There’s something deeply rotten about the state of education in Bihar. And let us frankly admit that parents, pupils, politicians, professors—in other words, we, the people, are all equally to blame.
No sermons. No diatribes. No ad hominems. What we need, today, is the simple truth…laid bare without pretensions. But first a confession: Unlike the rest of the world, I wasn’t even remotely shocked or surprised to learn that the now-notorious-albeit-brand-new-subject, “prodigal science”, taught cooking to its ace toppers. A must-watch viral video showcases a clueless Ruby Rai, the Arts topper in the Bihar state Class XII exams, securing 444 marks out of 500, telling a shocked journo that political science—or “prodigal science”, as she thought it was called—was a subject about cooking. Of course we owe much to her. After all, this girl not only managed to cook up a storm in the nation, but single-handedly managed to put Bihar on the international map… yet again!
But why wasn’t I shocked? Well, you see, as a Bihari, both born and brought up in Bihar, I learnt long back that when it comes to education in the state and its brilliant desecration, we possess the same dictionary as Shah Rukh Khan: Nothing is impossible!
After all, it was just last year, during another exam, when the world unearthed our best kept secret: We are the mortal descendants of Spider-Man, capable of scaling formidable heights to rescue our clueless children from the clutches of cruel custodians of knowledge. Parents were caught scaling walls of buildings that housed exam halls, as expertly as the Marvel superhero to help their children with their answers. Therefore, it came to me as no surprise to learn that the predatory news channels had yet again managed to catch these little spiderlings and expose their web of lies.
Besides, we did not achieve this academic sacrilege of Biblical proportions in a day or two. It actually took us a lot of grit and hard work to bid adieu to both knowledge and academic integrity. And by Jove, we’ve been successful. In fact, we churn out devious toppers faster than Amul can churn out delicious butter. Trust me, it is no ordinary feat. In fact, today I’m going to give you a first-hand account of all-things-education in Bihar from a Bihari/ educationist’s POV… straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak (not surprising, since I am an astrological centaur).
When it comes to education in Bihar, it literally and metaphorically is a tale of two states. On the one hand, you have schools that put way too much emphasis on quality education, while on the other hand you have the mercenary schools that put way too much emphasis on inequality education (i.e. the doors open only for the rich). Of course, these mercenary schools further come with their own sub-classifications based on their respective affiliations.
In case you’re wondering why this affiliation matters, let me explain. It is the affiliation and not the location that rouses the parental Peter Parkers. Thus, a CBSE-affiliated school (even when run by Mammon-esque mercenaries) is more likely to conduct a fair exam in a remote location like Samastipur, as opposed to a BSEB-affiliated school conducting an exam in the very heart of the state capital. I know it sounds strange, but it’s true.
From a historical perspective, this systemic erosion of academics in Bihar commenced in the 1960s when the brilliant Bihari bachchas (who would later go on to become teachers and politicians) would actually take the answer scripts home. Not to write at leisure. Most parents preferred poorly-paid teachers to step into their shoes.
In fact, it was us who, for the first time, highlighted the futility of assigning marks; and it was indeed us who inspired the introduction of the competitive exams. For it was us who effectively demonstrated to a stunned nation that marks and grades have indeed no meaning whatsoever… for they are simply numbers typed on a piece of paper.
Of course, the bigger question then becomes: who’s to be blamed for the current state of affairs in the state? The answer, in fact, lies amidst the 4 Ps: Politicians, Professors, Pupils, Parents. Together, they make up he four pillars of academic dishonesty…summed up in a singular P called “PEOPLE”! In short, we’re all in this together.
The first teacher a child encounters is the parent at home. Through the process of socialisation, parents impart important life lessons to their children. Hence, if there is anyone who needs to be anointed for their great role in teaching academic dishonesty to their children, it is the parent. In fact, according to W.E.B. Du Bois, the American sociologist and civil rights activist, “Children learn more from what you are than from what you teach.” What it effectively means is that, when the child sees the parents lie and cheat their way through life, the child learns and emulates the same behaviour in their own lives. Thus, a cheating child is simply mirroring a cheating adult.
That, of course, is one aspect of socialisation. There is another. Parents today have become more concerned with the ends and not so much as the means. That is, they want their children to get good grades, and in this single-minded pursuit of academic excellence (that is measured by marks), they care little for academic integrity. In fact, we shouldn’t be arresting the Bihar toppers; we must arrest their parents.
After all, it was the parents who paid the price, why then should the children pay for the parents’ crimes?
Cheating is a choice. Period. Thus, it would be fallacious to say that students have no responsibility to bear in the current scheme of things. They do. For, most of them, if given an opportunity, would not hesitate to cheat in an exam. In short, if they can, they will! After all, we live in a world where children save money to buy gadgets but not books. (Most of them actually regard buying books as wastage of money.)
In fact, I still vividly remember the day I witnessed a few Bihari students purchasing a course book. As I stood there examining the books I wanted to purchase for my personal library, I couldn’t stop myself from eavesdropping. The students in question were debating which book to buy. Ordinarily, such discussion would revolve around the publisher, the author, the writing style, the content, etc. Instead, they were busy doing math: that is, how many pages for how much money. (In their little heads, they were not buying a book, they were buying paper.)
Hence, it’s not surprising to see their callous attitude to education in general, and cheating in particular. After all, opting for the shortest route is an innate characteristic of the human race. And just as we do while driving cars, so we do while writing exams. We take shortcuts… and we cheat. Forgetting in the process that when a student decides to take a shortcut to the pinnacle of success, he/she has effectively robbed the rightful topper from his/her top place. It’s not just academic dishonesty, it’s fraud! (I wonder if Misa Bharati, Lalu’s topper daughter, is listening?)
Students cheat… professors plagiarise! India is a strange land. While anywhere in the western world, academic dishonesty would attract severe disciplinary actions, in India, all you really get is a little slap on your wrist (if at all, that). Plagiarism is so commonplace—and the attitude so cavalier—that even professors from top universities do not bat an eyelid before becoming “inspired” (the popular Bollywood term for plagiarism) and transforming into a photocopier machine.
In 2002, seven Stanford physicists—including three Nobel laureates—wrote to the then President Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam, calling his attention to the instances of blatant plagiarism by B. S. Rajput, the then Vice-Chancellor of Kumaon University. They expressed shock that his actions had gone unpunished, despite conclusive evidence. I quote, “We cannot understand how any person participating in plagiarism can remain in power as a Vice-Chancellor of one of the Indian universities.” In another incident, a former Delhi University Vice-Chancellor was briefly arrested on charges of plagiarism.
Of course, what the Stanford professors forgot to ask was this: “Do the Indians understand the concept of academic integrity and academic dishonesty?” For a nation that is now being taught in schools and colleges by a generation of cheaters, the question becomes more important than its answer. When it comes to academic dishonesty, Schroedinger’s cat has been dead for a very long time indeed…and the box smells.
Do you know what the foolproof way is, of improving the state of state-run schools? Make it mandatory for those in government to send their children to government schools. And voila…the government schools will become the best schools in the country. Isn’t it ironic? The government itself does not trust its own schools—and the teachers they hire). Honestly, the politicians of this country (and Bihar) are the biggest sell-outs in this world. Of course, the worst part is that we—the general public—do not even question their actions, even when they are so tragically inconsistent.
Finally… it’s the people!
Let me recount a personal encounter that took place a few years ago. I was meeting the Director of a prominent state-funded business school in Patna, for a possible position. (This institute was, in fact, the Chief Minister’s pet project, I had been informed.)
Once inside his big cabin, just as I was taking a seat, I was rendered speechless by the first question that the Director directed towards me. He asked me—quite pointedly, at that: “Kaun jaat? (What caste?)” In a career spanning a decade with multiple books and teaching stints with the best B-schools in the country, no one had ever asked me my caste.
Since I was unprepared to handle the personal question (and hoping that he wouldn’t enquire about my gotra), I simply told him. I won’t reveal my caste here though…so make peace with that.
He shook his head in disapproval. Apparently, my caste was all wrong. But he did, however, reveal the best shortcut (see, there’s that word again): “Convert to Christianity.”
As I stared at the man dumbstruck, wondering if he was for real, I shook my head and answered: “My integrity and my identity are not for sale.” He grimaced before answering, “Well, in that case we can’t accommodate you here. However, if you are so interested in teaching, why don’t you come to my house. You and I can teach Maha Dalits for free.” That was the first time I had actually heard the term “Maha Dalit”. As a convent-educated girl, I’d never had the pleasure of discovering castes and communities. Those nuns really need to learn the ways of the world.
Rising from my seat, rather unceremoniously, I looked him in the eye and answered: “The prodigal daughter returns, to improve one student at a time…irrespective of his caste, colour, and creed.”
Mallika is a PhD in Marketing from IIT Kharagpur, and author of three management books which are prescribed textbooks in universities across India. She has taught in India and abroad, and also written the bestselling thriller I’m A Woman And I’m On Sale. She is currently pursuing a degree in law.
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