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The Indian Educational System And The Death Of Learning. A Story Of Heart Break

In the unforgiving Delhi winter of 2011, at the end of my third semester, I came upon a realization. I needed to get away from college. My batch mates graduated in ’14. Or at least, most of them did. And since then, I have been asked innumerable times why I did it. The people who ask are often looking for some sort of greater meaning in my actions. I unfortunately don’t have the life-changing awe-inspiring answer they are looking for. Dropping out of college doesn’t make much sense, but it’s especially odd to drop out from a prestigious one like the Delhi College of Engineering. Unless of course when Peter Thiel pays you to do so or when your dorm room startup gets funded. Then it’s cool. I actually did start a company a month after I quit college, but that was more of an effect than a cause. So, why did I do it? To answer this, we will have to rewind a bit more.

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It was the summer of 2007. India had just gotten its first female president. But more importantly, in my mile stone driven Indian middle class existence, I had just gotten done with my tenth boards. And I was convinced that I really wanted to be an engineer. I was very aware of the millions more that had similar aspirations, but my motivations were way more virtuous. Or so I told myself. Achieving this, however, required considerable gambles. This included switching to Delhi Public School (DPS), a decision based on a rather liberal interpretation of basic principles of probability.

According to data I had obtained from trustworthy sources (the Internet), four students out of every class in DPS cleared the JEE. JEE being the entrance exam for getting into an IIT. I had done the math. There were four rows of benches per classroom filled almost entirely with JEE aspirants. All I needed was to be the smartest highest scorer in my row, and I would be chilling at one of the, then seven, IITs within two years’ time. If not, the odds of getting in an NIT were even more so in my favor. And then there was always the DCE-NSIT duo right in Delhi. (These two would go through a rather nasty break up during the chief minister-ship of Sheila Dixit, known for being the Goliath to Arvind Kejriwal’s David. But that is another story).

There’s a mass hysteria that plagues the souls of the aforementioned middle class that I refer to as the “matric pass migration”, wherein kids from all over the city switch to a “better” school in that city after classes 8 and 10. This is a standard cost optimization strategy most Indian parents just know to apply. The fact that elementary education is just as, if not more, important in a child’s learning is moot. Ironically these are the exact kind of decisions these kids will grow up to make as a professional consultant/analyst after getting their B.Tech. Degrees whilst ignoring the human cost of their choices. I chose my new school over a singular metric, its success rate in JEE. Nothing else seemed to matter. I could not waste my time getting a holistic education, whilst everyone else got ahead in the race.

The chain of Delhi Public Schools is managed by “DPS Society”, which tactfully applies the McDonalds model of optimizing for profit down to even giving out franchise licenses. Good for business. Not for much else. Therefore it turned out, much like any other school in the country, DPS’s faculty was not up to the task. But it’s not entirely their fault. The JEE is a monster the puny CBSE board can’t tackle. Soon Vidyamandir Classes, one of the many coaching institutes that help you get a high score in JEE, started taking most of my time. At the end of the school year, I was ceremoniously honored by my school teacher when she announced that I had the lowest attendance in the school’s history. She announced this with an air of importance but, being humble as ever, I did not let it get to my head. I just smiled and went back to solving my linear differential equation.

The smile left me when the results came in. I failed to get into any half-decent college. Drop year happened. It took me three years of conditioning to tick a sufficient number of correct boxes in the multiple choice questions. After three years of letting my love of learning be sidelined by the hunger of achieving milestones and scores, I managed to get in a computer science course. Having spent my very important formative years slaving just to get in a college, one would have very high expectations from said college. But I am a reasonable person, and I had a single basic expectation.

To finally get to actually learn something. After years of chasing the light at the end of the tunnel through my school years letting life pass me by college was, I assumed, the utopia where knowledge would flow freely and there would be learning all around. “Do what you gotta do so you can do what you wanna do.” As some wicked old guy once said.

It took all of two weeks to have that dream shattered when I found myself, day after day, sitting in a classroom of dead people. I sat there and saw my life force being sucked out by dejected souls at the podium every hour. These professors seemed different, but yet all the same. I did not mind the uninspiring food at the mess, but the uninspired academic discourse was a bit too much to digest. I did not mind the clogged toilets that were apparently a result of widespread corruption in the admin department. I am a reasonable person after all. The clogging of any kind of thinking that was a result of the absolute corruption of motive was a bit too putrid.

I did not mind that there wasn’t enough seating for our batch, that we were being forced in a classroom with three fourths of the required seating capacity which was a result of the rapid expansion of the college’s intake without having the infra and the vapid faculty to support it. This was, apparently, because the college was turning into a university to get independence from the center so that they could increase their “ease of corruption” index. The lack of room for any kind of truly innovative research got to me, though. This was supposedly a world-class engineering college just like all the other top colleges in India, and the physics lab and all of the “equipment” was held together by duct tape.

I did not mind the fact that the girl’s hostel was a building fenced along all sides with two story high fences with a curfew time before which they had to return to their dorms while the boys hostel was a no questions asked free for all land. What bothered me was despite the freedom/lack-of-security my hostel offered I was so drained of my senses that even when I did not go to class I had lost my drive to do something worthwhile. The 1984 that Apple, with the help of Chiat/Day, had wanted us to save us from back then, had come true. Scenes where there was one person watching some American TV show and six of us blankly staring at the screen, completely tuned out of our senses were not uncommon. Because there was nothing to be done. Because we had given up.

So we sat there. All of us, arguably country’s smartest human capital, turned into cattle. We just bided our time, until the highest bidder at the end of it all, to take us to a human farm and sit us on computers to do their bidding. To be fair, it was not all bleak all the time. Of course there were a few good teachers. But even the most brilliant teacher could not get me excited about factorizing x4+x2+x after having borne four hours of unintelligible gibberish followed by two hours of pretense practicals. You might also argue that I couldhave learned on my own. After all, this is the age of the Internet. There are enough MOOCs available freely these days that teach everything. And I agreed. All I needed, though, was a conducive environment. Learning happens on one’s own anyway. But the environment was anything but conducive. I was living in the rot of human endeavor. I always wondered how prisoners feel in highlyenclosed spaces. I found my answer in an open campus.

Having spent three long years to get here, this was it. This was to be my life for another four years. But then I would have wasted 7 years to see this through. The math, as always, was simple. Getting away was not a decision, it was the only thing worth doing. And it had to be done before I turned into a lifeless zombie only aspiring to fill a sheet of paper with some ostentatious nonsense to get me a high paying meaningless job. My intent is not to rant against my college, a place I still very much love. But instead, I want to draw attention to the condition of our education system which we often overlook.

This is the story of all of India’s top colleges including the IITs, just like an IIT Bombay prof. rightly pointed out [1]. But not enough people seem to talk or even care about this. Something somewhere has gone terribly wrong. Or several things in succession. Colleges are the new age Ponzi scheme.

You dream of engineering India’s first mainstream electric vehicle, but somehow find yourself in a job making presentations that would have made your soul cry if you were still alive. Sadly, your high salary figure, plastered everywhere including national newspapers, becomes a bait for those next in line.

And so the machine turns. Whir. I am not being cynical just for the sake of it [2], which is something my generation gets the blame for often. I am definitely not against college education. Most people are better off going to college than not. Even though most startups and big software companies hire people on merit irrespective of their degrees, but if a job is what you want anyway, you will have a much easier time staying in college. It’s just that this country does not have too many of the kind of institutions where you go to learn, not to get a job. The fact that someone like an Emma Watson or a James Franco goes back to college in the US astounds me. We on the other hand, keep trying to burn down the few colleges we have.

A lot of people that have passed through this very system have gone on to do great things, including making an EV company [3] amongst other things. But more often than not, these people did this despite the system, not because of it.

If there’s one thing you should take away from this, it’s that the whole “if you really want something the entire universe conspires to give it to you” scheme is make-believe.

The universe couldn’t care less about you. All you can then do is try more and more things in order to increase your chances of finding what you are good at. And this is true with or without college.


It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:


I am the captain of my soul.
– Invictus by William Ernest Henley


Akshay Tyagi
Akshay Tyagi

A lot has happened since I left college. I started a company. I made some money. Then I shut it down.

But this article is not about what happened after. I will leave that for another time.

[The Author: Akshay Tyagi has done few startups earlier and is currently working on building a women’s clothing brand.]

Links

1. http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/the-iits-have-lost-their-way/article6350641.ece

2. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/10/young-minds-in-critical-condition/

3. ather

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