7 October 2012

Post Facto: Hierarchies of Intelligence and Other Schoolboy Fictions

Today's Sunday Guardian column:

"I'm not very interested in my schooldays, and don't feel any nostalgia for them," begins Julian Barnes' narrator Tony Webster in The Sense of an Ending. "But school is where it all began."

But a narrator in his 60s who describes certain events from his schooldays over 54 pages, while managing to sum up his working life, his marriage, his daughter's birth and childhood, his divorce, his daughter's marriage and his post-retirement life in two and a half, can scarcely be believed when he says he's "not very interested" in his schooldays. The years of his adolescence seem, in fact, to be the part of his life that Tony Webster is most interested in. It's as if nothing that has happened since can ever match up to the excitement of those years: the newness, the sense of discovery, of impending doom or greatness.

Of course, Barnes' – Tony Webster's – version of adolescence is a very particular one: smartalecky boys in a London public school in the '60s, where young teachers came down from Cambridge. "[W]e were book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic," says Webster of his clique of four, before going on to list the philosophers they had each read, and closing with the almost-charming disclamer: "Yes, of course we were pretentious—what else is youth for?"

But what really struck me about Webster's narrative is the degree to which he remains in thrall to the idea of intelligence he developed at the time. Four and a half decades later, he is convinced that if psychologists were to make "a graph of pure intelligence" measured against age, ""it would show that most of us peak between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five".

It seems a strange way to measure the value of our lives, or our selves: a scale in which "wisdom, pragmatism, organisational skill, tactical nous" can be dismissed as "things which, over time, blur our understanding of the matter." And yet, as a middle class Indian reader, there is something utterly and disturbingly familiar about this idea of a hierarchy of competing intelligences. For what else is the competitive exam but a graded map of the world in which the place you assign yourself as a teenager feels like one you must occupy for ever?

I have grown up listening to my father discuss school and college mates (and be discussed by them, if they happen to gather) in terms of how they fared in examinations—recounting with precision the marks each of them got, or the paper someone topped, more than four decades after the fact. I have gently and affectionately made fun of this form of reminiscence, and wondered whether this obsession with bhalo chhatros was a particularly Bengali mode of being: do Bengalis, for some reason, place a greater premium on academic success than other communities in India? And if they do, is the reason contained in Bengal's longer history of colonial education, in which success in examinations was established swiftly as the only way in which the middle class could guarantee its economic security?

This is speculation. But reading the sociologist Andre Beteille's marvelous, precise memoir of childhood and youth, Sunlight on the Garden, I was struck by the ways in which his descriptions of a Calcutta adolescence resonate with my father's. Professor Beteille is about 15 years my father's senior, and their family backgrounds are very different. But the Calcutta world they both inhabited in school and college does not seem to have changed a great deal between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, at least not in its preoccupation with examinations and star pupils. Beteille is forthright about being shaped by this. "Truth to tell," he writes, "I had at that phase in my life a fascination, not to say an obsession, with star pupils, and deep down inside me I wanted to be one myself." Within the University, there was also the hierarchy of subjects, with physics at the top. Beteille attributes this glamour to Raman, Bose and Saha, who had all worked at the University College of Science, and describes with disarming frankness his own tryst with undergraduate physics.

Beteille, of course, left physics for sociology, and in his thoughtful account of that transition we hear something of his slow unlearning of childhood hierarchies. But we live in a world in which hierarchies of intelligence still reign, and even those of us who ought to know better, seem unwilling – or unable – to quite abandon the unilateral measures of it that we've been brainwashed into believing are true.

In The Illicit Happiness of Other People, set in Madras in the 1980s, Manu Joseph describes an intensely anxious world of teenaged middle class boys, solving sample problems on colony evening walks and waiting for their fates to be decided by the boards, followed by "the toughest exam in the world". (Clue: it's not physics.) Joseph speaks of this world of conformists with barely disguised scorn, and yet, as a writer friend said sadly to me the other day, his novel's smartest, most forthright characters are either boys who've 'cracked' the system, or those who've decided to have no stake in it. In Barnes' novel, the boy who'd cracked the system commits suicide. In Joseph's novel, the boy who thinks he's smarter than the system commits suicide. The system is still winning.

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