The slanted cursive and our flawed education system

Writing in cursive was mandatory at the secondary school I went to. I believe it had been necessary even at my high-school, but I had somehow managed to get around it by connecting my letters every now and then with bars (rather like Hindi, now that I think of it). I can’t write in cursive, or slanted cursive. It twists my wrist in interesting and painful ways when I try. I suppose that is because I am doing it wrong. There was this well-meaning nun in secondary school who advised me to get those copy-writing notebooks and practise. God knows I tried. It was important back then. What if some underpaid teacher somewhere correcting the common exam papers graded me badly just because I wasn’t writing in cursive? I cared a lot about that. Never mind that my non-cursive, non-slanted hand was easier to read than a cursive, slanted version, everybody cared about the cursive, and that was that. It might be a genetic flaw. My brother’s hand is more legible (and downright pretty) after he abandoned the cursive. It is not that we didn’t try. There are dozens of copy-books, dozens of re-written assignments et al, showing how hard we tried. The sad part, of course, is how pointless having a cursive hand turned out to be. Yes, it might have gained people marks when they were in school and graded by teachers who thought it a good metric to judge children’s aptitude by. My brother and I tried, and failed, and castigated ourselves, and were castigated, about the inability to write well in cursive. Now he is in undergrad. I don’t think a cursive hand really counts for much there. Lab experiments must show results, the code must compile, you need to know how to use Matlab and Simulink, you need to know your way around microprocessors – all of that matters, but not the slanted cursive. As for me, as long as my squiggles on the whiteboard aren’t illegible, I doubt anyone cares. It has been quite some time since it was something anyone cared about.

The slanted cursive is just one of those things that the education system thinks is important. The number of pages in your answer booklet is another. How punctual you are with your assignments and how you interact with your teacher is another. None of this matters much. So when the entrance exams are here, everyone wonders why the teacher’s pet doesn’t do better than someone who spent his time playing truant (and says it is unfair). When the placement time arrives on campus, everyone wonders why Google picked someone with a horrible grades over someone who topped the class. Perhaps we should be rethinking our metrics. We have these metrics, and our children expect that as long as they score well on these points, everything else will fall into place. No, it won’t. It is something they need to be aware of. Their little world (school or college) isn’t the world, and isn’t even an approximation.

There was a professor at my undergrad, who taught networks, who encouraged us to write only the points relevant. It was a heavenly idea to me. I could just jot down three or four bullet-points and be done with a question. As far as I can remember, she was the only one sensible about these things out there. I think she tried to tell us, often, about what lay outside the campus. It can’t have been easy, being one of the rare few to have reasonable metrics to judge students (you write the answer, I’ll give you the marks) as opposed to unreasonable metrics (do I like you? do you respect me enough? do you write in a slanted cursive? how many pages in your answer booklet?).

I know a man who has poor communication skills, has poor hand-writing, and would meet no Indian teacher’s idea of ‘acceptable’. He had led a big revenue-churning team at Google for a dozen years, had invested in and started successful companies, had outstripped all his peers who came with better grades. He is tenacious, resilient and stubborn. Many people have those qualities. I think that the difference though is that he thinks. He thinks outside the framework the education system tries to instill in all of us. Many of us go with the framework. Some of us go against it instinctively. Only a rare few have the ability to think about it, gather the best with them as they go forward, and discard the rest.

I rejected everything to do with the education system, blindly. I might have been right in doing so, but I am trying to think now. I am trying to think about why instinct told me that it was a broken system. Why would a system reward those with a slanted cursive hand? Why would it reward those who behaved, those who were punctual, those who compliantly went along with the framework, those who drew margins, and those who wrote a lot of pages in their answer booklet? Did it make sense in the era where government service was the best one could aspire to? I think much of it has to do with the teacher’s laziness (why read answers when you can just count the pages?), and sense of self-importance (this student isn’t punctual, doesn’t treat me with complete respect, and why would I give him or her marks?), and in some cases even ignorance (how dare this student write down things I don’t know about?).

The education system is a dystopia. That parents and children still buy into it is most horrifying. There are still pieces that make sense that you might come across (one lone professor who is the voice of reason, one or two professors who know what they are talking about, a handful of students who remind themselves and each other everyday that something is off), but you need to be very lucky in order to do so.

2 responses

  1. I was hoping for this article for about 2+ years now!
    Never late than now. Nicely written. When I think of you writing such an article, I did not expect it would start all the way from cursive and curves. It makes all the more sense, that the roots of this totalitarian environment begins from there. I remember my brother doing his copy-writing stuff till late high school. And thinking back I realize how stubborn I was, in anti-handwriting, anti-marks, and anti-tuition campaigns at home.
    I carried the same agony throughout my education life and I am still carrying it. As my penchant for education hasn’t subsidized yet, I am still searching for a right education system. I would say that the correct education system is one, where there is no system – which is customizable (to an extent) to everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.
    And whenever I read some meaningful articles like this, it strikes me hardly, now that we realize there is a fundamental flaw on the very system that we laid our fundamentals on, is there anything materialistic that we can do? And this thought ends up once I finish counting the stars on the northern hemisphere …

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    • Imagine a computer game, where your opponent is a badly-coded, malicious AI that tries to shoot down each attempt of yours to improve your lot as you play the game. You are frustrated, but still become experience at dodging the AI’s attempts to subvert your game by the end of it. The education system is such an opponent.

      The cursives and the curves were wretched and unnecessary crosses to bear. They might have been possible to swallow if at least half the teachers knew what they were speaking of. Not teaching is a lesser crime than teaching the wrong things, and I think most of the ones we’ve had were culpable of the second.

      Colleges. They screwed up computer science for me, completely. It took years (and LISP with SICP) before I recovered from that. What if I had never got that second chance? How many people get that second chance? It is unforgivable. Get a degree from some engineering college, fail to make it through placements, swagger into the nearest temporary position, and teach kids with dreams and hopes utter nonsense that will impact all their choices for a long time to come. And it doesn’t begin at the colleges. You find horrible physics and mathematics teachers across the schools and the tuition systems, trying to teach kids what to write and how to write it, to make it through the boards. Really learning Matrix algebra is for those with time to waste. Instead, just learn the bloody textbook examples by heart. There are kids who believe it all, do it dutifully, and end up doing badly on an entrance exam, and are heartbroken.

      It is impossible to fight it all. It is a hydra re-spawning, each time you fight and cut a head off. Fighting some parts might be all that a kid can do.

      Is anything we can do? We might have to teach our kids not to be taught, so as to spare them this cycle that we have gone through, which we’ll likely never recover from.

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