Understanding the Neo-liberal Agenda of Knowledge: The Unexposed Dimensions of the CSAT Controversy: Ayan Guha

This is a guest post by AYAN GUHA

The Central Government’s decision, to make the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT) a qualifying paper in the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) Civil Services Examinationhas come as a huge boost to the morale and aspirations of the students of social science and vernacular background who have been badly bitten by the CSAT bug since introduction of the paper.Every time their counterparts from the science and technical fields raised the cut-off beyond their scoring reach. They have long been campaigning for scrapping the CSAT on the ground that it clearly favours the students of English medium and science and technical background.

Countering a Biased Logic

Before the UPSC Civil Services Preliminary Examination, 2014 heated debate took place regarding the nature of question paper. Paper II of the examination which was designed to test the administrative aptitude of the candidates generated considerable controversy. This paper which was introduced a few years ago in place of an optional subject paper asks questions from mathematics, logical reasoning and comprehension. It has been alleged that this paper has placed the vernacular medium students and students with humanities and social science background at a disadvantageous position.This paper does contain a heavy dose of mathematics and logical reasoning and therefore, gives unfair advantages to the students with mathematics and science background. Those who find justification in the aptitude paper put forward the argument that a bureaucrat must at least be equipped with the skills to solve problems of matriculation standard. But, this is a biased and convenient argument which overlooks various nuances associated with the issue. Paper II mainly comprising the computation and reasoning sections were not merely qualifying in nature. The marks obtained by a candidate in this paper were added to the total score of the candidate. Candidates from science background whose disciplines teach them to master quantitative abilities are likely to solve greater number of numeric and reasoning problems within the stipulated time with greater accuracy than candidates who severed their connections with numbers after matriculation and devoted entirely in developing their writing and argumentation skills. The former scored heavily in the paper II and thus ended up raising the cut-off to an extremely high level.This resulted in a situation where many students from non-science background scored decent marks in the paper II but still their total score fell below the cut-off point leading to their elimination.

Now, a compromise formula has been struck with paper II becoming qualifying in nature. From this year, the General Studies Paper-II in the Civil Services (Preliminary) Examination (CSAT) will become a qualifying paper with a minimum qualifying marks fixed at 33%. This means that every candidate will be need to score the minimum 33% marks in this paper and the marks scored by him or her in this paper will not be added to the total marks of the preliminary examination.

The Misdirected Search for Objectivity

The introduction of the CSAT was not an isolated phenomenon. Recent changes brought in other competitive examinations have also made the playing field extremely uneven for students of liberal arts. Just like the Civil Services Examination SSC (Staff Selection Commission) Combined Graduate Level examination is conducted every year. It is attempted by a huge number of students every year across the country. This examination though open to any graduate demands a fairly good quantitative ability. Earlier the section on quantitative ability consisted only of arithmetic and mensuration. Now after a change in syllabus algebra and trigonometry have been included. Thus, for those who decided to dump numbers after matriculation the ground is silently but surely shrinking behind their feet. The only option left for them is the field of academics which is also bound to shrink in size with increasing disadvantages of studying liberal arts. Furthermore, it is even more disappointing to note that in the field of liberal arts too the objectifying drive is being pushed vigorously at the cost of quality. The question paper of the National Eligibility Test (NET), which is conducted twice a year by the University Grants Commission (UGC) to select eligible candidates for the award of lectureship and junior research fellowship has been converted into a fully objective one. Earlier the paper I and the paper II were objective and qualifying in nature while score in the paper III which was subjective was used to determine the eligibility of the candidates for the award of lectureship and junior research fellowship. In the new pattern,the paper III has also been made objective. This in effect, means that a student of English literature is not required to pen lucid sentences and engage in passionate literary dissection of human emotions; he can write bad English or even wrong English but still can be a college or university teacher. Similarly, a student of history or sociology is not required to engage in contextual reasoning, normative analysis and logical argumentation. All they need to do is to remember facts and forget contextual nuances, cumbersome theories and in-depth explanations for the sake of an objective academic scrutiny.

Thus,finally we are drawn towards the unexplored question which has got lost in the maze of debates and protests concerning CSAT- why humanities and social sciences are continuously being marginalized in the name of objectivity?The answer has to found in the deeper dynamics of the changing scenario and a larger systemic logic.

Exposing the Hidden Agenda of Knowledge

Can you protest with the help of numbers? Can you even express your disagreement with help of numbers? The answer is in negative. If we put this in perspective we would be able to understand that the current stress on numbers is nothing but a part of the neo-liberal endeavor that aims to silently rob the society of dissent. The US Congress last year voted in favour of cancelling funding for political science research from the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF), unless such research benefits national security or economic interests. Thus, the neo-liberal emphasis with economy and efficiency (things which we were earlier solely associated with the private corporate sector) has pushed bureaucratic rationality into the realm of objectivity that only accommodates facts and numbers for policy formation and evaluation. A subjective, societal policy perspective that can potentially challenge simplistic factual and numeric representation of complex policy issues is ruled out. In this context, the model bureaucrat or the ‘administrative man’ comes to be viewed as a hard-core technocrat, a number specialist who ought to remain more concerned with the techniques of policy implementation rather than the content of policy.While functioning in an administrative scenario his mental space is expected to be equipped with a gate-keeper that only knows to welcome facts and numbers. It should not ideally be open to subjectivity and linguistic expression, means needed to articulate broad societal perspective that can potentially carry the germs of dissent and diversity. Therefore, the stress on numbers is necessary to imbue the potential administrator with value neutrality and social agnosticism, which are needed to produce blind bureaucratic conformism to the prevailing discourse. Under such a situation, bureaucratic dialogue remains preoccupied with targets and deadlines defined in numeric terms while the discourse that imperceptibly drives the policy remains unchallenged. In the process internal moral dissent and constructive criticism are lost and alternative discourses remain unexplored resulting in the reproduction of neo-liberal hegemony.
It is really striking that the step-motherly approach of the modern society towards the disciplines of liberal arts has not been accompanied by any considerable protests from the non-science academic community. Therefore,it is reasonable to suggest that the belief in the superiority of one domain of knowledge over another is not only a governmental phenomenon but a deeper psychological one rooted in silent social dynamics. In this context, we are again reminded of Foucault’s influential proposition that knowledge is a domain of power, which is a productive phenomenon besides being a repressive one. Power brings into existence discourses and meanings which first constitute truth about subjects and then construct subjects in terms of this truth. Today, we are not simply ruled and controlled by a neo-liberal power structure but are fashioned, integrated and activated by the neo-liberal discourse in a manner that facilitates the perpetual reproduction of the neo-liberal hegemony.

The recent decision to make the CSAT paper qualifying is a welcoming one. But what has prompted this decision?The answer lies with the typical nature of Indian society. Here, I would draw upon Partha Chatterjee’s bifurcation of Indian society into civil and political societies. In India,civil society that seeks to be congruent with the normative models of bourgeois civil society consists of the urban English speaking middle classes equipped mostly with technical and professional education. It is basically the sphere of neo-liberal hegemony. If this were the only relevant political domain, then India today would probably be indistinguishable from other western capitalist democracies. But there is another domain of political society consisting of less privileged population groups lacking resources to avail professional and technical education from English medium institutions.It is this domain where primitive accumulation process in the civil society is accompanied by a parallel process of reversal of the effects of primitive accumulation.The civil services examination functioned for years as the most inclusive examination in India. While modern professions of a capitalist economy such as engineering, medicine and management have slowly been monopolized by the elites, civil services examination continued to provide a level playing field to all graduates from regular colleges to open universities, students from vernacular mediums to English medium, and finally social sciences to professional courses. Therefore, it is not surprising that vernacular medium candidates without any fashionable degrees from states like Bihar and the U.P had been clearing this examination in large numbers much to the envy of more educated and English equipped elite sections of the country till the introduction of the controversial CSAT paper. Under conditions prevailing in India’s neo-liberal knowledge economy, examinations such as the Civil Services successfully kept alive the notion of fair competition so that the elite hegemony in other occupations remained camouflaged and therefore, unchallenged. The introduction of the CSAT was a hasty move that mistakenly exposed the hidden unfairness of the neo-liberal agenda of knowledge.The elite restlessness to capture each and every pie available under the sky certainly became obvious. Therefore, it was of no surprise that the students’ protest against the UPSC took the form of a reaction against the elite supremacy with elite symbols such as English language becoming the principal targets of attack. Seen in this light,now the decision to make the CSAT paper largely insignificant is nothing but an attempt to prevent resentment against elite dominance to spill over to the domains of civil society. The political society has to be given some concessions for the continued functioning of civil society as per the logic of modern neo-liberal principles.

In the final analysis, it can be said that on the whole our society, post-liberalization, has become obsessed with technical and managerial education and there have been continuous efforts to roll back the career opportunities once enjoyed by students of non-science background by giving undue weightage to numerical abilities and objective knowledge. This is bound to seriously de-incentivize the study of liberal arts. Under such circumstances the pursuit of liberal arts will be considered an unaffordable luxury and romantic pursuit of fashionable idealism. As society moves away from the so-called luxurious pursuit of the ideal, the prevailing neo-liberal discourse will reign unchallenged. Democracy will survive but dissent will die.

Chatterjee, Partha (2008): “Democracy and Economic Transformation in India”, Economic and Political Weekly, 43(16): 53-62.
Kohli, Gauri (2015): “The ‘changed’ CSAT Gets Thumbs Up from Aspirants”, Hindustan Times, 27 May, viewed on 4 June, 2015http://www.hindustantimes.com/careers/the-changed-csat-gets-thumbs-up-from-aspirants/article1-1349078.aspx.
Nowotny, Helga (2014): “Shifting Horizons for Europe’s Social Sciences and Humanities”,The Guardian,22 May, http://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2013/sep/23/europe-social-sciences- humanities, viewed on 4 June, 2015.

(Ayan Guha is an Assistant Professor at Bankura University, West Bengal. He can be reached at mailgooho@gmail.com)

35 thoughts on “Understanding the Neo-liberal Agenda of Knowledge: The Unexposed Dimensions of the CSAT Controversy: Ayan Guha

  1. somnath

    If the reference is to selection of bureaucrats, our problem is actually that there are too many babus that are nothing better than history and pol science grads from JNU. As a result, they are neither jacks not masters of any trade!

    Given the development imperatives, we need a lot of more professionally qualified people to run the bureaucracy. How does a background in history prepare a babu to project manage the building of a highway? Or negotiate a complex defence contract? Or formulate tax policies?

    Rather than going back in time, we actually need to make the bureaucracy specialised, and recruit for specialised fields. The society has a requirement for liberal arts, but the state and government doesnt.

    1. upscforall

      depending on where the highway is being built, a complex understanding of the society, the region, its history, socio-political context IS paramount to being able to pull off building the highway with minimal expenditure and maximum impact. Similarly, a student of IR is much better placed to negotiate your defence contract than a student of engineering. Tax policies are formulated again based on specific economic and social scenarios of a country and not universal mathematical principles.

      Finally, MBA and engineering students are crucial for this nation, for the state and govt they are not. You need experts in people to ADMINISTER a complex and diverse country like india, not experts in science. People and things related to people=subjective. Science is argued to be objective. If anything in you need Specificity and not specialisation. Running a country is not about profit or loss statements.

      Finally, the principle of the service is APTITUDE. All the skills required to function in a service are then taught in training. The author argues that it is not aptitude that was tested but IQ. Two very different things.

    2. AYAN GUHA

      First of all it is really astonishing that why a votary of numbers and objectivity has not presented any statistical data in support of his contention that the current bureaucracy is infested with too many lethargic people from liberal arts departments of JNU who are good for nothing.

      “The society has a requirement for liberal arts, but the state and government does not.” This proposition emanates from an extremely faulty approach which sees society and state as water tight compartments and posits state outside the domain of society. State is not simply a juxtaposition of institutions but also embodiment of certain values like justice, democracy and equality which are intended to promote social well being. Seen in this light state exists within the functioning periphery of the society and therefore, their requirements can’t be different.
      The completion of project is a goal of the corporate sector. The goal of the Government is to implement projects in a socially meaningful manner. India is a diverse nation with so many societal fault lines and primordial identities. There are many technical posts in the government. The work of the generalist bureaucrat is not to measure the dimensions of canals or bridges but to manage and negotiate political and social dynamics to extract maximum social benefits (not profits) from implementation of welfare schemes. Therefore, it is imperative that the bureaucrat is equipped with knowledge regarding to the functioning of the body politic and society.

  2. Madhulika

    “Can you protest with the help of numbers? Can you even express your disagreement with help of numbers?”
    Anyone with an understanding of economics and econometrics can tell you that not only can you spot fallacies and injustices quickly and more accurately with numbers, but you also gain the ability to call them out with better arguments and analysis.

    This article alleges some “neo-liberal agenda” behind the introduction of the aptitude test. However, going by the same logic, can one say that there is a “leftist agenda” to keep out those who have not studied political science or the liberal arts? That this is a conspiracy to restrict the admission only to those from the hallowed, rarefied halls of JNU or other elite liberal arts colleges in Delhi.

    The aptitude paper tests basic numerical ability at the level of matriculation. In my opinion, numbers are the greatest levellers.
    No matter your background, your language skills or your field of education, all you need is the basic power that humans have – analytical and reasoning ability. Only numbers can test this without any bias.
    Opposition to the CSAT is foolish and uninformed. Shame!

    1. upscforall

      I’m sorry but I don’t agree that numbers can test this. Numbers are based on practice. Since the format is based on limited time and negative marking(accuracy) it is not rewarding your base common sense but how fast you can do what. The same format bias does not spill over to the general studies paper where the time constraint is hardly a factor as no working time is required to arrive at the answer. And the GS paper already includes sections on economics and science and tech. You are confusing again between things are have long been established to test aptitude and things that are not testing it. I do not deny that a liberal arts student should be tested on logic and objectivity. But the nature of the questions don’t do that. Sections like general mental ability, logical reasoning, analytical reasoning, data interpretation..these sections are the levellers. But the weightage is far far more to quantitative. Profit and loss, factorials, etc etc. And an in depth analysis has also revealed that the questions asked are not even of matriculation standard. They’re of plus 2 levels. As for the leftist argument, yes you are very right that it can certainly be argued. But the problem is that what do you believe is the purpose of the administration. Is it merely implementation of policy or is it also to derive content in the policy? And is that possible without a complex understanding of the socio-political-economic scenario of the country. We can use a calculator for calculations but I their an algorithm out there that computes the socio-political-economic scenario and gives you a policy for that region? How caste, class and culture interact and affect such things as our PDS? let us not forget that we do have specialised services for such things as forest services and economic services, where people of the liberal arts cannot apply. One cant help but develop a sense of persecution. All along the schooling system a science student can as and when he wishes, change streams. That option is always open to him. But a humanities kid cant graduate from liberal arts to a masters in engineering. (it should be oopen. Test aptitude and if he gets through, let it be his prerogative to survive the course. But at least have the option open)Anyway that is a conversation for another day. There are very many factors involved. But the affect of general studies which is the majority of the content in the mains is not such a debilitating factor on the science students. Why is that, that most of them pick a humanities subject as their optional in the mains and not their own subject? If its such a severely limiting factor for them then they shouldn’t right? The whole purpose of the civil services was its general nature. For fields that they required specialisation in, they had separate services like economic services. As for a bias towards political science. Every field of study has a natural professional career. Like engineers have in construction and other assorted fields, political science trains you in the business of administration and international relations.

      1. Madhulika

        None of your arguments justify the protest against the CSAT. Besides, you started by arguing that it is difficult to switch fields or careers in the Indian education system and that it needs to be changed. And towards the end, you eventually contradicted yourself by saying that “every field of study has a natural professional career”. Please pick one side.
        If there are any questions in the CSAT that are, as you say, above matriculation level, then the next logical step is to take it up with the commission and not to ask for it to be scrapped completely or to not take the score into consideration at all.
        The economics, science and tech section in the GS paper tests knowledge of basic concepts in those fields and not analytical ability.
        The need for aptitude based exams has been recognized by all major exams in the country and in the world. No matter what field you wish to study in the U.S., the GRE is required. The entrance exam for the RBI has a comprehensive aptitude section and so do all the PSU banks and companies.
        The UPSC is overly politicised and it is a scapegoat for various political organisations and parties to use the exam as a battlefield. Hence the opposition to the UPSC and not to any other national-level exam.
        Hence, this paranoid and frenzied article denouncing the imaginary “neo-liberal agenda” monster. It is antics like these that prevent any meaningful debate or reform process in our system.

    2. AYAN GUHA

      It is right that numbers can help to point out discrepancies. But to contextualize such discrepancies and their exact impact dissenting argumentation and perspectives are needed. And why do we need to contextualize? Because numbers don’t always give right picture. The numerical representation has to be cumulatively read with the underlying socio-economic circumstances. That is the reason that social scientist engage in extensive field survey despite all statistical information being available with local government authorities.

      Moreover, it is laughable to arrive at the conclusion that all people studying liberal arts or political science will end up being leftist. Such a stance reflects gross ignorance about the well developed rightist tradition existing within the epistemological domain of social science. If a person is not dark skinned it necessarily does not mean that his complexion if fair. He can be brown too. similarly if a votary of numbers and objectivity is found to be a neo-liberal that does not necessarily mean that a votary of subjectivity will be a leftist.

      No one is against basic numerical skills. but issue is whether there is overemphasize on such skills. If there is a cut off like 33% then the purpose to ascertain if someone is human or not (since it is being argued that mathematical reasoning is the basic power which every human has and thus it is the necessary and prime condition of being human) is well served.

      1. Melange

        You have either misunderstood or deliberately twisted my comment. I used the analogy of “leftist agenda” in quotation marks to show that it is as silly and paranoid as the one that you have used, namely “neo-liberal agenda”. I did not mean to say that all liberal arts graduates are leftist.
        I also did not say that numerical ability can be used “to ascertain if someone is human or not “. You simply chose to see it that way. I only meant to say that all of us are endowed with the power to reason and analyse, some better than the others. Also, this is a skill that can be honed in any language and with any educational background.

        As far as contextualization is concerned, once again, we can turn to the basic rule of interpretation – Correlation is not the same as causation. I don’t think there is any danger of de-contextualized interpretation solely because one has or hasn’t studied liberal arts (or science for that matter).

        1. AYAN GUHA


          I have not twisted your arguments. My comments have logically been deducted from your reasoning.

          I have never meant that de-contextualization will inevitably be an outcome if a science graduate is at the helm. But a person with good knowledge about societal dynamics is someone who can properly contextualize social statistics and arrive at right way of implementation and decisions. And people with a background in social sciences are expected to be better equipped with the required knowledge about social phenomena. Therefore, the examination pattern should not be designed in a such manner where such knowledge does not find its due emphasis.

          This article is not only about CSAT. It is about how social psychology has evolved unleashing significant impact on the trajectories of knowledge. CSAT has come as a reference point. The argument about neo-liberal philosophy is situated in larger and transforming social scenario. It is not as simple as you have found it to be. It would be great if you could present contrary arguments which can deal with the social evolution of knowledge in a different manner.

          1. I actually don’t agree with you about the CSAT favoring people from a ‘science’ background, really – quantitative aptitude is subjective. Just because I know how to do integration or work with LaPlace transforms doesn’t mean I’m automatically good at multiplying things in my head.

            The CSAT tests proficiency in math at the 10th grade level, the same way SAT, GMAT, CAT, XLRI and many more exams do. Everyone, regardless or what stream they choose to specialize in later, studies that equally. This paper doesn’t test what engineering/science students (since you mentioned them specifically) learn at university. As far as the syllabus is concerned, it’s a fair playground.

            Secondly (and I love how you haven’t mentioned this at all) is that even if we do agree with your assumption that the CSAT favors these aforementioned engineering/science students, you’ve conveniently glossed over the fact that the syllabus for the 4 (GS Mains) + 1 GS Pre paper favor so called ‘liberal arts’ students.

            Looking over your comments below, you’ve very smartly refuted somebody’s comment about how numbers are important to the average civil servant on the job by saying something along the lines of how the NATION needs engineers and science background students while the STATE and the GOVERNMENT needs liberal arts students.

            Firstly, you are in no position to make that call. That is just your opinion. You cannot definitely point out what this country does and does not need.

            Secondly, why would you assume that if I’m an engineer and can do integration or differentiation, I’ll automatically be less sensitive to the diversity, social problems and demographics prevalent in India? That is an insult to your own intelligence – please refrain from stereotyping people. My educational degree is not a label that tells me what I can and can’t do.

            You wrote:
            “Can you protest with the help of numbers? Can you even express your disagreement with help of numbers?”
            Firstly, yes, you can. You can use FACTS and solid statistics that can’t be denied to make a logical argument to protest against something you don’t agree with. Chances are your argument will actually be more concise this way. However, if you mean protesting in the traditional sense of the word, with banners and rousing sentiment, then no, I’m sure numbers can’t help you with that. Of course, it could also be argued that as a civil servant, you shouldn’t be resorting to these things anyway. If you have been given the power to change things, you should at least try to do so.
            Secondly, yes, you can express your disagreement with the help of numbers to back up your argument. As I mentioned, this would probably be a more concise way to articulate your point.

            Lastly, why only the CSE? I don’t see anyone complaining about this so called imbalance when it comes to an MBA exam. I can also argue that my ability to multiply quickly in my head has nothing to do with how efficient I would be at administrating my business. Or is this silence just because IIMs give higher application rating points to liberal arts students for “educational diversity?” Just a thought.

            1. AYAN GUHA

              As far as I understand quantitative aptitude is not subjective. I don’t know on what ground you are calling it subjective.
              Your contentions suffer from a whole lot of contradictions. Let me point out one by one.
              First, according to you CSAT does not favour science students because it tests basic mathematics. But you say that general studies at the main examination level which supposedly tests basic knowledge about society, polity and economy favours students of liberal arts background. That means when basic knowledge of mathematics is tested it not biased towards any candidate but when the same is done in case of social science it is biased towards some students. How convenient the logic is!
              The fact is that while CSAT favours the science background students the main examination favours the liberal arts students. The students studying liberal arts don’t engage with numbers after a certain point. That is the reason as to why the accuracy and speed of their problem solving skills is generally low compared to the accuracy and speed of their problem solving skills of science students. If the stress is on just to test whether they have a minimum level of numerical skills then a qualifying paper is good enough for the purpose.
              I have no qualms in admitting that the Main examination does favour the liberal arts students. And to counter to some extent the edge the liberal arts students enjoy, the students from science could take optional science subjects which they rarely do. Why they do so? Perhaps you can better tell. I would be very happy to know the reasons.
              The humanities subjects have been included in great measure in the main examination because there is a need for it in civil service. The social, political and economic structure of the country needs to be studied in great detail for better governance of the country.
              It is absolutely insane to compare examinations like CAT, MAT, XLRI with civil services examination. It is pity that you can’t understand why people are not raising any objection regarding the format of these examinations while CSAT is under their scanner. A management executive is motivated by profit and loss statements while a civil servant is concerned with socio-economic goals. Since their objectives are different their skills will be different and accordingly the academic criteria through which they will be judged and selected will be different. If you logic is followed then there should be only one examination for all services and posts, public or private in this country. There is no need to waste money on designing different types of examinations for different posts.
              Lastly, let me come to the most objectionable and uncalled for portion of your post which says that I have said that ——-NATION needs engineers and science background students while the STATE and the GOVERNMENT needs liberal arts students. Have I said this? I actually can’t remember. You would do a great service to me if you kindly help me retrieving my lost memory in this case. If you can’t do so then there is a chance that it is your deduction laden with deliberate distortion. And such deliberate distorted deduction results from complete ignorance about the conceptions and ideas of nation, state and government.
              Even if for arguments sake it is presumed that I said so then also you land yourself in greater mess. You find me saying NATION needs engineers and science background students while the STATE and the GOVERNMENT needs liberal arts students and you say that I have no right to say this. Good. But one of the blogger commented earlier that state and govt. don’t need liberal arts people while the society may need them. But you did not find his comment objectionable rather you supported his arguments by putting forward supplementary arguments. But similar comment from me makes you agitated. Why? Perhaps you can better say. As far I see, such behaviour sometimes happen when biasness overflow the embankment of reason.
              You can’t protest with numbers. I have already said that by numbers you can make your protests more meaningful. But to protest you need a language of dissent and for articulation of language of dissent one must be capable enough for articulation. And to be capable enough for such articulation one needs to empowered by sharp societal perspectives.
              I have never said that people from science background will invariably be less sensitive to social issues. I have only suggested that students from social science are expected to deal with social issues in a better manner. But there can be exceptions like some engineering graduate knowing more history than a history graduate. However, this is not norm. You are projecting the exception to be the norm. In doing so you have castigated our education system. But while you have in general shown extreme disdain and scant regard for our education system, your respect for examinations like CAT, GMAT, XLRI (which are products of our education system) is extremely high. Why? May be a little contradictions are good for better arguments next time.

          2. S

            Ayan Guha:

            Here is an unsolicited piece of advice: ad hominems and attempts at belittling people, while superficially great rhetorically, are simply not valid arguments, especially when they are accompanied by a straw-manning of the opponent’s argument.

            I apologize for having brought this up, but please give this a consideration. I understand that this is a topic you may feel very strongly about and to which you might have a personal attachment. However, aggressively misrepresenting people’s comments (as you did with Madhulika/Melange’s comments above by imputing to her a belief that she was throwing out only as a reduction ad absurdum hypothetical) only weaken your arguments.

            The attitude that logically fallacious rhetorical devices actually constitute an argument is alarmingly common in political discourse in India (as it also is elsewhere), and it is something I feel rather strongly about. Apologies if this criticism of style offends you, but I hope you try take it the right way. Your bio suggests you are an young academic, and perhaps the only way to combat this epidemic is for people like to you to actively make your students aware of the pitfalls of empty rhetoric.

            1. AYAN GUHA

              I am extremely sorry for countering you unsolicited advice. But I have no other option since you have tried to equate my counter-arguments as misrepresentation and rhetoric even comparable with political rhetoric and misrepresentation. It is extremely unfortunate that your contention is fully unsubstantiated unattached with any reasons. As far as I understand a rhetoric is something which is unsubstantiated and evokes emotions without giving any reasons. I do agree that I have aggressively refuted her uncalled for comments against me but I refuted point by point with reasons.( It may well happen that you may not like my reasons but you have full right not to like my arguments). But you have failed to explain as to how I have used rhetoric and misrepresented her arguments. Therefore, your claim of me being rhetorical may as well be a rhetoric. I have not belittled any one. I have pointed out contradictions. I have not branded anyone’s arguments contradictory without pointing out contradictions. I have not branded anyone’s arguments rhetorical without pointing out the reasons for calling it rhetorical. Rather, I think the best way to belittle a person is speaking on his or her behalf without giving that person the chance to defend himself or herself. It reflects the view that the person can no longer defend himself. This is to unknowingly take a dim view of that person’s abilities. I have not come to the defense of any of the bloggers who have supported me even when I felt some of them being misrepresented badly. I felt that Neha chauhan was badly misrepresented by you but I did not intervene. There are some rules of civilized discourse that should be followed.

              Moreover, if you have suddenly found your conscience activated by my replies then your conscience have awakened too late. It should have been awakened much earlier by quotes such as ‘you are in no position to make that call. That is just your opinion. You cannot definitely point out what this country does and does not need’ and ‘That is an insult to your own intelligence – please refrain from stereotyping people.’ May be it is not your conscience but inherent biasness that got activated.
              Moreover, I don’t know how have you got my bio. But my bio or me being a young academician are irrelevant to the whole discussion. You have needlessly brought this up and this post of yours have completely diluted the spirit of the whole discussion by giving it a completely personalized angle.

              Lastly, I apologize for saying all these. Please take these in right spirit. Let us agree to disagree, let us not put a label on each other without proper reasons and lets not make things personal.

  3. upscforall

    Very very happy with this Mr. Guha. Really expansive and well reasoned. One point I would like to speak about is the fact that the paper became IQ based rather than aptitude based. There is a reason IQ tests are conducted early on in our schooling years and not when the division of streams has happened. The creative and logical faculties of our brains differ as documented by various psychological studies of artists, scientists, writers etc with an individual using one part of his brain over the other depending on profession and training. IQ tests aren’t considered accurate tools of measurement after a point for this very reason. Their objectivity is compromised by favouring the logical side more. Similarly, the focus of csat should have been to test the aptitude of the examiners. Instead it focused on who could calculate what and how fast. Had their been equal distribution of logical reasoning, analytical reasoning and general mental ability along with the quantitative reasoning weightage, a case for csat could still have been made. But a systematic examination of the weightage reveals a skewed balance in favour of quantitative reasoning and reading comprehension(english).

    Therein lies the problem with the format. Psychological studies have documented that one part of the brain falls to relative disuse over the other depending on fields and therefore it automatically tips the balance and is not a level playing field.

  4. somnath


    Negotiating a defence contract isnt an exercise in IR, its about parsing through complex international legal and technological nuances. Offset obligations, total life cycle costs, supplier liabilities – these are matters of deep technical knowledge. And we are talking about people who need to “execute”, ie the babus, not the political leadership.

    Similarly, the socio political aspects of a highway in terms of land acquisition etc is a matter for the politicians to take care of. The babus running NHAI need to be skilled in project management, contract negotiation, vendor management etc.

    The issue is simple – the average babus coming out of the current system, with reservations, vernacular et al – are very mediocre. Anyone who has dealt with an average Deputy Secy in the Finance Ministry (or an SP of Police) would vouch for that – most of them have no clue of what they are talking about. Barring notable exceptions, most of them wont get a job in the elite private sector.

    That is why these guys are protesting against proposals to have lateral inductions in the civil services.

    1. AYAN GUHA

      Somnath, there are a number of technical posts in the Government. Still generalist cadre is needed to deal with the social dimensions of the project. dealing with land acquisition can’t be a politician’s domain only. The doctrine of politics-administration dichotomy is a discredited one.The bureaucrats need to be assessing the social impact survey. At the ground level a great number of social factors like caste, religion, class matter which need to be taken into account while devising and implementing plans for development. This needs not only social embeddedness but considerable knowledge about social institutions and their functioning. Otherwise projects will be implemented successfully but they will give rise to social unrest and political turmoil.

      1. S

        How do you propose a bureaucrat is going to be “assessing a social impact survey” without some basic understanding of statistics? In what way does a student of Philosophy or Sanskrit or English literature better qualified to assess such “social impact surveys” than an engineer?

        This whole dichotomy between “liberal arts” and “science” that is being presented here is the flaw. What the civil service needs is not people who have studied particular subjects, but people who have an aptitude to quickly pick up knowledge and expertise that lies beyond their zones of comfort. A student of Philosophy is not more of a generalist in this context than a Civil Engineer.

  5. very nice article! it captures the subtle changes in our society, happening under our radars. it is awakening! i hope what you wrote in the end doesn’t end up to be the situation and so called luxurious pursuit of ideal prevails though i am also not very hopeful given the contemporary situations.

  6. Neha Chauhan

    Exceedingly well written article. India has never been able to produce scholars/philosophers of the stature of Noam Chomsky or Joh Rawls or Focualt because of the sheer neglect of our society towards social science disciplines. Amartya Sen became Amartya Sen after going abroad. Society needs both – social scientists as well as technocrats. However, despite such enormous exposure today, the mentality in India that bright minds invariably go to sciences and social sciences are for average minded students is disheartening.

    It is sheer ignorance to assume that administration will be better run by IITians or other such lot. The truth, however, is contrary !!

    1. I do agree with you that it’s ignorance to assume that administration will be better run by IITians and their ilk. But I completely disagree with your statement that the truth is ‘contrary.’ For all you know, an engineer might be better at administration than a liberal arts graduate. In a country like India, where education is substandard at best, you can’t look at my degree and tell me what I can’t be good at. A history grad can be better at fixing cars than an engineer, and the latter can be a better writer than a journalism graduate.

      1. neha chauhan

        If one goes by your analogy, then an engineer might be better at writing poems than working in an IT firm or as an investment banker. The reality is more complex than such simplistic examples. There is a reason that the civil services exam syllabus contains compulsory subjects such as history, culture, indian constitution and not calculus. What is disheartening is the assumption IITians are the most capable lot in the country. People who have studied society and its myriad facets are more suitable for administration.
        The economist Amartya Sen no longer talks about economics rather he writes about justice and for that sociology, political science, philosophy, history and other such social science subjects have come to his aid.

        1. What I mean is that you really can’t generalize. While I agree that the liberal arts are crucial to an administrator, I don’t agree with your assumption that an engineer can’t do equally well in those spheres. Especially not in a country like India where university education is so far from satisfactory that almost all students (science or business or liberal arts) end up teaching themselves. If I can teach myself History then I can teach myself calculus if I really want to, and vice versa. My point is that my Indian undergraduate degree says nothing about me. And the examples I’ve quoted aren’t very far removed from the reality of what goes on, by the way. Not all engineers wind up in IT firms or as ‘investment bankers’ (also an incorrect assumption since that avenue is only open to engineers after they’ve done an MBA) Tons of them actually get into the social sector.

          If one goes by your assumption that liberal arts students are inherently better at being empathetic towards these things, then technically non-liberal arts students should be falling flat on their faces in the UPSC exam, considering that General Studies forms a massive portion of what’s tested.

          Lastly, I’d just like to point out that exams that don’t require any specific prerequisite degrees like the UPSC or an MBA are a breath of fresh air for people looking to expand their horizons. I just don’t think anyone should clamp down on it and say that just because I’m a Psychology/Fine Arts/Design/Medicine/Engineering graduate, I’m not fit for the job role. The whole point of the exam is that it’s open to everybody.

        2. Also no one is saying that the civil services exam should include calculus – that would be irrelevant and counterproductive. As far as I’m aware, you seem to disagree with the testing of candidates’ proficiency with basic math that’s taught at the tenth grade level. It may seem like it’s a useless thing to be tested on, the optional subject is similarly useless, as I can choose anything from French to Geography to software engineering. Where’s the relevance in that?

    2. S

      I am not sure why algebra and trigonometry are seen as such esoteric subjects by the author: I would imagine that is certainly prudent to ask anyone who is going to deal on a regular basis with village land surveyors to have at least a basic knowledge of how to solve linear equations and how to find out the unknown dimensions of a plot of land from known ones.

      It should be recalled that this level of algebra and trigonometry are taught between classes 6 and 8: at least when I was a student, I was taught how to solve linear equations even before I was presented with the intricacies of the freedom movement. The problem with the Indian education system is not that is it is belatedly putting some emphasis on students having some facility with minimal mathematical and logical thinking. The problem is that the system has the myth that mathematical and logical thinking can be dispensed with in all other fields of except engineering and science. The article above is a sad addition to this mythology.

    3. S

      It is also interesting that you bring up “famous scholars”. It might interest you to know that Chomsky is most famous for his work on generative grammars of the kind first studied by Panini, and this work is much closer to mathematical logic and foundations of computer science than any other field of study. Two of modern India’s most influential historians, Iravatham Mahavedan and D D Kosambi, studied science in their younger days (Mahadevan was a chemist by training but joined the civil service, Kosambi was a famous mathematician and a professor of mathematics at TIFR).

      Being good at a traditional “liberal arts” does not necessarily correlate with having a disdain for science and mathematics. If you are going to define liberal arts as fields somehow opposed to mathematical and logical reasoning, then I am afraid you are not going to get very far.

      1. AYAN GUHA

        I take strong objections to some of the things you have said. You have followed a unique way of argument. First, you have put things on my mouth and then you argue against things which you think I have said, which means that you argue against yourself. the resultant sum is a big zero.

        I have not defined liberal arts as a field opposed to science and showed any disdain towards scientific study. if you find me doing so then you are a highly imaginative person. I have suggested that liberal arts as well as science are necessary. but presently there is a tendency to de-emphasize the importance of social sciences in the name of objectivity and scientific understanding. There are fields where adequate importance must be placed on liberal arts and civil service is one such field. Anyway, it would be great if you quoted me to ventilate my disdain towards science and mathematics.

        According to you algebra and trigonometry are esoteric subjects for me. I am extremely curious to know the way through which you have come to this bizarre conclusion. I have only said that these subjects were included in a national level examination as an example of the rising stress on numerical skills in different examinations.

        Your conception of social impact survey is measuring dimensions of land. If this is the definition of social impact survey then I tend to disagree. Social survey means understanding the class, caste, community, gender and ethnicity dimensions of a particular area. Without these understandings no sustainable social or economic projects can’t be carried out in any area. Such an approach on your part results from the same problem of reductionism which I am talking about-the tendency to reduce everything to numerical representations while the social scenario is more complex.

        1. S

          Firstly, my last comment was meant as a reply to Neha Chauhan (and not to you), who insinuates that India does not produce “genuine scholars” because of neglect of social sciences. I was pointing out that in a rational system of education there would be no such dichotomy between “liberal arts” on one side and “science and mathematics” on the other. The latter provide modes of thought (note, not just knowledge, but modes of thought) that are crucial in any legitimate field of study. The relationship between sciences and socials sciences needs to be seen as symbiotic, not as a dichotomy. My use of “disdain” was also directed towards Chauhan’s comments (and not towards you), who I read as claiming that “scholars” could not be produced by a system that placed emphasis on the sciences. I also provided examples of renowned researchers in liberal arts who benefited in their work from having a scientific training.

          My conception of “social impact survey” is certainly not merely “measurement of land”, unlike what you claim. (You will notice that when I mentioned “social impact survey” in an earlier comment, I mentioned the more relevant field of statistics). I brought up measurements of land to show just one example of something a civil servant would have to do in her day to day job that would require basic understanding of both algebra and trigonometry. As for social impact surveys, I cannot imagine a civil servant being able to carry surveys of any utility without understanding at some level the basics of statistics. If you think otherwise, I would be interested to know your arguments.

          As for why I thought you were trying to present grade school algebra and trigonometry as esoteric subjects, here is a direct quote from your article

          Now after a change in syllabus algebra and trigonometry have been included. Thus, for those who decided to dump numbers after matriculation the ground is silently but surely shrinking behind their feet.

          Note that you are claiming that the ground would “shrink behind the feet” of some of the best liberal arts and social science graduates in the country if they are asked to solve some grade school algebra and trigonometry questions. If this is not at attempt at trying to present these as esoteric and arcane specialized disciplines, then I do not know what is.

          In an ideal world, the best liberal arts students in the country would not “dump numbers” after matriculation and would be no worse than, say, engineers, at middle school mathematics and logical reasoning, for the simple reason that they would be using these techniques day in and day out in their own studies. That this is not apparently happening is the real cause of problems with our educational system.

          1. AYAN GUHA

            I am sorry to say that my article has not attempted to establish any dichotomy between pure science and social science. It is your deduction which is not correct at all. In this age of interdisciplinary research there is a great deal of intercourse between different domains of knowledge which I acknowledge as extremely necessary. However, this does not mean that in order to design a rational education system of the type you idealize we shall stop making distinctions between different types of knowledge. It is an unfair tendency to brand any efforts of making necessary distinction between different specialized disciplines of knowledge as an attempt at establishing dichotomy between science and social science. It is bad for diversity and specialized pursuit of knowledge.

            You have tried to highlight only the technical aspects of the social impact survey without any effort to analyze the importance of the word ‘social’ in it. I hope this is not deliberate on your part since you are the one who advocates that only society needs liberal arts and the government and the state don’t need liberal arts. Moreover, the technical and statistical aspects of social impact survey which you highlight are dealt with and approved by many technical staff while the bureaucrat coming through the UPSC civil service examination primarily ensures the implementation of the projects by negotiating various societal and political factors peculiar to the area of the project. If it is presumed that basic knowledge in statistics is absolutely necessary without which bureaucrats can’t do anything then administrators with pure arts background would not have been able to implement any single governmental measure.

            The cited portion of my article does not any way suggest that trigonometry and mensuration are esoteric subject. You have exhibited a classic example of blowing things out of proportion in using the word ‘esoteric’. In the whole process you have also given a bizarre definition of a ‘good liberal arts student’. According to you a good student of liberal arts should not have any problem in solving basic problems of trigonometry and mensuration. Rather he would be ‘no worse than, say, engineers, at middle school mathematics and logical reasoning for the simple reason that they would be using these techniques day in and day out in their own studies’. This means that a good liberal arts student is that person who solves basic problems of middle school mathematics and logical reasoning with the same efficiency and accuracy as an engineer irrespective of his expertise in social sciences. Therefore, as per your standard a person despite having good knowledge of history can’t be called a good history student so long as he can’t prove himself to be as good as an engineer in solving middle school mathematical problems. In addition, a good social science scholar is someone who in course of his research needs to routinely borrow from disciplines of science and mathematics. Otherwise his research can’t qualify as substantial research of excellent category. This whole argument demeans social science and completely robs it of its autonomy. Most importantly, it exposes an inherent bias towards and absolute non-respect for non-scientific disciplines.

            I accept the point that all should be able to solve basic mathematical problems. But in a competitive examination what matters is solving problems as fast as possible. And it is wrong to expect a history graduate to solve basic mathematical problems as fast as a physics graduate simply because the latter deals with numbers more frequently, day in and day out. Moreover, I do agree that there is scope for social sciences to learn things from disciplines of science but it is wrong to judge any social science project through its ability to use the principles of science. Such an expectation stems from some inherent disregard for non-science discipline since it gives one form of knowledge, i.e. science to legitimize the pursuit of another domain of knowledge, i.e. social science.

        2. S

          I should also add that I completely agree with you that the current emphasis on ranking everyone and everything on every possible metric that pervades our system (and especially UPSC) is very unhealthy, and quite counterproductive.

  7. suresh

    I should also add that I completely agree with you that the current emphasis on ranking everyone and everything on every possible metric that pervades our system (and especially UPSC) is very unhealthy, and quite counterproductive.

    When the number of applicants far exceeds the number of available posts, ranking candidates is inevitable. This is the state of affairs throughout our economy, be it public sector or private sector. And despite a number of people pointing to the problems that mass unemployment will cause, no government so far has got to grips with the problem.

    That said, why is ranking “unhealthy”? True, ranking can obscure but very often, the “raw data” is equally obscure. Ranking, in whatever context, is basically an attempt to aggregate disparate, and often contradictory, pieces of information. In the process of aggregation, vital information can be lost, so the key is to use the ranking sensibly, in conjunction with other information. While this can be done, it is also more costly in the sense that more time and effort is needed. This is probably why most universities in our country simply rely on the average mark of a candidate to determine admission rather than rely on a overall picture of the candidate. This is regrettable, sure, but in the absence of more quality schools and universities (a point that Avantika emphasizes) there is little point complaining about it.

    1. S

      No, I think there is a lot of point in complaining about the fact that rankings are given much more importance in our system that needs to be given to them. At IITs, it is not just whether or not you enter the college, but also what you study is determined by a ranking generated out of a three hour exam.

      An even sadder farce with rankings plays out every year at DU colleges with 100% cutoffs. Any person with any background in measuring anything knows that measurements which purport to be more precise than the “least count” of the measuring device are useless. Yet, the people at DU see nothing wrong in using highly variable board exam marks as if they were completely precise measurements (the IITs at least recognized that problems and used to go to ridiculous lengths to ensure that JEE marks for the same answers do not vary with examiners).

      The UPSC is even worse, in that these imprecise rankings are used to assign people to different services (a large part of this also, of course, has to do with the another silly ranking within our civil services where the IAS somehow is the “top ranked” service, for no real rhyme or reason).

  8. Oly

    Exceptionally good article. I have not read something as original as this for a long time. Clearly one of the best I have come across on this fantastic website. The author has not only argued with great depth and originality but also refuted counter arguments with sharp replies. Particularly the way he has countered Avantika’s arguments is impressive.

  9. S


    In your comment you accuse me of not having an awakened conscience. You seem to attribute to me quotes like ’That is an insult to your own intelligence – please refrain from stereotyping people’ that you would not find in my comments (they are all there, you are welcome to search). You accuse me of misrepresenting Neha Chauchan, but proffer no examples. These are exactly the kind of things in mind I had when I said that rhetorical devices with no logical base do not make an argument. It is not a personal attack on you, it is an attack on a style with conflates logical arguments with accusing people of not having a conscience. On other other hand, accusing someone of not having an awakened conscience is quite certainly a personal attack.

    Yes, I too suggested that you had misrepresented Melange/Madhulika’s opinion. As you indeed had when you claimed in a comment that he/she was suggesting that all liberal arts students are “leftists” (none of his/her comments say anything of the sort as far as I can make out, and he/she pointed that out to you too). As I would repeat again, putting words in other people mouths is another sad example of that same rhetorical style.

    In any case, I got your bio from the byline at the end of the article, which mentions you are an Assistant Professor, and I took the liberty to deduce that this implies you are an early career academic. Apologies if you find that deduction offensive. I find that there is too much emotion flowing here, so find no point in trying to continue any arguments based on facts and logic.

    1. AYAN GUHA

      It seems that you have not read my last reply carefully. Probably, you were in a hurry. I have not attributed these quotes to you nor have I said anything personal against you. You will probably understand this you again if you read my last reply. If you still feel the same way then I am sorry. I have only said that– if you find my reply against her (which I feel is logical and not misrepresentation and rhetorical) objectionable and found your conscience so awakened that you intervened on her behalf then you should have also objected when the statements of her which I quoted were made against me. You failure to do legitimately suggests inconsistency in you response.

      The example you give about me resorting to misrepresentation does not suggest any misrepresentation. It is a logical deduction from things said and mentioned. Most interestingly, this example has not been taken form the post which you found to be based on misrepresentation.

      There is reason for me not presenting any examples of you misrepresenting another blogger. I have already mentioned that unlike you I don’t believe in arguing on anyone’s behalf. Presenting examples of you misrepresenting another person would be tantamount to arguing on behalf of that person. Apart form this, I have always tried to present reasons behind any generalization made by me. You are free to dislike my reasons but it is not right to loosely use terms such as ‘rhetorical’ when reasons are given and perspectives are offered.

      Byline at the end is not equivalent to bio. Lastly, I agree with you on one thing and quite strongly. The matter needs to be closed here.

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