I recently read an article in Kafila written by some students from St. Stephen’s College in Delhi that really made me think. To quickly summarise, the piece criticised the draconian views of the Principal of St. Stephen’s College regarding curfews on women’s dormitories and his stymying of his students’ democratic ideals of discussion, protest, and open criticism. The students’ frustration was palpable in the text and their story felt to me like a perfect example of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Except Indian students are not an unstoppable force. Not even close.
In 2007 I was a student at St. Stephen’s College for seven months as part of a study abroad programme offered by my home institution, Brown University. In as many ways as possible, I tried to become a Stephenian: I joined the football (soccer) team, acted in a school play written and directed by an Indian peer, performed in the school talent show, was a member of the Honors Economics Society, and went to several student events on and off campus. More importantly, though, I was a frequenter of the school’s cafe and enjoyed endless chais and butter toasts with my Indian peers under the monotonous relief of the fans spinning overhead. Most of my friends were 3rd years, like me, and all of them were obviously very bright. I was curious about what their plans were after they graduated. With only a few exceptions, they were planning on pursuing second undergraduate degrees at foreign universities.
“Wait, what?! You are studying here for three years just so you can go do it again for four more years?” I could not grasp the logic of this. What changed my understanding was when I started taking classes at St. Stephen’s College. Except for one, they were horrible.
This was not an isolated incident — all my fellow exchange students concurred that the academics were a joke compared to what we were used to back home. In one economic history class the professor would enter the room, take attendance, open his notebook, and begin reading. He would read his notes word for word while we, his students, copied these notes word for word until the bell sounded. Next class he would find the spot where the bell had interrupted him, like a storyteller reading to children and trying to recall where he had last put down the story. He would even pause slightly at the end of a long sentence to give us enough time to finish writing before he moved on. And this was only when he decided to show up — many times I arrived on campus to find class abruptly cancelled. Classmates exchanged cell phone numbers and created phone trees just to circulate word of a cancelled class. I got a text almost daily about one of my classes. My foreigner peers had many similar experiences.
I would sit in class and think to myself “Can you just photocopy your notebook and give me the notes so I can spend my time doing something less completely useless?” I refused to participate. Instead, I sat at my desk writing letters to friends.
If it were not for the fact that attendance counted towards my marks, I would have never showed up at all. There was no need. I calculated the minimum attendance required not to fail, hit that target square on, and still got excellent grades. In one political science class the only requirements for the entire period between August and December were two papers, each 2,500 words. I wrote more intense papers in my U.S. public high school in a month. Readings were required but how can this be enforced when there is no discussion that makes students accountable for coming to class prepared? The only questions I heard asked during my classes were about whether the material being covered that day would be on the exam. Remember, this was not any regular liberal arts college — St. Stephen’s College is regarded as one of, if not the best, colleges in India.
The best learning experience I had was hundreds of miles from campus with four other students and one professor on a trek to Kedarnath during the October break. We had multi-day conversations spanning morality, faith, and history. During one memorable overnight bus ride our professor told us the entire Mahabharata epic from memory while we leaned over seats or squatted in the aisle to be closer to the campfire of his voice while the rest of the bus dozed around us. The thirst in these students was there and this professor exemplified passionate teaching, but the system was and is broken. Bearing in mind the richness of India’s intellectual tradition, my entire study abroad experience in India, from an academic standpoint, was an enormous disappointment.
To pause for a moment, here is the problem with me talking about this topic: right now many Indians reading this are starting to feel defensive. “Nationalist” is a term I have heard as a self-description as they defend Mother India from the bigoted, criticising foreigner. They focus on me rather than the problem. I have had people unfriend me on Facebook and walk out on meals because I politely expressed an opinion on politics or history that went against the publicly consented “Indian opinion.” For a nation that prides itself on the 17 languages printed on its currency, I am greeted with remarkable intolerance. Even after living in India for close to three years, attending an Indian college, working for an Indian company, founding an Indian company, paying taxes in India, and making India my home, I am not Indian enough to speak my mind. But in a nation that rivals all others in the breadth of its human diversity, who is Indian enough? Because if loyalty and a feeling of patriotism were the barometers for “Indianness,” rather than skin colour or a government document, then I would easily be a dual U.S.-Indian citizen. This Indian defensiveness is false nationalism. It is not a stance that cares about India, it is one that cares about what others think of India, which is not nationalism. That is narcissism.
My voice should be drowned out by the millions around me who are disappointed with how they have been short-changed by the Indian government — their government. Education is one of the most poignant examples of this and serves as great dinner conversation amongst the elite:
“The Indian education system is lost in the past and failing India.” Everyone at the table nods, mumbles their concurrence, and cites the most recent Economist article or Pricewaterhouse Cooper study on the matter in order to masquerade as informed.
“Yes, how sad.”
“Yes, how terrible.”
“Yes, India must fix this.”
Yet amongst my fellow Indian education alumni, I mostly hear a deafening silence when it comes to action. What is remarkable is that all students in India know what I am talking about. They know and are coping: Indian students are taking their useless Indian liberal arts degrees and going abroad to get real ones that signify a real education. A real education being one that challenges the intellect and questions paradigms, not one of rote memorisation and conformity. Or, as was the case with my Indian friends at Brown, they skip India altogether. Sure, I took some unimpressive classes at Brown and no curriculum is perfect, but Indian students should be demanding more. Much more.
We are entering a year of politics and elections. Movement against the inertia of regressive forces is an atavistic trait in young Indians and the students of St. Stephen’s have much to gain from change. Instead of just the promise and illusion of an amazing liberal arts education, imagine if my teachers had actually taught their classes? Whoa. If the end is knowledge, then St. Stephen’s students would win big. Yet, when it comes to change, the students wrote the following:
“Education in India awaits a rescue from the hands of such figures [The Principal].”
Who, may I ask, do you hope to be your rescuers? Your representatives in government? Your parents? The characters from Rang De Basanti?
One lesson that no college is very good at teaching is that in life you should not expect others to fight your battles for you. While higher education is a public good and has champions in the private and public world, students are the ultimate stakeholders.
Thane Richard is obsessed with the future of digital journalism and founded Dabba Radio while living in Mumbai to counter the restricted FM news regime. He is currently overseeing an ongoing editorial and design re-imagining of StartupNation. Thane is based out of his backpack and is travelling the world searching for inspiring stories of entrepreneurship. You can follow him@ThaneRichard.
A version of this piece was originally published by Kafila.org