The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Genuine scholarship is beyond the memorizing of facts

By Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal

Since the objective of higher education is the broadening of the frontiers of human psyche through ceaseless pursuit of knowledge, the Universities and other temples of learning were set up with the ennobling mission to inculcate liberally rationalized spirit of free enquiry, methodically empirical scientific temper and democratically egalitarian thought process amongst the learners.

Established in accordance with the Charles Wood’s celebrated Dispatch of 1854, the earliest contemporary Indian Universities of Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay have their respective mottos of Doctrina Vim Promovet Insitam (Learning promotes natural talent), Advancement of Learning, and Sheetvrata Phala Vidya (The fruit of learning is good character and righteous conduct). The academic ideals as enshrined in these three mottos written in Latin, English, and Sanskrit languages stand for the holistic dissemination of knowledge through the tools of elaborate discussions, scholarly interpretations, and multiple analyses by the faculty.

In this age of Information technology, when the youth is armed with different modalities of internet, the role of a teacher as interpreter and explicator has increased manifold. Google and other search engines can provide the learners with plethora of factual data. Any obscure information which was earlier lost in mazes of a library is just a click away on the smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other electronic devices. Virtual teaching modules as prepared by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) such as Coursera and UGC NPTEL have opened up rare and treasured recesses of knowledge for the young learners.

In such a situation of information overload, the Universities must not be just information dissemination service centres. They must open up new vistas of scholarship through new and dynamic interpretations of the given subjects. It is only through the novelty of ideological revolution in the Universities that the insatiable thirst of the scholars will be quenched. Stagnant pools of knowledge at a centre of higher learning can never promote innovative researches. Tennyson has succinctly put forward this point of view in ‘Ulysses’: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!/As tho’ to breathe were life!” Roland Barthes’ ‘reader response theory’, as expounded in his seminal essay, “The Death of the Author”, emphasizes the multiple readings of the text and this opening up of numerous layers of interpretations is only possible in a University system that values dialogue more than the sheer transmission of raw facts.

The elaborately argumentative methodology of loquaciously pedantic exchanges of the faculty is not without precedence both in India and abroad. Yama-Nachiketa,Yagyavalka-Gargi, and Krishna-Arjuna dialogues of the East and Plato-Socratic inquisitions of the West are just  few of the examples of this dialectical tradition. It is only by awakened questioning of the established order at the University system and not by stooping low to the tantrums of traditional orthodoxy that new ideas come to the fore. This awakened enquiry also pinpoints the fact that no idea can claim absolute, objective, categorical, and universalized form of certainty. Rather, all social/cultural values, customs are relative to time and space.

The University Grants Commission was established by the Act of 1956 to promote the milieu of teaching, learning, and research in the country. Chapter III of the aforesaid Act clearly lays down the functions of the apex body: “It shall be the general duty of the Commission to take, in consultation with the Universities or other bodies concerned, all such steps as it may think fit for the promotion and co-ordination of University education and for the determination and maintenance of standards of teaching, examination and research in Universities…”

However, the examination pattern adopted by the UGC for its prestigious NET displays serious anomalies in its functioning. As per UGC website, “The National Educational Testing Bureau of University Grants Commission (UGC) conducts National Eligibility Test (NET) to determine eligibility for lectureship and for award of Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) for Indian nationals in order to ensure minimum standards for the entrants in the teaching profession and research.” Earlier, there used to be two multiple choice question papers: the first was the General paper on Teaching and Research Aptitude and the second on the concerned subject. The third paper, that was analytically descriptive in nature, was evaluated after the success in the first two papers. This way, the candidate’s thorough grasp of the subject was assessed. Recently, the Commission has altered the nature of the third paper making it also MCQ type. This step might prove counter-productive in the long run, as the explanatory skills of the aspirants may never be assessed. The new age teachers would be just fact-remembering robots without any zeal and enthusiasm to discuss, debate, explain, explicate, and innovate. Moreover, this type of examination lays a lot of stress on objectivity of raw data, whereas in actual conditions of the class room a lot of subjective interpretation is needed, keeping in mind regional diversities of the country. A class in a contemporary Indian University is a heterogeneous lot, where students from different castes, communities, religions, and also different IQ level are present. In such a hybrid atmosphere, it is the oral articulation based on the illustrations from daily life situations matters more than the cramming of some facts.

MCQ tests are based on the assumption that the answers to the particular queries are final, ultimate and categorical; there is no going beyond those assumptions of the paper-setter. This over-simplification may sound like a death knell for further research as the very foundation of research is the questioning of the orthodox knowledge.

Unauthorized and untrained coaching institutes are also flourishing on account of this pattern as the teacher is not supposed to explain much. With the help of internet, these mushrooming institutes with pigmy knowledge background are providing the aspirants just the dry facts of the subjects. Besides, there are also complaints regarding the indiscriminate use of unfair means by the examinees in the tests of this nature. Sanctity of the whole examination system is at stake.

Some questions from June 2014 English paper for UGC NET may be seen as specimen:

* In which poem of Donne, the lover’s face is reflected in the eyes of his beloved?
* “Fop at the toilet, flatt’rer at the board/Now trips a lady, now struts a lord.” These lines are quoted from …
*The Tatler appeared thrice a week on …

What analytical skills are honed by such questions? What linguistic skills are assessed? It is beyond anybody’s conjecture. If an examinee despite being thoroughly aware of multiple interpretations of the above literary texts has forgotten some slight piece of information, s/he will not succeed. However, a sketchy and flimsy interventionist in the subject, possessing just the petty memory to cram facts from The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature, would qualify. Not only the UGC, several state Universities of Uttar Pradesh have begun this practice in order to get the results in time through OMR answer sheet evaluation.

But this pragmatic approach would dismantle the high ideals of higher education as laid down by our visionary forefathers, because genuine scholarship is beyond the memorizing of facts. The motto of the University system must be to create vibrant scholars who can interact with the masses, comprehend complex societal problems, and inculcate scientific temper in the next generation. Memories stuffed with several terabytes of facts may be suitable for the robot slaves, but they can’t be completely fit for the lively human beings ready to question, discuss, and be involved in the exchange of ideas.

Dr. Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal is Associate Professor of English at Feroze Gandhi College, Rae Bareli, India.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘The Idea of the University’, edited by Dr. Debaditya Bhattacharya, University of Calcutta, India.

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