The Fault in our Syllabi

EDITOR: Aesha Kallattuvalapil

As you read this, someone somewhere is cutting out little paper squares to stick in their math lab book, probably.

After having spent 14+ years in school, I can conclusively say that I know nothing. Sure, I can factor polynomials, name (most) of the countries and their capitals and tell you when World War -I began. But if you ask me what the fifteenth alphabet is, you would be wise to expect a recital starting with A. It’s the same when it comes to months. That’s irrefutable proof that school succeeded in educating me, but not quite enough. And certainly not about the things that do matter.

In case you were wondering, or have ever wondered, you will never use calculus in your everyday life unless you become a calculus professor, a mathematician or the alien race taking over our planet mandates the knowledge of differential equations as humankind’s only defining character. Knowledge of basic mathematics is crucial, although I don’t remember the last time I didn’t turn to a phone or a calculator for help. In the tenth grade I learned how a light bulb works, but I still need my father (and sometimes an exorcist) when the lights in my room start flickering. I do not know how to fix flat tires, reply to official emails, identify profitable ventures and more importantly, use theoretical knowledge in practice. Problem: If A, B and C  each order one starter, one main course and one drink, and B orders a dessert and C gives half his main course to A, then how many tears were shed on that table when the bill arrived? Solve for ‘x’ and show your work.

The education system is seemingly about how much a student can commit to memory, without ever truly knowing why. They’re expected to stock their brains with information and regurgitate the same on a piece of paper within a time frame. Granted that knowledge of history is important to prevent the past from repeating itself, but what good is memorizing a bunch of dates which will inevitably be forgotten at the beginning of the next year to make room for more information? I’m glad that I know why leaves are green but my knowledge of the cross-sectional diagram of a leaf does me no service. “I spend my days finding the surface area of cubes and cuboids” – said no one ever.

We’re taught to read and repeat and make no real contributions on our part. We’re told not to think for ourselves but rather to believe as fact what others have said over the years. Schools should encourage its students to study so that they may enhance their knowledge and not just pass an exam. Intelligence should not be judged on how many anecdotes and numbers a student can recall. We must address the fault in our syllabi and give way for earnest discourse.

In conclusion I would like to say, mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.



The Checklist

EDITOR: Shruti Bhatia

Based on a true and unfortunate story.

From the very moment I turned eighteen, I ardently avoided weddings. Not because I despised the fanfare or the ever-present smell of jalebis and jasmine, but because of the inevitable turn every conversation seemed to take: my own wedding. I am now twenty one and the fear is stronger than ever. Every time the family gathers, my bridey-sense tingles. The wind shifts, the ground rumbles and I know that it is time for nervous chuckles and subject changers.

Let me assure you that I am not against the institution of marriage. But I am vehemently against the idea and practice of forcing someone into marriage. All conscious and subconscious efforts to do so included. In my defence, I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes. Growing up, I could only watch as one by one my siblings and cousins defected to the other side. I speak not of those who genuinely chose to get married, but of those whose right to choose was limited to the pool of select candidates courtesy of matrimonial sites. Being an individual of marriageable age in today’s world is like being in the Hunger Games: with each passing year your chances of being picked increases exponentially. And there is no escape.

The early man began cohabitating to procreate. Procreation was necessary to populate the planet. There was strength in number. More people meant more labour and more resources. It was once crucial for man’s survival. Fortunately, we have come a long way since then. We no longer need to procreate. Companionship is no longer a necessity for humankind to survive. It’s a want, and a negotiable one at that. Marriage is not and should not be a social sine qua non, but a choice. It is neither a right nor a duty. It is not an entry in a checklist that needs to be ticked off.

It is interesting to note how the items in the above-mentioned checklist vary with age. At eighteen it is marriage, at twenty five it is parenthood and at sixty, grandparenthood (exact numbers may differ). Marriage should be about two willing parties who mutually decide to spend their lives together. The decision to start a family should be made based on natural love and affection and not ticking biological clocks. They are not tasks that need to be completed in order to graduate to the next level.

As I write this, I come to terms with the fact that THE CHECKLIST is very real and inexhaustible. A shocking majority are bound by it in one way or another. And as I heave a sigh of relief for having survived yet another conversation with an expectant wedding guest, I realize that it will not be my last.

To each his own

EDITOR: Ashmy Achu Shinu

This is for all those people who have found themselves on the receiving end of the phrase “log kya kehenge?” (“what will people say?”) with respect to academic and career choices. Disclaimer: This is not an attack on parents, guardians, teachers and other concerned members of society. We know you mean well.

Do you know that for every child who turns eighteen, two adults (plus a few unnecessary additions) start asking, “Engineer ya doctor?” They get bonus points if they start this charade at sixteen. (After all, coaching classes get filled up pretty fast.) It’s ironic how we are often told not to succumb to peer pressure by those who end up putting the worst kind of pressure on us: expectations.

Let’s get real for a minute. If my friends invite me for drinks and I turn them down, the worst possible outcome would be that I would no longer get invited to social events. Chances of them ever bringing it up on a later day are slim to none. But if I score the 74826916346th rank in CET, you can bet your life savings that no one would let me forget it. I would become the talk of every birthday, wedding and funeral. (Here lies ____’s career. RIP.) I would become a social pariah, a cautionary tale, the monster that parents tell their children about at night. I would get shunned for being the proverbial square peg in the round hole.

For future reference, here is an extremely sarcastic and wildly exaggerated list of sins according to the average Indian family, ranked most to least abominable:
– Not doing engineering or medicine
– Failing an exam
– Talking back to your parents
– Crossing your legs in front of elders
– Swearing/Using profanities
– Drinking/Smoking/Things that may actually kill you someday

“But what’s wrong with studying what my family wants?” you ask, shaking your head in disdain. “It makes them happy.” Yes, I understand that every child aspires to make their parents proud one day. Most of us would rather do something we don’t particularly enjoy than disappoint those who believe in us. But it doesn’t end there. Pretty soon you’re met with, ‘engineering degree toh sabke pass hai, tum MBA karlo’ (Everyone has an engineering degree, you should do an MBA.) Or ‘MBBS kafi nahi, MD bhi karlo’ (An MBBS degree is not enough, do an MD.) And knowing that our parents and theirs before them were also once subjected to the same societal pressures (some still are) makes it extremely difficult to point accusatory fingers. The truth is, expectations form a part of every human interaction. I expect the bus driver to take me to my destination safely, I expect the waiter to bring me what I ordered, I expect my partner not to murder me in my sleep. Hence it is perfectly acceptable for those who have invested their time, love and money in me to expect some return. But it’s important to draw the line somewhere. There’s a clear distinction between wanting the best for someone and wanting someone to be someone else. (Not that a career defines who you are, but if you’re going to spend a substantial amount of time doing something, it might as well be something you love and not merely that which looks good on paper.)

Man (herein includes woman) is expected to work so that he may provide for his family, for which he must learn a profitable trade. At one point in time it was hunting, farming and money lending. Today, the opportunities are endless. A profitable trade may even be carried on from home. You can make money by uploading videos on the internet. You can inspire people by drawing comic strips and caricatures. Your fan fiction might just become the next bestseller. Your song cover might get you a record deal. We are constantly reinventing the conventional definition of a ‘job’. Granted, it’s a lot more difficult to become established in that line of work. It takes time, patience and a strong internet connection. But then again, what doesn’t? Life and its many exploits are dazzling only in retrospect.

Don’t get me wrong, if you’re one of the many people who have chosen their field of study out of pure unadulterated interest, I applaud you. If becoming an engineer makes your heart sing, or if medicine is your calling,kindly disregard everything I’ve said so far. But on the off-chance that you’re not one of those people, I would like to remind you that you will never change the world by trying to be like it. The world needs ambitious, motivated, passionate individuals who hunger for more and do not settle for any less. So I implore you, visionary, to follow whatever it is that keeps you up at night, no matter how utterly ludicrous it may seem to others. Become artists, rock stars, personal trainers, ornithologists, photographers, sportspersons, architects, chefs, professional translators, screen writers, masseurs, masseuses, astronauts, actors, therapists, YouTubers, and bloggers. Become engineers and doctors and lawyers. Just think of how many national treasures we would have lost had their relatives simply said, “That’s not a real job.”

And here’s something else, it’s never too late to change your destination. (If you listen very carefully, you’ll be able to hear the sound of my CET coaches grinding their teeth.) At the risk of sounding philosophical, I ask you to chart your own course. Pun intended. Let your life be an admixture of different adventures. Make mistakes, but do it with passion. Do no wrongs but for the right reasons. Neither success nor failure has a predetermined formula. We’re all just making it up as we go.

And there’s more than one road to the top.
Learn because you want to know more. Study what you believe will make you the best version of yourself. Do whatever it is that you find meaningful. Work towards making the world a better place. Succeed on your own terms. Create something of value. Become an inspiration to others who come after you.

And watch your approval ratings go up.

Redefining Strength

EDITOR: Smriti Sharma

Before I begin, let me ask you a question: What is strength? How would you define it? And would you consider strength to be one of your many attributes?

Got your answer? Good.

At a recent event, I was asked to describe myself using an adjective (how utterly joyful!)“I am strong,” I blurted out with whatever residual confidence I had left from having to say my name out loud (Sigh! Introvert problems.) I was met with skepticism. “Really?” One had the audacity to ask. “You don’t look it.”

What my very observant friend failed to realize was that I didn’t have to.

Our notion of strength has been confined to warriors, knights, burly men with handlebar mustaches, martial artists, gun wielding acrobats and/or secret agents, which is why we refuse to believe that strength could very well take any other form. It is but normal to think that only those people in powerful positions, high risk jobs or high pressure situations could ever possess or display strength. After all, strong isn’t the first word you would use to describe your neighbor, teacher or bus driver. Strength is often portrayed in works of fiction as a surge of positive emotion, filling a person with indomitable purpose and propelling them forward towards glory and certain success. If only.

Truth be told, it is a bit skewed from how humans and human emotions really work. Perhaps it is time we interpret ‘strength’ in a more practical light. For the greater good, of course.

Strength does not only mean physical strength.
I learned two things from the numerous movies/TV shows/anime that I’ve watched over the years:

1) My eyes can only take so much strain, and

2) If you’re a main character¹ you must be able to wield a weapon/engage in hand to hand combat at a moment’s notice/brush off any injury as a ‘flesh wound’ (“Pain isn’t in my vocabulary!”) The protagonist almost always starts out as a weak, scrappy young character who matures into a bold, respectable individual as a result of some hardcore training (what better way to depict the inner struggles of man than through a two-minute long montage to the backdrop of an 80s rock song?) or a life-altering incident (death of a loved one, war, rejection, asteroid collision or all of the above) which persuades the protagonist to beef up and get serious. For the longest time, strength was considered to be directly proportional to one’s size (Do you even lift, bro?) although I must admit that the ideology seems to be changing, albeit at an excruciatingly slow pace.

Bottom line: strength is not an exclusive trait of the fittest or the fastest or the one exercising the right to bear arms.

Strength is gender neutral.
I’ll say it once more for the people in the back: strength is neither a masculine nor a feminine quality. Lately, many fictional works have diversified their approach but it seems to be taking a little longer for the same to be accepted in reality. I’m looking at those parents who instruct their boys not to cry because they’re expected to never show any weakness and those who tell girls that they can’t become plumbers/mechanics/firefighters/soldiers because they require physical exertion. You do you.

Strength is relative.
Here’s a lesson that took me a little longer than necessary to learn: Do not compare your battles to another’s. Your struggles are exclusively your own. Every fight requires a different degree of strength. So the next time someone says that a homemaker’s job is the toughest in the world, take it at face value. Don’t get into a debate about housework being easy and effortless. (Trust me that is not an argument you want to win.)

Strength is not the outcome of a struggle; it is a catalyst for growth.
Some believe strength to be the end result of a long struggle. “The protagonist overcame his weakness, therefore he is strong.” “He mastered Tai Jutsu, therefore he is strong.” That’s not exactly true. Strength is not the XP you get for slaying the boss monster, it’s the weapon to use to slay said monster. Or the coins you use to buy that weapon. You get my point.

Strength varies over time.
It is not constant. Every new challenge will demand a new you. It is only human to fluctuate, falter, fall and fail. It is purely circumstantial. It is perfectly normal to lose one’s bearings even in the most familiar of situations. What might have been an easy conquest once might not be so at a later stage. Strength, in such situations, is asking for help.

Strength is not always a positive action.
Anyone who has had to put up with an annoying boss or over-friendly relative would agree that sometimes it is better to not say or do anything at all. Which is why I think that Neville Longbottom was one of the (if not the) strongest characters in Harry Potter. (For those who don’t know, Neville’s greatest fear was Professor Snape but that didn’t stop him from being a dutiful student.)

If courage is not the absence of fear then strength is not the absence of weakness. Contrary to popular opinion, it is entirely possible to be strong despite having many weaknesses. Strength, like courage, is a choice. It is not a physical state or an inborn ability. It is the decision to face adversity and whatever else that may accompany it, even when your first instinct is to run and hide. It is the ability to walk through fire with your head held high. Strength is going back to school knowing that the bullies would still be there. It is waking up every morning to a world that is self-destructive. It is coming face to face with the hatred, bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny and still believing in a better future. Strength is simply the ability to stand up even when every fiber of your being is screaming at you to stay down.

Now would you answer my earlier question in the affirmative? After all, you have a very impressive 100% survival rate. What is that, but strength?

¹All rules have exceptions.