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exams are no health tonic

I WAS thrilled to read the recent report that examinations and ranks are to be abolished up to the age of 15 years of a child's life, beginning from 2002. I have written and struggled to impress upon the powers-that-be of the grave threat to human health and even human behaviour, resulting from examinations of the type that we have inherited from the British.

One would certainly wonder about the connection between examinations in schools and human health. Many believe that examinations should be good for health. Nothing could be farther from truth. First and foremost, examinations fill one with fear, anxiety, uncertainty, dejection after failure, depression, and pride after getting a good rank. Some of the negative feelings are the ones that are now recorded even in the modern western system of medicine as the pall bearers of death due to the great killers like cancer, heart attack and what have you. Unfortunately, there is no place for the essence of education, humility, a health tonic in this whole process.

Education should aim at transforming a human child, born with only two innate instincts of self-preservation and procreation, into a social animal with altruism and enthusiasm. It should encourage the child to explore all the avenues of human endeavour to bring out its best. Education should be the manifestation of the best already embedded in man. Unfortunately, the present examination system does just the reverse. The system tries to make him memorise a lot of information which, many a time, does not have much relevance to real life situations and, in the bargain, curbs the child's curiosity and creativity. Examinations have become the be-all and end-all of the whole system.

Textbooks are written with the sole motto of spoon feeding the students to pass their examinations; one wonders how popular such books are among the students. There are now publishers vying with one another to publish only such books. I wonder what would happen to mankind after a few years with no creativity left in any of the end products of the present system of education. We seem to have forgotten wisdom in the midst of knowledge and even the knowledge is only accumulation of information. In short, education has become synonymous with collection of information!

Be that as it may, our concern in this article is about human health and the system of examinations, and the reader will surely be able to grasp the seriousness even if one is not medically trained. One could easily understand that every examination, right from the kindergarten days, is a very stressful situation, not only for the hapless child but also for the parents. The latter are most anxious that the child should do well to get a rank to climb up the ``educational'' ladder. Parents, probably, spend sleepless nights with studying children and later both the student and the parents spend sleepless nights burning their midnight oil.

What happens when one is too anxiety-ridden on a chronic basis? Man has been endowed by nature with a very friendly system, the autonomic nervous system, that comes to his help in any emergency to keep him out of danger as long as possible. This evolved mainly during a human being's existence as a forest dweller where the main cause of death, other than old age, was predation. If one is injured by a wild animal, this system, predominantly the sympathetic part of the autonomic system, tries to keep him alive temporarily till such time that either he gets outside help or could recover on his own. For reasons that are not very clear, nature intended this system to work only on a short-term basis. On long term stimulation, this very friendly system itself could be man's enemy numero uno and eventually could even kill him! In short, the sympathetic system could blow hot and cold from the same mouth.

In the normal course, the sympathetic system looks after man in any emergency viz.: fight, flight or freight. To give an example, when one sees any danger coming on, the sympathetic system gets stimulated and gets a chemical messenger secreted by the adrenal gland (adrenaline) which raises the blood pressure, races the heart, enhancing its force of contraction, in addition, to increase blood output. If one has to run for life in that situation, the chemical thus secreted would be digested in the skeletal muscles used for running and gets burnt out. On the contrary, when one gets frightened of an examination, the same chemical comes pouring out into our blood but cannot be burnt out in the working muscles. The resulting accumulation of this chemical in the long run tries to destroy almost every system of the body.

Children and their parents develop cold feet at the thought of an approaching examination.They get palpitation with sweaty palms and soles. The mouth dries up and all these signal the stimulation of the sympathetic system. If one observes them breathing, one could see that it is a fast and laboured one. While these external signs are alarming by themselves, what happens inside is still more worrying.

The adrenaline and its other cousins stimulate the heart and also redistribute the circulation to overcome physical danger (there is no physical danger here). The damage, therefore, on all the above mentioned sites, when repeated over long periods of time could be permanent. In addition, the blood vessel constriction raises the blood pressure, which, of course, comes down temporarily, but we still do not know the link between this transitory rise and raised blood pressure in later life. Similarly to give man extra energy to run in the face of danger, adrenaline is made to release stored sugar from the liver glycogen stores, raising the blood sugar transiently. Again the relation between this and the later onset of diabetes is another moot point. Lastly, as the elevated sugar gets burnt in the muscles, it lowers the blood potassium level which could be potentially dangerous.

Similar changes occur in the steroid hormone secretions and many other parts of the body. In short, every attack of anxiety is an invitation for certain body parts to suffer irreparable damage. Repeated attacks of anxiety could lead to illnesses of all kinds. In addition the anger, frustration, depression and hatred that the examination system produces in many students and their parents are now thought to be at the root of all killer diseases.

With all these risks, what does the examination system measure in a student? It does not measure his aptitude, his creativity, his level of maturity, his comprehending capacity, his skill in managing real life problems, his humility that is the essence of a cultured man's life in society, his insight into another's problem, and his suitability for any vocation. Examinations simply check the student's memory power and his capacity to replicate textbook information onto the answer books. The earlier the system changes the better, not only for students and teachers but also for the parents.

In this narration we did not go into the area of corruption in the system. We never teach our students the motto that it is ``better to fail than to cheat''. Since success is measured by passing the examinations, we are condemned to live with all sorts of corrupt practices in every examination, from the school to the highest level. This very often results in chronic guilt feeling in the culprit, adding to his misery. Thank God, many of us do not have a conscience to feel the guilt anyway. That is why many of us are externally happy about our achievements. I am reminded of what Winston Churchill once said, ``it is better to deserve than to get.'' The other fallout of this system of corruption is that the ``poor'' students who cannot pay in those situations get punished. Corruption, like in any other field, is a double-edged weapon.

I am sure even the lay reader who does not understand the intricacies of the working of this wonderful machine, the human body, could gauge the gravity of the situation. There are many other minor ways in which human health could be damaged by the examination system in schools. Competition is one such. Competition breeds mediocrity as it compares one with the other, while competing with oneself brings out excellence in the person. The latter could only be achieved by every one of us who understands that the only way we could bring out the best in us is to be in competition with us daily. In the latter competition, there is no hatred involved, but the comparative merit that the examination tries to bring out begets hatred, another enemy of man.

This kind of competition taught early in life remains with man wherever he goes. This hatred becomes a part of man's life and he hates everyone in this world. The latter is the reason for all ills of society. Crime, suicide, divorce, underworld activity, malpractice, unethical business practice and all societal vices could be traced to this early bad blood in school. If only we could teach our young impressionable minds the need for co- operation, we would have had a heaven on earth.

Earlier this devil of an examination in the present form, is terminated, at least up to the age of 15, the better for mankind. Assessment in education should be continuous - teacher evaluation coupled with peer evaluation. Creativity, humility and insight into other's problems should be the key words in assessment. Education then would realise its goal as enunciated by Adam Smith in 1644, as that activity which prepares a man ``to act justly, skilfully, and magnanimously under all circumstances of peace and war.'' It would also bring out the best in man that is already in him