A perfection 'a la' Self-Destruction: On NLUs' Mental Health Malaise

A perfection

I do not know anything about riddles now. Everything happens: that is the whole wisdom - Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless

I have begun this piece in several different ways. None made for a good start and that's where I'll settle. Which is why I will get to the point in the squarest way possible. My inkling is simple: legal education in the National Law Universities (NLUs) is suffering from a very unique crisis of 'Credential Inflation. And more than it being a burden upon the law schools – who will have their fair share of owning up to do, we will see that the ones who foot the bill of this crisis are almost always the students.

At this early stage, the only promise I suppose I can make is that once the fact of this inflation is clearly visible to the minds of most readers, it will be easier to elucidate why the students at NLUs face increasing amounts of stress, mental health problems and the fear of failure, all of which loom high above their heads like the Sword of Damocles.

To begin with the scope of Credential Inflation was best laid by Sociologist Randall Collins, when he noted that:

"…the process of credential inflation is largely self-driven; it feeds on itself. A given level of education at one time gave access to elite jobs. As educational attainment has expanded, the social distinctiveness of that degree and its value on the occupational marketplace has declined; this in turn has expanded demand for still higher levels of education."

In other words, Credential Inflation, means 'a process in which the market requires increasing levels of educational attainment for the same occupation over time'. This effectively also suggests that the supposed 'market value' of the degrees or credentials also declines as the requirements at the job markets rise significantly.

Such an understanding of Credential Inflation with regard to degrees, credentials and the job market then can simply be applied to the graduate level law degrees offered at these NLUs. Here, the jobs on the legal job market that were available to graduate degree holders some 5-10 years earlier, now require that – such degrees imply not being enough on their own – prospective degree holders should develop more and more credentials to prove their mettle and be hired – for the same job that, 5-10 years ago, required just the bare minimum from a college life: a degree in law, good results, extracurricular activities and a few relevant courses.Traditional reading on Credential Inflation, such as the work of Collins, suggests that the obvious solution to this vicious cycle of Credential Inflation is that students head out to gather higher levels education in order to earn those credentials and improve their candidature.

But the scenario that plays out in the NLUs is vastly different. Given that the courses are already a long-drawn saga of 5 years, a vast majority of students tend to favour improving their credentials during the stretch of the course itself, rather than head out for further education. In doing so, with each year passing, the same credentials become less and less "valuable" and the students are inadvertently pushed to consider doing more and more to improve their credentials. This quinquennial /decennial shift makes its most potent presence felt in the form of thembeing compelled to do more internships than ever before (oftentimes unpaid or grossly underpaid), compete relentlessly without any significant skills being acquired, participate in more college commitments, take up multiple research projects, develop skills and acumen by attending courses and workshops – all while continuing with their regular classes, complying with university requirements (such as pro-bono, foreign language classes etc.) and having, well, a social life.

At our wits end to recognize the fact that we are being overrun by this squalid 'Yes We Can' attitude in life, we hack away incessantly to discard negativity from our lives: keeping negative thoughts at bay. But it is worth recognizing that there is only so much one can do for so long.

Here, it becomes essential to read the work of Korean-German philosopher Byung Chul-Han. A seasoned critic of society and culture, Han published The Burnout Society in 2010. One of his central ideas is that in the age of achievement society ('Leistungsgesellschaft' or what could be understood as a 'competitive meritocracy/Neoliberalmeritocracy'), we (Han uses the term 'achievement-subject') have internalized the worst bits of the aforementioned'Yes We Can' attitude. With such an attitude in place, we give ourselves the freedom to exploit ourselves, sometimes beyond a capacity. With no external injunction to lay restraint on how much one should work and at what level one must perform at all times, we goose-step ourselves into auto-exploitation mode quietly – to the extent that even our leisure time goes into thinking about work.

Han charges at contemporary society: in today's society 'everyone is a self-exploiting worker in their own enterprise'. This internalized pressure to showcase your top-notch performance at all times in our self-serving culture of positivity lays the foundation for exhaustive depression and all its myriad strains. For Han though,the advent of depression marks a new immunological category in its entirety. He claims that depression appears when a person finally comes to terms with the fact that they are 'no-longer-able-to-be-able'–depression finally reveals itself as creative fatigue and exhausted ability to work i.e. inability to go on any further in the present-day culture. In a searing critique of such life, Han laments:

"The complaint of the [depressed] individual i.e. "Nothing is possible," can only occur in a society that thinks, "Nothing is impossible".

No-longer-being-able-to-be-able leads to destructive self-reproach…The achievement-subject finds itself fighting with itself…Depression is the sickness of a society that suffers from excessive positivity. It reflects a humanity waging war on itself."

Caught within this strange feedback loop of self-exploitative freedom,under which we push ourselves to do overtime and hyper-assess our performance at each stage, and the compulsion to do 'better' at all times – thanks due in part to the vicious cycle of Credential Inflation, we are caught in swirling vertigos of mini-crisis week in, week out. What naturally follows is that as students we focus our efforts on more and more tasks each day, only to end up worrying about having done little in a given day.With our 'focus' so fractured and divided among the many things we do – often lauded as 'multitasking', it is no wonder that deep contemplation and serious focus on any one of those tasks remains a practical impossibility. Such a situation then invokes the image of an offbeat character, always missing a rhythm in its step: wide-eyed and working late into nights, dog-tired and mentally worn out during classes, unable to reconcile with friends and family but nevertheless, revered for keeping their wits about and keep going into it yet again. Self-performance and self-assessment precede self-care,leading to varied other mental maladies taking shape: faces lacking sleep, nameless anxieties, addictions which don't redeem, panic attacks lacking any source and stress – all follow suit.

Running from post to pillar, we reach here. One caution to be observed is that such problems may not be consistent in the same way along all NLUs and such spaces i.e. that the above outlined causes and symptoms may appear irregularly but are, nevertheless, present. Another is that, the problem will obviously be worse for those who join these university courses later – same as it is worse for us than it was for those who joined 3-5 years ago. Credential Inflation not only makes things bad for the present, but doubly worse for the future.

Regardless, the sorry situation of our times begets an interesting image. Those who have had the opportunity of watching La Haine, Mathieu Kassovitz' exceptional film on the conflicted lives of three youngsters in the French suburbs, will recall the opening narration where the narrator tells the peculiar story of a man who, after having jumped from the building top, rapidly falling, passing by each floor, kept telling himself'so far, so good…so far, so good'.

Much the same, much the same.

(The author is a student of Gujarat National Law University. Views are personal)

(image sourced from here)