At a time when the obsession with the “fact-centric/objective” questions (popularly known as Multiple Choice Questions or MCQs) has crippled the pedagogic and creative imagination of the techno-managers who run the University Grants Commission (UGC), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Vice-Chancellor Professor Shantishree Dhulipudi Pandit’s discomfort with the format of the Common University Entrance Test (CUET) for the admission in post-graduate courses appears to be a refreshing departure. While speaking at an Idea Exchange with the Indian Express, she articulated her anguish and apprehension. The implementation of the MCQ pattern of uniform/standardised tests, as she feared, could prove to be “disastrous”. In the absence of “qualitative testing”, as she thought, one’s cognitive and analytical ability cannot be judged.
As a teacher, I appreciate Pandit’s concern and her courage to differ, particularly when a sense of fatalism characterises our campuses, and most of our academic bureaucrats and even teachers prefer to remain “safe” and silent. However, I am not very sure whether the UGC Chairperson Professor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar — not particularly known for his democratic and dialogic spirit, or creative imagination — would dare to be self-critical, and accept the limitations of this sort of mechanised/standardised test for selecting young minds who need to think, reflect, imagine, go deeper into the realm of ideas, and realise that the philosophic/epistemological debate is not like Amitabh Bachchan’s Kaun Banega Crorepati contest: Every question must have one and only one “correct” answer! Furthermore, it has to be seen whether Pandit is really ready to continue this struggle for recovering the spirit of higher education, invite her colleagues and students, work together, and resist this onslaught on higher education.
In fact, in order to evolve a critique of the CUET—a homogenised/standardised “objective” test — it is important to understand three things. First, it is difficult to save our universities if we destroy the entire culture of learning that tends to characterise our school education today. We need not be fooled by the celebration of inflated marks (100/100 in English or History). As purely instrumental and strategic learning (memorising the “right” answer with two/four quick points) becomes the order of the day, and all sorts of “guide books” colonise the minds of the young learners, the damage has already been done. The faculty of thinking, the ability to engage in a nuanced debate, the willingness to read great books outside the “official syllabus”, and the creative use of language to explain and interpret complex phenomena: All these skills of deep learning are systematically destroyed.
Even if these students crack unimaginative standardised tests, or become technicians of diverse varieties, it is difficult for them to pursue what higher education, be it in physics or literature, demands. The irony is that the format of the CUET— yet, another reflection of the intellectual poverty of the National Testing Agency — would further accelerate this trend: Go to coaching centres, read “success manuals”, and master the strategy of “time management” while ticking the “correct” answer in the OMR sheet. While this kind of computerised testing can quickly and instantly eliminate people, it cannot, however, assure that it can really choose those who are genuinely inclined to higher education.
Second, it is high time we began to debunk what has become a disease — the normalisation of the MCQ. And in this context, I would particularly refer to liberal arts, humanities and social sciences. Anyone who has cherished the spirit of engaged pedagogy and interpretative traditions in humanities and social sciences would agree that, for instance, Vincent van Gogh’s “sunset” has multiple meanings and interpretations; or, there is no “objective/correct” reading of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi; you cannot say that as far as the understanding of Gandhi is concerned, B R Ambedkar is right, and Rajmohan Gandhi is wrong, or vice versa. Likewise, it would be naïve to say that there is only one reading of Karl Marx. Isn’t it true that Erich Fromm’s engagement with Karl Marx was different from the way Louis Althusser looked at him? In fact, you cannot celebrate the beauty of humanities and social sciences without this receptivity, and openness to a plurality of interpretations. And the MCQ pattern of standardised tests (say, asking one to memorise just discrete “facts”, such as the year of publication of My Experiments with Truth, or the definition of “altruistic suicide” that the great sociologist Emile Durkheim talked about; or whether William Blake was a “romantic” poet) can by no means evaluate whether one has really the analytical and hermeneutic skills to decipher the meanings of great social science texts.
Third, there are limits to uniformity and homogeneity. A university has its own soul and distinctiveness. And why should it be deprived of evolving its own mode of selecting students and researchers? These days, as we are normalising the practice of bureaucratisation and standardisation and the National Testing Agency is allowed to rob the creative agency of the teaching community, it will become increasingly difficult to retain the tradition of qualitative learning. Imagine a professor of political sociology asking this question: Does the text The Authoritarian Personality written by Theodor W Adorno and others have some relevance in contemporary India? Neither the academic bureaucrats who run the UGC nor the technicians of the National Testing Agency will be able to understand the pedagogic imagination of the professor. Kill creativity, kill reflexivity, kill the power of thinking — this is the madness called CUET.
Can vice-chancellors, teachers and students come together, and say “no” to this madness?
The writer, a retired JNU professor, writes on culture and education