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Above: The new NEP promises that candidates may take board exams twice in a year/Photo: UNI

Though it looks liberal, the New Education Policy is counterproductive and not transformative. Education has to be understood ecologically in order for change to be truly meaningful

By Shiv Visvanathan

The idea of examination reform is a strange, almost oxymoronic phenomena. Yet it is sociologically fascinating to study as it reveals a lot about what we think about knowledge and how we handle change. Consider the recent announcement that the new National Education Policy (NEP) promises that a candidate may take a board exam twice in a year. The news also proclaims that this is meant to eliminate exam stress for both students and parents, especially the “high stakes sense of pressure”. The reform also promises to remove the procrustean straitjacket around the choice of subjects, allowing students combinations of their choice. The emphasis seems to be on flexibility and variation—flexibility in terms of time and variation in the choice of subjects. The reform does not appear to be systematic but more an attempt to provide relief.

How does one look at such an announcement which affects a huge population? One realises that reforms are introduced nowadays in a blaze of publicity. It is like reworking a brand, where every minor change is read as history, touted as a transformation and quietly forgotten a fortnight later. In fact, most reforms are acts of clerical and technical tweaking, which policy presents as a miracle of change. This is true not for exams alone but for urban planning, agriculture and educational change. One could read it as a desperate attempt to offer relief or as a palliative or one has to locate this move within a philosophy of knowledge and change.

Exams are read as a variant of gymnastics or mental athletics which a student must indulge in regularly. The idea is not to question the exam system but to produce phenotypical variations which make exams feel different. The trauma of the exam is partially humanised, yet competition does not cease nor does the standardisation. Exams remain an information war of predictable answers. As an American science commentator put it, education “empties a student’s head, fills it with knowledge and then uses exams to measure it”. The student is induced to think more and more of knowledge in converging terms. It is the ultimate catechism. The questions are standard, the answers sacrosanct, only you get a bit of flexibility in organizing yourself for it.

The reform does not challenge, even question the mentality exams create. In a managerial sense, it is like creation, a Taylorism of assembly line knowledge, and then seeking to humanise it with a few human relations palliatives. The gargantuan inevitability of the exam system now looks even more blatant. There is no real freedom or choice. One is reminded of Henry Ford’s dictum: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, as long as it is black.” The new NEP extends flexibility and freedom by providing a few coatings of grey.

The second part of the reform promises a variation in the choice of subjects. But such a change does not alter the procrustean classifications of knowledge—science, social science, commerce and humanities—that a student must opt for. Does variation mean we are entering a multi-disciplinary or holistic era? The education policy is intriguing in details but it does not add up. It is a report where the whole is less than the sum of the parts, some of which look promising, only to disappoint when pieced together later.

An examination system has to be looked at from different angles. It is an organisational system, a psychological system, an epistemic system about knowledge and it also has a double. Informal economics of the exam system mimic the official. The dynamics of the double determine the clarity of reform. One has to take this seriously. The centre of gravity of the examination system as a model has shifted to the tutorial college. Whether Kota or Rau’s Study Circle, these groups immortalise the kunji. They create a fetishism about exams which affects folk consciousness. The NEP cannot reform the exam system without challenging the folklore and ideals of the informal economy of exams. In many ways, it is the tutorial college that determines the digestibility of the exam system and official committees are pale imitations of such a system.

Thomas Kuhn, the great historian of science, showed that textbooks of science are merely correct, not true. They are acceptable as a consensus of current knowledge. A textbook, in that sense, represents a false consciousness. It gives you a misleading idea of the state of knowledge, leaving no place for doubts, silence, quarrels, controversies and ambiguities. An exam too is a map of false consciousness. It tests you for the certainties of knowledge, not for the ecologies of doubt, the tacit knowledge of a craft. Exams lack a developed theory of epistemology or pedagogy. They are more a bureaucratic process of certification which threatens the essence of the academic.

The NEP in its attitude to examination reforms emphasises timetable and choice within a current collage of subjects. Seasonal variations in timetables add little to flexibility. The spectre of the exam keeps haunting most people. The question of choice and variation is limited. The bundles are restricted. There is a lack of imagination and a desperation for change which forms a drastic cocktail of reform.

Sadly, the NEP does not really confront the spectre haunting India today—the spectre of exams. Exams have traumatised generations and people carry their scorecards like scars which cannot be forgotten. The competitive mentality and conformity of market and bureaucracy is inculcated early in a child, destroying the playfulness of childhood. Massaging the process of exams does little to change the system.

Reforms like NEP while looking liberal are eventually counterproductive. One wishes for a different examination system. A sense of a rite of passage which is truly transformative is missing in the bureaucratic grids of the exam as a system. The tragedy begins there. In tinkering with time, the NEP shows that it understands little of time in education. Education has to be understood ecologically rather than monadically in order for change to be meaningful. NEP has failed the test of reform.

—The writer is a member of the Compost Heap, a commons of ideas exploring alternative imaginations

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