Thursday, February 14, 2013

Let Our Children Live

(This is the English version of a post  in Malayalam in my blog

Mayyanattu Mohan was an intelligent student. It was not by chance that he got admission for computer science in one of the top colleges in the state. He did well there too. He wrote pieces of software even as a student. He got financial support from a multinational company for a software project; a rare achievement among engineering students in the state, or even in the country! It was really a tough project to do and, even though his friends and teachers helped in the work, he could not complete a usable piece of software. It was not a piece of work that a small group could really complete. The fact that it still remains incomplete even today shows how tough it was. Mohan was always in the forefront in conducting workshops and conferences. He was a student whom everyone loved. He always had a smiling face and was a lively presence at every meeting and in every mailing list. Maybe because of that, many people were shocked to hear the news! Mohan committed suicide!

Those who heard the news through email or sms couldn't believe what they read. They called others they knew to verify the news. Many cried when they realised that it was true! No one understood why he did this. ``He had spoken to me even yesterday and he never told me that he was in such a trouble'' thought his favourite teacher. Some people remembered that Mohan was not seen in the mailing lists or meetings for some time. Some felt sad about the loss to the community. Slowly, one by one, the people he knew started asking his friends and relatives what could have prompted him to take this drastic step. A few people suggested that it might have been the pressures of his studies. But Mohan's friends couldn't believe it, because they knew very well the knowledge Mohan had in computer science. Without that, he would never have got the project from the multinational company. His family members said that they had never put any pressure on him to study or score marks.

It was then that his friends heard that Mohan had lost a couple of papers in the second semester.  They knew very well that losing a paper or two was not very uncommon, and that it should not have been a big problem for a student like Mohan. His teachers also knew that very well. So, they tried to console him and encourage him to do well in the next examination. So, it was not at all surprising that Mohan's student friends, his teachers and other engineer friends thought that the loss of two papers couldn't have been a cause behind his suicide. But then, they didn't know another fact. That was the fact that his parents had sort of put him under house arrest saying, ``Now you can go out after passing in those two papers.'' This must have been the reason why the poor guy was not seen in meetings or mailing lists. ``If we were upset about not seeing Mohan, how much more he would have felt upset'' his friends realised.

I don't know whether there really is a student by the above name. If there really is, may him not be driven to end his life. But the above story is not totally imaginary. It may be true that the suicide rates of school students has come down or even disappeared because of changes like shifting from marks to grades or changing the examination system in schools, but is it not true that the pressure parents put on their children to perform according to their wishes has now shifted from schools to higher classes? How many students like Mohan are becoming victims of our education system that has teachers who teach carelessly and our higher education system that concentrates more on scoring marks and not necessarily on understanding? Our media that pays attention to each word uttered by each politician, analyses it and creates big stories, don't seem to have any time to look at these issues. But, shouldn't at least we parents worry about the lives of our children?

Here, who has made a mistake? Is it Mohan? Or is it his parents? What mistake did Mohan commit? Is it that he did well the kind of thing that he enjoyed doing? Or that he got whole-heartedly got involved in Free Software activities? What wrong did Mohan's parents do? Sending him to study engineering? Or desiring that he passes with good grades?

The suicide of Rajani in 2004 became big news and the cause for a number of strikes and street fights. There might have been the wrong policies of the government and similar things behind the suicide. But does that by itself make that suicide special? isn't any child's suicide equally sad? Isn't the deficiencies in our system responsible for suicides like that of Mohan also? Shouldn't the reasons for such suicides also be looked into, though not through strikes and destroying public property? We saw in the movie "3 Idiots" how a boy, Farhan, who was interested and talented in Wild Life Photography was forced to go for engineering and the hero, Rancchoddas Chhanchhad intervened and made him an assistant of a famous Wildlife Photographer. There may not be a hero like that to save every child.

Pressure need nor drive every child into suicide. Some may be able to overcome the pressure without even the slightest problem. But what we forget is that between these two extremes there must be a number of children who live under severe pressures, living with mental problems of varying degrees. Here things are not black and white, there are several shades of grey here. A large part of them are living in the belief that this is their fate, and worse still that this is good for them.

The pressure to get good marks start very early. Often in the primary classes. The pressure put on children is often beyond that of what even adults can endure. And this is certainly done by parents, relatives, teachers and others together. It will only be astonishing if the children acquire a distorted sense of principles and priorities. Most of the children are forced to study some subject that is not in tune with their desire or talent, but prescribed by someone else (be it parents, teachers or someone else) and are forced to  believe that that is for their own good. Without realising that the child's inability to score well in the subject is due to his lack of desire to learn it or lack of talent in the subject, we just put increasing pressure on them to perform well. I remember the story of a boy who desired to join IIT and study engineering. He wrote the entrance test and got through. But he was forced by his parents to join for medicine and, as a favour for that was given a Maruti 800 car. One day, when the boy did not return from college, the parents informed the police and later got the news that the car was found in Kovalam with the boy inside. But, by then, the boy had reached the place from where even the medical science he was studying (though he never enjoyed it) could not bring him back. Regretting or crying later is of no use, as is obvious. So, let us bring up our children giving them lots of love, understanding them well, and allowing them to study the subject that is closest to their hearts. We also need to give them all freedom to tell us what they want to. Our sense of "propriety" in speaking to elders should not stand in the way at all. That is, if we want to avoid situations like the ones discussed above.

It is clear that the examination scores are not an indication of knowledge or capability. Several people have spoken about the lack of practical knowledge among the engineers passing out of our colleges and wondered about the reasons. And this is something known to anyone who has sat in an interview board for any job that involves engineering knowledge. In today's situation, capability to do things is much more important than exam scores too. Precisely because of that, students like Mohan, who have the capability to do things stand a better chance of getting jobs and doing well in them, much more than in earlier times. When we put increased pressure on the children without realising this fact, won't it only discourage them? That is what our experience shows. To solve this problem, we may have to make changes in our education system too. Just think of this: Kumaranasan (a great poet) was very good in Mathematics. Even if he was not, would that have made him a poor poet? Would one make a bad engineer if one happens to be poor in History or a language? Surely not, don't you agree? Then why do we insist on such things? Remember, the "father of computer science" and the person who helped Britain decode the secret messages of the German army, Alan Turing, had been sent off from a school because the school authorities thought that he was a poor student!

We often forget that children need many things beyond Complan and Horlicks. In fact, isn't it true that they don't need the above two things. Is it not true that what they need are good natural food, plenty of love and the environment to learn and live according to their desires and talents.

(This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike Licence. The article may be reproduced in any medium in the original or modified form provided the source is mentioned and it is also published under the same licence)

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