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The Ghosts of Board Exams Past

Your near-perfect board exam percentage may have helped you get into your dream college, but, for most English students at DU, that’s all the help you’re going to get from your 12 years of school education. This is a complaint (read: vent) against the system that forces you to go from memorizing a set of 6 points for 6 marks to desperately scouring JSTOR late at night for anything relevant in a span of less than a year.

Over the first year of my English degree, I’ve heard the phrase “You’re not in CBSE anymore.” repeated at least a dozen times, usually in a tone of deep exasperation, with some disappointment thrown in for good measure. The situations that prompt our professors to make this remark, or some variant of it, are varied—a student making a rather obtuse observation on the text, someone asking what the exact word limit for an assignment is, and, of course, when we ask what specific “points” need to be included in an answer to fetch us the highest marks.

Of course, these questions are a bit juvenile for a group of students supposed to be majoring in English. But really, can you blame us? Isn’t trying to figure out the exact word limit normal when you’ve been told your whole life that if your essay exceeds the word limit, your examiner will simply not read beyond the cut-off point? Should your study not centre around the sacrosanct “important points” when even your best answers in your school exams were deemed incomplete due to their absence?

It’s not nearly as easy to snap out of “CBSE mode” as it is to start carrying canvas totes instead of bulky backpacks.

The problem begins with the actual CBSE English syllabus, which comprises entirely of dozens of short stories and poems, so that you don’t have enough time to do anything more than a surface-level study of each text. Even a few years ago, two longer texts were included in the Class 10 syllabus, but even these have since been removed—ostensibly to relieve pressure on students during the pandemic. The Class 12 syllabus, of course, never had any longer texts—wouldn’t want to distract science students from their JEE and NEET preparation, after all.

Some teachers do a remarkable job of teaching this dull syllabus. Others, not so much. But in the end, it all comes down to the examinations. The shorter questions in them only require you to recall, often verbatim, specific parts of the texts, generally falling somewhere between “Who said this to whom?” and “What happened when character X did Y?” Long-answers, which usually have a strict word limit of about 600 words, do little to encourage creativity or reflection either. For character sketches, you’re supposed to list specific character traits and examples from the text that substantiate them, with no exploration of deeper motivations required. 

Questions are straight and simple, almost as if you were answering a maths question and you knew the exact method for it, because all questions basically asked you to just recall an incident in the text or at the most its implication.”

Shreiya, an English Hons. student at LSR

And this is far from a CBSE-only problem. I switched from CBSE to ICSE in Class 11 with high expectations, but found little change in the way English was taught other than a greater volume of texts and stricter marking. My elaborate Shakespeare answers with “Points missing” scrawled across them in red ink would attest to the fact that ICSE English is just as shallow as its CBSE counterpart, with a polished veneer for appearances’ sake.

And when we products of the Indian school education system move on to institutions of higher education, we are duly informed that everything we’ve learnt (and even the way we’ve been taught to learn) so far is completely useless—except in helping us clear the sky-high cut-offs for those institutions, of course. 

Even the best professors offer little guidance in helping us catch up, so most students end up struggling to study works that are 10 times the size of anything they learnt in school and frame answers that can now stretch up to a dozen pages or more. The fact that DU’s undergraduate syllabus begins with English translations of Classical texts that feel as alien to us as they would have been in their original Latin or Sanskrit certainly doesn’t help.

I’m not here to suggest we introduce James Joyce and Homer to 16-year-olds studying English just to make sure it doesn’t drag their board exam percentages down too much. English is a second language, if not third or fourth, for nearly everyone in India, and nobody should be forced to delve deep into its literature to make the lives of a few English Honours students easier. 

But, the manner in which papers are evaluated needs to see a change, and reintroducing longer but still readable texts like Shakespeare’s plays or The Diary of a Young Girl would do a world of good. Additionally, more students should be given the option of studying Elective English instead of or in addition to Core English. For those unaware, this subject, if taught the right way, is remarkably close to college-level English, although it’s much easier. It’s both the perfect transition course and testing ground for anyone who wants to study literature further or just have some fun with it.

More importantly, colleges must do a better job of training new students, rather than expecting them to figure it all out on their own. Whether it’s bridge classes or just an introductory paper in the first semester, we need a change in the way first years are taught to navigate their course. If we don’t, students, and consequently the university as a whole, will be stuck in this strange limbo where advanced classes about metaphysical poetry are followed by questions about exactly how many quotes need to be included in an answer for it to be awarded full marks.

Read Also: The Good, Bad and the CBSE: Educating The Sensitive?

Image Credits: The Daily Beast

Shriya Ganguly

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