When I was in college, a 16 year old girl promised to marry me. She wanted to name our baby “Sachin”. I believed her.
When a policeman once asked me whether I’d like to get my passport on time, I smiled with gratitude and slammed the door on his face.
When I once read, “Ron Paul is a gynecologist, and he is self-taught.”, I did not understand why this evoked laughter in an audience. I still do not.
I’ve always had a tenuous understanding of sarcasm and double-speak. I take words literally. When I was a child, it took me many years to understand hidden insults.
I’ve never had it any other way. I was not sarcastic as a child. I was too innocent to understand the art of insinuation. When a teacher was sarcastic to me at 9, I understood her only a year later. When I fully understood her, I felt numb, as if I were struck by lightning. I stood still, staring at my coconut tree. It was too late, because I’d left that city and moved into another school. There was nothing much I could do about this. This was deeply unsettling.Continue Reading
Many years later, when I heard do-gooders prating about the importance of giving back to the society, I remembered what I told Krishnapriya when I was seventeen. We were discussing our grand plans for the future. I said I’ll become a great novelist when I grow up. And that I’ll drop my day job and move to that beautiful bubble of mine when my novel hits the bestseller list.
She said I was being too selfish. “You won’t share your wealth, even with those underprivileged children in Africa?” she asked me. I told her it’s difficult to be so rich without serving people. “But what about actors and rock stars? Do they serve the masses?”, she asked me. I said, “They do, my dearest child. They electrify the pulse of millions.”, and she replied helplessly, “But….but, you think too much.”
I knew nothing about the brilliant schemes communist people cook up to block the revenge of nerds. I was too innocent to entertain such possibilities. Today, I know that clever people in the government are actively scheming to impose something called the “super rich tax”. They say they care for the poor, but that is just the usual fig leaf excuse. The real objects of their hatred are people who are smarter than them. I know this because I have observed many leftist people in action. Editors in a magazine did everything to make sure that my articles are not as beautiful as my seaside villa.
When I was traveling in the train the next morning, the winter sun was dappling the greenery around me. I remembered her.
The year was 2004, and we used to wait for someone to write in our scrapbooks. It was on one such evening the “Queen of Darkness” added me on Orkut. Her Orkut profile read:
“I got long legs. They work just fine. I also love my feet, which is small and very pretty. I uplift depressed souls. I have great compassion. People do not notice. But, when you think of the salvation that comes at the end, it feels so nice. And I love Ayn Rand.”
A friend had written a testimonial for her:
“She has a mind that is extraordinarily complex for a girl of her age. But, if you mess with her, she will never forget it. She will never let you forget it either.”
Another testimonial read:
“When she grows up, she might turn into one hell of a heart-breaker, but then she would be worth it too. It is fun to see her torturing the many men who love her.”
“One who finds intelligence the most sexually attractive feature. I want an incisive, inquisitive, insightful, irreverent mind. I want someone for whom philosophical discussion is foreplay. I want someone who sometimes makes me go ouch due to their wit and evil sense of humor. I want someone that I can reach out and touch randomly. I want someone I can cuddle with. I decided all that means that I am Sapiosexual.”
“I love Philosophy. I also love my sister though she can be quite bossy.”
I knew her. Years ago, I knew her as “Cutiekrishna”. We met in a Yahoo chat room. I still remember our first conversation. When I said I wanted to pull her over my lap and smack her bottom for talking on the Yahoo messenger when she was supposed to study, she replied, “This is none of your business.” I said apprehensively, “We should talk. I think we might get along well.” She retorted, “You’re right there, Shanu. We might. But then, we just might.” I felt a pang of dread. But I loved it because she was all of twelve years old.
When I asked her how she found me on Orkut, she said evasively, in a contemptuous tone, “I saw you in somebody’s friend list. I don’t really remember who.” But I knew it was a lie. She went to school in the same city where I studied computer engineering. She had dark eyes, long lashes and everything. And a Teddy Bear.
She talked like a philosopher. When I heard her often say, “Co-ordinate geometry sucks”, I asked her, “But, you are only 12?” She said her father’s idea of amusement was teaching her Calculus and Co-Ordinate Geometry. She said, “Nobody cared for him when he was young. He doesn’t care for them now. On some days, I feel sorry for that man.” When I asked her, “Do you love your parents?” she said, “We are supposed to love our parents.” I was touched. If there is anything that regret about my life, it is that I was not born to super-nerdy parents—To people that deserve me.
When I argued endlessly, listing my premises one after another, she said, “Once in a while, you should take your fingers off the keyboard and pay attention to what I say too.”
When she asked me what I look for in a girl, I said I want someone with whom I can discuss philosophy all night long. “It is such philosophical discussions that turn me on”, I said. She said, “I knew a sixty year old man. I miss him, and the philosophical discussions I had with him. It still turns me on.” She then sent a smiley that resembled a scooter driven by an insect. Many years later, I understood she was kicking my ass.
When I once said, “People tell me I am the coldest person on earth. But, you sound colder than me.”, she replied, “It is for my own safety.” She said, “I am too mean to people, but they still like me. I am not nice to you because I do not want you to stop loving me as much as you do now.”
She was leagues ahead of kids of my age in intelligence and maturity. “But, what is the point in being the smartest among all those dumb people?” she asked me.
Her IQ, I estimated, was 50 points higher than that of senior girls in my college. When I often said she was smarter than anyone I have ever known, she said: “But, it is so nice of you to rub it in!”
She said, “You are a quick learner, Shanu. You are a quick learner.” It made me sick.
The boys in her class, she said, drop their pens on the floor near her desk to look up her skirt while picking it up. “The boy who sat behind me used to do it almost every day. He left the school a year ago. Otherwise I would have slapped him hard across his face.” she said. When I once said, “I’ll slap you”, she retorted, “You can’t.” I felt emasculated. Months later, I noticed that the girls in her school do not wear skirts. When I asked about it, she disappeared.
Once we talked till 5 O’ Clock in the morning. I feared my mother will come downstairs and find me talking over the yahoo messenger the whole night. She asked me to wait because she had to change her clothes. “Half done” she told me, after a few minutes. My heart was pounding. “Tops off or shorts off?” I asked her. “Look, we are flirting. I am not in to this.” she said. “I am sorry. I hadn’t intended that.” I said apologetically. “It is alright. By the way, tops off.” was her reply. Months later, she said: “But, we weren’t really flirting. That is not flirting.” I sat there wondering “flirting” meant. I still do not know. Years later when I asked about it again, she said, “I was really kiddish.”
In one of those days, I heard that she broke the heart of a 17 year old Punjabi boy she met on Yahoo chat. Long after she ditched him, the boys in his class often called her to say that he was not eating. “How can a 17 year old boy be that dumb? I calmly listened, but when they started swearing, I proved that my vocabulary is not bad either. But, I still reply to his messages.” she told me.
She once said, “The only reason I still talk to you is that you find me so adorable.” When I turned silent, she said, “Now, deny it.” Months later, I asked, “But, is that the only reason you talk to me?” After a deep, ominous silence, she replied, “Let me think about it.”
Once when she spoke to a super-senior of mine in college, he said he didn’t understand a snide remark of hers. She said, “But, I did not expect you of all the people to get it.” When I told her that he was a senior of mine in college, she said, “Hehe. He’s too dumb to be a senior though. Why do you even talk to him? He is so demented.”
She once said, “He is too dumb to be my brother, but I still love him.”
In 2005, a 15-year-old mutual friend of ours called me to say she was suspended from school. When I told her Mr. 15-year-old was never quite sure she was thirteen, she said, “When I met him, he was as dumb as a 10-year-old. But, I never doubted whether he was a 15-year-old. I was fair to him. So, why is he not fair to me?” They used to talk too much on phone, but she had to stop when his parents found out and said that she shouldn’t call. But, when I asked her why they don’t talk anymore, she said, “I am over talking to stupid people. I have long outgrown that phase.”
I asked her why she did not go to school that day. I said, “Perhaps your parents know that you are a smart child who doesn’t need nobody’s help.” She nodded, turning silent. After a while, she asked me whether “Mr. As-dumb-as-a-ten-year-old” had told me anything. The Principal decreed that she sit at home for two weeks. Her class teacher did not like it when she lashed out: “I know the frustrations of a forty-five year old virgin.”
“They gave me two weeks. My mother doesn’t punish me because she fears I will hit her back. But, she says that I need counseling”, she said. When I was a boy, my mother used to tell me that she felt nervous while punishing a boy who had grown tall, though I had started loving the hard touch of her hand. Ah, those rose-colored glasses.
When I was once walking near the railway station to find a rickshaw at midnight, a man stopped his bike near me and asked me where I was going, in a familiar voice. I said I was going home. He asked me whether I’d like to join him. I couldn’t have recognized my neighbors by their face, but I felt he was one among them. I said, “Yes”. Much later, I asked him where he was going. He stopped the bike, and said I needn’t join him if I do not want to. He was willing to pay. I screamed.
When I reached home, I told Mr. As-Dumb-As-A-Ten-Year-Old that a gay man tried to take me home. But, Mr. As-Dumb-As-A-Ten-Year-Old did not know what ‘gay’ meant. When I said that a gay man is a homosexual, and that “gays are attracted to other men”, Mr. As-Dumb-As-A-Ten-Year-Old said, “Enough. I get it now.” When I told Krishnapriya that Mr. As-Dumb-As-A-Ten-Year-Old did not know what “gay” meant, she said, “LMAO. The boys my school say that Shailesh is gay. I am not sure. They call me SNB”, she said. When I asked, “Swiss National Bank? I am not sure I always understand these expressions.”, she said, “Sexy Naughty Bitch”.
She began conversations along these lines: “I know what boys who talk to me want. I know you too well. Don’t worry. You can marry me when I grow up. Just wait. It might happen.” I burned in shame, speechless, lying on my bed for hours, with unpleasant butterflies in my stomach, hoping that someday I might forget it. But, then, I just might. In those days, when my mother removed the curtains of my room, I did everything to keep my room dark.
It was hard for me to not like someone who could see through me so well. I often denied. I hemmed and hawed. I pretended not to understand when she hid the whip from me. After a few months, when I brought it up in the middle of a conversation, out of nowhere, she laughed and said: “But, I didn’t mean it at all. You can’t forget it? Did it hurt because it is true?”
Much as I appreciate being understood, it would have been better if she’d kept her mouth shut.
To attend a quiz program, she once turned up at my college. She said, “The girls were nice. But, the boys looked like, well, nerds.” When we started talking on Yahoo Messenger, she’d said that she was tall, with long, straight hair and everything. When I told her this was not true at all, she said, “I was 12 then, and I was tall for my age. I also had long, straight hair then.” After a while she said, “You know, your blog sucks”. When I said, “My blog is better than any blog I have ever read, and ever hope to read.” she said, “Sure. Everything is relative.” But, she’d once said that she liked my blog post “Unconditional Love”. She’d said it was a great privilege to be praised by her. Later, she repeated, “I’m pretty. And I know it.” This was when she turned cruelly sarcastic.
When I was delivering a long lecture on Ayn Rand’s philosophy, she asked me, “Shanu, Why don’t you live up to what you believe in? Do you even believe in what you believe in?” I felt sick to my stomach. I stopped talking to her. She removed me from her Orkut list. When I tried to talk to her again, she said, “Don’t call me your dearest child. I am very sorry too.”
I felt numb.
She wouldn’t forget an insult or an injury. If you mess with her, at best, you could wait and see her nibble you to death. It was from her I learned to hurl insults that rip people out of existence. It was from her I learned to hurl insults that remain a secret shame till they are taken to the graveyard. Perhaps the saying that men’s great works bear the persistent marks of pain is true. This is why I have such a long line of detractors though they’d never tell you that.
I still remember her with deep affection uncharacteristic of me. Years later, when I poked her on Facebook, I gathered she was studying in some stupid engineering college in Tamil Nadu. A few days later, I tried to find out whether her college info remains intact. She’d removed it.
I’d expected it, because……..because I’ve deep insight into such people.
One of my prized possessions is a biography of Sachin Tendulkar with its margins filled by a school girl who had his name as her Yahoo password. Our “relationship” came to an end when one afternoon, she jilted me without any excuse or explanation. She had promised that she would marry me, and that we would name our little baby “Sachin”. I have always taken words literally. I believed her. When she left me, I was completely broken. I spent the whole night on the roof of my college hostel—Weeping! Sob! Sob!
But, as it happens, I would soon see the tables turning. It was a phase in which my blog was slowly acquiring a voice as my biggest “abuse delivery machine”. The short story I wrote on her was beautiful. The boys in my college took printouts of it, and pasted it on the wall of the reading room of our college hostel. I heard that the boys in her school too did a wonderful job in promoting my brilliant short story. In many ways, it was an underground sensation. To me, it was a much-needed lesson in “word of mouth” publicity.
One day, she would call me. All I heard was a deep silence. I said, “Even when the whole world is shattering around you, you are calm and composed.” What I heard next was a cry: “Waaah”. And there was a smug smile on my face. Big girls do not cry like that!
I heard that her mother called up my mother, and said, “Only an evil kid can do this to my darling daughter.” My mother said, “But, this would have never happened if she hadn’t called my darling son ten times an hour.” But then, there are days in which I agree with my mother. Continue Reading
When a young friend quoted an excerpt from a novel which convinced him that it would be one hell of a read, I did not know what it meant. It read: “If there were ever a sudden almighty silence in marine drive, you would hear a thousand bra straps snap.” When I once read that “Ron Paul is a gynecologist, and he is self-taught.”, I did not understand why it evoked laughter in an audience. I still do not.
When I once read in a Magazine that physical intimacy begins with a kiss, I wondered apprehensively: “But then, how far would they go?” So, it is hard for me to not like the twelve-year-old Thoma in Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People.
Thoma is glad that he is not a woman, because unlike his elder brother Unni, he does not know how to decipher clues. When Gloria Miss stands in front of the class with her arms folded, Thoma felt sorry for her. He wondered how women go through their lives—how they handle this shame. He knows that if he were a woman, he would have spent his whole life missing all the insults hurled at him by other women. To people who do not know how to decipher clues, there is an aspect of reality that is incomprehensible-an aspect of reality that involves people.
Unlike many neurotic college-dropouts who help themselves feel better by repeatedly listening to Pink Floyd, I haven’t felt like defending myself too much. I haven’t written anything much on unschooling. Even if I did, I know what many of you would think: “Sour grapes!” I do not wish to deny that there is some rationalization involved in me liking steve jobs who slept on the floor, returned coke bottles to buy food, and walked several miles once in a week to get one good meal at the Hare Krishna temple after dropping out of college.
My favorite businessmen were never Mittal’s and Tata’s of the world, but men like Mahesh Murthy who dropped out of college at 19, and ended up with a net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars after doing many odd jobs like being an announcer at Indian railway and selling vacuum cleaners door to door. Even though my teens were largely wasted, my favorite fictional character is not the one-dimensional ubermensch Howard Roark, but Gail Wynand who walked into the office of a fourth-rate newspaper at sixteen, and asked “Can you spell anthropomorphology?” to the editor who inquired “Can you spell cat?” I couldn’t get through most fiction works I have read, but when I read that Howard Roark was kicked out of architecture school for insubordination, I was in seventh heaven. I went on to read it eighteen times-but wait, I am still counting.
I have always hated schooling, though in early childhood, it was a truth I would dare not admit. I was expected to say that I loved it- that the “emperor has clothes”. When I was in school, the whole world looked like an air craft into which hordes of barbarians rushed in to press buttons at random, with the self-righteous conviction that they are entitled to act on their whims and fancies. Many feel that anything goes as long as they had a mushy rationalization, or an argument from authority! When I studied libertarianism, the essentials were not hard to see: What politicians and bureaucrats do to decent human beings is not much different from what adults often do to children. If we strip libertarianism down to a postcard, that is all there is to it. Once this retrospectively obvious fact is understood, the whole theory behind unschooling will fall into place.
I still remember the day I joined LKG. My mom came with me to school, and left me unarmed in a room of nearly fifty children, most of them crying and whining. I remember a child coming near the door of the classroom and peeping outside. Separation from their parents is a source of intense anxiety, helplessness and confusion for most post-toddlers. My class teacher was a very young Gujarati lady. I have always wondered why she enjoyed punishing the soft child that I was. I am not lying. She actually did it for no valid reason. I am grateful to God for the fact that her behavior was far from the norm. Others at least made up some ridiculous reasons to punish kids.
When I was walking back home from school the first day, a child started crying. Some older kids were amused and said in a singsong voice: “Shame, Shame, Puppy Shame!” It all reminds me of some torture chamber now. I once stumbled upon my class teacher when I went to the beach with my parents. She gave me some cashew nuts and asked me to say “Thank You”. I, of course, said “Thank You”, with a shy smile on my face. I bent my head and stood there staring at the sands of the beach. When I occasionally looked up, behind her, I could see the tides rising and falling while the evening sun set. At that moment, all I wanted was to escape from her and the beach. Even after two decades, I cannot get over my crush on her.
In school, I was always in a state of confused bewilderment. When I was in first standard,one day I started off from home without my school bag because I was told that the school will be having an Arts festival. When I entered the classroom, my class teacher asked with a sarcastic smile: “Oh, you’ve come over here to enjoy the breeze? Where is your bag?” I looked at her with my eyelashes up, with deep sadness in my eyes-and then I looked at my empty shoulders. Somewhere those tender shoulders have failed me. I felt alienated from my school-bag and for once I grasped the intimate relationship between sarcasm and alienation. Somewhere the premises do deeply interconnect.
I was upset the whole day. I had to sit idly when other children frantically took notes. But, did I simply sit there enjoying the breeze? Did I cry like a sissy? No. I didn’t. I wouldn’t even have even been able to bring myself to write about me if I had done so! I would have been mighty ashamed of myself today if I had done so! Instead, like a good boy, I listened to each and every word she uttered and committed them to my memory. It became a life and death issue for me. “In all the cosmos nothing mattered more than this”. While traveling back home in the auto rickshaw, I tried to repeat those words to myself, lest I forget them. When I reached back home, the first thing I did was to write it all down in my note book with my sharpened HB pencil. When I was finally done, I did have my lunch.
When the classes began the next day, with uncontrollable anger, she asked me to come to her desk with my notebook. I was painfully shy, and said nothing. She opened the notebook only to see everything that was taught the last day written in clear, cold letters. She hugged me tightly. When she gave my mother the progress report that year, below everything, in the personal remarks column, it was written: “Photographic memory”. I started having a crush on her too.
I am by no means indulging in malignant self-love. My point was that I learned something that day. “When there is a will, there is a way”, or “the virtue of tireless hard work, teeth-clenched determination, and merciless devotion”. These are lessons a child will never learn in a classroom. These are lessons which a typical teacher will never even begin to understand. It should come from within. I think these are traits which are almost impossible to manufacture. Either you have it in you-or you don’t.
Conscientiousness is something which the school cannot teach. School can only signal it, and then only imperfectly. When someone tells me that he forgot something important, I think that it is hardly deserving of sober attention. I see such people everywhere. When I was in my last job, I noticed that some of them came at noon, left in the afternoon and looked here and there when tired annoying others. H.L. Mencken was certainly right about the average Joe: “The world gets nothing from him save his brute labour, and even that he tries to evade.” Yet, instead of feeling bad about themselves, they felt policed and persecuted. If natalists can be caught thinking of mandatory sterilization, it is hard to blame others.
As Bob Wallace writes: “A neurotic, taking too much responsibility, feels too much guilt; a character disorder, not taking enough responsibility, doesn’t feel enough guilt. A joke about this is that dogs are neurotic because they always think it’s their fault; cats are character disorders because they always think it’s your fault.” Rana Dasgupta nails it so well: “In the Indian psyche, you dissociate yourself from the bad things you have done, and then they’re not yours anymore. This isn’t a guilt culture. That’s why you can never make any accusation stick to a businessman or a politician. They won’t even recognize the crimes you’re accusing them of. They’ll probably have you beaten up for insulting them.”
The whole city is infested with character disorders. Schooling if anything, reinforces such character disorders.
One day, our 1ststandard class teacher left us all alone in the class room and went outside. A child made a mess near my desk by pouring a bottle of ink. When she came back, he pointed his finger at me and said cheerfully: “He did it!” In between, he leaned forward to whisper in my little ears with a chuckle: “I am so clever.”. I wondered how such evil can even exist on earth. How could he do this to me? The upside was of course that I had come to grips with the concept of backstabbing.
Luckily, it looked like she didn’t believe his words. He was told that when he points one finger at me, three fingers are pointed at himself. So, he ended up cleaning up the mess he himself has made. I rarely had to right the scales of justice as reality often took its course. I was happy that like many who later played on me, he fell into a ditch he himself dug. I sat there with a smug smile on my face.
School doesn’t value perseverance. If you do well, at most you will be called a good boy. When I topped my class when I was in 4th standard, my parents noticed that I didn’t smile when I took the progress card from my class teacher. They also noticed that the class teacher didn’t smile. My mother scolded me: “There is no need for you to be so smug about it. You should know that no one else opened their text books this year!” I believed it. It felt so good.
When I was 9, my father was transferred and I moved to another school. It was completely beyond me why the teachers who interviewed me demanded that I define indefinable terms like “parrot” and “peacock”. It was obvious that they didn’t belong to the profession, and should never be allowed to have anything to do with little children.
My class teacher in 6th standard hated me with some passion. She once told my mother: “I do not care whether he studies or not, but he should learn to be audible.” One day, I heard her reading a line from a short story aloud: “She was so proud that she even refused to talk to her neighbors”, with her fishy eyes fixed on me. I felt as if a lightning had suddenly struck me: “God, what is this old lady trying to tell me?” When she once threw me out of the class as my voice was not loud enough for her, I stood there listening to crows croak.
She once found my eight year old brother guilty of some mischief. His crime: He listed all the boys and girls in his class on a piece of paper and matched them up. She was fuming with anger: “What has this boy done?”. She warned in her trembling voice that he will be expelled from the school if he persists in such immoral behavior. One day, while rolling my eyes listening to her blabber, I noticed one thing: She had hearing aids. Everything suddenly fell into place. Her anger was all the more understandable to me when I recently heard a woman say: “Shanu, I am fifty and deaf. Please speak a bit louder.” I had more serenity by then.
Though I was almost over religion by then, every morning I caught myself praying for her early demise. My mom was disturbed by all this. She often said: “Your attitude is not for your good. It will never do anyone any good. You shouldn’t hold anger in your mind. Matha, Pitha, Guru, Deivam. ” Such rationalizations lacked even the slightest plausibility to me even then. When I grew up, I learned to philosophically reject the concepts of forgiveness and unearned respect. More than a decade later, I read in an Orkut forum that she was finally taken to the graveyard. I was filled with immense delight as my childhood dream has come true. Better late than never!
After all, God will not be mocked!
To me, school was a “Hobbesian jungle”. We were punished for horrid crimes like talking to each other, not bringing the text books, and failing to memorize poems. Many of them were hypersensitive. When a nine year old boy asked a newly married teacher whether she enjoyed her first night, she wept and ran out of the classroom. I am almost certain that he didn’t know what he was talking about. I think children should go to school instead of the neighborhood candy store only if they like being scolded, smacked and ordered around by these nasty women. If there are any good aspects of schooling, it could be enjoyed without going through the whole process. Irrespective of whether it is private or public, schooling is eight hours of jail sentence a day where one is forced to learn what he doesn’t like to learn, and socialize with all those unwanted types. Fourteen years is a hell of a long time. I am still not over it.
I do not think that I should degrade myself by even debating the issue of corporal punishment. What we hear are the arguments of some brutes who lack the nerve to stand up for what they believe in. If we push on, at the end the real truth comes out of their mouth, and we realize that all the twists, obfuscations, contradictions, non sequiturs, equivocations, complexities, tricks and intellectual acrobatics were intended to hide this plain naked truth, the shabby unspeakable secret, the secret shame of savages who have never risen out of the archaic practice of doing good to children through force. If they want to hit a child, they should have the grace to admit that.
If I could press a button on my desk which would get anyone who has ever raised his hand against a child in a horror chamber, and have them tortured till death, mercilessly and brutally, the only reason I would not press that button would be that I would be starving to death in a world where most of the mankind will be missing. Otherwise I would have pushed it without hesitating a bit, with the largest grin anyone has ever seen on my face.
When I was ten, my parents decided that I needed some “help” in learning Maths. I was sent to a private tuition centre which I loathed as my reason told me that I do not need nobody’s “help”. Every day, after school, I would walk back home, and my mom would take me forcefully to the tuition classes. One day, she had to stop my bus and take me out of it to lead me through the ‘right path’. After sulking for months, I left the place never to return. The day she gave up, I heard her telling a friend: “He thinks that it is beneath him to learn from others. He has an attitude problem!”
One day, when I was walking through the hallways of my school, a senior asked me how much I scored in my Maths paper. I said: “46/50”. He then asked me how much I scored before taking tuitions. I reflected for a while and said: “45/50”. His face lit up. He said: “So, that explains it. One mark is not worth all the trouble.” He was right. I was glad that I found some agreement in him, an agreement which is often hard to come by. My only regret was that I had a crush on a 13 year old girl who studied with me. I later saw her in a temple. She was praying with her eyes closed, wearing a long skirt which is not too unlike the one often seen in Malayalam movies. I looked at her folded palms and bare feet. She didn’t see me.
One of my fondest childhood memories is that of reading the travelogue of an Indian researcher in Spain. In his delightful manner, he tells us what happened when a teenaged blonde in the house he stayed was soon to be blessed with a cute baby. His landlord wanted the author to find out who shared the responsibility. I couldn’t extort any sense out of the landlord’s request. I had believed that babies were simply born. When I asked my mother what the author meant, she slapped my hand, snatched the book and said: “I have told you an indefinite number of times that this is not meant for children.” When I was in Junior High, I felt that I was beginning to understand. A classmate told me that the great Mahatma Gandhi and even our parents were guilty of this fundamental sin.
In Junior High, my classmates used words which fell harshly upon my delicate sensibilities. They were glad to be taught by teachers with well-developed bosoms. Our school was near a college. When I was 13, I used to walk through the corridors of the college with a friend who would often say with great sadness: “We stand no chance. But, I see nothing wrong in checking them out. Come, let us go!” He believed in flouting the norms of conventional morality, and held that Bill Clinton was a much persecuted man, unnecessarily so. On a rainy day, when we were waiting for our bus, an elderly man wanted to know which bus will take him home. This boy showed him the way in a cheerful manner uncharacteristic of him. The moment the man boarded the bus, he started laughing uncontrollably and said: “But, I do not feel bad at all.”
I was 13 when I flunked the Math paper big time. 3/50. When I got the progress card, I lacked the nerve to show it to my mom. I dropped it on my desk and went out to play, hoping against hope that she would see it. What followed was unspeakable! I shall not get into all that. As Bryan Caplan points out, twin and adoption researches suggest that there is much merit in the “sissy” point of view that children should be treated tenderly, and largely left alone: “If your children’s future success is largely beyond your control, riding them “for their own good” is not just wasteful, but cruel. The sentimental view that parents should simply cherish, encourage, and accept their children has science on its side.” As much as I didn’t know it then, when I wanted to be treated tenderly and left alone, I had science on my side. I had hard research on my side. But, I was not listened to.
After Junior High, I never really went to classes. I enrolled in an Engineering college which I almost never attended. After bunking classes and flunking courses for long, I dropped out. When I started working, I didn’t have a degree, though I acquired one which demanded zero effort. It didn’t hurt me to the point that I will go back and change the decisions I have made along the way.
I often hear many argue that they value what they learned in school, and the friends they have made there. And of course, some teachers were nice. (Yes, nice. I would very much love to see all of them boarded on a flight in which the pilot is just a nice, likeable guy. It would be quite a scene.) To cut it short, their arguments amount to this: “You are such a big loser to have missed out on all the fun we had in school.” I can only paraphrase Rambo, “What you call home, I call hell.”
It should be obvious that what they like is not school as such, but the whole package which comes with schooling. A school is typically better than simply sitting at home and watching “Tom and Jerry”. If someone is stupid enough to believe that school teaches you something which you cannot learn otherwise, it is always the person whose rational faculties are not fully developed.
Whenever I ask people whether they use much of what was taught in school or college, they invariably answer: “No”. Do they remember much of what they learned in school? The answer is again, “No”. Yet, they are all convinced that without schooling, they would have been selling ladies’ socks in the Green park market. My roommate is an Assistant manager in a Dry-cleaning company. I am not sure, but, it is safe to assume that his knowledge of the dry-cleaning business is as deep as my knowledge in fluid mechanics. Someone who studied Computer Science and Marketing and finally end up barking “Citibank” will in all likelihood believe that college made him what he is. When asked to explain themselves, they will hem and haw, “I think I studied logic, reasoning and analysis at IIT. There is a lot of number-crunching and problem solving. I didn’t like it much, but at least I finished engineering. (Unlike you, loser!)” The fact that logic, reasoning and analysis can be learned elsewhere studying what really matters is some ultra-sophisticated reasoning which has never occurred to them.
Centuries of research in educational psychology and “Transfer of Learning” literature suggests that the argument that you are “learning to learn” in college is rather spurious. There is a short term effect learning has on IQ, but it fades out soon. All things considered, no one become a better banker by studying computer science in college. One can be much better off learning Banking itself. Students forget much of the Computer Science they have learned in college, if they have learned anything at all. More importantly, much of the Computer Science you learn in college is useless for any job in any case. The situation is much worse in Math, liberal arts and physical sciences for almost all students. Who seriously believes that differential calculus or business cycle theory will help a typical student who is at his best good enough for subaltern jobs?
So why are employers credentialists? Bryan Caplan answers:
“Suppose you’re interviewing a smart guy, without a college degree, and he offers you a money-back guarantee. You might think “What a great deal” and accept. But then again, you might start thinking “What a weirdo. What’s wrong with him?” And this, I propose, is the stumbling block to lots of worthwhile innovations. A person with an unconventional idea may have a point, but is also unlikely to be “normal.” He may not fit it with other people. He may have problems with authority. He may be deviant in more ways than one!
Confession: I’m one of the weirdos. I flout all kinds of social conventions. I wear shorts and flip-flops in the winter. I carry a funny cushion around wherever I go. (Don’t ask!) I laugh at inappropriate times. So outside of the best weird economics department in the world, who wants to hire me? If you hear me out, I think I’ve got some good arguments for wearing shorts and flip-flops in the winter. But even if I convinced you, you would probably hesitate to hire me, especially for a “real-world” job. My failure to conform in dress significantly raises the probability that I will fail to conform in more substantive ways. And even if you decide I can wear shorts while everyone else wears suits, what if a client sees me? He may start to think the whole firm is weird.”
I am also one of those weirdos. When I came looking for a job in this Magazine, I didn’t take my resume as I couldn’t see how it would help me. I haven’t bothered to write a proper resume. I got my previous jobs and assignments without such hassles. In any case, how does it even matter? The editor looked at me and said that I should be much more sensible in my communication. I later heard that she told another editor: “He was so weird”. When I went for the interview, he asked sarcastically: “Have you taken your resume and all?”, and then said that he doesn’t need it. If I have it, I can keep it with me. I do not blame them at all, as Economics explains this phenomenon so well. She later said that she interviewed many stupid people the last day and had no reason to believe that I would be any different. Now, this is what economists call “statistical discrimination”.
I have good arguments to support almost everything I do. But even if others listen, it is highly improbable that they will even be able to see my point. As employers have limited time and resources, they rely on some “statistical discrimination”. A college dropout is less likely to be a worthy hire. The same goes for a weirdo. If someone is both (as in all likelihood he is), his resume goes into its rightful place: trash bin. So, normalcy and a college degree signals that you are someone smart enough to get the job done, but conformist enough to be a likeable co-worker and stay focused . In low-IQ, low-paying jobs, the person should be lazy and stupid enough to settle for it, focused enough to get it done, and at the same time willing to work for a pittance. A rare combination, indeed!
I have never had a liking to be taught-and I will be really surprised if someone genuinely likes it. I do not think this is the way children learn, or should learn. The best way to learn a subject, of course, is to pick up an entertaining book and read, branching out in all directions. Only a book can set forth a subject in a coherent, complete and systematic manner. An erudite teacher who can be of some help to students is all but a matter of mathematical probability. If a student badly needs a teacher, I think it is always the kind which cannot learn.
Bryan Caplan has an interesting question for people who believe that students are in college for learning.
“Why do students rejoice whenever a teacher cancels class? From a human capital standpoint, students’ attitude is baffling. They’ve paid good money to acquire additional skills. Employers will judge them by the skills their teachers impart. But when the students’ agent, their teacher, unilaterally decides to teach them less without the slightest prospect of a refund, the students cheer. How bizarre. Would a contractor jump for joy when his roofers tell him they’re taking short cuts on the shingles in order to go drinking?”
The hard truth is that however hard they deny, deep down everyone knows that college is all about that piece of paper they will have at the end.
As Bryan writes:
“The best education in the world is already free of charge. Just go to the best university in the world and start attending classes. Stay as long as you want, and study everything that interests you. No one will ever “card” you. The only problem is that, no matter how much you learn, there won’t be any record you were ever there.” So, why doesn’t anyone make use of it in the name of noble pursuit of knowledge?
One of my pet research projects is to see how brainwashing can work on people. Of all the nonsense masses believe in, nothing is more ridiculous than their unshakeable belief in schooling. To most Indians, there is only one path to success: Engineer-MBA-Anonymous. It sets the bar way too low, but like Manu Joseph, I will readily concede that the path of the average Joe at his best is far better than the path of the average Joe at his worst: Sociology-Salesman-Anonymous. There is only one path to national progress: More and more “investment” in public schools orchestrated by the Mommy state that practices tough love. Oh, like Soviet Russia’s “investment in people”?
To lovers of public schooling, the fact that “government spending” is not “investment” is completely besides the point. Compassion should wipe out the fundamentals of Economics. Economics is not exactly a science, but some bourgeoisie prejudice which should never take precedence over the feelings of the great reservoirs of wisdom: bleeding-heart intellectuals. And it is feelings alone that matter. The fact that most imbeciles cannot read, count or even write their own name in their mother tongue after years and years of public schooling is again besides the point.
You are a wicked market fundamentalist if you think that the government should get out of the “child rearing business”. After all, the “Market is not God”. It is often said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. But, if someone believes that the government that has never delivered will somehow start delivering tomorrow with his magic touch, it is perfectly scientific and rational. His pure intentions are never to be questioned. When someone rehashes long-refuted bromides, It is open-minded reasoning unguided by politics. Instead of being called “The humanitarian with the guillotine”, he will be called “The human face of capitalism” and the “The Conscience and the Mother Teresa of Economics”. Ayn Rand was not far off the mark when she wrote that the moral cannibal who snarls that freedom is not required to maintain civilization should be given “an arrowhead and bearskin, not a university chair of economics.”
Does classroom learning even help? In a classroom, injustice is done to all students as no teacher can take into account the diverse needs, capabilities, preferences and future trajectories of students. If formal education doesn’t deliver when it comes to building skills, we would be better off if it doesn’t exist, or is at least not subsidized by the all-knowing state.
I am by no means some naïve libertarian who sings: “The free market will improve every school and child geniuses will become the rule. Our learning will make every nation drool when the Libertarians come to town.” In all likelihood, the free market will improve schooling, but that is not the point. I have no doubt that schooling and coercion are against the spirit of learning. It is also clear to me that most low IQ-low character types will not do well irrespective of the schooling process they go through. Unlike most libertarians who believe that the markets will make education affordable, I think that free markets will make the present-mode formal education completely unfeasible for most students, as it rightly should.