Scene : The living room of a flat in the suburbs of a megapolis. The curtains are drawn across the windows and a man in his mid-forties is seated. A young lad – his son, about 15 years of age, enters.
Father: “Why did you take my calculator?”
Son: “Oh dad, I had to do my Maths homework.”
Father: “But you are not supposed to use it. You shouldn’t be at the mercy of these modern gizmos …”
Son (interrupts) : “But that’s why we have pocket-sized calculators. If I didn’t have one at hand, I would do what you always do. Wait and try to get hold of one. Nowadays information is freely available and one should examine a student not to test the information he jams in his head by rote but rather as to how he applies it. But do tell me, Dad, how were things in your days?”
Father (Nervous and unsure as to speak up or not) : “Well actually I had a friend who was a maths genius and I used to copy from his notebook when the roll call was being taken.”
Son: “Oh! We still do that even today. But what a good friend you had! I tell you something Dad, they don’t make such good blokes nowadays.”
Father (curious) : “Times change, people change. Is it that bad?”
The son gives a wistful smile.
Father (stands up and looks grave) : “Ahem! By the way, that wasn’t a good report card that you bought home last term. For instance what’s wrong with your Hindi?”
Son: “Oh! It is a drag. We are supposed to write a Jeevani (author’s brief biography). I began by writing ‘Born – & Died -‘ but my Sir cut marks …”
Father (Interrupts) : “But surely he did, you see you can’t have a man born one minute and popping off the very next. You need to space it over.”
Son (protests) : “But that is how they publish the personalities in the GK books. Moreover one doesn’t get good marks for talking about his style and characterization. Instead they expect you to mug up and list all his Principal works and the various Prizes that he won preferably with the years mentioned as well.”
Father : “And what about History?”
Son : “History is a thing of past alright. It is all about Dates, Pacts and Wars and more Dates and Wars. Again one has to learn it all by rote and they can’t even give the correct dates.”
The father listened with increasing irritation. He thought, ‘Things have certainly changed. In older days, my only excuse for a poor report card used to be to stand meekly with my head bowed down in shame as my father dinned into my ears the virtues of education in his stentorian voice. May be it is my guilty past that restrains me from admonishing my own son. Still this is too much to take.”
He spoke out aloud, “Listen son, stop punching holes into our education system. You are not wiser than the people who frame it …”
Son (smiles) : “It was an editorial in the paper the other day. Also common sense is in spite of, and not the result of, education. No I didn’t say that, Victor Hugo did. Really they need to rethink our system …”
The Father stands speechless and listens with growing admiration. His son seemed to have a sound head over his shoulders. He was overcome with love and pride, tears well up in his eyes.
His son notices this, stops speaking and comes forward to take his arm, “Don’t worry, dad. I will study hard and do well.” And he leaves.
The Father is left watching the receding profile and thinks, “He will do well, he is such a fine fellow, my son.”
This ‘imagined’ conversation best represents my ‘pet peeve’ against the ‘learning-by-rote’ culture that prevailed during my school days. Some of it stemmed from my inability to come out tops from my engagement with the System but the sense of claustrophobia had been felt in varying degrees by all of us including the ‘crème de la crème.’
Things did improve as I moved on to study for my ‘Bachelor’ and ‘Master’ degrees. And now it is all very different and better thanks to the information revolution driven by the Internet and Google. So I am more confident that my young daughter is part of a System that does not altogether squelch her innate curiosity and creativity in its ambition to instill the traditional virtues of ‘discipline’ and ‘hard work’ in her.
I think I had Arthur Miller’s, ‘Death of a Salesman’ in my mind when I chose this unconventional format for the article.It appeared under ‘The Middle’ column in a local newspaper ‘Maharashtra Herald’ in Pune, India on June 26, 1997.
And it did have a relatively happy ending in the summer of May 2000 when my ailing father was reassured about my future. He had spent his lifetime working in a Central Government department rising from the cadre of a ‘Lower Division Clerk’ (LDC) to be an ‘Assistant Accounts Officer’ (AAO).
And he saw his son at the threshold of completing a Master’s degree in Management in ‘First Class’ and holding a confirmed job with a ‘Tata’ company, the premier business house in India. In his vivid imagination, he visualized that his son will draw a higher first month salary than the last one he drew at the end of his service. He was also comforted by the belief that his son had found a lifetime vocation that will keep him engaged in the pursuit of ‘climbing-the rungs’ of the hallowed ‘Tata Corporate Hierarchy’.