CSS aspirants, take a seat

Updated November 15, 2014

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If there is any method to the CSS madness, it has to be cramming, luck and countless recitations of particular Surahs. —Creative Commons
If there is any method to the CSS madness, it has to be cramming, luck and countless recitations of particular Surahs. —Creative Commons

The Federal Public Service Commission – the Vatican of examination bodies within the country – announced the much awaited results of CSS examinations more than a fortnight ago.

The event was marked with hundreds of inflated egos (amongst those who passed) and its fair share of fragmented dreams, young men going into a quarter-life crisis, young girls lining up on the matrimonial red carpet; and thousands of others – many of whom are amongst the most academically gifted within the country – becoming disenchanted with the country and the farcical inconsistencies of its education system.

The Civil Service has defined itself as the ‘key wheels on which the entire engine of the state is supposed to move.’ Well, then, pragmatism would dictate that one brings their best wheels forward before hitting the strenuous roads of modern day political challenges faced by the country, right?

However, pragmatism, unfortunately, has not penetrated the philosophical circles of our nation.

Also read: Changing CSS exam policy

The examination has perplexed men and women from all walks of life for decades.

In the year 2014, only 439 candidates out of the 13,170 who took the written examination passed. As parsimonious as this may sound, it seemed like a welcome relief considering that a year before only 235 of 11,406 candidates managed to get to the interview stage.

For those unfamiliar with the CSS paradigm, these are not the number of students selected; it’s just the number of students who managed to get passing marks in all the subjects of the written exam.

Considering that this is the ‘crème de la crème’ of the country being selected (as one CSP officer labels it), it should not be much of a problem, right?

Newspapers often ponder on a daily basis as to why this bowl of cream is not getting the country anywhere. Our bureaucratic history forms one side of what I would like to call the 'Golden Triangle'.

Take a look: Art of inaction

This is the triangle of what are popularly referred to as institutions holding the country back since it’s inception. This should logically make us question the processes and institutions that have been involved in selecting and gilding the only set of men that always retain power (to varying degrees), whether the country is run by a Bhutto, a Sharif or their detention teachers in uniform.

Despite a series of complaints filed each year by applicants and the odd rant on the Editorials page of your favourite daily, there is no mainstream awareness of the issue to lead toward practical initiatives and actual reform.

Whatever little that finds its way into newspaper columns is ignored by the Civil Service Commission, much in the same way as any other form of institutional power in the country.


Just how bad is the system?

This is a system where Harvard, Columbia and Melbourne University graduates, as well as accomplished writers for English language newspapers, fail in ‘English grammar’ on an yearly basis while people who find it hard to differentiate between the use of ‘a’ and ‘an’ can weasel through unnoticed. Those capable enough to pass are often side-jerked in the dreaded English essay paper.

Also read: Plagiarism detected in CSS paper

I have asked at least a handful of English-language journalists who flunked the English test, on more than one occasion as to the actual method required for passing it.

The answer usually floats between prayers, luck and the specific examiner and his mood on that particular day. If you have ever encountered more than your share of CSP officers, you would come across people incapable of formulating three English sentences without a grammatical error.

If there is any method to the madness, then rote learning may be it. It seems to be the least unsuccessful scalpel of choice for acing the CSS examination (along with luck and countless recitation of particular Surahs) for many decades now.

Explore: From kindergarten to CSS: The 'cram to pass' model abounds

Dates, anecdotes and equatorial distances that become worthless and forgotten after a few decades are tons more important than analytical prowess and reasoning.

Whereas education systems in the West are emphasising the importance of creativity and intuitive problem solving, the CSS examination would probably be more obsessed with how many Danish crème biscuits Iqbal ate at the round table conference.


Somebody examine the examiner, please

The Civil Service Commission cannot be entirely blamed, however; the colonised conditioning left behind 67 years ago is still pervasive in our society – we think the system of education and selection inherited by us from our masters still holds true today.

I am anticipating many counterarguments to this, highlighting the article's 'prejudice' towards people born Pakistani or bred in Pakistani schools, but the point I wish to raise is that of merit.

I am one of thousands of Pakistanis who refuse to acknowledge the merits of an examination that has, on average, eight to 10 grammatical and semantic inconsistencies in a single question paper. It is difficult not to ponder over the strengths of the assessors when the questions themselves have the grammatical and semantic coherence of an eight grader’s homework assignment:

"Which radio station existed at the time of Pakistan?"
"Who drafted the Wardha scheme under the guidance of Ghandi?"

—(General Knowledge, Paper III, 2009)

Never, in any form of literature, will you see Gandhi spelled as such, and good luck wondering about the credentials of the person who helped frame the time of Pakistan.

Also see: Typo in CSS paper

If disenchanting the youth of the country and sending the most talented lot out of it with such a flawed system is what we aim to do, then be happy – we are doing it at an unprecedented rate.

We have to ask ourselves: why have we fallen behind in education, scientific reasoning, research and endeavours?

Do we really need crammers, or do we instead need intuitive and analytically inclined decision makers, capable of understanding the nuances of language, thought and debate?

Think.