If each of us got a penny each time we were asked ‘So, how much did you get in that exam?’ by a classmate, parent or relative, we would all be millionaires. This seemingly harmless question exemplifies the sad reality of our education system. The question is not ‘How happy are you with your performance?’ or ‘How have you improved from the last exam?’ Here, you are only as much as your marksheet says.
For too long, the characteristic competitiveness of our system has been brushed off as an inevitable consequence of a large population with limited opportunities to succeed. The social narratives of success and failure that we simultaneously produce and sustain ourselves on are rigid – high-paying, stable professions carrying social status are the only ones worth pursuing. These narratives are also widely flawed; most of us are familiar with the almost impossible odds of getting into an IIT or cracking the NEET, and the increasing unemployment rates of mainstream professions because of the incongruence between demand and supply. Yet we still continue to run the race, believing that if we struggle now, it’ll pay off in the end. The truth is harsh – there is no end to the race, there are no winners.
The intense competition hits those hardest who aren’t adept in subjects and skills that the system values. Being labelled as a failure for not ‘putting enough effort’ towards the predetermined goal and the anxiety of letting down their family takes an immense toll on the mental health of students. According to a 2015 Lancet Report, India’s student suicide rate is one of the highest in the world – one student kills themselves every hour. Even those students who seemingly thrive in this system are not better off. The constant pressure to perform exceedingly well ensures that even academically talented students define themselves solely in terms of their marks and ranks – the sole incentive to do any activity is how good you’ll be at it compared to the rest, and how it’ll boost your college application.
The most explicit manifestation of this competition-driven structure is the shadow education system comprising professional coaching classes, entrance exam driven pre-university colleges and centres like Kota. Competition, however, exists even in apparently liberal-minded circles – the college admissions scandal in the US which saw the conviction of several celebrities for bribing their children’s way into Ivy League universities is the best example of this. We would do quite literally everything it takes to get ahead.
It is ironic that what becomes worst affected by the rigidly competitive nature of the education system is personal satisfaction. The exercise of individual choice to discover and develop interests and aptitudes is at best, respected only in choosing hobbies, and at worst, simply not respected at all. The intense competition we were subjected to as children is something we carry with us into adulthood and subject our children to as well. We think of our salary in comparison to our colleagues', our promotions in comparison to those of our college friends', and our children’s mark sheets in comparison to the neighbour’s children’s. A 2013 report by Gallup shows that in East Asia, only 6% of workers reported being happy in their jobs. We simply don’t know how to build an identity and define any milestones in our lives in terms exclusive of others and their success. The satisfaction that ‘success’ promises us remains a myth; we instead suffer from stress-induced conditions of diabetes, hypertension, depression and other mental illnesses.
To create a healthier, happier workforce and student population, we must break down the monistic definition of success that colours our ambitions. Ideas are already trickling in - the overhaul of traditional career counselling methods, skill development conclaves for students across economic strata and opportunities to explore different avenues without the pressure to excel are necessities. Competition might still be valuable, but only when it pushes students to be the best they can be in comparison with what they were. The best college means the one that is best suited to our inclinations, not the highest ranked one. The best career is that which best allows us to explore our passions, not the one with the largest paycheck.
We probably cannot do away with competition altogether, but we can find healthier channels for it; at the very least, we must not allow it to remain the rigid spine of a broken system. It’s time we started viewing our children as individuals with aspirations in their own right, not merely racehorses bred to run infinite lengths.