The Central University Entrance Test Has Strangled the Spirit of Literature

“Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the mind of reasoning animals upon facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

The famous opening line of Hard Times, a novel written by Charles Dickens, which critiqued a growing focus on the  memorisation of raw information over imagination and subjectivity in Victorian England, has probably been adopted by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in its truest sense. It is probably fair to say that the UGC has become an ally of Thomas Gradgrind, the antagonist of the book, who imposes a fact-oriented education on his students, depriving them of imagination and individuality.

The maiden central university entrance test for various undergraduate and postgraduate programs introduced by the UGC is a perfect example of rote learning. Not only was the exam ill-planned, but its objective approach was also unsuitable  for various humanities courses – especially literature, which requires a great deal of critical thinking and analysis.

As an undergraduate literature student, I was always told that there were no ‘correct answers’ in literature and that is where the beauty of the subject resided. A piece of literature could be interpreted in a thousand different ways, even when it was separated from the socio-historical context it was written in. Shakespeare penned his plays ages ago when Queen Elizabeth I ruled England, but Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptations of major Shakespearean tragedies never really failed in holding a mirror to the realities of contemporary India, thus demonstrating the multi-faceted quality of literature. It is extremely ironic then that a discipline meant to inculcate subjectivity and encourage individual opinions, when taken under CUET, admits students on the basis of how well they can memorise trivia.

Also read: Glaring Mistakes in PG English CUET Answer Keys; Students Forced to Pay to Point Out ‘Errors’

A masters degree in literature or any other social science subject often acts as a bridge towards research and admitting students on the basis of an MCQ test alone with no emphasis on any qualitative assessment, can hamper the cause of a postgraduate degree. Hence, there is a great divide between what a student has to study to ensure admission and what is expected of them once they are admitted.

The CUET for literature was nothing short of a trivia quiz. The 100-mark section on mathematics, logical reasoning, general knowledge, etc left most of the students bewildered. Mathematical questions on profit and loss, speed, distance and time were too lengthy and heavy to qualify as basic math. While I do agree that mathematics and reasoning are integral to a lot of disciplines, testing a student’s mathematical abilities in two hours for a postgraduate social science programme makes little sense.

What is even more disappointing is that the 300-mark section supposedly meant to test us on literature had absolutely nothing to do with estimating a candidate’s literary sense.

The so-called literature section had questions on the date of publication of important essays instead of the influence those essays had on literary works. More than half of the paper had questions concerning the name or pen name of certain authors, the title of the works written by them and the name of the awards won by them. The social milieu against which those works were written, the norms that they tried to subvert  and their relevance in contemporary times was completely out of question.

Some of the questions also asked candidates to identify the name of the poet or the literary critic after reading an extract from one of their poems or essays respectively, which is probably the epitome of mindless memorisation. No question was centred around the major issues or themes that a piece of literature tried to raise or around the defining traits of the most iconic characters in fiction.

Besides an excessive objective approach, the questions also suffered from the lack of diversity and representation. The hegemony of British literature was maintained very well, with little focus on postcolonial literature, Dalit literature, tribal literature, queer literature, etc. If all literature is a representation and reflection of reality, why does the reality of certain groups hold more significance over the lived experiences of other groups? Why is such elitism in literature institutionalised? Many central universities, including Jawaharlal Nehru University and Ambedkar University, have been striving to make a curriculum that is inclusive of literature belonging to lesser known regions and languages – to which the CUET did little justice.

Also read: CUET’s Implementation Has Undoubtedly Been Botched – But Most Have Ignored the Issue

Before the advent of CUET, several reputed central universities like Hyderabad Central University, English and Foreign Language University, Ambedkar University, etc preserved the sanctity  of literature by conducting subjective entrance exams. These exams required students to write critical responses to a literary text, a movie or even an advertisement to gain an insight into their thought process and evaluate how well are the candidates able to articulate their opinions as writing fluency is very vital for a career in humanities.

However, with the announcement of a centralised exam for postgraduate courses, these handful of  universities were also swallowed by a common objective test, leaving negligible room for subjectivity to flourish and find a platform. More central universities now use invalid and superficial yardsticks to assess a candidate’s suitability for liberal arts.

Private universities like Ashoka University, Shiv Nadar University, Kriya University, Flames University already hold an edge over public universities in liberal arts due to a better student teacher ratio and a more research centric and contemporary curriculum. The introduction of an extremely objective exam will only widen the gap between the two as private universities have been following a more academically valid process for selection that includes subjective tests, interviews, personal essays and recommendations. Thus, students from marginalised groups are definitely at risk of being further pushed to the margins.

In a country where opting for humanities after Class 10 is still frowned upon, the CUET has definitely further pushes subjectivity to the periphery of academia.

Tripti Moolchandani is a former student of English Literature at Gargi College, University of Delhi.