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Sunday, February 06, 2011

Writing an essay

The Educational Testing Service under Princeton University (which conducts college- and university level entrance tests like SAT and GRE worldwide) has long believed that asking candidates to write an essay is one of the best ways of judging overall mental ability (vocabulary, grasp of idiom, GK, logical thinking, structured expression, power of persuasion… so many things can be assessed simultaneously). So does the Union Public Service Commission in India (which conducts the entrance tests for the civil services, including the IAS). And so schools still give pupils practice in essay writing, and so do I.
            Over a long tenure of teaching, one thing I have noticed is a very sharp drop in the quality of essays that schoolgoers write. I have documentary proof of this, because I have kept some of the best and worst essays written by boys in one of the best-known ‘English-medium’ schools in my town since the 1970s.

Below is a sample of the worst kind. It was written as homework by a boy in class ten a few years ago.


What does the word ‘raging’ means. Its a practical joke played upon somebody. It means micking and jocking. The word ‘ragging’ is a word of panic to every fresher in medical and enginnering colleges. The custom of ragging is much old but the custom of hurting, injuring someone is a new one.
            Ragging is mainly done by seniors on juniors. Its like showing powers of a senior over juniors. When these torchered juniors become seniors they take the same policy. Most of the ragings do not hurt. But as sometimes risky ragging are also done. It some times affects the body of the person who is torchered, sometimes it causes injuring, even sometimes death. These types of happening are growing day by day. These types of happenings occurs due to personal grudge on somebody.
            To students the word ragging is controvertial. Accroding to seniors ragging is a good practice and according to juniors ragging is a evil practice. One boy in enginnering college had to walk on railing, one had to smoke continuously for two hours. These some times affects the body and causes death too.
            Government have taken initiatives to stop ragging in large scale. Much of it is stopped but some still remain which we come to know from the daily. To me Ragging should stay to such a limit that there exists a brother hood relation among seniors and juniors. There should not exist an evil practice.


The prescribed length of the essay was 350 to 400 words, to be written in 35 minutes. The boy wrote only 239 words, and took nearly an hour to do it. As any literate adult reader can notice, not only is the grasp of language pathetic, but the work is too short, shot through with repetition, self-contradiction and confusion, and basically lacking in content: he knew virtually nothing about the subject, and could hardly think of anything to say.

I keep copies of such work, and read them out to successive classes to correct, comment and mark (because I have found that it is educational: people are far more keen when they are asked to find fault with others’ work than to notice their own). They laugh heartily at first, but it dies down to uneasy titters when I first tell them that most of them write no better than this after eleven years of high-class schooling, and then inform them that this boy, too, has grown up to be an engineer and MBA…


debotosh said...

What more can we expect from the vast majority of duds who say "chatting is my passion" . they can do nothing other than that. when i share articles on Gandhi and mother Teresa on facebook , i get very deplorable replies that simply mean "we do not like your attitude" . that is shameful because none of these contemporaries of mine have the patience to go through good essays (i do not think they can write one now-after passing ICSE). even more hurting to me is that my younger brother says "why should i read books outside my syllabus and try my hand at writing good essays on my own when my teachers say that 'do not waste too much time on writing essays because they do not carry more than 15 marks in the exam!'" And he studies in that famous school of durgapur !

Rakendu said...

On the contrary, as this passage reminds me, I would like to show you a hilarious scene from the movie"Phaas gaya re Obama", Sir. Those of you who have seen the movie would know which one I'm talking about, those who haven't seen it, please do watch the movie... Its comedy and satire,on our SYSTEM, at its best.

Anand Tiwari said...

Although, this post was a lot of fun to read, it made me very sad too. I cannot believe that a class x student from my alma mater can write such crap on an easy topic like ragging. To top it, the fact that he has managed to become an engineer and earn a management degree is beyond my comprehension. I admit I do not understand the education system in India anymore. I am not sure how can people with minimal reading, writing and comprehension skills can attain engineering and management degrees. This state of affairs is ludicrous to say the least. What are teachers teaching and what are the students learning? Where are the parents in all of this? Even with advanced degrees what can a person with no reasoning skills contribute to the society as a whole. Once again, I am not sure how this person managed to get admitted to an engineering school. Are there no minimum standards anymore? To say the least, I am in a state of bewilderment after reading this post.

Shilpi said...

Yes, makes me sad this one (although I did chuckle for a bit) and for lots of reasons...but I'm glad you put up this post, Suvro da, because I happen to remember how you graded homework assignments by getting your students to read out their formal letters and to have other students point out what they thought about the letters while you made quick points and comments and so I used to wonder what your reasons were. Here, such an effective system would not work, I don't think.

Take care.

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

It is indeed unfortunate Suvroda. However, I do believe there is sharp drop of logical thinking among students everywhere not just in India. At least in New Zealand, when I meet/interview fresh graduates from the reputed and flourishing Auckland University, I feel mostly disheartened. Students who have crammed their course work and have received high marks have no idea about what is going on in the world they live in, cannot express themselves clearly when asked to, cannot research a topic even with internet at their disposal these days. I wonder what do these students do in their social clubs, book clubs etc. Perhaps those who spend time in book club and all, don’t get jobs that easily in organisation such as ours. Shame indeed.



Harman said...

Suvro Sir, I was wondering how long it must have taken you to reproduce this essay, and how painful it must have been. It was painful to read.

Sayan Datta said...

You know, Sir, even until 4-5 years ago I didn't understand the full force of this argument of yours. That is ofcourse not to say that I thought of language and essay writing skills as irrelevant as far as scientific education is concerned, as the vast majority seems to do these days. It was only after I started teaching that I was led to muse about the prevailing educational system while mentally trying to build a utopian one which would produce thoughtful, honest, responsible and most importantly empathetic, satisfied and happy individuals, and as to what could be the best judgment of their character and skills that I heard your voice ring in my ear almost like a clarion call. Thats it, and how right Sir was - I remember thinking. Which exercise can better test a person's logical ability, reasoning skills and structured thinking (skills so very essential for anyone who wishes to study science) than writing an essay can? And this is one thing which cannot be memorised, it has to be created. It is something on which one has to apply oneself, do a bit of fact finding and actually use one's brain.
From personal experience of both as a student and as a teacher I know for a fact that most students studying science do their best to least apply and least exert themselves and try to get through entrance examinations by remembering, nay memorising methods and procedures and techniques for solving problems. And this holds particularly good for students preparing for the IITJEE. I know that if I ask my students to write even a paragraph on say - 'What is Calculus?', apart from an exception here and another there, most of them will hand in trash (and among these will be those who will make it to the IIT - I can tell) . And I do not keep my expectations very high. I do not for instance expect them to be like L.V. Terasov who in his book 'Calculus' unravelled the mysteries of the subject through a dialogue between a teacher and a student, or James Newman, whose classic 'The world of mathematics' has and continues to enthral math lovers the world over, both amateurs and professionals alike.
To all those who pride themselves to be science enthusiasts (which nowadays means that you are among the lakhs who appear for the IITJEE) I will only say that if you cannot express yourself clearly, (remember that science is, like all arts, only a form of expression) you are not fit to study science.
Sayan Datta

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I was waiting in vain for more comments, I guess. Once more, most readers, knowing both how sad and how true the situation is (and some maybe feeling very uncomfortable about the kind of education they usually boast of!), have decided against making any noises whatsoever).

It's good, though, that the few who have commented have expressed either sadness or shock. Anand, nothing has deteriorated more sharply than education under the current zamaana of liberalisation! It's become a free-for-all for moneygrubbers of every description, the government having almost wholly abdicated not only the running of institutions but of drawing up and enforcing minimum standards. Just find out about the sort of people who have been setting up colleges over the last 20 years all over India, and you will know about all that has gone wrong with the system. I can vouch for it that any lazy fool whose father is willing to part with a few lakhs can get a BTech and an MBA today. It's not even a matter of argument any more - I have literally thousands of ex-students like that - the real question is what kind of 'glorious' future these young people are busy building. Just you wait till they start raising their own children, and when these engineers have to go to doctors who are their contemporaries, and the doctors have to hire those engineers to build houses for them...

As for other, higher meanings of education, the kind of education that produced Tagores and Satyajit Rays and Subhas Boses, the less said the better. Not one ad of any fancy school or college even mentions the encouragement of such gems as their target any more, though a lot of IITJEE/AIEEE cramshops claim that any parent can turn his moronic child, completely uninterested in learning, into an Einstein or a Curie for a hefty fee.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

... and Sayan, a special word for you. No one can feel the pain of a teacher's frustration better, I guess, than someone who sincerely wishes to teach science to herds of cattle who are convinced that all they need is the least they can know to get into some third-rate engineering college. Parents and children are now equally convinced that all knowledge - including knowledge of science - is fundamentally bad, even disgusting, except insofar as it helps to get a job: and that too, the kind of job which allows you only to become one more mindless consumer. As I have privately warned you before, in ten years' time, unless you are very, very blessed, you will become either a well-off crook or a totally frustrated man!

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

I have mentioned this at least twice in previous posts but cant repeat or emphasize enough - in school, Suvro's Bangla and English essays were read out in grades two level higher than his. the trend continued till the end.
Suvro, the first paragraph of your first comment on this post has a unbalanced first bracket. would have caused much grief in computer code ;)
So, now they have decided to have entrance test for teachers - Now, entrance test must for aspiring teachers. I have refused to give any kind of written tests for any job for years now. This process has two pathetic things that cries out loud -
1. the natural, well-recognized system of education and certification does not work or has been bypassed and fooled around with to get to this messy state.
2. Even if one does well in these tests, what does it guarantee? Job, recognition, advancement? Absolutely not - there are lots of other processes in place to turn this one into a joke too. I have taken a few of these tests for jobs, and am confident that I aced two-three for sure. It didn't matter, never heard of the results.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Fr. Wautier told me about the BEd degree: 'It's just a piece of paper. You won't learn how to become a good teacher by taking this course. The government wants it, so just go and get me a piece of paper...' I fear very strongly that this new test (TET) is going to become just another piece of paper. Certainly, having seen the way the BEd course and examination are conducted, I can vouch that they teach you nothing (unless you are really keen to learn - how many are?). So it is likely to become with the new test. And of course people will immediately find a hundred different ways to take dishonest shortcuts.

However, one idea that I find good (because I myself have been harping on it for a long time) is that teachers be forced to 'renew their licenses' once every few years. Having seen for myself how most of them become duds and bores over years of mindless routine, it would be an excellent thing to subject them to the rigours of renewed studying several times through their careers. The best teachers, of course, will have nothing to fear (and 95% will tremble in their shoes! I remember how fiercely the whole medical community reacted when the government mooted such a scheme for doctors some years ago...)

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,
I remember you read out essays (both well-written ones and incoherent ones) to us. We used to laugh at the mistakes, but when you explained the gravity of the situation, as you have said here, it turned into shock. In school, the primary reason of learning to write coherent, meaningful essays was cited to be the 25 marks in the English Paper 1 of ICSE. Besides a one point in English, essays were not supposed to serve any other purpose.
And in this post, the last line shocked me even more...

With regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

If you find that last line 'shocking', Sayantika, you are still living inside an illusion. It has been a long, long time since one had to be minimally intelligent and well-informed to get into medical or engineering college. And the less said about business schools, the better... in fact, since there are neither coaching classes nor standardized entrance tests, it is infinitely harder today to get into places like Jadavpur University, St. Stephen's College, ISI, CMI, NID, NSD or NDA than to get into one of the med and engg or B-schools, which are now a dime a dozen in this country. In fact, no matter what the deliberately blind still think to the contrary, a full-blooded moron today can only become an engineer and an MBA.

sanjuktasaha10@gmail.com said...

Dear Sir,
I remember that we edited this essay on ragging and a letter (to the Principal of a school from a waiter) in the tuition. Most of the class marked this essay four out of twenty-five. The most incredible thing was that our essays were nothing better than this one, yet we were amused. The writer of this essay became a subject of joke over the next few classes. I still don’t understand why couldn’t we see the similarities between the writer and ourselves?
You also read out some of those essays which you consider to be good. Sir if you don’t mind please publish one of those essays on your blog.
Thanking you,
With respect and regards from,
Sanjukta Saha.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

It tickles my funny bone to see that this post has graduated to the list of the ten most-widely-read posts as of date (see right-hand sidebar)...

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

This essay was downright painful to read and I was wincing before I was half way through. Maybe it is because, from what I have seen, most people have trouble articulating even simple sentences in English (in any language for that matter) mainly because they don't take the trouble of learning it or pursuing it well. It is that lack of interest, the refusal to see its importance that irks me. I can respect someone who writes a faulty essay even the tenth time after trying hard the first nine times but it isn't usually the case is it? I remember language classes in school when those of us who took them in earnest were teased mercilessly. The common term in these parts for someone who is fluent in English is "Peter". I have no idea why Sir and unfortunately I have had a nickname called "Peter England (a sad pun on the clothing line) following me around for years now. These days I am just really happy if someone approaches me with a genuine interest in the languages or in reading.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Yes, it does make the reader wince, and one would think that it would make someone cringe to write as wretchedly as that if one gives oneself airs about being educated, isn't it? Unfortunately it doesn't - in India, in a kind of reverse snobbery, we have managed to take pride in writing ungrammatical and poorly spelled nonsense. Some even call it 'our own brand' of English, (I pataoed the girl and maroed her money and chalaoed it at the market...), and mock those who have made the effort to become better than they are! Believe it or not, one reader (a central government civil servant, no less) actually took offence because there is a warning on my blog that rude/silly/ungrammatical/irrelevant comments will not be published!

As for meeting people who are interested in good reading, Vaishnavi, I can only pray that you are luckier than I have been. In contemporary 'educated' India, reading, whether in English or in the vernacular, is regarded as a foul disease...

Rashmi Datta said...

Dear Sir,

As always, this post has opened up another door of thought for me. I had never pondered on essay writing as a measure of one's overall attitude, intelligence, imagination and ability to think, in short, a shadow of one's own character . This may be because of the way essay writing was considered in my school. For the examinations, it was merely a ten marks question and for competitions, it was memorising a 'copy-paste' work after going through a number of 'model essays' books and the internet. Students often sought the help of teachers for better 'punch lines' to impress the examiner. Unlike your students, we were hardly given any essays for homework ( may be because it would have been too much of a burden for the teacher to actually go through and mark tens of essays ).

After going through this post and the comments, I can now clearly connect why so many of my classmates could not write even mediocre genuine essays and I have seen almost all of them entering into third grade engineering colleges (with the help of their father's money).

However hard fools and shallow minded people try to mask their ignorance with speeding bikes and 'smart' gadgets, they do unconsciously give away their true colours (as through this essay). I am reminded of a live news programme where a telugu commercial film 'hero' (who became quite popular after a few commercial flicks) was asked what he felt on the urgent need of energy conservation and saving electricity. His looked as if he was hit hard by a club on his head, fumbled for a moment and then said shakily that he was often outdoors shooting and so had nothing to do with switching off lights and fans!

Thank you very much for the post, Sir.

Warm regards


Ranil said...

dear sir,
i have just started reading your articles i have much more to read and the most effective part for me was "How to write an essay".It stood very helpful to me thank you very much sir
Yours faithfully
ranil sengupta

Sunandini Mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,
You had given us this essay for us to mark it along with another letter where a father writes to the principal of a school in which he wishes to admit his son(the letter was disastrous!).I can imagine how difficult it is for you to read such essays since I have seen my mother suffering the same fate for quite a number of years now(recently she showed us an essay where the girl who comes first in her class had mentioned that Amartya Sen is dead).
As I often tell some of my batchmates,I have developed a habit of thinking for a long time before I write an essay since I have joined your class.I never wrote anything so gibberish but now I think more before writing because you have told us repeatedly not to marr a piece of writing with wrong facts and incorrect English.
Thankyou Sir.
With regards,