Sunday, November 30, 2014

Finding our place in this world, far away from the IIT and Ivy League

When I was in high school, India was a long, long way from becoming the world's call center.  After all, telephones were a luxury back then.  In that old India, professional opportunities were scarce and, thus, most kids who were academically smart were encouraged, pushed, and even shoved into engineering or medical colleges.

I didn't need teachers or parents to tell me that I had enough and more in me to get into the prestigious IIT, for which there was an entrance exam.  Though, there was one--and only occasion--when my father commented, indirectly, by drawing on the story of Hanuman.

In the Hindu mythology, as a child, Hanuman gets enamoured of the orange ball that the sun was in the sky and he takes off--as in flies--to grab the ball. And as a young one with way too much energy and immense superpowers, Hanuman plays too many pranks on the sages.  All these result in a curse that Hanuman would remember his powers only if and when he were reminded about them.

My father, perhaps respectful of my off-the-beaten-track ways towards education and life, suggested that I was capable of achieving a lot and that he was reminding me of that as much as Hanuman had to be reminded.

Anyway, half-heartedly, I worked with my classmate and neighbor, Kiran, to prepare for the IIT entrance exams that he was very keen on.  He became one of the very few who knew well that I didn't care for IIT and that I didn't care for engineering either.

Decades later, an email or two after informing me about Kiran's tragic and fatal accident, his sister recalled, among other things, my anti-engineering sentiments that she had gathered from her brother and how I had stopped preparing altogether.

Most fathers and parents are all alike--they think, they believe, that their children are all awesome.  Parents live in Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above-average.  Because parents and children tend to live in delusional worlds, even back then there were too many high schoolers writing the IIT entrance exams.  Even classmates who were struggling in math ("maths" in the old country) and physics--the subjects that were fundamental to those entrance exams--prepared for IIT!  As more "unqualified" students took those tests, well, obviously it seemed like it was getting harder and harder to get into those elite colleges.

If only students and their parents had a better and realistic understanding!

In the world that has gotten only more competitive since my high school years, in India and here in the US, and in the rest of the world too, students are finding it more and more difficult to understand who they are and what they might want to do with their lives.   The IIT stories are then replayed over and over, more and more farcically "because anyone can apply to college, well qualified or otherwise."
Earlier this year, Harvard announced that it had accepted 5.9 percent of the nearly 35,000 students who applied for admission to the class of 2018. The next day, Stanford announced an even more exacting 5.07 percent admission rate, the lowest in the university’s history.
Statistics like these have come to dominate the national narrative of elite college admissions, with each new batch of ever-more-minuscule success rates fueling a collective sense that getting into a good college has become a brutal, “Hunger Games"-style tournament that only the fittest survive.
That story is wrong.
If only many of those applicants had been slapped around with "I hate to tell you this, but you are not Harvard material.  Don't waste your time and money."

It is like with love and marriage.  My grandmothers always claimed, believed, that there is always a match for everyone--this was in the old traditions of "arranged marriage."  When it comes to colleges, too, "there is very likely a place in the best schools for you."  The key is not to worry about the "best school" but the idea of "for you."

Life is one long struggle to find our respective niche in this cosmos.  A struggle that begins at high school.  It is a never ending struggle, which is all the more why life is beautiful and exciting.

May you find a comfortable corner to enjoy it all!


Anne in Salem said...

American children are taught from an early age that they are special, wonderful, talented children who cannot fail. They never fail classes, receive trophies merely for showing up to practice and games, and are cushioned from ever hearing anything negative about themselves. It is a huge disservice. Too many children do not realize their mediocrity or even that they just aren't smart enough to be accepted into the elite schools. For some children, denial of admission to college is the first time they fail anything in their lives. It is so sad.

These children are ill-equipped for the real world, in which a boss won't worry about injuring an employee's psyche but will fire him on the spot for not working hard enough, quickly enough, or to the right end.

Not every child should attend college, not every child should pursue STEM classes, and some children really should aspire to blue collar work. It is honest work, necessary for the functioning of a country, but not respected the way STEM or other college-based careers are. The world has room for all types, and all types make the world a better and more interesting place. How do we teach that?

Ramesh said...

Largely comfortable, but slightly uncomfortable corner I would suggest. And aiming a notch higher than seems possible. Perhaps I should not apply to Harvard, but maybe I can try WOU :)

I am going to take issue with your murdering of the wonderful language, a trait common to all you lot living across the pond. It is MATHS and not math. Mathematics is a plural noun (refer both Oxford and Miriam Webster) It is best to say mathematics, but if you must shorten it, it has to be maths. At least if you speak the language called English.

You are free to use whatever language you want, but please don't call it English. Any thing that the Queen raises her eyebrows at is not English.


Sriram Khé said...

The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen! ;)

Yes, we seem to be doing two things, seemingly contradictory as well, in the US: we assure the kids that they are all winners and that there are no losers--but this is in everything but, and this is important, sports and especially football. Football is a classic case where we allow students to understand that in competition there will be winners and losers and, in fact, we encourage kids to beat the crap out of the other team. But, boy is a teacher in huge trouble if she were to devise systems in which academically some students outshine others!
And then, like you noted, college admission is pretty much the first time they ever understand that the real world operates differently.
In India, or China, or Korea, well, it is the other way around. Kids seem to be on some kind of an ever accelerating treadmill right from the first grade on.

I suppose this means that parents, teachers, and kids, anywhere on the planet are pretty darn messed up ;)

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