Last week I was part of an examination panel to decide the winner of a fellowship/medal for undergraduates. From the 250 or so students who turned up to write the written exam we judges (5 of us) narrowed the field down to 25 candidates for the practical exams out of whom only 5 students survived for the third and final round of vivas. We recommended the winner and runner up to the director of the department who announced the results in front of everyone. He started his speech with these words – “Although I was watching only the final part of the selection process, I feel that none of you deserve this award but as we have to give it to someone, I am selecting so and so candidate as a formality though there is not much difference between all of you” and after such a gracious announcement he went on to lambast modern day students and their perceived lack of knowledge and hard work.
I who was part of the audience had to mightily suppress a very strong urge to get up and ask the director a couple of questions from his specialty – maybe a classification and a definition to see how he answered as a proponent of olden days education. In my view (maybe biased) kids these days are no better or no worse at studying then what our elders were. This fact is conveniently forgotten by professors and HOD’s who are at the fag end of their careers. They always judge the present with a rosy remembrance of the past. I am not defending any idiots here, the guys who got through the three rounds of examination genuinely deserved the prize in my opinion. And even if they weren’t as knowledgeable as the professors- as undergraduates they are not expected to be- to apply the standards required of a specialist or a postgraduate student to an undergraduate kid is not fair. As a student in the not so recent days I can sympathize with the kids who have to read for multiple papers and write all those exams in one go. Being hard on them is counterproductive and apt to discourage even enthusiastic kids from liking the subject in future.
On the contrary whenever I go as an external examiner for undergraduate kids I try to encourage them by not failing anyone deliberately. I try to give a 100% pass result and despite that if anyone fails they do so by their own efforts. As long as the student knows the basics or at least to recognize when he is over his head and knows to refer to a specialist- I try to pass them. I have seen too many specialists who can write pages of notes discussing every possible reason for a fever but in the end cannot (or dare not) commit to a single diagnosis- but instead insist on a diagnosis of PUO- pyrexia of unknown origin which is fancy jargon for- fever I cannot guess the reason of. Even some undergraduate kids make the diagnosis immediately- sir it is malaria fever…how did you decide? Look at all the mosquito bites on the patients face sir…that’s the kind of ingenuity (and capacity to improvise) I appreciate when I try to pass the student despite his obvious lack of knowledge of the signs/symptoms of malaria. At least he knows it is malaria, will send the patient for a blood test and get it confirmed that way and by then would start treatment for malaria – instead of thinking over a hundred different diseases and treating for none of them in the end.
And finally if a student is on the verge of failing I always have a bonus question for grace marks- “Do you have a girlfriend? Does she distract you from studying?” If the answer is yes- he gets the two marks to push him over the pass line. For I know firsthand what it is to sit there in your room with a boring big book in your hand and keep thinking – what the hell am I doing sitting here when by all rights I should be in Udayam theater watching a movie with my girl. For making that supreme sacrifice in favor of studies the students deserve those two grace marks don’t they?
I would appreciate your views dear readers on the sticky issue of –whether the seniors are right when they always claim they studied better than the current generations. Are they? What do you think?