I will confess that when I, an alumna of Jadavpur University’s English department, first encountered Swagato Sarkar’s piece on Raiot, I felt my hackles rise. I found the charge of self-absorption frustrating—at a time of crisis, is it not logical is to defend yourself, to respond with equivalent vigour to the attack that has forcefully made you the center of action? Of course who you defend yourself against says a lot about you, but surely, I thought, Professor Sarkar could not be saying that the government-spurred, top-down, fast-forwarded move to do away with the entrance was a revolutionary move to dismantle privilege? More on that later, for the question is important and no answer can be too obvious when the stakes pertain to education and privilege. To begin with, I want to acknowledge that I accept the charge of elitism (specifically Brahminism) even as I disagree with some of the finer points of Professor Sarkar’s piece, and maintain my opposition to the termination of the entrance exam.
The reason for my change from defensiveness to acknowledgement–a position some of my friends in and outside the department share with me—is simply that I have been paying attention to the rhetoric used in favour of the entrances, and much of it is unfortunate. Many are aware that there is a page of testimonials (dominated by present and past students) arguing in favour of the exam from a personal perspective. By and large, I support this endeavour and deeply appreciate the labour my friends have taken to represent the concerns and convictions that were trampled in the decision to scrap the exam. Unable to join the on-site protest, I was thankful for the option of contributing and dashed off a testimonial as soon as I could.
Even before the page was up, I was aware of the rhetoric of excellence that was being called upon to prove the worth of the exam. On the one hand, I was anxious to avoid the pomposity and self-justifying logic that laces the worst of such rhetoric (we are excellent, we were chosen, therefore the selection process works). At the same time, I felt that we had no option but to perform our value for a skeptical audience. I believed that a strategic battle against political and administrative brawn could not immediately afford an ambivalent, self-critical narrative. But ultimately, when I encountered the entire page of testimonials—the walls of mostly rapturous text holding forth on Jadavpur’s unparalleled spirit of freedom, quirkiness and transformative power, with a heavy sprinkling of references to foreign PhDs as evidence of success (I plead guilty)—I came away with the sinking feeling that we are perhaps an obnoxious lot who could afford to complicate our narratives a little.
Many of our celebrations, while full of real and legitimate gratitude, spiral into a cascade of exuberant, superlative praise. The overall impression seems to be that our department is a national treasure, a David standing up to Goliath, an island of free thought and creativity where each individual offers their own success story as a credible argument unto itself. With all the rhetorical and political awareness the department did imbibe in us, could we not tone it down a little? The implication—even if unintended—that Jadavpur’s entrance test is the sole and natural detector of critical thinking reinforces an unhelpful attitude of exceptionalism, as well as the myth that merit and critical thought are absolute, organic values around which one can design a foolproof system of reward. Moreover, I realized, if our stories and trajectories sounded that similar, then the concerns about diversity must have some ground. I told myself that we did not owe the public such concessions when we had bigger battles to fight, but that assurance disappeared when I saw the front page of The Telegraph on Sunday, the 8th of July.
On this day, the front page of The Telegraph—the self-appointed moral compass and intellectual sanctuary of Kolkata’s upper-middle class—featured a Facebook post by a professor in the English department who does not support the entrance exam. Among other things, the post takes a dig at the hegemony of Chaudhuri and Ghosh in Bengal’s academic scene. The Telegraph took it upon itself—as it does—to highlight and catalogue the grammatical errors in that post. Not only was this an unhelpful, pedantic act of muscle-flexing from a gleeful onlooker, it heinously pointed to the grammatical lapses as a justification for “why we need teachers like ‘Chaudhuris and Ghosh’.”
I could point out that The Telegraph should have kept both names singular since it couldn’t find an elegant plural for Ghosh. I could point out that The Telegraph would do well to resolve its own obsession for strained, grammatically clunky puns-as-headlines. But the crucial issue is that despite my squabbles with the original post and its author, its point about pervasive casteism is ironically confirmed by The Telegraph’s smug assumption that that one person’s grammar represents a structural problem which can be fixed by professors bearing certain names. These upper-caste names are serenely presented as signifiers of superiority, with no discussion of what values really matter to the study of English literature and who best embodies them). In the face of such painful, sickening casteism, it becomes our duty to take on the critiques of elitism in good faith, even at a painful and exhausting moment for those battling political bullying, uninformed suspicion and tedious heckling. If we find The Telegraph’s move unthinkable, we must say so and we must do our best reject any allies whose support lies in brahminical venom.
That said, I must turn to Professor Sarkar’s article, which to my knowledge is the most emphatic and circulated critique of the protest’s elitism so far. The most compelling point he makes is that exams should ideally not seek certain skills as much as be prepared to nurture them in the students that arbitrarily end up at the institution. This is a point well-taken, especially when some defences of the entrance exam center compatibility between student and institution without any interrogation of whether cliques are reinforced in the process. Professor Sarkar also makes the important point that even if the exam is suspicious of bookishness and preparation, seemingly natural qualities such as creativity are also enabled by conditions of privilege. This demystification of The Exam You Cannot Prepare For (which comes with bravado about not studying), is likely to resonate with people who for a number of valid reasons, perform better with preparation, and resent the default association between slogging and mediocrity. However, Professor Sarkar omits certain important qualifiers here.
For one, most institutions have some sort of a screening process by which they create a category of acceptable students and affirm certain parameters for identifying this category. The bigger the institution’s reputation, success rate, desirability and resources, the more stringent the parameters. When board exam marks are the sole criteria, institutions signal their demand for “quality” through the severity of their cutoffs. Even if one thinks of the banality of board exams as a levelling factor that accidentally creates ideal conditions of randomness, institutions do not do away with the idea of merit. Rather, they treat success at these exams as a confirmation of their idea of merit—which incidentally, is the term Education Minister Partha Chatterjee used to describe the board exam results in opposition to the subjectivity and randomness of entrances. Standardized and accessible as the board exams seem, they do offer an advantage to those with certain privileges: the money to afford good private tutors, the leisure to study instead of doing household chores, parents who have the time and energy to get involved and go scouting for past question papers, good memory, good handwriting, a certain canniness for sniffing out the “formula” for these exams. Admittedly, it is often students of privilege who can afford to scoff at these efforts (since they have more safety-nets), but that does not make the overbearing and narrow demands of board exams a beneficial thing.
As an old student of JU and a volunteer for the English department’s entrance exams, I will be the first to admit an unfortunate propensity among students of JU to talk of the exam as a quest for eccentricity and natural brilliance, which as we know are not the decontextualized, god-given attributes they are made out to be. Nonetheless, my observations tell me that the exam does not attempt to unearth the smartest as much as respond to multiple forms of aptitude and multiple areas of cultural acquaintance, whereas board exams actively repress this range in favour of one set of skills that also flourish under privilege. In principle, the entrance exams do not seek polished answers; they do not chase after a speculative cream of the crop. The primary message to applicants is this—your board exams will not condemn you to a certain fate. The underlying principle is this—we have no faith in the board exams because their stress on rote learning and cautious, formulaic answers are almost actively antithetical to skills that higher education demands. As long as some kind of filtering procedure remains in existence, this is not the worst principle in the world to follow. The challenge is to discard notions of deserving students, and to diffuse the murkiness of selection as far as possible through a thoughtful and varied set of criteria. Critiques of savarna hegemony do keep this conversation alive, and hopefully will prompt conversations for improving entrances rather than making it a choice between entrances and boards.
The study of the humanities in India is complicated to say the least. It is variously a luxury; a labour of love; a space for critical thought; a safe stopgap till something more lucrative opens up; an assurance of a degree; an old-fashioned farce in the face of more streamlined and commercial offshoots; a dubious humanist enterprise that fails to serve the marginalized. In this light, it is useful when a college or university is transparent about the kind of work it will demand of its students. In the case of English, which demands an engagement with dense literary texts and the history and culture of our colonizers, questions of cultural capital and worthwhile investment haunt not only the selection process but the very existence and continuance of the discipline. Instead of implying that there is some fair and accessible version of an entrance exam for English and other departments, I think Professor Sarkar would have been able to make a more incisive argument by discussing the larger context of what it means to pursue a degree in the humanities in the first place.
Finally, Professor Sarkar himself says that the state of education in Bengal in bleak. If the present government is not directly responsible for it, it is at least complicit in allowing the situation to perpetuate. The TMC has recently been embarrassed by undeniable instances of its unions interfering with admission procedures on campuses where it enjoys popularity. The TMC’s efforts to play a role in the evolution of Presidency University did not involve an attack of privilege—it led in fact to vocal disagreements over special privileges for a chosen group of faculty and administration. It is no secret that the TMC considers Jadavpur University a troublemaker and an enemy. While people at Jadavpur should not exploit this narrative in order to strut about as radical heroes, the government’s intention remains sinister and any administrative decision so swift, so stringent and so in tune with the government’s desire remains highly questionable. To welcome it is not only unnecessary for a critique of elitism, it is an irresponsible claim. It is understandable and tempting to write off the current situation in Jadavpur as a battle between political bullies and intellectual snobs. However, I suggest that before doing so, we consider the unevenness of the battle; the difference between tough love for the sake of a public service and meddling as a show of power; and the collective impact of such interferences on the state of public education, and on the marginalized who consider such institutions aspirational, or affirmative in their experience.