Skip to content

Education, learning, merit and the path to quagmire of mediocracy

Tapan Misra

It is important to realise that we will make a gross mistake if we measure success in terms of awards or positions of repute. Ultimately, what matters in life, is the respect you get from people who are not even your friends. In my view, success is attained when you are respected for what you are, what you have contributed. A nation is known by how they assess success and accordingly they shape their education and value systems for their future generations.

This is the season of declaration of results of board examinations. Nowadays, marks are so commonly high, they ceased to be discriminatory parameters for merits. Still parents, teachers, schools and society are goading the children to illusory heights of more and more marks. I am afraid, the days are not far off, when triple digit decimal points will be introduced in marks, obtained in board examinations.

For me, reaching at the fag end of sixth decade of my mortal existence, my experience says, marks do not mean much in life. Plenty of examples are there, if we care to look around. Swami Vivekananda did not have impressive scores in board or college examinations. My Google search of his academic performances, revealed:

• Entrance Examination- English: 47, Bengali – 76, history- 45;Mathematics- 38 ;total 206
• FA (First Arts Standard) : English – 46; Second language (here Bengali) – 36; History- 56; Mathematics-40;Logic (50 marks) -17; Psychology -34; total -229
• BA – English – 56;Second language – 43;Mathematics – 61; History – 56; Philosophy – 45; Total- 261

Nobody can dare evaluate Swamiji in terms of marks scored in board and college examinations. Swami Vivekananda was a prolific orator, author, thinker and India’s rennaissance personality. He was equally fecile in Sanskrit, Bengali and English. He is credited with bringing easily understandable colloquial Bengali in literature. At that time, all the literary Bengali was written in Sanskritised version, far removed from colloquial vocabulary. Even Rabindranath Tagore adopted Vivekananda-style writing in Bengali in colloquial version, more than a decade after Swami Vivekananda’s completion of mortal Avatar.

It is astounding, how in his short life of 39 years, he infused a pride in being Hindu and an Indian, with his lectures, sermons, writings and personal examples. He was modern day Shankarachrya, who resurrected Hinduism from morass of casteism, 700 years of subjugation and resigned to resultant loss of self esteem. Swami Vivekananda will be revered for eons to come for being a source of confidence and enlightenment.

We must be able to distinguish education from learning. Education is imparted by somebody else. Learning is internalisation of information and knowledge all by oneself. If education is not translated to learning, we will continue to produce more of mortal species and very very less of intellectual or creative giants.

Unfortunately, in India, merit has still not taken deep root in our psyche. Merit, still to a good extent, is subservient to genetic lineage and Godfathers, taken root in every sphere of knowledge and creativity, ranging from science to history writing to film making to news anchors. That is why, you will see, certain business families are having vice like grip on public and equity funded corporates. Ambition of meritorious business executives have to lose hope by colliding with the glass ceilings, firmly embedded in the corporates. It is still quite difficult to get any scientific awards or reaching leadership positions of scientific institutions, if you do not have Godfathers or are not favoured by unseen Opus Dei, controlling the institutions. Unfortunately, hardly any creative and knowledge institution is bereft of Opus Dei. The degrees to which they influence, varies from institution to institution. Older the institution, lesser the regard for merit. Politics in Science and Arts can put to shame science of politics. I must say, there are exceptions and their numbers are slowly increasing. Still they have not reached the critical mass, which can trigger true meritocracy.

It is still a struggle for meritorious people to reach positions of power, without compromising ethics and integrity. As Chanakya said, “Woodcutter first selects erect trees for chopping”. Only way to create forest of erect trees is to increase their numbers to such an extent that woodcutter should get tired. Ethics and integrity should be the flip side of merit. Together they lay strong foundation of meritocracy.

Our teachers and parents should inculcate the passion of creating or building something new. Look at those countries that have achieved greatness in science, sports, industry, engineering, medicine, arts, music or any other field of human achievement. They are distinctly marked by societal and individual passions for creativity and charting the unknown waters. The path to each achievement of knowing the unknown, is strewn with risks of failure, challenge of learning anything new. But the reward outpaces the struggle. I do agree, there are easier paths of following status quo or choosing a path, already trodden many a times earlier. But it leads to surer path to quagmire of mediocracy.

It is important to realise that we will make a gross mistake if we measure success in terms of awards or positions of repute. Ultimately, what matters in life, is the respect you get from people who are not even your friends. In my view, success is attained when you are respected for what you are, what you have contributed. A nation is known by how they assess success and accordingly they shape their education and value systems for their future generations.


The author Tapan Misra is a distinguished scientist with Department of Space and a trailblazer, who is respected globally for his immense contribution to India’s space programme.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: