Education

A muggy affair

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Why do our examinations encourage rote learning? Is there a way students can get out of this unproductive habit?

I was an okay student in school, sort of halfway between the passable and the disastrous, with (very) occasional flashes of unexplained brilliance. But I was in high demand before the exams. I had an exotic skill. I could write in a microscopic hand and yet make every single letter legible. And I could fit a fairly solid answer on the French revolution or crop rotation on paper the size of a folded napkin.

I guess you are getting the drift? I was busy before exams; not studying, but cramming as many algebra equations, as many history and geography answers, entire booklets on plant and animal life — all on sheets of paper that could fit into the boys’ underwear. That was the preferred location, though some experimental types tried socks, insides of belt-loops, and a few other places.

Valuable aid

It was a skill that held me in even better stead in college, where the questions were within guessing range but the answers were longer. A single napkin took care of the entirety of Shakespeare’s plays and Durkheim’s theory of suicide was half a napkin.

They were the best study-aid I could have personally devised.

The questions themselves, the anthologies of test papers, were proudly on sale throughout College Street in Kolkata, most notably right before the cash counter of the University of Calcutta. The expectation appeared to be that they would be the first purchase a student would make after registering at the university. It was like buying school uniform.

To understand the high value placed on this curious skill, we need to recall the origin story of our institutions of higher education.

The universities set up in India by the British, in the 19th century, were nothing like the centres of higher learning that had existed in Western Europe for centuries. ‘The first universities that came into being in 1857 in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras,’ writes sociologist Andre Beteille, ‘were set up primarily for conducting examinations and awarding degrees, and not for undertaking research or even teaching’. Research was confined to specialised institutions such as the Asiatic Society or the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, and teaching was left to the colleges.

In 1857, the British government passed the Acts of Incorporation, which established the three universities in the three presidencies: Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. The preambles to the three Acts, scholar Suresh Chandra Ghosh points out, were all pretty similar. They all defined the objects of the universities as ‘ascertaining by means of examination the persons who have acquired proficiency in different branches of Literature, Science and Art and rewarding them by Academic Degrees as evidence of their respective attainments’.

Have you wondered why the arts came to develop in such an inartistic manner at so many leading Indian universities? How did the humanities become the shadow of a competitive exam subject, complete with question banks, coaching manuals, and endless cycles of memorialisation and mugging up?

Clerical model

The answer belongs to the history of a university system put in place to serve the administrative needs of a colonial empire; an education meant to be an effective factory of government clerks and bureaucrats.

Under this system, education is simply seen as the consumption of knowledge. Exams test how well you consumed it. In serving their administrative goal, the British left out the other major function of universities, already well-established in the 19th century by Wilhelm von Humboldt at the University of Berlin — that of the production of new knowledge. It is no surprise that the clerical model of the colonial university in India rarely encourages the production of new knowledge or questions by its passivised student body.

If you go to College Street today, you will see right next to the historic structures of the University of Calcutta and Presidency University, the crowded collection of makeshift stalls that once sold real books. Now, they sell nothing but coaching manuals and question banks. In New India, the collections of BA and B.Sc question papers have, for the most part, been replaced by question banks for GRE, GMAT, and entrance tests for engineering and medicine.

The soul of the colonial clerk now lives in different bodies.

The writer is professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University, and is the author of College: Pathways of Possibility. @_saikatmajumdar.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 5:57:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/a-muggy-affair/article29990736.ece

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