The one-strike rule

The examination system rewards only the fittest on the exam day. Anyone outside of that is chewed up

Muhammad Hamid Zaman May 11, 2021
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

My federal board matriculation exams were in spring 1993. I do not remember the order of exams (called date-sheet), or what was on each test. But I still remember a deep sense of anxiety stemming from a long list of what-ifs. What if I fell ill? What if I was late to the examination hall? What if there was a family emergency? All it took to derail the entire career of an aspiring student was one misstep, one emergency, or one bout of illness. The redemption for something out of control of the student was pretty much non-existent. It meant losing a whole year, at the very least. Mental agony, a feeling of depression, and a sense of failure were likely to accompany. A similar sense of worry were to follow in my intermediate (FSc part I and II) exams in 1994 and 1995. I was fortunate that I remained healthy, arrived on time, and no family emergency occurred. But it could have gone either way. One strike, and the entire house of dreams and hopes could crash. I still remember the anxiety from that time nearly three decades later.

As the discussion heated up in the last few weeks about exams, and I heard from my family members and children of friends, I realized that little has changed in nearly three decades. In many ways, the system has become worse. First, in early 1990s, everyone I knew was enrolled in the national system. Now I do not know of a single person who is not in the Cambridge system. It is not because everyone around me has become a lot richer, it is because the system that we were a part of has become a lot poorer. We also treat the national system as a system for the poor. From celebrities to politicians, the only discussion is about what will happen in Cambridge exams, and what the students there are feeling. Few have bothered to wonder about the masses whose exam dates of matriculation and intermediate remain an afterthought.

But beyond the obvious class segregation of our educational system, there is another serious flaw. The system is designed for convenience for the administrators and efficiency of exams, not for education and learning of the student. In a society that so desperately needs critical thinkers, the entire focus is on an exam, and that too has to go perfectly in every respect. There is no provision for those who, despite their best efforts, may fall short not because of any fault of theirs, but because of a family emergency, a road accident that stops traffic, or catching an illness. Fitness and fate are now more important than thought and analytical capacity. Stress, depression and anxiety among parents and students are natural consequences of these unfair and unethical policies.

In the current pandemic, we have made problems much worse. Statements by politicians (in particular the federal education minister) and even the judges have shown a remarkable disregard for mental health of students and their parents. These people have shown that they lack empathy, a necessity for a good education system. In their worldview, the entire purpose of education is an exam, not an enabling environment that helps a student learn, reflect and analyse.

A lot has been written about the curriculum, the delivery of that curriculum in the classroom and the demands of our archaic rote-learning system. But our problems in education go beyond that. Despite downplaying evolution in the curriculum (where it is much needed), we have chosen a system that is Darwinism on steroids. The examination system rewards only the fittest on the exam day. Anyone outside of that is chewed up. As the old saying goes a system or a society can only be judged by how it treats and protects its weakest. Our education system works for none except the strongest and the richest.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2021.

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