I know that the ruling regime has not yet succeeded in diminishing the honour of Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Even though the university has been projected as a ‘troubled’ campus filled with ‘anti-national’ students and ‘ethically irresponsible leftist’ teachers, the fact is that it is still a university where ideas flourish, books are loved and discussed and classes held with absolute regularity; debates take place, Marx too is problematised, Ambedkar is not seen as infallible and teaching and research reinforce each other.
No wonder, despite what some of the ‘patriotic’ television channels propagate, young students from all over the country want to come to JNU and evolve as researchers, scholars and concerned citizens.
Yes, this time too they will apply, orient themselves and prepare for the JNU entrance test to be held in the month of May.
While I convey my best wishes to them, I also feel sorry for them. I know it is strange; but then, I will explain why it is so.
Killing the imagination: the absurdity of the MCQ
As a teacher, I know that here is a place that celebrates critical thinking, encourages a nuanced engagement with ideas and stresses on the need to master the language to conceptualise the world. In other words, JNU (I mean its liberal tradition) is about hermeneutic interpretations, critical insights and creative articulations. Hence, as a student begins to study, say, Karl Marx, she/he is required to read some of the original texts, debate, discuss and write an elaborate essay on, say, ‘commodity fetishism’.
Hence, the JNU entrance test was known for a qualitatively different kind of examination. Particularly in the social sciences, it used to raise the kind of questions that would require the ability to think, reflect, argue and express one’s observations in a coherent essay.
I recall a question which was asked in the MA entrance test for sociology (possibly in 2016). It began with an excerpt from Rabindranath Tagore’s illuminating essay on nationalism; and then asked the student to revisit Tagore in the context of the then-existing politics of nationalism. It was not a typical bookish question. Essentially, a question of this kind aims at evaluating the creative and critical faculty of the learner.
No wonder, preparing for the JNU entrance test was an experience of a different kind. It was not like cracking the unimaginative national eligibility test, or the mechanised UPSC prelims (which has even destroyed the joy of reading the morning newspaper, as every piece of news has to be classified as a possible question relating to ‘sports’, ‘foreign affairs’, ‘budget’ and ‘politics’). It was about reading good books; it was about thinking and imagination; it was fun; it was a celebration.
However, this time things will be different. Why not? Technology is the new god and hence, be prepared for a technologically mediated online test. Furthermore, in the age of ‘objectivity’ and ‘mathematical precision’, why should one bother about all those lengthy, ‘subjective’ essays to be evaluated by ’emotionally vulnerable’ teachers with all sorts of ‘biases’? Hence, sharpen the skill of clicking the ‘right’ answer’, and cherish the ‘efficiency’ of the MCQ pattern of exams – known for the magic of instantaneity and the ability to emancipate you from all sorts of silly mistakes that embodied creatures make.
No, you need not experience the ecstasy of reading a good book, or the creative joy of sharpening the art of argumentation and writing. Don’t bother to ponder why Michel Foucault began his classic Discipline and Punish with a quotation from Pascal: “Men are so necessarily mad that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.” Instead, consult an UPSC aspirant, read the smart guide books and acquire the ‘objective’ facts. For instance, the year in which Louis Dumont wrote Homo Hierarchious, the definition of ‘ideal type’ as per Max Weber or the location of Rampura – the village associated with M.N. Srinivas.
No, you should not waste time reflecting on philosophical riddles like whether there was another Marx beyond ‘economic determinism’, whether the Gandhi-Ambedkar duality on the caste question was too simplistic, or , for that matter, whether consumerism makes patriarchy sleek and glamorous. Critical thinking, as it is said, is bad because the system always whispers in your ears: “There is no alternative.”
Friends, I feel sorry for you. Death of philosophy. Death of language. Death of reflection. But then, you would be asked to believe that the MCQ actually evaluates your ‘reasoning faculty’, your efficiency in ‘quick thinking’ and even your ‘clarity’. Be a machine devoid of joy and illumination. Forgive us for taking you to this life-killing enterprise.
Yet, not everything is finished
Even at this moment of despair, I do not wish to disappoint these young aspirants. Some of them will eventually come to JNU and we are not yet dead. Till now, there has been no interference in the way we teach, or the the assignments we devise for our students. Thank god, no attempt has been made till now to introduce the MCQ pattern in the end semester examination. And ‘objective’ questions are not yet asked for mid-term assignments. Hence, once these students come to JNU, we are there to make them unlearn the mythology of the MCQ.
We love philosophical anarchy. We love debates and the plurality of interpretations. And we loathe the idea of what Amitabh Bachchan does: asking the participants in the Kaun Banega Crorepati to give one and only one ‘correct’ answer. Hence, we will decondition you. We would make you see Marx’s ‘romanticism’, despite his ‘materialism’; we would encourage you to read Ambedkar’s reflections on Marx and Buddha, and think of a comparative reading of Ambedkar’s Buddhism and Gandhi’s nuanced interpretations of the Bhagavadgita.
We would teach you positivism, empiricism and scientism. At the same time, we would ask you to ponder why Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is subject to multiple interpretations, or why the likes of Ashis Nandy evolve a sharp critique of ‘hegemonic science’. In other words, we will take you to the domain of chaos, uncertainty and philosophic wonder. No, there is no ‘correct’ answer – objectified and eternally stable. We would make you see that this quest for ‘objectivity’ is essentially a move towards authoritarian politics.
Friends, even at this moment of sadness, I urge you to come to JNU and unlearn what all these guide books, question banks and coaching centres have taught you.
JNU is still a possibility. Before they finish it, you have to come and fight your battle – politico-ethical, philosophic and pedagogic.
Avijit Pathak is a professor of sociology at JNU.