The Absurdity of the National Eligibility Test

What are the aptitudes, capabilities, skills and qualities that a university teacher/researcher – particularly in the domain of humanities and social sciences – needs to cultivate, and is the NET in tune with this spirit?

I think I was lucky. When I was a university student, there was no National Eligibility Test (NET). Hence, I could afford to be like Dostoyevsky’s ‘ridiculous man’ – dreaming, imagining and wondering. I was not ‘precise’, ‘objective’ and ‘structured’. Instead, I cherished my epistemological anarchism. My professor once asked me to write an essay on American sociologist Talcott Parsons. I was moving around the library to find a copy of his famous book The Structure of Social Action; I did not find it; instead, through an accidental discovery I found Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. I forgot Parsons and learned more about Greene’s literary creations, his politico-spiritual sensibilities. Yes, I learned sociology through this madness. And possibly my professors found some possibility in this madness; I was enrolled in the PhD programme, and eventually, I also got an opportunity to teach.

I say I am lucky because had I been a student now, I would have failed in the NET – a centralised/public examination with special emphasis on ‘subject knowledge’ as well as ‘teaching and research aptitude’ conducted for selecting people for research/teaching. For instance, it is impossible for me to give one and only one ‘correct’ answer to a typical NET question like this: What is sociology? The reason is that I love to engage with multiple possibilities – from a study of Durkheimian ‘social facts’ to Weberian interpretative understanding of meaningful social actions, from the description of the ‘taken-for-granted’ intersubjective world phenomenologists talk about to an engagement with the process of what Anthony Giddens would have regarded as ‘structuration’ – the dialectical interplay of agency and structure.

My uncertainty or pluralistic vision, I fear, would make no sense to a typical academic bureaucrat obsessed with the certainty of ‘correct’ answers, and from whose mind the idea of an examination of this kind comes. Likewise, even though I have been teaching for more than 25 years, and my students, as I like to believe, are not entirely unhappy with me, it is impossible for me to give the ‘correct’ answer to yet another NET-style multiple choice question:

Effective teaching is a function of:

  • Teacher’s satisfaction
  • Teacher’s honesty and commitment
  • Teacher making students learn and understand
  • Teacher striving for professional excellence

A teacher’s creativity, a researcher’s criticality

However, this article is not merely about my unease with the NET. I see my students – imaginative and thoughtful – expressing their anxiety and anguish. ‘Sir, it is an ugly examination. I can’t concentrate. How can I become so mechanical?’ their expressions of boredom lead me to ask a far more serious question. What are the aptitudes, capabilities, skills and qualities that a university teacher/researcher – particularly in the domain of humanities and social sciences – needs to cultivate, and is the NET in tune with this spirit?

It is obvious that a teacher has to be a good communicator capable of retaining the autonomy of a vibrant classroom interaction. This is possible only when a teacher has something of his/her own – say, intellectual depth, critical consciousness and creative thinking which no Google or Wikipedia can replace. For instance, it is possible for a quiz master to answer to a question like this: In which year did Bronislaw Malinowski publish Sex and Repression in a Savage Society? But then a good teacher is not a quiz master; his/her primary task is to invite the young learners to the world of ideas. What is, therefore, important is not to memorise a discrete fact like the year of publication, but to understand the nuanced arguments that Malinowski made – his ability to see the limits to the Freudian theory located in a patriarchal/nuclear family setting with repressive Victorian morality amongst Trobriand Islanders with an altogether different cultural and psychic experience.

This careful reading demands not rote memorisation, but a fairly developed interpretative and analytical skill. Likewise, a teacher as a catalyst needs to have sufficient open/dialogic space within to encourage students to cherish ambiguities. For instance, it is not about whether Gandhi was wrong and Ambedkar was right; it is rather to make students think whether ‘modernist’ Ambedkar’s engagement with Buddhism and eventual realisation that the abolition of caste requires a moral/spiritual transformation was taking him closer to ‘spiritualist’ Gandhi, even if he had not acknowledged it.

Also read: The Perils of an Exam-Centric Education System

Far from living with the certainty of a ‘correct’ answer, a good teacher encourages students to rethink what appears to be ‘correct’. Furthermore, a researcher needs the ability to raise new questions. Analytical thinking and empathic understanding, alert observation and self-reflexivity, seeing the values beneath the facts and creatively organised writing (not mechanised/predictable writing for academic production keeping the ‘trendy’ journals in mind) – a researcher ought to cultivate all these faculties of learning and unlearning.

To give yet another illustration, even if I am familiar with what the NET examination wants me to know – say, whether it was Karl Marx or Noam Chomsky or Alfred Sauvy who coined the term ‘First World’, I may fail to be a good researcher unless I allow myself to be troubled by an uncomfortable question like why the ‘First World’ should continue to be called ‘first’, despite its brutal history of colonialism, American imperialism, moral violence and ethically repulsive cultural globalisation. This means passionate critical thinking – an enquiry into the politics of ‘facts’, something beyond a memory bank comfortable with tabular techniques. It is in this sense that our colleges and universities need young sensitive minds as good teachers and creative researchers and subversive thinkers. The question is: How do we find them?

Seeing beyond the hollowness of the NET

The NET in its present form, as the University Grants Commission wants us to believe, is the best way. I believe I have already succeeded in establishing the hollowness of an examination of this kind. Yet we need to know why it exists. The fact is that it prevails because its primary goal is not to evaluate, but to eliminate people as quickly as possible; it is like any other large-scale competitive examination that needs only a programmed machine to filter people. Despite ‘postmodern’ critique of ‘solid foundations’ of modernity, the fact is that we still prioritise a set of beliefs – knowledge is a measurable quantity, mathematical reasoning is the only form of rationality, whatever cannot be quantified is irrelevant and subjectivity or creative imagination is a mere narrative that has to be distinguished from hard truth.

The NET, it seems, is a cumulative manifestation of these beliefs trying to measure the solidity of one’s knowledge. Otherwise, is there any reason for a potential researcher/teacher in the field of literature and humanities who would engage with William Blake and T.S. Eliot, Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh to prove his/her worth by answering to a question like this: ‘A tin contains 50 paise, 25 paise and 10 paise coins in the ratio 5:9:4, amounting to Rs 206. Find the number of coins of each type?’ In fact, this insistence on ‘objective’ questions means that as a society we are getting used to dull uniformity and standardisation; we dislike innovative ideas, creative reflection, critical thinking and a dialogic mind; and even poetry, sociology and philosophy are objectified with instant definitions and bullet point categorisation. With mechanisation, repetition, joylessness and endless drilling we are preparing the ground for mediocrity and totalitarianism.

This is a dangerous trend. At times, as a teacher, I find myself helpless. Yet I like to believe that amidst this absurdity, the classroom is the only space I can negotiate with, and I dare to experiment and innovate. I tell my students, ‘My teaching would not help you in cracking the NET. But then, you would learn something deeper, you would celebrate the passion of Marx, the madness of Foucault, the melancholy of Weber.’

Hence, unlike the fact-centric/non-reflexive/objective questions I give them a different sort of challenge. For instance, instead of asking the ‘correct’ definition of ‘culture industry’ (Could even Theodor Adorno define it in ten words?), I encourage them to write a photo essay on it. Or, instead of asking them to order the following books (The Division of Labour, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) on the basis of year of publication, I persuade them to revisit concepts like ‘alienation’, ‘anomie’ and ‘disenchantment’ by collecting the life histories of the marginalised migrants in the city. The computer cannot evaluate their answers. There is no fixed answer.

I am a teacher precisely because I am not a programmed computer, and I trust human agency – the beauty of reasoned ‘subjectivity’ of my students. Yes, it is an attempt – small yet meaningful – in creating an alternative to the culture of learning that sustains an examination like the NET. Its full implementation, however, demands decentralised/autonomous universities that trust teachers rather than a mindless bureaucratic machine for choosing our future educators. It seems that the UGC with its centralised bureaucracy and pedagogic numbness is simply incapable of understanding the true spirit of higher education.

Yes, I am pragmatic enough to admit that my students, despite my madness trying to arouse their creativity, have to survive in this one dimensional/quantified world of capsule-contained knowledge and hence with a sense of strange paradox I do not forget to convey my best wishes to them for the obnoxious NET.

 Avijit Pathak is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.