITs, famed engineering schools. The newly started IISERs are trying to copy their success in science. They take people from the same `list’: an ordered list of the top 20,000 or so of 350,000 who are themselves the best students in India. The very top, about 8000, probably chooses the IITs.

India wants to be a meritocracy, tempered with special consideration for historically disadvantaged groups. I confess I can think of no better way to select students for a free elite education. No system designed to measure excellence can be foolproof. The administrators who designed the system are aware of that: there are many escape hatches. It is not the end of the world if you don’t get into an IIT or other Government Engineering or Medical College.

An education is not just assimilating data. It is about being able to see patterns in that data, make judgments about it, know what questions to ask, how to acquire data. This is sorely lacking in the training culture not only of India, but also in the professional schools in the US. Is it any wonder that the many American corporate giants that are stumbling now are run my armies of MBAs? Even the best universities, mine included, have degree mills that churn out barely literate hordes of management trainees. Because an MBA is a cash cow. In return for two years and a hundred thousand dollars you get a piece of paper, a stamp of approval..of what, exactly?

There are schools in India that provide a good education. These are colleges embedded in often dysfunctional universities. St. Stephen’s College in Delhi is an example. I cannot think of a better educated Indian than Shashi Tharoor, the Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram, where I am now: excellent writer, communications chief at the UM, and now politician. Or Mira Nair, the director of the movie Namesake. Or Om Mehta who writes a blog reviewing technical products. They are all graduates of St. Stephen’s. There are similar colleges all over India.

There was a group of three great algebraic geometers at the TIFR, India’s premier research institution. All Iyengars, a community of Brahmins that included Ramanujan, the genius mathematician of the last century. When I finally got to meet one of them I asked him if they got educated in some Brahmin tradition of mathematics in Chennai. No. They are all products of Loyola College in Chennai, where there was an Irish Jesuit priest who taught them mathematics.

Real education is still the result of a personal quest. If you are not one of the chosen in the JEE, fine. There are many other avenues open for you. If you are one of the chosen, remember that you still need to be educated. The coaching you got to sir for the exam is not an education. Read. Listen to music. Get to know interesting people. Argue. Be skeptical. Jog. Flirt. Even lift weights once in a while. You probably missed out on a lot of life in the scramble to get on the `list’. As in all things, moderation is key here.

The point is not that the JEE does not pick smart people. It is that there are other ways to be good as well. The success of the Indian Railways was not created by the IIT trained engineers. Nor that of the ISRO. It is a large country with many new opportunities.

Of course, things could be worse. It could be like in Pakistan where the young are hopeless and driven towards religious extremism. A bout of the entrance exam fever might just be what they need .

Comments are closed.