A small boy who has just finished his secondary level board examinations (ICSE) came to see me the other day to say hello, to ask after my health, and to tell me about his plans for the immediate future. He was the quiet, sober, attentive, diligent and reasonably intelligent type: far from well-read and hungry for knowledge, of course, but the type that is sure to do well, in today’s climate, in whichever line of study and work he chooses for himself. I naturally wished him well, and said I’d be glad if he keeps in touch. The sad thing – for me – was that he too (groan, yawn) is determined to go into engineering. Ever heard of the phrase ‘siren song’?
Will someone explain to me this craze that has absolutely possessed this country? I have written on this before: see, for instance, this post which is now almost two years old. In my day it was bad enough (a fool of a headmaster cast one glance at my ICSE marksheet and said ‘You are going in for science, of course’ – and nipped in the bud what might have been a far more rewarding career, though I eventually gravitated towards my amour propre anyway…), but now it has become nothing less than a mania, a pandemic. Just about everybody wants to become an engineer, from a banker’s son to a paanwallah’s. The truly mad, sad thing about the whole business is that a) most of them – often their parents, too – have no idea what engineering means and what kind of career it offers, b) most have never thought it necessary to find out about it, nor about what other options they have, c) most of them will just drift into whatever stream they get according to their ranks in one entrance test or another, and spend four listless years learning very little, because, frankly, they are not interested, d) after college, they will get into very run of the mill jobs (even totally unrelated ones, like chemical engineers going into IT, simply because they cannot get anything else) and spend the rest of their lives being quietly frustrated – as I can see with thousands of ex-students, who cannot say what they are doing with their lives besides shopping, eating, partying, watching TV, yelling at spouses and children, quarrelling with colleagues, envying slightly more ‘successful’ neighbours and relatives or preening on Facebook, or they will switch courses and go off into entirely irrelevant careers like management or public administration, which is a total waste of an engineering education (I have this on the authority of an ex-director of IIT Kharagpur, besides knowing that you can get into an IIM with a degree in history if you can pass the CAT), or lament for the rest of their lives that they didn’t go into something more interesting that they were born for …
I wrote in an op-ed article in The Telegraph titled ‘Is the Joint Entrance Examination a social evil?’ almost thirty years ago that what was actually happening was that India was churning out, broadly speaking, millions of third-rate engineers (glorified mechanics, no more, doing repair and maintenance jobs most of the time) and probably losing out on countless first-rate artists, writers, teachers, musicians, sportsmen, film directors, judges, administrators, lawmakers… all types needed to create a healthy, balanced and truly progressive society, and who was really gaining anything from it except those who ran cram shops (think Aakash and FIITJEE)? I have been saying this all my life since then, as a teacher, public preacher and parent. The wonderful thing is that most people I question have no answers (and they often mind terribly that I make them uncomfortable by asking them to think about answers), or they dumbly repeat the same lines I have heard ten thousand times before – that ‘society’ expects them to goad their children into this common cattle pen so that their wards can find some ‘status’ and ‘security’, or that the ‘other lines’ I talk about (‘general line’, many of these semi-literates call them, though I have never heard of anybody, not excepting the likes of C. V. Raman and Amartya Sen and Sugata Bose, who studied in a ‘general line’ rather than physics or economics or history) are only meant for talented people, whereas they know that their children are ‘mediocre’, and shouldn’t dare to venture into such dangerous waters. Well, there are three things I want to say about it: A) what very great status and security does a common engineer’s job grant, for heaven’s sake? I don’t meet too many engineers who make even a lakh a month, and especially in private sector jobs there’s hardly any security of tenure, even, leave alone freedom and respect: both union leaders and senior management treat you like scum! B) how do all these parents know that their children are merely mediocre, and have no special talents to cultivate? and C) if it is so widely agreed that engineering is the only refuge for mediocre people, how do they then dare to turn around and start talking about how their ‘talented’ kids have got into engineering school? How weird a country this is, really, where you can have your cake and eat it too; one can be a moron and a talent at the same time!
What I truly wonder about is why so many people keep coming to me every year: and this year I am wondering more than ever, because my classes are filled to bursting, and people keep on dropping in and phoning at all hours of the day still, literally begging to let their kids in, desperate even to enroll for the next year, bluntly refusing to take no for an answer. But why, I keep on asking myself as well as those who are closest to me – what do these people want, and what miracle do they expect from me? I am just an English teacher, and they are all convinced that their children absolutely must become engineers, for which you certainly don’t need to know more English than the average lower-division government clerk, and good marks in ICSE/ISC don’t matter much anyway, since bright kids and idiots alike go on to get admission in the very same schools and colleges, and on top of everything else, I don’t advertize and I am not even in the business of ‘guaranteeing’ good marks in examinations; instead I keep telling them like an endless litany that marks depend partly on luck and partly on the children’s own merit and effort! Nobody, I am quite sure, gives a damn for the things that I myself consider important parts of what I teach: the ideals, the respect for language as the greatest invention of all time, the love of knowledge in its entirety, good virtues like courtesy, diligence, cleanliness, quietness, punctuality and keeping promises and hating gossip, the importance of the right and power to make up one's own mind, informed concern for the neediest in society, appreciation of art and literature, fascination with history, admiration of justice and contempt for the merely rich… all that goes into the making of civilization, all that has always been dear to me: nobody, I am sure, cares a busted nickel for all that. Yet so many hundreds of parents – many of them well educated too – are somehow convinced that their wards absolutely must get into my tuition; and they are willing to go to absurd lengths for it, in terms of the people they are ready to urge to coax me to the kind of money they are willing to spend and the time and distance their children will have to spend/waste routinely simply coming and going. What folly is this?
Just as an aside, I teach plus-two level students, too, in the commerce and humanities streams – mostly female, alas, for obvious reasons – and it’s been almost 24 years now, and I have little to report that is encouraging. I find the overwhelming majority of them to be not only intellectually mediocre but lazy, listless, unfocussed, interested only in fun and games, really… as though they are already sure that they are merely killing time until their parents can marry them off to (no need to hold your breath) engineers. Every year I think I am going to shut down those batches; every year just one or two gems in the muck keep me going – other than the money.
The most cynical among my well-wishers keep telling me that I am wasting my own time philosophizing and under-selling myself instead of making hay while the sun shines. ‘Just jack up your fees and sit back and watch the fun!’ they have been telling me for years; ‘those who abuse you will go on doing the same, those who are desperate to come here will pay whatever you ask, and about the rest, who cares, as long as you can get rich?’ Now that I am growing old and quite sure that I have a big market but must give up all hope of bringing about any social change for the better, should I finally decide to give them my ear and just ensure a cosy retirement for myself? I can go on at this seven-days-a-week rate for at most another ten years, after all!