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Against the Rage of the Alumni of Jadavpur University English Department

RAIOT
By Professor  

The Bengali Bhadrolok class always gets rattled whenever there is even a scratch on its two academic fiefdoms, Presidency and Jadavpur Universities. These are the two primary apparatuses for the reproduction of hegemony of this class in Bengal’s socio-cultural life. No one has found this extraordinarily parochial class moving petitions or capturing media time and space to express their concern about or outrage against Bengal’s bleak education system. In the last few years, this class has gradually given up on the Presidency, and now, it is more bothered about Jadavpur. In the rising populist tidal water, the island mentality of the Bhadralok class has become acute. Latest is their rage against the decision of the Jadavpur University (JU) administration to scrap entrance examination to a few undergraduate programmes, English being the focal point. The alumni of Jadavpur University’s Department of English (JUDE) have drafted a statement condemning the decision—and it reeks of this myopic island mentality and superiority complex. (We must add the caveat that the content of the draft statement is continuously changing.)

In this statement, the alumni make various tenuous connections between entrance examination and merit. They remind us that JU was established to defy the norm. If earlier the norm was the British education system, now it is the mass school education system. JUDE has no trust in mass schooling and the board examinations are apparently farcical act of answering “multiple-choice questions.” The board examinations do not identify the “talented” students. The alumni are shamelessly self-referential here. They rehearse the hackneyed talent-merit argument to claim their rightful place in this world. They were the people “who [liked] to dream, who [liked] to explore, who [liked] to think,” and therefore, did not participate in the “rat race” of public education and did not care about performance in the board examinations. The faculty of JUDE somehow knows how to identify these gems—“people like us” as the statement proclaims—among the garbage churned out by the mass education system. The alumni did not seek “conventional careers” when they got admitted into JUDE, however, a few lines later, they reveal the fields where they are employed: “art, academia, film, entrepreneurship, publishing, writing, advertising and many other fields.” This supposedly “[showcased] the success of these departments in scouting and honing talent.” Nothing can be more pretentious and patently false than this. The fields that the alumni mention are not only conventional but are also highly nepotistic, very closely guarded by the pan-Indian upper caste and upper middle class. By “rich diversity,” the alumni understand the diverse employment that they have found, not the social backgrounds. If one goes by the surnames of 231 alumni who have signed the statement so far (6 July, 2.30pm), then approximately 88% of them belong to the upper caste, and only four or five are Muslims and one is an adivasi. We should not be surprised if we find that except the mandated reserved seats, most of the students that JUDE has admitted in the last 40 years were from upper caste and upper middle class. (We would be extremely glad if the alumni and JUDE put forward data to counter our (mis)perception.) The statement ends with the collective horror of the alumni that the admission will “become a lottery,” forgetting the lottery of birth which most of them had already won. JUDE has done nothing to “scout talents,” it only selected from what had washed up on its shore. I doubt whether it conducts entrance examinations in any part of Bengal other than its south Kolkata campus. One is reminded of the great debate that takes place in Britain over admission process and diversity in the Oxbridge colleges (our beloved reference points). But our postcolonial English-loving Bhadrolok class does not even pretend that these are issues that it needs to engage with while administrating institutions.

The scrapping of entrance examination and the stance that the Bhadrolok class have adopted raise two questions:

  1. Should we continue with both board examinations and entrance tests?
  2. Are teachers entitled to select which students they want to admit and teach in the undergraduate level?

The issue is not the survival of islands of the so-called centre of excellence in a sea of mediocrity, but it is about the education system as a whole and school education in particular.

It is also absurd that the aptitude and ability of the students cannot be honed or demonstrated in the schooling system but can only be judged later by the college teachers. The distrust of the elite colleges can be a genuine one, but the solution to this problem cannot be found in creating a bypass through special entrance tests. Entrance tests and interviews allow the teachers, worldwide, to control the admission process, and they invariably tend to select “people like them”, students who fit into their worldview, class, race and caste. It is a process of preserving the ideology and interests of the privileged. If the question paper which JUDE sets for the entrance test is not based on the standard higher secondary syllabi, then how will the aspiring students prepare for the test? If the questions are based on the syllabi, then what is the need for an entrance test? There is not only a circular logic to JUDE’s and alumni’s argument, but also points to a social scandal. The persistence of entrance examination shows that even the private schools have not managed to create students “who like to dream, who like to explore, who like to think.” In the present setup, dreaming, exploring and thinking happen outside the school system, by the children of the privileged class who enjoy special social circumstances which allow them to get training at home and in their social network, access books, and receive parental guidance and mentoring. These youngsters are well-suited to crack an out-of-syllabi entrance test.

Therefore, in the name of excellence in education, we cannot argue for and create parallel channels and islands for the privileged class to survive and reproduce, be it through private or public funding. No student is born with ‘god’-given ability to “dream, explore and think,” so the colleges and the universities cannot demand that the students come to them with these abilities. Rather it is the duty of academic institutions to cultivate these abilities.

What is required is the creation of a good quality universal and common primary and secondary education systems, which train the students from all the sections of the society to dream, explore and think, apart from other academic and sporting abilities and skills. Thereafter, let the students, not the college teachers, decide and choose what they want to do in their life.