Why So Serious?

One of the common complaints of Indian parents is that children these days are not serious. Apparently, children do not understand the gravity of the precarious situation they are in, and they tend to lose sight of the holy grail of 'success' for which the parents readily 'sacrifice'. Without belittling parents' efforts, one needs to understand what exactly the parents are looking for. Students are going to schools, their numerous tuition classes, and occasional cricket/swimming/tennis lessons alright. They are getting good marks often. What then is wrong with their 'seriousness'?

Perhaps, the answer is more cultural than psychological. Traditionally, education in India has been considered to be a passport to success, which is usually defined in terms of salary, house, and car (paisaa, bunglaa, and gaadi in Bollywood rags-to-riches potboilers). With the advent of local sports icons, sports have become another route to the same notions of success. That education can be a fulfilling and transformative process, which creates a better individual and a humane society, is by and large ignored. Education, in effect, becomes an object to be bartered for material prosperity. While the paisaa, bungla, and gaadi dream is a real one, and perhaps one of the dreams that have come true for many Indians, it cannot be everything. An individual cannot prosper in isolation nor can their belongings keep them away from their surroundings. A notion of seriousness focused on 'success' is based on a belief in the supreme power of belongings that will protect an individual from adversities. Perhaps, belongings can do so for an individual to an extent. However, such gated mentality does not bode well for the larger society, which needs its better-off constituents to help create opportunities for the rest.

There are other Indian markers to the notions of success. Given the tangible benefits an open economy brought to many, success has been increasingly defined in terms of what is demanded in the market. That has created a huge realignment of focus in the general education system with more and more resources being diverted to science and technology, which, although admirable, is causing a strain on the budgets for social sciences and humanities. True that India needs to harness its science and technology to move forward. However, without an equal emphasis on social sciences and humanities we may end up raising generations of highly-skilled individuals with access to the international economy but without any sense of the realities of various social groups outside their magic circle. A serious student, therefore, doesn't necessarily need an engineering degree to be educated.

A liberal education has traditionally been the preserve of the middle class and above. Even those with adequate cultural capital would sometimes advise their children to do 'something worthwhile' instead of whiling away time on music or literature. However, in our collective quest for success as a nation we should not forget what Martha Nussbaum calls 'cultivating humanity', the very practice that may hold the key to our most-talked-about irritants like endemic corruption and apathy in public life. The same seriousness that may ensure short-term wellbeing of a student may end up narrowing the priorities of the nation in the long term. We need to be serious about the long-term issues of prosperity and development of the entire country and identify how our common notions of being a serious student needs to be realigned.