The education system in most countries favour one kind of education, and with it, one kind of a student. An ideal student is supposed to play along with the idea that matriculation examinations are going to determine their life; so landing a place in a medical or technical university with sky-high marks is their only chance at achieving anything in life. Of course, most families also buy into this pressure and make it all the more difficult for students to not stray from the usual path.
The problem with such overarching ideas is that they fail to recognise all those who don’t belong in that imagination – and there are a lot of students who don’t – who then end up falling through the cracks and feeling isolated at the hands of the system.
Many students who are dragged into medical or technical universities just by virtue of being high scorers find it difficult to find their place in these universities, or at least one that is accepting of their learning methods.
When I attended Yangon Technological University (formerly R.I.T) in the year 1994, I met a few friends who were struggling this way. At the university, there were several Engineering subjects such as Mechanical, Electrical, Electronics, Civil, Aeronautical, Metallurgical, Mining, Textile, Chemical, etc. One day, I met a guy named Ko Ye Lin* who was a third-year mining student. He was a stout and hardworking student, who was adept at memorising things but struggled a bit with calculations and problem-solving. He even had to memorise mathematical problems.
This is where the trouble began. As engineering students, we needed to be more engaged in calculation rather than memorizing. The more senior years in the technological university, the more calculations we had to do. If one memorized everything, it was almost certain they would not pass the examination in senior years.
Each respective major had its toughest years. For a mining major, the third year was the hardest. If a mining engineering student passed their third year, they would surely graduate because the other stages were not as difficult. For civil engineering, the fifth year was the hardest, and so on.
Consequently, Ko Ye Lin failed his third-year examinations and was asked to repeat the year. For some reason, our school was closed for a year or so. During that time, I did not meet Ko Ye Lin, who, I later discovered, found it harder to cope because of his family problems and eventually had to drop out.
Another girl I met was Ma Sabei*, who was enveloped by a certain sense of heightened anxiety as our exams approached nearer. Once in the examination room, the exam invigilator reproached her for peeking into my paper. Then, she stood up and asked the teacher if she could go out for a while. When she came back, her hair was soaked in water. When the teacher asked her about it, she simply answered, “To cool down my head.”
It was then that I was forced to think of the troubles that my fellow students were facing and the different coping mechanisms they had to use.
We had another classmate who was administered sleeping pills a week before the examination. Because of the intense exam pressure, he found it increasingly difficult to sleep at night. So, he was given a sleeping injection to calm his anxiety.
Such outdated understandings of students’ interests and abilities are still prevalent in a lot of countries. It is time we realise that such ideas only go on to make learning anything but fun. We need to be accepting of diversity and ensure that adequate aid is provided to students, assisting them in their learning process, helping them and their parents make the right choices based on their abilities and interests, and not simply sending all students with high marks into Medicine or Engineering.
‘E=mc2’ is a universal, absolute equation, but a lot gets missed out in neat absolutes. For some people, a seemingly simple equation takes on a completely different meaning, and we need to see those people instead of marginalising them completely.
*Some of the names are changed to protect privacy.
San Lin Tun is a freelance writer of essays, poetry, short story and novel in Myanmar and English. His writings have appeared in NAW, PIX, Asian Literary Review, Kitaab, Mekong Review, Mad in Asia Pacific and others. He is the author of “An English Writer”. He lives in Yangon.
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the writer and may not reflect the opinions of Mad In Asia Pacific.