In a recent interview with BBC, well-known Indian actor, Victor Banerjee, rued the lack of interest in poetry and literature among today’s social media-obsessed youngsters. He also said that today’s youngsters prefer to pursue Science stream to become engineers and doctors as these professions can land them lucrative job offers as compared to students studying Humanities who may not be lucky enough to get a high-paying job. It is this instrumental logic that dictates their choice of profession.
Banerjee plays the role of Rabindranath Tagore in the movie Thinking of Him, a film by Argentinian director Pablo César. Reacting to the question as to why Tagore is not a popular connection today as he should be, the 75-year-old actor said that what the Nobel laureate stood for has been replaced by sensationalism in this digital age. According to him, Tagore doesn’t belong to the people now.
Which merits the question: Have we as a society become too obsessed with mathematics and science? Is cracking the IIT/JEE considered the holy grail of success for our younger generation? Aren’t some over-ambitious parents forcing their choices down the throats of their children to live out their unfulfilled dreams through them?
While watching television, one is deluged by advertisements for education apps that shows youngsters being taught about the imperatives of success in these competitive times. Success is now a student’s raison d'être, the lifeblood of his existence. The very definition of success has been smartly colonised and appropriated by the promoters of these apps which send an unequivocal message: The world belongs to intelligent students who are hardworking and fast learners. In their scheme of things, a nature-loving student and a lover of literature, with little interest in chemical equations and mathematical formulas, does not qualify as a “successful” student because things like imagination and creative thinking do not count for much in our goal-driven education system. Success is all about scoring high marks in maths and science subjects and excelling in all-round studies.
Little wonder, then, that even today, students pursuing English and Hindi literature at the undergraduate level rarely find right-minded and like-minded people supporting their choice of stream. We have been conditioned to believe in the hackneyed stereotype that the instinctive choice of “good and intelligent students” should be Science. After all, for some parents, the anticipated instrumentality and usefulness of Science stream ensure a successful career that promises status, money, and recognition to their children.
It has been observed that many parents don’t make an effort to encourage their children to develop reading habits in their school days. Students up to class twelfth read stories and poems prescribed in their textbooks to pass their exams. As a result, they don’t have any visceral engagement with the world of language and literature. It is because of this lack of exposure to literary works at an early age that makes it virtually impossible for school students to cultivate a literary sensibility when they move into college.
The reason many artistic and literary talents are sacrificed at the altar of parental absolutism is because we don’t make an effort to identify and channelise talent in the right direction. Parents should desist from forcing their children to choose Science or Mathematics after Class 10 if they show a lack of interest in these subjects. Students who have a knack for literature and creative writing should be encouraged to take up Humanities in senior classes.
A few years ago, best-selling author Paulo Coelho tweeted that it took him 40 years to pen his first book. The reason being, that his father, who was an engineer by profession, felt that if his son became a writer, he would starve to death.
For many students, Science and Mathematics can be right up their alley. 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 VS Naipaul or Salman Rushdie, or Kazuo Ishiguro, or by the poetry of Shelley or Keats.
Truth be told, there is no accounting for taste. Every individual is born with an innate ability to trail clouds of glory at some point in their lives. They have the right to live life the way they want to without being pressured into doing their parents’ bidding. Be it a musician, singer, or sportsman. Every person has a different definition of success. The problem arises when we normalise and standardise success in terms of financial prosperity. A modestly successful author or poet may not earn huge royalty from the sale of her books, but since she has chosen writing as her profession, she is happy doing what makes her happy. After all, success is always relative.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi)