The government’s recent move to expand numerical quotas in the Central universities and institutions for teaching and research in engineering, management and medicine in favour of the other backward classes has led to much acrimony and some abusive exchanges. Abusive attacks on those whose views are opposed to one’s own only muddy the waters and do not lead to any fruitful outcome.
It is said, no doubt with some exaggeration, that doctors, engineers and others who should know better have persistently attacked the expansion of quotas by insinuating and even saying openly that those who belong to the backward classes are stupid and unintelligent. Such remarks are not only offensive, they are unscientific since it is well established that there is no relationship between caste and innate intellectual ability. On the other side, a senior member of the government is reported to have said that talk about merit is a form of the practice of mental untouchability. How can one prevent people, whether in India or outside, from talking about merit'
Let me make it clear that while the obsession with merit is unhealthy, we cannot dispense with considerations of merit in either education or employment if we are serious about creating a modern society that is both just and efficient. The obsession with merit is worrisome because it leads to the neglect of all other values and to give an unduly narrow focus to what should be recognized and rewarded in education and employment.
In assessing the performance of students at no matter which level, we cannot afford to leave intelligence out of account. But in practice even while we take intelligence into account, we also pay attention to effort. Every teacher — and employer — knows that intelligence and effort do not always go together.
Some teachers prefer students who are quick, sharp and alert, but such students sometimes put in little effort and perform badly in the end. Hence teachers also value students who are only moderately intelligent but are steadfast in the effort required for successful performance. The Latin poet, Horace, wrote that nothing worth having in life comes to mortal men without great effort.
The problem with quotas is not simply that they make short work of intelligence but that in the long run they act as a depressant on effort. The depressing effect on individual effort of social policies designed to benefit disadvantaged communities has not gone unnoticed in the United States which has had a rather mild policy of affirmative action in favour of blacks. In an important paper, the black economist, Glenn Lourie, pointed out that the cushion of affirmative action tends to lead blacks to underinvest in skill-formation in comparison with whites: “that is, policies intended to assure equality of achievement may end up producing inequality of skills”. In our preoccupation with intelligence, we tend to overlook the effort that goes into successful performance in highly competitive institutions; this is a serious mistake.
No institution can move forward or even survive in the modern world unless it gives due recognition to performance. This is particularly true in the fields of education and employment. Psychologists use the concept of “generalized intelligence” and have devised tests of various kinds to measure it. But it is evident that there are different kinds of intelligence and not just different degrees of it. The kind of intelligence that makes for success in politics is very different from the kind that brings success in scientific research. Highly successful scientists are notoriously simple-minded in practical affairs.
Academic institutions, particularly at the upper end, employ various tests to decide upon admissions. These tests are not so much tests of generalized intelligence as of aptitude for success in the specific programmes to which admission is being considered. They have become increasingly demanding and rigorous over the years for two reasons. First, the demand for admissions at the upper end has increased manifold; the creation of more places can, at best, reduce the gap between demand and supply, but not eliminate it. Second, science and scholarship have grown continuously over time, and therefore training in their disciplines requires greater preparedness at the point of entry.
Many persons, including distinguished academics, have pointed to the baneful social consequences of relentless competition and the obsession with merit. While that may be true, modern academic institutions cannot function at the highest levels unless they are selective in terms of aptitude, ability and performance. In the past, the older universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, gave less importance to scholastic aptitude and more to family and social standing.
That worked reasonably well in a world in which the advance of knowledge took place at a slow pace. The universities did not lack intelligent people then, but most such people had little incentive to devote much effort to their work. With some notable exceptions, our universities are now becoming like the universities in England and France 200 years ago.
When the universities in Europe were stagnating 200 years ago, they were not growing in size or increasing in numbers. Today our universities are stagnating academically but they are expanding demographically. This demographic expansion creates a kind of illusion in so far as it masks the steady decline in quality behind the increase in quantity. The keepers of statistics in the ministries concerned never tire of repeating that our universities are now producing many more BAs, MAs and even PhDs than in the past, and their main concern is to ensure that these numbers keep on increasing. The kind of education that leads to such degrees has now become a secondary concern.
Serious attempts were made in the early years of Independence to carry forward the advances in science and scholarship that had begun to be made in a small number of universities during the colonial period. While they were expected to contribute something to development, it was generally acknowledged that the main purpose of the universities was the ‘advancement of learning’.
With the explosive growth of the middle class in the last couple of decades, the pressure on the universities to produce more and more graduates began to mount. Here the state governments took the lead and, under pressure from politicians, the universities began to relax standards for both admissions and examinations. Many state governments have adopted a carrot-and-stick policy towards the universities.
They have promised increased financial allocations for the increased production of graduates. Having admitted large numbers of ill-trained and ill-equipped students, the authorities fight shy of failing them even when they perform poorly. Where a significant number of those who perform poorly are from socially disadvantaged communities, failing them would invite the further charge of caste bias, which is a grave charge that can lead to a political upheaval.
It will be wrong to argue that caste quotas alone have contributed to the relaxation of effort in our academic institutions. But they have been an important contributory factor. Beneficiaries of caste quotas have come to believe that their entry into the universities is the vindication of a social claim that cannot be set aside merely on academic grounds. This is the most serious challenge that our premier academic institutions will have to face in the years ahead.