Trained to not Trust

19 Sep




They don’t want to trust others

Thursday, 19 September 2013 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

Beginning with nursery admissions right up to taking professional examinations, India’s education system is suspicious of teachers, students and parents alike

We, in India, start the distrust young. And it carries through to everything we do in our lives here. Nothing is valid without a piece of paper certifying it, nothing is deemed possible unless it has been tested. Children seeking admission to nurseries are trained to prove themselves in tests and in drawing rooms, or their parents assessed through the classic three tests — the written, the oral interview and, of course, their networks — proved through a letter or a phone call from a ‘contact’.

This is not the habit of red-tapism. Let us call it by its true dirty name: Distrust. Or, mistrust, if you will. When did it start? Who fuelled it? Did user behaviour reinforce mistrust? The genesis is unimportant now — we are landed with it. And it is true that each time a trust-based system is installed, there are enough people who lie and cheat to sabotage that nascent trust. Income certificates required for school admissions — sure, but can the schools trust them? Affirmative action reservations — it is all a piece of paper and some surely have it ‘arranged’ for them. We cannot deny that anyone who has the job of designing a system has to worry about untruths and can’t trust the individual.

It is not just in school admissions; mistrust is common even during school years. The rampant tuitions industry is proof that we do not trust teaching and learning at schools. Examinations will invariably have some children trying to cheat — so invigilation here becomes a policing task rather than the supportive role it could have been, and is in many other countries. Just the simple act of stretching the neck or going for a bio-break is often seen with suspicion. This is a stressful environment and not just because it is seen as high-stakes testing. Of course, some examinations here have ‘extra’ support from assigned invigilators where they are accomplices. This has been accepted as a risk by the examination system. This means students’ examination centres are shuffled and situated away from their base school at immense cost and stress to everybody. Distrust has been institutionalised.

The distrust seeps through to higher education too, and often with good reason. There have been reports of invigilators being threatened by goons to ‘allow’ certain candidates to cheat. Even massive open online courses, that are available globally where Internet is available, are finding it difficult to find a viable certification model. It is only recently that a few have announced credits and certification. While technology is part of the solution, with iris recognition and keystroke recognition software that will help identify the student, it too is not foolproof where people have been trained well in distrust and beating smart systems. Who is to say that the student facing the iris camera is not being fed information from another person helping them meet the test? This is not unknown in real life. Trained medical doctors have been caught taking the medical entrance examination on behalf of others for a fee. A complete circle of distrust, sustained.

There is, of course, the larger issue of testing itself. Bringing children to the test is an expression of mistrust in itself. We all know, and there is supporting research that grades and marks may actually mean very little especially in younger years. Two children may have very similar abilities, similar potential, and even may go on to achieve similarly in life — but may have different grades at school. Asking them to prove themselves in a test is sending them a strong signal of mistrust. Not just the child, this also means that the whole school, especially the teachers, are in a place where they are implicitly not trusted. The best learning, of course, happens when students, teachers and parents form a circle of trust and sharing.


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