One of the earliest satirical pieces I wrote for this blog was on the subject of formulaic letter-writing in Indian English as prescribed by school teachers. It was a spontaneous act of rebellion against the many times in my life that I’ve been told I didn’t know how to write respectful letters to prescribed proformas. It remains one of the most popular pieces on the blog, though I suspect many readers who arrive from internet search engines are royally disappointed because they want templates for letter-writing.
Anyone following news coming out of India will know that right now the country is in the middle of a vigorous debate over whether or not the “top” Indian science, management, and engineering institutions are “world-class” as defined by one astute politician in the sound-bite “with the similar output of an MIT or a Harvard”. This debate has filtered down to the states as well. Recently, I heard a panel talk about how to make Presidency College, Kolkata as good as MIT and Harvard. The discussions usually don’t focus on how to define parameters for success or metrics, but are loaded with chest-thumping assertions along the lines of the following: “if our former students are good enough to do well abroad, then our institutions deserve credit and by association are already world-class”. Doing well isn’t ever defined or a percentages are never offered.
Still, in the state of West Bengal where for over three decades the morbid state of affairs prompted a mass exodus of the talented and the not-so-talented (including, in the latter category, yours truly), forward-thinking discussions on how to improve educational facilities are, by themselves, a a step in the right direction.
Some things still haven’t changed. The West Bengal Joint Entrance Examination for entrance into the highly-coveted engineering and medical colleges in the state might have, according to a local news channel, lost much of the “prestige and nobility” associated with making the ranks, since last year many seats in colleges went unfilled. Yet, a cursory glance at all of the Bangla dailies which have full-page color advertisements put out by the coaching centers with successful candidates (along with the mugshots and testimonials) shows that success in the educational system is still measured in terms of rank in high school board, and competitive examinations.
And competition is fiercer than ever. Yesterday, the news making the waves was that the admission cutoff for a bachelors’ program at a New Delhi college was 100%. If a student scored less than perfect, she would fail to be admitted. In the face of this ridiculous competition, coaching centers with ludicrous claims are sprouting like mushrooms on the roof of a thatched hut in Bengali village in early July.
Getting back to the question of learning and memorizing, I noticed that teachers in high schools still offer “suggestions” - questions and answers for Board examinations which students promptly memorize. In West Bengal, many teachers pride themselves in how well their suggestions match up with the actual questions. Often, this has more to do with how well a teacher is connected with the question-setter or an administrator than actual predictive skill.
English is a particularly burdensome subject for students whose native language is Bangla who learn the language late (and often from inept teachers).Yesterday, I came across a series of letters written by an English teacher in published format which had been provided to students as examples for them to study, memorize, and write in exams to get good marks. The letters struck me as both humorous for the archaic forms and obvious errors that abound and saddening.
Now, I taught a course on conversational “spoken English” for a summer to a group of college students. They were relatively well-versed in grammar but had little experience in ever speaking in English. For the entire summer, my primary job was to get them out of their shells and to encourage them to say anything. Getting the message across through conversation in any manner possible was the goal.
The fear here is that another generation will read these and similar letters in an unquestioning manner and will use these as templates for correspondence they themselves draft, and in the process propagate and amplify errors.
I used a phrase from one of the letters as the title of this post. I think we all know the answer and what we need to do to improve our educational system from a grassroots level.