So much has changed in post-liberalization India, but one rite of passage has remained the same. This March, India’s senior school students have begun taking their annual school leaving examination. They have come this far after months of preparation, early mornings and late nights, tuitions and extra tuitions, and a lot of stress. Many would have relied on “cram guides" to game the system. A few months down, when the results are announced, the toppers will be feted and the children who haven’t done well will be consoled with homilies about how such exams do not matter in the race called life. What is inexplicable is that this experience by and large mirrors what their parents went through three-odd decades ago. One would have thought that the parents of these new-generation students would have recognized the imperfections of the system and sought education reform. One would have imagined parents seeking less stress for their children, and greater learning and skill-development. Unfortunately, none of this has taken place. That is a shame.
Many parents of these students justify the current education system, which emphasizes obedience, rote learning, and ways to max examinations, as a “tried-and-tested" formula for success. After all, they argue that this very system has fuelled the great Indian post-liberalization dream. They also worry that new learning systems will dull what gave the Indian manager/worker/entrepreneur success in the first place. Rigour, application and hard work are often cited as strengths of Indians in the workplace. Do note that most revolutionary innovations by Indians either happened centuries ago in the glorious past or in other systems (and countries) in more recent times. Another justification for staying with the old system of education is that in uncertain times, it is better to stick with convention. Good jobs are not easy to find and competition is only increasing. More and more people are joining the workforce every year. The differentiators of yesteryear—knowledge of English and competence in mathematics, for instance—no longer apply in the workforce. In general, the work environment has become more brutal and many feel that the future prospects of today’s teenagers are uncertain. That’s one of the reasons why the elite in India are using higher education abroad as a means to secede from the country.
While it is true that the future has become more uncertain, relying on an outdated education system is not the answer. In fact, the workplace of the future will be complicated. It is estimated that a person joining the workforce today would face at least five distinct career shifts in the course of his or her work life. Another factor is Artificial Intelligence, which will slowly but surely take away many routine jobs. Many experts say that original thinking and creative skills will define the cutting-edge jobs of tomorrow. When we can see the future so clearly, why is India burdening its children with outdated skills and mindsets? Instead, our school curriculum should look at imparting life skills—ideation, collation, collaboration and presentation—that are so crucial in workplaces even today. This would not be a dumbing down of the Indian education system. See it as a much-needed course correction to enable us to reap our demographic dividend.