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The Failed Class

It was early January and snowflakes quietly fell on the green courtyard of the Imperial College, perched quite befittingly on one of the higher peaks of the Kumaon Hills.


Inside, suitably insulated in the oak panelled office, was Professor Chatterjee, gazing outside the window unblinkingly, stroking the greying strands of his beard. He was thinking hard of a solution to a rather unique problem and they, the strands of the beard, would have to be woken up from their boredom. He couldn’t do it without their effort. It was as if the distilled wisdom of his decades of experience resided in those carefully reared strands. The professor lacked hair on his head and therefore the entire burden fell on the beard. They were reared with ferocity. Of course, they never disappointed.


Yesterday, on the first day of the session of the new batch of students in the prestigious economics course, a question was casually posed: ‘which is better, capitalism or socialism?’


‘Professor, to me capitalism reeks of greed and exploitation. Socialism, on the other hand, is welfare-oriented, equitable and therefore, promotes a just society. In socialism no one would be poor or rich; all would be equal. Isn’t that what all of us should try to do?’ said one student amid cheers and desk thumps.


‘There would be neither abject poverty nor obscene affluence,’ said another to an even greater applause this time.


A rather innocuous debate assumed great proportions, however, when the fifty students consolidated against what they felt was the professor’s academic arrogance.

Professor Chatterjee was not arrogant; only a vociferous advocate of capitalism.


Whenever the tall Muslim-cleric like form entered the class dressed in trademark dark-grey tweed coat and a dull grey ivy cap, silence would descend on the class. While he wanted to befriend his students, he wasn’t able to. Like his wife would often remark to her rummy quorum, ‘…Bibek has a problem expressing himself.’


His academic brilliance made him stand out rather than fit in. Together, his reticent demeanour and his immaculate knowledge of economics was perhaps perceived by the students as arrogance.


‘Much has been said and heard. You have your views and I have mine. If I try to impose my views upon you, I would have failed as a teacher. I want you to think, to form your own opinions. As Plato once said, opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance. In fact, economics is not science. There are no right and wrong answers in economics. However, is there a way I can demonstrate what I mean? We’ll see. We’ll see...,’ he had said to the class before returning to his office, mentally occupied and yearning for a solution.


‘Which is better, capitalism or socialism?’ he thought. The question itself provided no challenge to his understanding of economics. The challenge was to demonstrate the difference in a way that could be understood by his students, who had received no formal education in the subject.


The students had rejoiced. They had won. In their eyes, they had made the professor retreat. A professor no less than Bibek Chatterjee, whom many considered to be in line for the central banks governorship.


The professor looked blankly at Gurtu, the frail canteen boy who had just arrived to serve him tea, as was the ritual at noon every day. Only he had been able to master the art of brewing the perfect cup of tea for the professor.


Gurtu started arranging all the books and journals on the professor’s desk. In a minute he cleared the desk. That was the price he extracted for his ‘special’ tea. He wanted the professor to have it without distraction, with complete attendance to the flavours of the tea leaves, the hint of cardamom and finally the gentle tickle of cinnamon.


The professor came out of his reverie, smiled at Gurtu, leaned back on his chair, and held the cup of tea in his hands. He closed his eyes in delight, knowing that the next ‘Gurtu’ tea would only come in the evening. During this brief respite, the professor and Gurtu squatting next to him, would exchange words that only one of them remembered.

Then, Gurtu collected the tea cup, restored the desk to the pre-tea era and left. The professor grinned looking at him. His wife hated the sight of Gurtu.


Outside the courtyard was now all white; inside, the professor had a broad smile on his face. Another problem solved. A huge but silent victory. The professor glanced briefly at the calendar and jotted down a few points, made a mental note to meet the dean the next morning and then headed home, to his wife and garden, both always in need of urgent attention.


‘I understand that you want equality. It is a noble ambition. Political, social and economic equality are at the core of a just and fair society. Of this there is no doubt. The question is, can economic equality, no matter how desirable, be imposed? Wouldn’t it go against the human psyche?’


Proud of yesterday’s triumph, one student raised his hand. The professor motioned him to wait, not wanting to indulge another debate, and continued.


‘Which is better, capitalism or socialism? Just yesterday, we had a rather vigorous debate.’ He stopped to look at his students. ‘If I understood you correctly, you maintained that members of any society would be treated equally under a socialist system as opposed to the capitalist system. I hope you have not changed your stand.’


‘Not at all!’ roared the fifty students, enjoying every moment of their new found unanimity. 


The professor let out a good-natured laugh. ‘Alright, alright. Enough of debate. Now, let’s see if you can put your money where your mouth is. If you truly believe that all members of the society should be equal in all respects, then I am sure you will also extend the same logic to this classroom. After all, this classroom is a part of the society too.’


‘Absolutely,’ the class roared again. ‘All students should be treated equally.’

Desk thumps and voices filled the classroom. Yesterday’s debate and today’s call-to-arms had stirred up passions in these young adults. They were one, like an army posse, ready to be killed but not the least bit ready to retreat.


The professor, who liked to roam the class during his lectures, slowly returned to the centre of the class, gestured the class to remain calm, and continued, ‘I have decided that I will conduct three class tests, one each month, before the first trimester is over.


For these three tests, I will use a new grading method, which the dean and I have devised to, as you say, treat all students equally.’ He looked intently at the students.

The class clapped. ‘Yes. Yes, we all must be equal. We must all be treated equally.’


The professor gestured to them again to keep calm. ‘I can see that this idea is acceptable to all of you. Very well. Please sign against your name on the list as a token of your acceptance. Bear in mind that the grading system cannot be changed before the three tests are conducted and their results declared.’


During the tests, the long corridors of the college were filled with textbook-toting students who couldn’t find an empty place in the library. Outside, though very cold, was quieter, better than the canteen. The library was full, the window seats the first ones to go and then all the other seats. Students busily devoured the books and the notes, sipping hot cups of tea, coffee or chocolate.


The students took their first economics test. The professor evaluated their papers soon after, using the new grading system. The highest grade was an ‘A’ and the lowest was an ‘F’, for ‘Fail’. 


‘You will be happy to note that I have corrected all the exam sheets and given the grade according to the new grading system. As per your wishes, of treating everyone equally, I have assigned a common grade to everyone. This way, everyone will receive the same grade. I am pleased to announce that each student in your class has received a B,’ said Professor Chatterjee.


There were some conspiracy murmurs, some embarrassing gulps and some angry text book bangings on the desk. Yet, the students, who had accepted this idea, in writing no less, had no moral basis to oppose the grading system.


A few did venture to the dean’s office to eat the humble pie, but they were confronted with their signed declaration. All doors were shut, at least for those students who were not happy. A lot of them were quite happy too.


Only the students who had studied hard were upset. They felt that they would have scored better if the grades weren’t averaged. The others, who had not studied as hard, or hadn’t at all, were ecstatic. They had put in little or no effort and yet they had scored much more than what they deserved.


Professor Chatterjee continued with his lessons, while the view outside the class window changed gradually from winter to spring. The debate between capitalism and socialism would have to wait till the end of the trimester. The class he remembered arguing with him, united the first day, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, beneath the niceties he could notice an undercurrent of resentment. 


The snowing relented a little in February, and by the end, the trees had started to bloom once more. The mercury had risen a little and the sleepy town where the Imperial College stood much as a vanguard, witnessed increasing activity. The odd family tourist, the determined botanist and the mountaineer were peopling the roads and the tea stalls, reviving the economy of the area.


Professor Chatterjee was in class, reading the newspaper, invigilating, while his students took the second of the three tests. A lot was happening. India had just granted independence to Arunachal Pradesh and a 1962 war-like situation with China loomed large. The Ronald Reagan administration was at the receiving end of the Iran-gate scandal saddled with allegations of shipping arms to Iran despite the embargo. All in all, there was hectic political activity all round the world.


The days leading to the test were always quite relaxed for the professor. Less classes, more leisure, less time behind the desk, more time in his garden, less of routine, more choices. A marked change from this were the days after the test. After all, checking fifty papers thoroughly, with exhaustive comments in black ink wherever necessary, was not easy. It was tiring to say the least.


There was always the cup of tea that Gurtu would call ‘Professor Chatterjee Special’ and he, in turn, would call ‘Gurtu Special’. After finishing the last drops of the tea in the cup, the professor collected the exam sheets and made his way to class to announce the results of the second test.


He walked into the class motioned everyone to be quiet. Then he declared, ‘I have the results for the second test. The average grade for the entire class is D.’


There was pin-drop silence.


‘You, dear friends, are just not studying enough. I am not at all happy with this grade!’ Professor Chatterjee announced before walking out of the classroom in a huff.

The uneasy equilibrium after the first test completely crashed after the grades of the second test were announced. They were at the brink of failure. The dynamic of the class changed completely. No one was happy. Students called each other names and refused to talk to each other. Bickering, blame-game, and name-calling gripped the class as its morale sank to its lowest. 


No one was ready to study for the benefit of someone else. Lack of motivation spread like an epidemic. The whole class was divided into small camps and each blamed the other for the disastrous performance.


During his lectures, Professor Chatterjee could observe this phenomenon from a distance. The initial cohesiveness was completely absent. He could see that this class was now divided. Students were openly hostile to each other. Moreover, he could sense that the entire class was distracted, disinterested and indifferent. They had lost all reason to do well.


There was ample room in the library. Despite the pleasant spring beckoning people to come out, the corridor was deserted. A few students hung out in the canteen making small talk with Gurtu, listening to his words of wisdom. Since Gurtu’s association with the college was ten years older than this class, he generally missed no opportunity to display his superiority to these new recruits.


It was in this atmosphere that the third test was rolled out in the last week of March. This time the average grade was an F.  The entire class had failed the third test.

With a grave look on his face the professor made his way to the class.


‘Two days ago, you took the last test. I have corrected all the sheets and I am sorry to say that the final grade is F. All of you have failed the test.’


There was a hushed silence in the class. The students looked shocked. In this three month period starting January, they had gone from working hard for the first test to feeling completely unmotivated. However, no one had imagined that it would come to this. No one had imagined that they would fail.


‘But, Professor, this is our future we are talking about,’ said one student, mustering up the courage to say the inevitable.


‘This has gone too far. What happens now?’ complained another.


After the signed declaration, they had no moral basis to demand clemency from the professor. Hadn’t they brought this upon themselves?


Professor Chatterjee motioned the students to sit down.


‘It is human nature to work for a reward. When the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great, but when the reward is taken away, there is no effort to succeed. The motivation just isn’t there. In the new grading system, I averaged the grades. What was the result? Slowly, as some of you realised that you were not receiving the full reward for your hard work, and others realised that they could sit and enjoy the fruits of someone else’ labour, the system failed. No one wanted to work anymore. Where the system should have encouraged everyone to work harder to score higher grades, it ended up discouraging them.’


The professor moved to one of the windows, from where he could see the gardener tending the bougainvillea.


‘Perhaps, you can now understand that imposing equal grades is not the solution. The solution lies in helping everyone achieve good grades. The solution, perhaps, lies in enabling everyone, giving them the opportunity, the favourable conditions, so that they are able to achieve good grades. However, achieve they must on their own.’


‘Don’t you think it is more in tune with human psyche?’ he turned to look at his students. ‘All I can say is that while all of you have failed, you have learnt a very important lesson. But of course, grades are important. What can I say?’

He then briskly left the classroom, with fifty questions still unanswered.


Some students complained to each other angrily after the professor had left.

They stared at each other, feeling confounded. What would these grades do to their overall performance for that trimester, and for their future?


This had to stop. How could the professor leave casually after inflicting a permanent blow to them, after putting an un-erasable mark on their future?


They would talk to the dean, and whatever was necessary would be done. They wanted a re-test.


Gurtu passed by the class, on his way to deliver the noon tea to the professor. Peeping in to make sure there was no professor, he entered the class and laughed mockingly. ‘You have been had by the professor. You have been had. I knew it all along. The professor told me.’


The class looked confused.


‘Don’t you realise what day it is? You have been had, my friends,’ said Gurtu haughtily, making a quick exit.


It was 1st of April.


POSTSCRIPT


Capitalism and socialism are two different ideologies adopted to distribute the scant natural resources to the society. Each approach has its own merits and faults.


Rather than the society, and therefore the government, owning the natural resources and distributing them equally to everyone, capitalism is based on allocating these resources, on merit, to the most efficient user, who in turn produces useful goods and services for the whole society. In this way, capitalism rewards merit and attracts people who have competence and are motivated.


Noted author and philosopher, Ayn Rand says, ‘The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is justice.’


Socialism, or communism, is the other popular ideology when it comes to allocating natural resources. It advocates abolishment of private ownership and adoption of government ownership of all means of production. The centrepiece of modern socialistic ideology is ‘The Communist Manifesto’, written jointly by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. Conceived primarily to protect exploitation of workers, it is this Communist Manifesto that gave the famous slogan: ‘Workers of all lands unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.’


Such was the exploitation of the workers that the philosophers of the time squarely blamed private ownership.


Perhaps, it was not entirely correct to blame private ownership. Perhaps, there could have been a better way to check the greed of factory owners and ensure worker welfare. Just like weapons don’t solve problems, imposition and coercion don’t either.

In today’s largely capitalistic world, we see countless examples of highly successful companies that have willingly embraced highest levels of worker welfare. Levels that could never have been reached by legislation, least of all by coercive socialist structures.


What has led these companies to willingly adopt worker welfare?


Companies realise that a critical element of their competitive edge in this fiercely competitive landscape is their people. Their success is due in large part to their people. This has prompted them, willingly, to attend to their welfare.


To achieve universal worker welfare and non-exploitation, we need both: proper laws as well as economic conditions that foster greater welfare. The Factory Act of India and many such acts in other countries aim to do just that.


While capitalism has emerged as the most popular ideology in recent times, it is certainly not without its faults. There could be inefficiencies that stand in the way of achieving the desired result. Large companies may accumulate power that could enable them to act monopolistically (Microsoft Anti-trust case). Market players could collude to set prices and stifle competition. In 2001, Hoffman-La Roche was fined €462 million for allegedly fixing prices of vitamins in collusion with other pharmaceutical companies.


In such cases, the government acts as a regulator and enforces legislations (restrictive trade practice legislations exist in most countries, including India) that can punish the offenders. However, the regulation could sometimes be weak if a nexus between the government and large corporations exists. A good example would be the 2-G scam, in which the people in the government allegedly took pay-offs to give out spectrum licences for telecom.


As we can see, in spite of its many benefits, the undesired outcomes of capitalism do exist. However, it would be wrong to blame capitalism alone. We must bear in mind that it is a tool and the end result depends on how we use that tool.

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