Have we as a society become too much obsessed with mathematics and science? Is cracking the IIT and medical entrance exams considered the holy grail of success for our younger generation? Are some parents going too far when it comes to forcing their choices down the throats of their children? Last year, my neighbour’s daughter topped her Class 12 board exams in Humanities in her school. Her father said that he had actually wanted his daughter to take up science after Class 10, but, according to him, she had an inherent inclination towards literature.
The girl’s decision to study English Honours in college was initially met with strong parental disapproval. But she dug in her heels. Her parents had little choice but to agree to what their daughter decided. This could have been a typical case of parental ambition riding roughshod over children’s academic interest. Some time ago, engineer and social activist Sudha Murthy, advised parents not to focus on their children all the time. She suggested that “parents should let their children ponder, give them free time so that they can blossom at their own pace.”
No wonder, even today, students pursuing English and Hindi literature at the undergraduate level rarely find right-minded and like-minded people supporting their choice of study. We have been conditioned to believe in the stereotype that the instinctive choice of “good and intelligent students” should be Science, so that they can land a lucrative job in an MNC. After all, for some parents, the value of pursuing Science rests in the anticipated instrumentality and usefulness in ensuring a successful career that will offer 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 schooldays. Kids are only encouraged to read those stories and poems which will help them pass their exams. As a result, they don’t have a visceral engagement with the world of languages 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.
This phenomenon can be mainly attributed to the fact that the majority of schools in our country don’t have Elective English at the senior secondary level. What they have is Core English, which doesn’t require creative and critical thinking to tackle questions. In fact, students don’t need to be even imaginative; they just have to answer objective type questions, which hardly test their literary acumen and potential.
It comes as no surprise that the majority of students exude outright disinterest in literature and shy away from pursuing it at the undergraduate and post-graduate level. They believe that a degree in science can open up new vistas of opportunity in their careers, as compared to a degree in Humanities. Some parents would rather that their children took up Economics as a subject, not English or Hindi literature at the undergraduate level. Sudha Murthy has a piece of advice for parents: “Lead by example, if you want your children to read, switch off your TV or phone and sit down to read yourself. Kids learn much more by example than sermon.’’
The reason why many an artistic and literary talent is sacrificed at the altar of parental caprice and diktat 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, endowed with a creative and imaginative bent of mind and at times, preternatural brilliance, need as much encouragement and motivation as any meritorious student of science. In Charles Dickens’ famous novel, Hard Times, a young girl, Louisa, is inclined to ask questions and to imagine. However, her father, Mr Gradgrind, who believes in facts, suppresses this natural inclination, telling her that she must “never wonder”.
In 2019, author Paulo Coelho tweeted that it took him 40 years to pen his first book. The reason being, 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 Sundar Pichai or Satya Nadella as role models, while a student of literature could be expected to nurse an ambition to become a writer like Marquez or Amitav Ghosh. 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. Prudence suggests that we leave the decision to the children, who, by the age of 18, are mature enough to pursue the stream of their choice.
The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist.