Scoring 100% In English - As If!

I am almost on the verge of a "cytokine storm," not because I contracted coronavirus which sent my immune system beserk, but on discovering that this year, the number of students who scored more than 95% in the CBSE Class 12 board exams has doubled from 17,000 last year to 38,000 this year. A Delhi University college principal casually remarked that it made no difference since he won't admit anyone under 97%.

But hang on, last year, I discovered that the cut-off for Political Science in Delhi University is 99 - yes, 99! Having struggled at the Master's level with this subject, I am astonished that the cut-off could be similar to that of the more exact sciences. I suppose, theoretically, people can max out science papers on the assumption that you are either right or wrong, and many get everything right. But how do you do that in an inexact social science?

I belong to a generation where, if you got more than 80% (what in those leisurely days we called 5 pointers under the ICSE exam), you were very clever and best avoided as you were likely to be very boring. One Delhi school specialised in churning out this ilk, a half a dozen a year or so, by eschewing teaching the 'arts' (like Political Science) so that the school's overall average would not be lowered by those plebs who could not understand the connection between the falling apple and gravity. My school, amongst others, would then pick up the riff-raff that they dropped in the 9th standard so that they could complete their education.

Most of us were quite satisfied with a first division which meant you got above 60%, enough to qualify you for an interview at one of Delhi's better colleges. And who knows, you might even get in if you had done brilliantly in your chosen subject (like 75%) and impressed the masters at the interview.

The introduction of the All India Higher Secondary Board in the seventies and the 10+2 put an end to all this. Suddenly, instead of writing leisurely 600-word essays on the Indus Valley, students were turned into rote machines, which could tell you the number of columns in the thousand-column temple of Hanamakonda (Telangana). It is said that even maths answers could be mugged and spewed out during the final examination.

I must confess it took me a while to realise what this Higher Secondary genius phenomenon was. At first, I was completely flummoxed when a very steady prodigy of very nice but equally steady couple scored well into the nineties. Of course, he was a product of the new-age system of life-by-tuition. This starts when children are 4 or 5 and continues like a large vitamin supplement until the person manages to qualify for the civils (awful term currently in vogue for the civil services), gets a scholarship, joins an IT firm or whatever. This investment in the child is due to a) the parents being very well off but having no time to teach the child due to the gym, work, kitty party etc., or b) middle-class families who also have no time since they have to work, cook, clean and look after in-laws.

In era BCBSE (before CBSE), a tutor was like a mentor, a professor in college who was there to guide you through your time in college and hopefully impart some knowledge that would be useful towards your degree. A person you discussed the affairs of the world within the context of your subject. Of course, there were those matronly types, our school teachers, who did provide a helping hand to the less privileged students, but that is not what today's tutors are.

The world of tuition is an organized machine; a Google image search will throw up hundreds of tuition, learning and even class improvement centres with pictures of toppers. Of course, they are needed, since the system demands that students have to get some ridiculous marks in order to get into college. Their life, as Beyonce just said about Blacks voting in the US, depends on it. Miss the 95% mark and the poor student is doomed to a lesser college or university.

And tutors are not the end of the road to the 90s. Almost every parent I have met whose child has completed the 11th standard wears that woebegone look as summer sets it. They have begun to fret about the exam next year. And to see that their little genius scores, there is no summer vacation. Even those who normally go to St. Moritz are forced to use the local beauty parlour for the summer, keeping a watchful eye on the lad/laddie. These poor souls rush from tutor to tutor from dawn to dusk in the hope that if they manage to revise everything at least four times, they will be able to vomit it out in March.

Of course there is no denying that we live in a land of geniuses. No other nation in the world can turn out lakhs of students with scores above the 95 percentile year after year. Each year the bar gets higher. This year, a number of students are celebrating getting 499/500 or 99.8% only to find that there was someone who maxed everything. Yes, people even got 100% in English. I was stupefied. It wasn't possible.

And yet, the world of social media is deluged with misspelled words, bad grammar and unintelligible sentences. This is true of English and probably all other languages. The one that irritates me the most is swapping "loose" for "lose". It really gets my goat.

Since 100% has been achieved, I am waiting for next year when someone scores 101. Then we will really have lost it.

(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV)

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