CSS: Why English?

By Anjum Altaf

The most recent written examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) has been characterized by two stark statistics: a dismal overall success rate of about 2% and a steep failure rate of 92% in English, a compulsory subject.

The first statistic has attracted much attention with commentators attributing the abysmally low pass percentage to the poor standard of education in the country. The second has been cited in passing only as reportage without generating any serious analysis. I believe there is much to be gained by exploring what it reveals.

On face value the CSS results do suggest a declining quality of education in the country, something educationists have been been highlighting for a while. Irrespective of other causes, this is an inevitable consequence of the supply of competent teachers lagging the demand in the absence of any serious investment in teacher training. More than one survey has identified the low quality of many teachers in the school system.

However, little can be done to improve the quality of education in the short term. Critical to any education system are curricula, pedagogical ability, and room for open inquiry. All have to move together for the system to improve in any meaningful sense – changing one or two is not enough. Given the balance of forces in the country, there is little hope that the right combination can be achieved to make a difference to, say, the CSS results in the near term.

The one unexplored aspect in this regard is the nature of the CSS examination itself. It is not at all obvious whether the examination is screening for competence and intelligence or for conformity and compliant behavior. If the latter, the very low success rate may not be an accurate indicator of the quality of the applicant pool.  

Part of this bias in the testing instrument is, I suspect, deliberate. The nature of questions comprising the compulsory papers and the orientation of coaching in preparatory centers lend credence to the hypothesis that the test is consciously screening for a particular type of candidate.

But there is a less obvious bias related to the 92% failure rate in English which raises a profound question: Is it possible to be competent and intelligent without an adequate command of English? If so, how many otherwise qualified applicants are being excluded by the CSS examination? Keep in mind that asides from the compulsory English paper most other papers have to be answered in English as well.

[Consider the double burden under which even the best of the students labor. Here, from the FPSC website, is the instruction accompanying the CSS English Essay paper: “Candidates will be required to write one or more Essay in English. A wide choice of topics will be given. Candidates are expected to reflect comprehensive and research based knowledge on a selected topic. Candidate’s articulation, expression and technical treatment of the style of English Essay writing will be examined.” Pity the examinee attempting to articulate a research-based reflection and expressing it in accordance with the technical treatment of the style of the English essay. English appears as elusive to the examiners as it is to the examinees.]

This is a self-inflicted problem that does have a short-term solution. It may seem radical at the outset to suggest that applicants may be allowed to answer all papers in the language in which they are most comfortable with English being made a non-compulsory paper. But how radical is it really?

Accepting for the moment that competence in English is necessary for Pakistani civil servants, is it not possible to attain this by having the selected candidates undergo intensive language instruction with expert tutors during their first year? How difficult is it for an intelligent adult to learn English as a foreign language? Many Pakistani students awarded scholarships for higher education in European countries are able to learn the languages sufficiently to pursue their degrees. It is by no means an impossible task.

This suggests a radically different approach to selection: Pick the brightest applicants and teach them enough English rather than rejecting potentially superior students because they have been inadequately schooled in the language. The pool of qualified applicants could be expected to increase despite the admittedly poor system of education in the country.

The sceptics should consider the precedent for the selection of British civil servants in Colonial India. The ablest candidates were screened for general competence and subsequently trained in Indian languages under highly qualified teachers at Fort Williams College. Imagine if they had been selected based on prior familiarity with a foreign language.

Improving the health of the ailing civil service in Pakistan is possible. As for all maladies, the first step is a credible diagnosis.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on January 5, 2017, in English and Urdu and is reproduced here with permission of the author. This is the second article in this series. Read the first part here.

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25 Responses to “CSS: Why English?”

  1. Ab Says:

    Yes English should be the medium of CSS examination. My dear! information and and material to be read regarding all subjects other than local languages and islamic studies is largely found in English language.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Abquddos: 92 percent of the candidates sitting the CSS examination fail in English. My question was why is the English paper compulsory? My suggestion was to level the playing field for all applicants and teach English intensively to the successful ones. That is a more fair, feasible, and efficient approach.

      It is true that material for most subjects is found in English but that does not necessitate the fact that answers can be written in English only. For example, if a student believes he can answer questions of history more easily in Sindhi why shouldn’t he have the option to do so? Can historical knowledge only be expressed in English? The restriction only encourages memorization which is the antithesis of knowledge.

      Also, we should have moved long ago to having material for all subjects in Urdu and local languages if we want to end discrimination by income in society. Do note that Osmania University was set up in Hyderabad in 1918 and had Urdu as the medium of instruction for all subjects at all levels even postgraduate. It is not an impossible task. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osmania_University

  2. Indian Says:

    Anjum, this article by Ashay Naik may enhance the discussion on this subject: http://indiafacts.org/language-discourse-issue-not-merely-sanskrit-english/

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Indian: Thanks for the link. Ashay Naik raises an issue that is of great importance. I agree with his perspective. I had made the same point in a review of Gautam Adhikari’s book The Intolerant Indian:

      The book talks at the people but never really includes them in the dialogue and never really addresses their concerns. It never really asks how they managed to live together for centuries while continuing to adhere to narrow religious, regional or ethnic identities and why they might find it more difficult to do so now. As I read, I kept trying to imagine how the author would convey the argument of the book were he to find himself in a village in, say, Kerala. How would the notions of liberalism and secularism be cast in a vocabulary that the audience could participate in? How could we make this a two-sided conversation?


    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Indian: Another discussion in which the same point raised by Ashay Naik is explored:


      • Indian Says:

        Thanks for responding Anjum. Here are a few more links, if you are interested.

        1) Ashay Naik’s blog: satyanrtam.wordpress.com

        2) Ashay’s response to Aatish Taseer’s recent essay: http://indiafacts.org/the-conflict-between-tradition-and-modernity-in-india/

        3) You can buy Ashay’s book on the Panchatantra here:

        It is the most meaningful Indian response to Western thought I have come across.

        Let me know what you think.

        Kind regards.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Indian: Thanks for the links. I presume you have seen The Heathen in His Blindness by SN Balagangadhara (Balu).

          • Indian Says:

            Yes, as it happens, Ashay has made a number of outstanding contributions to Balu’s forum which can be viewed here:


            The core of his disagreement with Balu can be found here: https://satyanrtam.wordpress.com/2016/12/17/gr-christianity/

            I hope you and your readers shall find much that interests you.

          • Anjum Altaf Says:

            Indian: This is a very important and interesting discussion. One is naturally frustrated by not having enough background knowledge to either appreciate fully or to contribute in a meaningful enough manner to engage the experts.

            I do have some thoughts on the view expressed by Ashay in his review of Atish Taseer where he says: “tradition is a feature of the Indian past and modernity borrowed from the West.” I don’t believe there is such an explicit dichotomy. David Shulman has some good points to make which were cited in a comment on Pankaj Mishra’s book some years back. It might help to read the comments immediately preceding and succeeding the following:


            In the meantime both Mishra and Shulman have written new books. Mishra – Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India and Abroad and Shulman – Tamil: A Biography.

            I believe it is useful to not think of modernity as a package but to think in terms of what might be called modern values like individualism and egalitarianism. A critical reading of precolonial literature might give us some clues about indigenous modernities that were swamped by colonial modernity.

            I highly recommend Shulman’s new book in this context.

  3. Indian Says:

    Dear अंजुम,

    Thank you for your calm and considered response.

    There is much to be learned from आशय। In his book, he frames the discussion around a conservative triad and a radical triad. The radical triad, which is today’s gospel, comprises the triumvirate of social equality, political liberty and economic independence. The conservative triad, which flourished during ancient times, comprises of social hierarchy, political despotism and kinship communities.

    The radical or ideological way comprises of envisioning a goal and working towards it (this goal is usually the radical triad cited above) whereas the conservative way involves working with what naturally exists. Human being naturally organise themselves around the principles of social hierarchy, political despotism and kinship communities. The conservative triad are not ideals or principles that are upheld as desirable. In fact, they are recognised as necessarily oppressive. They are merely what occur naturally and the पंचतंत्र positions itself as a text that can teach its readers to flourish in such a world.

    The other important point to recognise is that the radical thinking has not delivered us to a world of social equality, political liberty and economic independence. It has merely created a powerful discourse around these ideals.

    The पंचतंत्र teaches us that our world was and shall always be composed of predator-pray relationships and participating in the world necessitates us assuming these roles. We are both prey and predator at all times. The book seeks to teach how to build a decent society within those confines.

    As you can imagine, this is a very “radical” notion which is what attracted me to आशय in the first place. He is really unlike any other intellectual I have come across and there have been many.

    Thus, I have a proposal for you. If you have the time and inclination, you can purchase a copy of आशय’s book from Amazon and after reading it, you can consider reviewing it for this website or any popular publication. I think these ideas really need to be disseminated and understood by a wider public. Let me know what you think.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Indian: Thanks for the discussion. A similar model of triads was presented by Dr. Radha D’Souza from the University of Westminster a few years back and I was quite convinced by her articulation of the change from the one to the other. You might want to contact her to see if there can be some mutual learning. She also writes off and on for the Economic and Political Weekly.

      Regarding the predator-prey perspective, it is certainly the model taken for granted especially by economists trained in the neoclassical tradition. In that context, I find some new behavioral research questioning the model to be of considerable interest. I would be keen to know what you think of it:

      Thanks for asking me to review Ashay’s book. I have browsed his website and feel I don’t have sufficient knowledge to engage the material at the level it deserves. This is not my field and I am interacting with it as a layman to further my learning. We do have a series on modernity on this blog which captures well its pedagogical ethos. You will note how we started with a very naive view but collectively just through mutual commentary added a little to our understanding. This is the best we can do since we are far below the intellectual level where scholars would want to contribute to the discussion: https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/#Modernity

      You might also want to see our review of Sen’s The Idea of Justice which has some overlapping themes: https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2009/10/18/justice-power-and-truth/

      • Indian Says:

        I am thoroughly disappointed with this response. I have nothing more to add. I have forwarded this discussion to Ashay. He might say something.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Indian: I am sorry to have disappointed you but I am limited by my capabilities. You might want to contact Dr. Noman ul Haq who is a recognized scholar and has also written about the Panchatantra: http://www.dawn.com/news/1073873/

          Thanks for connecting Ashay to the discussion. I hope he will give us some guidance.

          • Indian Says:

            I am not interested in this. I want you to read his book, that’s all I’m asking. It is not esoteric and very easy to understand. If you can waste you time reading Amartya Sen, you owe it to yourself to read this book. I have interacted with you for a long time and know you are open minded. That is why I am recommending this book to you so strenuously. Don’t waste your time with rubbish authors. I have spoken to Ashay. He will go through this website, see what stimulates him and comment on it.

  4. Indian Says:

    The most important essay written in the history of Indian political thought: https://satyanrtam.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/hindu-political-thought/.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Indian: Thanks for forwarding the link. Some years back we had a very articulate participant associated with Centre-Right India, a think tank that shared the objective of providing a solid intellectual foundation for a conservative position in Indian politics. I have forwarded the link to him and requested his feedback. Let’s hope he responds.

      • Indian Says:

        I am he. Do you think anybody else would be so articulate?

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Indian: Quite a coincidence! I am pleased you remain interested in this site. Given that you are the person I wanted to review the essay, who should I send it to instead? I am thinking of Pratap Bhanu Mehta who is very highly regarded as a political theorist.

          • Indian Says:

            Mehta is useless. I wouldn’t bother with him. The two Indians I like are Aakar Patel and Manu Joseph but they are not political intellectuals. Pankaj Mishra, who, as you know, is my first love is too much of a celebrity and too settled in his views to consider something like this. I doubt His Highness would deign to respond. Having said that, I think leftist and liberal intellectuals need to read this, no matter how settled in their views they are. A good candidate would be Ram Guha seeing as he is the one who has complained there are no right-wing intellectuals in India, also Aatish Taseer. Finally, there is Swapan Dasgupta and Ashok Malik, India’s main right-wing columnists.

            But, to be honest, I think this essay has already found its natural audience: the right-wing, reactionary Hindus of Twitter (https://twitter.com/AshayNaik1/status/821333111749259266). In the time I have been absent from Twitter, the Hindus seem to have discovered reaction and I am surprised to the extent they are spouting Westernised reactionary themes and memes. It has really been a revelation. Ashay’s essay has received a warm response from them, but obviously something of this calibre and importance requires as wide an audience as possible.

            But, I shared this essay with you not because I wanted you to forward it to Indians but because I wanted your own honest response to it as an open-minded, excellent individual. What do you think of the essay? Also, have you bought Ashay’s book yet :-)?

            One favour you could do to us, is share news on this site of the two book events that are being held in Mumbai to promote Ashay’s book. The first event is on Monday, 23rd January at 3:30 PM (https://satyanrtam.wordpress.com/launch/) and the second event is on 24th January at 6:30 PM (https://twitter.com/yoginisd/status/819131932420280320 and https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdEQpdGbIAPd5LkR1DtLgTSUwJxjVDKukghM5e6n5YJsUK1ew/viewform).

            If you feel uncomfortable sharing news of the event given its right-wing nature, I of course understand. Even the right-wing organisers of the event may be shocked to learn that it is being promoted by somebody of your name and nationality! In any case, I am more interested in an individual discussion with you on these subjects than anything else.

          • Anjum Altaf Says:

            Indian: This should be very relevant in the context of the essay:

  5. Indian Says:

    लीला is a लल्लू।

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Indian: My turn to be disappointed.

      • Indian Says:

        Disappointment is your right but Lilla is not for me. I want reaction explained to me by a reactionary, not a liberal. Lilla has always made me feel that reaction is not an acceptable mode of political thought and action. He writes from the point of view of a liberal and his purpose is to make reactionary thought available and intelligible to liberals. Deep in his heart he is surprised and shocked that reaction exists at all. You will remember his shock at the Chinese student who spoke up strongly about his interest in Rome in the article you shared in 2010: https://newrepublic.com/article/79747/reading-leo-strauss-in-beijing-china-marx. For Lilla, reaction is an external phenomenon that needs to be explained to a dumbfounded audience. For me, it is the very core of my being. I don’t need some American professor to tell me what it is.

        There are plenty of Western reactionaries I can turn to for an intellectual understanding of reaction such as Henry Dampier, https://reactionaryfuture.wordpress.com/ and http://thefutureprimaeval.net/. But none of them compare to the lucidity, vision and clarity of Ashay Naik who may just prove to be the most profound intellectual of our times.

        I am still waiting for your response to Ashay’s essay and not sure if you have purchased his book yet. You got out last time by saying you are a layman. Well, all of us are laymen, none of us are kings but reading Ashay’s book allows us to immerse ourselves in an entirely alternate reality. If you have not read his book, you do not know what you are missing. I look forward to your considered response to Ashay’s oeuvre, not links to other articles and books.

        PS: I noticed in one of your comments on some other post that you had read Nirad Chaudhuri. This is a happy revelation. I too have read Nirad Chaudhuri and adore him deeply. He is a kindred spirit. We shall talk of him one day.

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