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 firstname.lastname@example.org)