We shouldn't be thrilled but scared at the possibility of 499 marks out of 500. That one less to a perfect is dreadful. What a lifeless year of childhood must it have cost someone to calibrate themselves so scrupulously to a pattern of testing that they almost forgot to make any real error. Boards aren’t a test of "inherent intelligence" such that a 99.8 per cent reflects the incredible genius of an outlier but of coached preparations where it takes average intelligence and above-average sycophancy.
Or perhaps not even that, being a CBSE board topper is the celebration of life’s most wonderful gifts — chaos and contingency. Luck is the real merit in scoring a perfect 100 in a system graded by highly subjective human judgment and temperament. But sure, the randomness of getting lucky at least keeps it democratic.
Without any doubt, the board exams are not just a retrograde yardstick but also an oppressive one. Being "standardised" and "centralised" are no badges of honour for managers of any education system. If you judge millions of beautiful, diverse children by exactly the same question papers, you are either pathetically ignorant or ridiculously lazy.
In a way, we validate the intelligence metrics of board exams by not celebrating those who did just fine for themselves. Photo: PTI
But despite the unspoken guilt of subjecting our children to anachronistic board exams every year, we don’t feel a pinch of shame in making a theatrical performance of our disability. The board exam topper list announced by CBSE is an open confession of its illiteracy and failures.
The ranking list is an unapologetic hierarchy of who learnt how much, who learnt the best and how much better than the other. Learning, like any other supermarket commodity, becomes countable. Even in a standardised system, what could perfectly be a private achievement is dressed into a national competition of education.
There are two problems with the argument that the garlanding of winners publicly is to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of some students to succeed even in a hollow system which they didn’t design.
The first is that conformity in a sick system cannot be a public ideal. If the nature of our exams is such that they become parasitic to our children’s learning in larger life and their freedom to explore and fail, then perhaps it is the rebelling failures who deserve our applause. Even a question of temporary compromise is meaningless when the whole exercise is simply the antithesis of the joy of learning.
Secondly, praise serves a dual function. It both idealises one type of behaviour and demonises its opposite. With reckless glorification of toppers, we make it further difficult for victims of a broken system to live with its declarations.
In a way, we validate the intelligence metrics of board exams by not celebrating those who did just fine for themselves.
It is problematic that our excellence by definition has to be something that not everyone can attain. In order for there to be toppers, there have to be losers. If too many students get 99 per cent (or are even happy at 60 per cent), then it calls for an investigation of a "too-easy-paper", or tricks like "moderation".
Alfie Kohn suggests that this preference for ranking lists is rooted in an ideological commitment to "conditionality (the belief that anything desirable must be earned; no free lunch!), scarcity (viewing excellence as something that, by definition, can be attained only by a few), and deprivation (a conviction that children ought to have to struggle).”
Schools and education boards must be leaders in blurring discrimination, not creating new kinds of the menace. They shouldn’t commercialise our primitive urge for publicity, but help us overcome it. Our institutions shouldn’t teach us ugly habits of grading human beings, they should help us cultivate the love for diversity.
Comparison, said Mark Twain, is the death of joy.