The 2009 blockbuster 3 Idiots poignantly depicts our society’s unrelenting obsession with Science and how pushy parents will force their wards to opt for this particular stream regardless of their inclination for it. A student’s ambition to pursue a career of his choice is often sacrificed at the altar of parental absolutism. In the movie, Farhan Qureshi (R Madhavan), who studies engineering just to please his father, has actually set his heart on becoming a photographer. When his somewhat distraught father gets wind of this and asks Farhan how he was going to make ends meet, the young man says, “If I become a photographer I’ll just earn less. My home will be small, my car will be small. But, Dad, I'll be happy.”
Which brings us to the question: have we as a society become too obsessed with Mathematics and Science which have become the standardised ambition of students? Is cracking the IIT/JEE considered the only yardstick of academic achievement of our younger generation who are eulogised in Homeric terms for this feat? Aren’t some over-ambitious parents living vicariously through their children by pigeonholing them into a career, much against their wishes and feelings?
On television, there is a surfeit of ads on education apps that shows demanding teachers, with their take-no-prisoners attitude, hothousing aspiring engineering and medical students, convincing them about the imperatives of success in these competitive times. Life for these students revolves around tuitions and coaching classes. Going by the concatenation of hysterics, it appears success is now a student’s raison d’etre, the lifeblood of his existence. The promoters of these apps send an unequivocal message: The world belongs to intelligent students who are hardworking and fast learners. They are expected to become hyper-competitive careerists with the aggression of social Darwinism.
But no one talks about how such maniacal competitiveness and the at times Sisyphean nightmare can take its toll on the mental health of some students. The sheer unfairness of the whole shebang often drives students to commit suicide as we have seen this happen in Rajasthan’s Kota, considered the mecca for IIT preparations. These ads conveniently gloss over the fact that there are also instances of students suffering Icarus-like flameout as they fail to complete their BTech/MTech degrees due to excessive pressure of studies.
What about those students who, imbued with an alternative imagination, take the road less travelled and make unconventional choices? Perhaps, a nature-loving student, with little interest in chemical equations and mathematical formulas, will never qualify as “successful” because dreamers are regarded as insignificant soap bubbles, something of an oddity in our success-driven society where things like imagination and creative thinking do not count for much.
One is reminded of the spiritually-inclined Larry Darrell in Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. Writes Maugham, “Larry is without ambition and he has no desire for fame.” Larry is an inveterate bibliophile and wants to explore the world. The very idea of earning money doesn’t appeal to this twenty-one-year-old man. For Larry, “acquisition of knowledge” is his primary objective in life. Since he believes that kind hearts are more than coronets, the ultimate satisfaction, according to him, can only be found in the life of the spirit.
Canadian novelist, literary critic and poet Margaret Atwood, famous for her acclaimed dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, once said, “I grew up among scientists. I almost became a scientist myself, and would have done so had I not been kidnapped by literature.’’ According to her, the arts “are the heart of the matter, because they are about our hearts.’’ She implies that the arts make the heart happy and help it to stay young.
We have been conditioned to think that only the brightest bulb in the box opts for Science subjects while mediocre students settle for Humanities. This year’s IAS topper, Shruti Sharma, who is a student of Humanities, has proved that to achieve success, one need not study Science only. It has been seen that many unsuccessful students pay exorbitant amount of money to buy fake B.Tech and MBBS degrees, in the hope of landing lucrative jobs.
A Science student may look up to CV Raman, Sundar Pichai or Bill Gates as role models, just as a student of literature could be inspired by the writings of Rabindranath Tagore or VS Naipaul or Salman Rushdie, or by the poetry of Shelley or Keats.
Truth be told, there is no accounting for taste. Parents need to tell their wards that when it comes to choosing a career, they are free to do whatever floats their boat without worrying about what other people think of them. Every individual has the right to live life the way they want to without being pressured into doing their parents’ bidding. Be it a musician, singer or a sportsperson, every person has a different definition and yardstick of success. It is all about deriving satisfaction from whatever goal one chooses in life.
The problem arises when we judge and justify success in terms of fame, bank balance and social status only. A modestly-successful author or poet may not earn huge royalty from the sale of her books, but she is content to find her literary ambitions sublimated in her creative pursuits. Make no mistake, success is always relative.
The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist