Two years ago at second-year orientation, a senior member of Christ’s management got onstage and said something more or less to this extent: “This is a place where the [sic] birds are kept in the cages.” Whatever the context of that statement was, it was preceded by a five-minute video clip of bridges in Norway that apparently built themselves – the sheer irony of which has never quite left me. After three years as a B.A. Journalism student at Christ, I can attest to it: this is most certainly a place where the birds are kept in their cages.
I spent the majority of my life abroad. I lived in small, Midwestern city of Cedar Rapids until the 10th grade. But I finished my schooling in Thiruvananthapuram, wrote a banned book about it, and now after having spent three years in Christ, I’m preparing for the Civil Services examination. I’ve had experience with Western education, but this isn’t an outside perspective. Good, let’s get that out of the way.
What I’ve seen at Christ, is an institution that’s at odds with itself. In material terms, Christ is a forwards-facing university. While facilities aren’t world-class by any stretch, classrooms are largely spotless, no one’s died of food poisoning at the Gourmet yet, and the imposing Knowledge Centre is adequately stocked with all the right books and periodicals. There’s a sporting ground, a bird park (where the birds are actually kept in cages), and while classes do get a bit crowded, the teaching staff turns up more often than not.
Perhaps the scariest thing to keep in mind is just how many boxes Christ actually ticks, the fundamentals that are missing in so many government colleges and aided institutions. In a country that churns out over 7 million graduates every year, the majority of whom are unemployable, things could be much worse.
The ‘world-class’ facilities aren’t what’s wrong with Christ. What’s wrong is much more fundamental. It’s the malaise of a bloated, parochial management that wants to cover outmoded, autocratic, and inwards-looking thinking with a thin veneer of modernity.
But, really, it’s not even that. What’s really wrong with Christ is that once you’re in, NRI fees comfortably settled, it doesn’t give a damn about you as an individual.
What’s the point of going to college? It’s not about learning new things. Take a good look at any old NCERT textbook: Factually, you should know most of the things you need to know about the world by the time you graduate from the 12th grade. College isn’t supposed to be about learning things. It’s supposed to be a space where your beliefs about the world, your extant ideologies are challenged and possibly rejected. It’s about learning how to think, about understanding and respecting multiplicity. It’s about asking questions, challenging norms and then, only then, understanding.
This is where Christ fails. There is no multiplicity in Christ, no real diversity (conveniently posted pictures of foreign exchange students doesn’t count.) While the handbook might tell you otherwise, there’s only a single all-abiding rule at Christ: Do whatever the hell management says, and shut up. Arbitrariness is what’s wrong with Christ. That, and a basic lack of understanding that college students are adults. When management believes that its way is the ‘right’ way, and when paying, adult college students are infantilised, it shows in all sorts of unpleasant ways.
Let’s start with the way the parents are forcibly involved in all kinds of disciplinary action. As far as I’m aware, this country grants universal suffrage and the right to sexual consent to all individuals above the age of 18. Now I’m not sure, but this seems to indicate that once a person turns eighteen, that person is deemed independent and mature enough to determine their country’s future and the future of the human race. I’m pretty sure this means that an eighteen-year-old is capable of accepting responsibility for his or her own actions, and is capable of independently discussing the same with the people in authority.
And yet, when I bunked Arnab Goswami’s appearance at the Media Meet or failed to meet the minimum attendance criteria by 0.25 percent, my parents had to be dragged all the way from Trivandrum so that the counsellor could tell them what they already knew about my priorities. Unity in diversity as it applies in Christ is waiting outside the counsellor’s office with parents forced from their jobs in Jalandhar, Kolkata, and possibly foreign countries. As an adult, the only person responsible and answerable for a student’s actions – whether they merit praise or expulsion – is the student himself. If you want to put a guy in detention for 48 hours, go ahead. Tell him that. If you’re going to impose a fine of Rs. 8,000, tell him that. The management’s argument here is that breaking the rules proves that the student is ‘immature’. Yes, and I’m sure that court summons is issued to the parents of criminals.
But what about that magic attendance number, 85 percent? Let’s leave the fact that UGC attendance norms are as low as 60 percent. I’ve heard the management claim that low attendance is a sign of disrespect or apathy towards the course. Why should we let you write exams if you don’t ‘respect’ us enough to show up? There’s an implicit assumption that if a person doesn’t show up, they’re ‘up to no good.’ Maybe it’s just that students have other, equally important priorities? My debut novel, “Wicked Games“, was published by Penguin towards the end of my second sem. An India-wide signing tour – Delhi, Jaipur, Hyderabad, Kolkata – was planned and I was ready to go. Except I didn’t because going for the tour would mean getting detained. Nothing would move the faculty or management.
I started working as a tech journalist from second year onward. At the end of the third semester I was caught in the absurd situation of having an attendance shortage because I had to cover press releases in and around Bangalore. I was a journalism student, literally practising professional journalism. But of course being short of attendance by a fraction of a percent clearly meant that I didn’t respect the subject or the institution. From talking to people who’ve attended college elsewhere in India, I’m told that the usual solution for a marginal attendance shortage is a brief check-up talk with the dean to explain your circumstances. That’s it. But at Christ, the slightest shortage means many visits to the counsellor, parents (again), having to sign contractual agreements about future attendance, dozens of hours of detention on top of that, and a Rs. 5-8,000 rupee fine. Oh, and you’re also not allowed to write the first two exams, so #DealWithIt.
But the worst part about Christ’s attendance requirements isn’t the fine, or the humiliation, or annoying your parents. It is, again, that underlying subtext of meaning that if you don’t show 85 percent of the time, you have no real say: Take faculty evaluations – under the existing system at Christ, students are unable to evaluate faculty, even the kind of faculty that throws dusters at students’ faces and cracks racist ‘jokes’ if their attendance is below a certain percentage. Maybe attendance is low because students suffer abuse. It’s impossible to tell, really.
And what of the security guards? I’ve had plenty of lovely experiences with the Christ security staff which include getting assaulted, and having my personal effects literally torn from me. What was the solution offered to me? “Oh, keep it hushed, you don’t want to bring this to the management because you’ve got a record.” There is no room for overt protest in Christ. Keeping that (and my ‘record’) in mind, I made do as best I could. Because a member of security staff literally shredded my ID lanyard (and cut open my hand in the process), I refused to wear my ID during the last days of college. I was stopped at the gate, every day. And every day, I took out the mangled lanyard and showed it to them. It didn’t change anything of course, but it gave me a little (just a little) peace of mind. While the security isn’t busy assaulting or leering at students, it likes to play the lock-in/lock-out game. The teaching staff tend to be flexible with marking absences – if you can squeeze your way into class somehow, odds are you’ll get marked present. But this is where the security comes in: All doors are promptly locked at the end of every interval – there’s no way to either get in or out. Locking the doors goes right back to that most important of points: Christ doesn’t understand student needs, and it doesn’t care. So what if you were trying to save an accident victim en route?Or maybe you live on the other end of Bangalore and the KIA-7 was a couple of minutes late. Or maybe you just had a shitty morning, because y’know, people have shitty mornings and you take longer to get ready. There’s a basic sense of humanity and compassion that comes through when an institution shows flexibility and understanding about student issues. It doesn’t mean letting people walk into class five minutes before the bell rings? But why lock the damn doors?
It’s clearly not a security issue. The security staff are nowhere near competent where it actually matters: Over 40 laptops were stolen in my fifth semester alone. What’s the answer to that? Lock all doors at 8.59 so no one gets attendance. Beyond being merely arbitrary and annoying, there are legitimate issues with the lockout system: If you’re sent between blocks to fetch something or someone, you run the risk of getting locked in. Tell the guards at one end of the block that you need to leave, and they’ll point you to the other end. Tell the guards at the other end, and they’ll demand permission from a member of the teaching staff. Complain to the teaching staff, and they’ll spend time arguing with the guards. By the time you leave the block, the other block is locked, too, so you can forget about attendance and cool your heels in the Gourmet.
And of course, there are the auditorium lock-ins. For some inexplicable reason, the security staff lock the main gates every time something’s on in the auditorium. Again, this points to a basic lack of understanding and empathy. Leave aside percentages for a moment. In principle, college attendance is about choice: There’s no law compelling anyone above the age of 14 from attending any class. Compulsory attendance for extraneous events simply does not make sense. Class attendance is, of course, inevitable, but it needs to be my choice is I want to sit through several straight hours of a concert by the world’s second female ghattam player. Do events like that add value and enrich your life in a meaningful way? I’m sure they do for some, but many others could definitely find a more productive use for three hours of their life. Taking attendance for events like this is one thing, but closing the main gates and restricting free movement to ensure compliance is just plain wrong.
What does all of this do to a person? It generates apathy, and it kills the creative and constructive impulses in people. Each individual responds uniquely to a given situation. I’m not going to assume that every Christite can relate to my particular experiences. But I came into college as a topper, as a participant, school vice-captain, debating, and all that. And after leaving college, I’ve been fortunate enough to find a measure of success – I’ve received multiple job offers across the country. I MC at events and occasionally pop up on local TV, all the while studying for Civils. I’m confident about where I am now, and I was happy with where I was back in school. But I’ve never felt as useless, helpless, and futile, as I felt at Christ. I didn’t participate in anything and I didn’t garner any recognition (apart from the negative kind) because I didn’t want to do it for a place that made me feel this way. I didn’t want to do it for a place that wanted to take anything I had done, for itself. Where the dean told me, ever so indulgently about how the university has ‘given you the platform to do things, like writing your book,’ when all that’s going on at the back of my head was the number of times I had to bunk just to finish my daily word quota.
Not giving a damn is a two-way street, you see, and for many students who find themselves at the margins of what Christ sees as ‘right,’ college no longer becomes about understanding. It no longer becomes about learning and critical thinking, about discovering meaning. It turns into a certificate and a percentage, a bullet point in your resume. A means to an end. Is that all education is worth?
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