The question of the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports can be seen in more than one way. Indeed, if doping can really enhance the performance of an aspiring Olympian and if she consumes it willingly, why should it be prohibited? We would enjoy a much longer game of football with sturdy players, clap even louder at wrestlers having hulk fights, and cheer even more enthusiastically for our gymnasts making perfect landings on one leg. The Olympic Committee will earn higher revenues with increased interest in super-natural sports, and they will save enormous resources on anti-doping tests. No member nation will be outraged at the disqualification of its athletes. This happy story is a good fit in the era of neoliberalism.
Yet, it’s probably not music to your ears. The proposal despite its merits causes a sense of moral revulsion. A possibility of letting people use something that can be bought by the highest bidder in a level playing field gives us a sense of injustice. We want to become a market economy, but not a market society. We do not want excellence to be up for sale. When it is a contest of performance, we wish to see organic results, not those manipulated by substances. We wish to be human as much as we want a better show.
Your competency in test-taking is a commodity that can be easily bought. There cannot be a larger racket of drug suppliers than the coaching industry…
In other words, we want an unadulterated meritocracy. Our awareness of the many existing natural and constructed inequalities is no justification for further commercialising success.
Let me now move away from our Olympic race to the race of higher education in India. Both are very indispensable events in the lives of their participants; for most they are the passports to security and happiness in life. Yet, the debate about meritocracy in higher education is mostly confined to the reservation quotas. The discourse about the fairness of the standard entry criteria for all communities is missing. The language of regulators, institutions and students almost presumes that our selection process is very meritocratic and those like the economically and socially backward groups need affirmative action because they lack something. Never have we doubted our knowledge of what constitutes the pre-requisite knowledge to enter institutions and haven’t questioned the hegemony of a process that may well be rigged.
Rigged, not for the many question paper leaks, but in being what they are—standardised multiple choice tests. Used by almost all colleges and universities in the country, entrance tests have become the holy cow of the Indian education system. It is unquestioningly believed that in order to score high on them, hard work has no substitute and only perseverance helps in “making the cut.” This myth of meritocracy is sustained by the low and middle income families who see entrance tests as their ladder to economic mobility. And in our desperation to seek legitimacy through them, we forget to put the tests to test.
In the context of SAT, Malcolm Gladwell, the author of David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants argues that standardised tests—while they claim to be a measurement of a psychical property of the brain, analogous to taking a blood sample—are actually rather like the heart rate, a vital sign that could be altered through the right exercises. This is why the coaching industry thrives—because JEE, NEET, CLAT and others are tests of the art of testing, and quite different from conceptual training.
Coaching centres can help students get entry to elite institutions (the gold medal, so to speak), but the cost is sacrificing three to four years of their teenage years.
FITJEE, Bansal’s, Career Launcher, Akash et al are very similar to the drugs we talked about for the Olympics. Their use is legal, yes, but it is still a proven method to enhance one’s performance. You may not have any aptitude for the subject, but by dosing yourself on the steroids— learning the right tricks and tools—you can fool the test to be ranked higher than others more qualified than you. Your competency in test-taking is a commodity that can be easily bought. There cannot be a larger racket of drug suppliers than the coaching industry, with its epicentre in Kota.
To say such assessments are meritocratic is an insult to the word. Something as irrelevant as your gender and race can dull your performance. Steele and Aronson in 1995 demonstrated how “stereotype threat” has an evidential negative effect on academic performance. It is not because females have a lower intellectual capacity than males that they are less represented in in premier institutions but for every time that they sit to give JEE or any other exam, the dominant notion of women being bad at maths hinders their achievement.
It is not just for the manipulative results that we vilify use of drugs but the many destructive consequences they can have on the health of participants. Between the Goldman Dilemma of trading an Olympic Gold Medal for their death in five years time with the use of highly effective drugs, we seem to have made a choice. Coaching centres can help students get entry to elite institutions ( the gold medal, so to speak), but the cost of the ticket is sacrificing three to four years of their teenage years. And in many cases, it is also the loss of lifelong love for learning. Marking the right answers becomes more important than gaining the right knowledge.
Democracy must provide a diversity of personalised ways to learn, just as consumerism provides for 150 different brands of toothpaste.
When one makes a decision to bear the heavy costs anyway, the burden to succeed crushes any possibility of failure. When you know a drug will damage your kidneys and you still take it, it becomes very imperative for you to win the medal. When your parents spend much more than their financial capacity on your coaching, you cannot afford to disappoint. If due to the be-all format of the test and real deficiency of alternatives, you do not make it—the guilt could even take your life.
The agony is that the government does not wish to acknowledge how standardised tests are a broken instrument of selection. It, instead, works to exacerbate the dehumanising process by itself opening coaching centres for Adivasis and launching exclusive tablet mentoring schemes for girls. The government is a helpless party to the coaching industry itself. In fact, it keeps creating new opportunities for dope manufacturers by establishing new institutions with identical objectives, structures and admission tests.
Kamla Bhasin, the vociferous feminist, has famously asked, “Why do you place your community’s honour in a woman’s vagina?” The question remains true for education too, why do we place our intellectual reputation in unimportant institutions? Why do we not treat formal education like just another our milestone of our life’s journey? Why do we make colleges or universities central to our lives? We could flourish just as well without that medal and succeed in so many other ways. Perhaps in many cases, we do not even need to attend a higher learning institution at all. Democracy must provide a diversity of personalised ways to learn, just as consumerism provides for 150 different brands of toothpaste.