The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Over the last ten days, there have been some rather amusing, often silly, reactions from enlightened individuals to comments made by young politicos. Rahul Gandhi’s correct statement, that in India the teaching staff generally prefers not to be questioned, generated immediate ‘how-dare-you’ responses from Stephenians in high places. Mani Shankar Aiyar was one former student who rushed to the defence of his college, saying “it was far more intellectually stimulating than Cambridge.” He may have been lucky during his time, when there was less pressure and better teachers. There were others, who a few years later, had exactly the opposite experience.

Rahul Gandhi was making a valid point about the general condition of the school system and of higher education that tends to suffocate the ‘ordinary’, but aspiring, students. He was sharing his personal experience as a ‘privileged’ Stephenian. The old boys’ club jumped to the defence of their alma mater. They were miffed because ‘teaching’ in their college was being questioned, and they retaliated with the energy of school boys defending their side. If only that kind of collective response was as forthcoming when there is a need to question, address and find alternatives to the larger and more complex issues that plague general education across India! Why do the privileged among us, who hail the teaching methodology, system and curricula here, struggle and pull strings to send their children to the Oxfords, Harvards and Yales of the world?

I recall having a red pencil drawn through an essay I had written on Buddhism where I had mentioned details that were not from the prescribed textbook but gleaned from other readings I had done on my own, with a comment in the margin that said, “superfluous”. This has remained etched in my memory through the forty-five years that have followed. It was one of the experiences that drove me away from academics. I was appalled that a teacher could be so utterly superficial. The teaching that was dished out to us at Modern School in Delhi was uninspiring and dull because the curriculum left much to be desired.

Ruffled feathers

Today, it is far worse. Imagine having to learn by rote and answer with a tick or a cross. How can students score 94 per cent in a language exam? It makes no sense at all and the direct result of this kind of teaching is the horrendous use of English in our media. The sad thing is that they know no better and rationalize unacceptable usage by calling it ‘Hinglish’.

Delhi University was another story! One of our English literature professors would read Shakespeare aloud, driving us either to sleep or to the exit through a window to the university coffee shop where there was lively talk and the mind was without fear. I, for one, was asked to leave college at the end of the first year. My parents were informed that I “appeared to be disinterested” and should not hang on to a seat. Was it because I asked too many questions, spent a lot of time reading in libraries, and had exposed myself to much that was never addressed in class? Leaving Miranda House liberated my mind and presented a challenge and an opportunity to build a future for myself!

To get worked up about an innocuous comment about a school or college is childish. There is one Stephen’s and one Doon, but both are irrelevant in the larger scheme because there are millions of young minds in the cities and in the hinterland that are hungry for knowledge and are aspiring to reach out to the opportunities on offer. But there is no true will to restructure, adjust, absorb and change. Let’s hope Rahul Gandhi continues to ruffle some more feathers and asks questions so that solutions can be found.

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