The UGC-NET exam for assistant professors and Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) took place on November 5. The futility of answering objective questions is the first thing that pops in the mind of those aware of the paper pattern, which is ineffectual, purposeless and, more importantly, deceptive in instilling a sense of hubris about having cracked a very tough exam. Deep down, even the student who clears the exam knows that this hubris is nothing but a feeling of excelling in mediocrity.
Information annihilates knowledge in this exam.
Simply put, the questions of "when" and "where" are rendered more important than "why" and "how". One wonders what the rationale behind this obsession with objective questions is in an age of Google that gives us all the information in no time. The retention capacity of a student is valued above her imagination.
The objective pattern seldom leaves any scope for subjectivity. The nature, context, time and space of the question at hand get ludicrously reduced to identifying the "correct" circle. Apart from the obvious case of the possibility of multiple correct answers, the equivocal nature surreptitiously submerges the reality of ideational subjectivities. I speak mostly about the humanities papers as I am more aware about their scope and trajectory.
Examples of certain questions that appeared in this year's paper will make this crystal clear.
There was one which asked, "Who among the following was not a member of Sarkaria Commission?" To say the least I was exasperated to make sense of why such information about a development that happened in the early 1980s should be of any significance in 2017. At the most, students must know what the commission was all about, its features and more importantly, the politics of the period in which it was formed and the context of a series of Centre-state commissions set up in the late 1960s of which this one was a part.
The broad paper pattern is as trivial as this question with a weird fixation for remembering quotes of political stalwarts or legal luminaries (as if they were being said in a vacuum), quotes by one thinker about another thinker, remembering the authors, books and the chronology of the same etcetera. This stays to be true for all other papers as well. For instance, the English literature paper had a question which said "In Women in Love, what is Winifred's Pekinese dog called?" and another one which asks the name of a mule is in a story. This is certainly not my idea of getting well-versed with English literature.
Keeping the obscure questions in mind, it becomes imperative to question the quality of our post-graduation programmes and the areas it manages to cover. Quite simply, it wouldn't be off the mark to say that if students of central universities find the questions beyond their reach, those from state universities find themselves in a much worse situation. The unfortunate part is that we are only talking here about the information gap and not about knowledge which should ideally be the central point.
Going ahead, a political science paper also includes public administration as one of its important sections. I fail to fathom why a student of the former must be forced to learn about theories and thinkers of the latter, especially when its significance during the Masters programme is very limited. Also, when Public Administration and International Relations have a separate National Eligibility Test (NET) paper, it hardly makes sense to include them in the Political Science paper.
All of this is based on how good you are with rote-learning. Merely recollecting one word answers is in no way a sign of being aware of what that word or a term means in its totality. For example, there was a question which asked how is Mahatma Gandhi identified? The answer is "philosophical anarchist". I wonder how many colleges or universities in India even teach students what anarchism means in general.
It is more important to try and think about how Gandhi's idea of anarchism is different from classical anarchism than memorising the term. For example, Gandhi's objection to the revolutionary tactics of anarchism and its general view of the State as a disciplinary instrument can throw up intriguing propositions. To know of a term devoid of its multiple meanings and political and social context is absolutely criminal for a student who aspires to be a teacher or a researcher. This is almost like saying a dog lover knows the names of different breeds but has no clue exactly how they are different from each other. Our imagination is insulted by this preconceived bracketing of learning.
As JNU professor Avijit Pathak recently pointed out, an exam like this thrives on eliminating students rather than rewarding merit. For elimination to be a success, there is no better way than to pose as many obscure, ambiguous questions as possible. Obscurity defines merit. It becomes the most efficient way to weed out scores of aspirants instantly, without much of a headache for those who will be assessing it. With no negative marking, it is all the more tempting to answer all questions.
"Blind guesses" are cloaked under the ingenious term of "intelligent guessing". Do we really need to know why higher education is in shambles? The government boasts about its initiatives to bring up "centres of excellence". Does excellence for them mean turning the mind into a squalid warehouse of stale facts and figures? They even dream of
India becoming a nation to export quality teachers. This is not optimism. This is wishful thinking.
In his thought-provoking new book titled The Crisis Within, GN Devy tells us how education should be seen in the way it widens our collective imagination and the impact it has on the way we think. The relationship of memory and knowledge, of knowledge and education and the realisation of the same is what really forms the foundation of a nation-building process. This will not get addressed unless and until there is a genuine acknowledgement of the crisis of knowledge. Otherwise, our destiny is already scripted. This misconstrued sense of merit will cost us a lot in the future.