‘Reject Myth That St. Stephen’s Is A Passport To Success’: Valson Thampu

Posted by Youth Ki Awaaz in Campus Watch, Staff Picks
January 5, 2017

By Valson Thampu:

First things first. Should young people, in search for quality education, apply to St. Stephen’s?

Here is my honest answer. Yes, of course!

Should young people, who fail to make to St. Stephen’s feel inferior, dejected and slighted?

No. Not at all. This is what I have said throughout my tenure as Principal of St. Stephen’s. “There is life outside St. Stephen’s. Plenty of it.”

Why do I say that?

Because life does not depend on any one institution. It depends on the individual. We slight ourselves by rating institutions above us. My absolute conviction is: there is nothing more important than you. Anything to the contrary is a fiction that unthinking people create for reasons they don’t know themselves.

What, then, about the recent verdict by NAAC on St. Stephen’s and other colleges? Did the peer team do injustice to the College by rating it lower than some of the lowly colleges in the capital city?

The answer is: Yes and No.

They did what they were trained to do, which was to use a laughably narrow, even irrelevant instrument to measure the merit of institutions. In doing so, they also showed a poor understanding of what merit means.

I think it was Einstein who said that if all animals were measured on the merit of climbing trees, a monkey would emerge superior to an elephant. If swimming in water is the norm, fish will be superior to monkeys.

St. Stephen’s was assessed in terms of what it was not, and not by what it is.

The NAAC protocol, as I said to the peer team upfront, is woefully inadequate. Their idea of measuring academic merit – to say nothing of promoting merit – is infantile. It has no space for factoring the unique strengths of institutions. It does not have to be argued that these strengths are the secret of the excellence they pursue!

In the wake of university admissions in 2015, the Hindustan Times did a survey of aspirants seeking college admissions in Delhi. A majority of them preferred St. Stephen’s College to all other institutions. I had students – the best among them- who had been admitted to other colleges, come to me pleading for admission. Not all of them, I suppose, are stupid or misguided!

All this notwithstanding, there is some merit in the NAAC verdict. One of the major disappointments the assessors expressed, with which I am in sympathy, is that the teachers of St. Stephen’s College are not doing enough. It is an observation of facts, which is hard to dispute.

One of the genuine merits of an institution is that it is not only a knowledge warehousing outlet but also a knowledge producing entity. Does St. Stephen’s fare well by this norm?

I am afraid not. Check on this by any means.

I found my colleagues in St. Stephen’s – barring a handful – not only substandard in scholarship, critical thinking, general awareness and intellectual curiosity but also reluctant to grow and develop. Many of them have ceased to learn. For several of them, playing petty politics, plotting, scheming – against each other, and when they cannot scheme against the administration- resisting and frustrating any positive or progressive are full-time hobbies. Not even 10% of them have published a paper worth reading in 20 years!

I remember chastising a student who was playing truant. I lost my temper (which I should not have) and gave him a tongue-lash. He took it for a while and then said, “Sir, may I say something?”

“Yes.”

“You can rebuke us, but how do you know what we suffer in our classes? How do you know if these lectures are worth attending?”

It has been my observation that most teachers in the college deliver their “workload” mechanically, without any happiness or enthusiasm in doing their work.

Work culture used to be the forte of St. Stephen’s. Like in most other institutions, this is now on the decline. This is only natural. If teachers stop reading and growing and therefore, have nothing new to say, they will find their work unbearably boring. They, then, will work only under compulsion. What is done under compulsion, overt or covert, will be substandard and uninspiring. As a rule, only good and avid learners can teach with joy and enthusiasm. Those who do any less are not teachers, but academic porters who simply carry “workloads” and deliver them at a prescribed destination for their “wages”. This is a shame.

But this curse is not exclusive to St. Stephen’s. Truth be told, it is least in St. Stephen’s. But work culture – which, in my opinion, is the backbone of quality education- does not figure in NAAC protocol!

Hence, I am ambivalent about NAAC scores. By sticking to arbitrary labels of excellence or lack of it, they have spread confusion and harmed the very purpose of such an exercise.

I demand that NAAC should be immediately dismantled and prevented from damaging education any further. What needs to be done, in lieu thereof, is for us to consider on a future occasion.

Here is my practical advice to youngsters. Seek admission to St. Stephen’s not for the sake of its faculty, though some of them are good. Do seek admission to that great institution for a few splendid reasons.

The amazingly rich student body. St. Stephen’s attracts the best from all over the country and no other institution can compare with it in that respect. So, the learning milieu is vibrant and rich, often in spite of the teachers. The College encapsulates a superb and vibrant tradition of pursuing excellence in education. Of course, it is a pity that the faculty is often indifferent to it. But the tradition continues to be, somehow vibrant and it can bring out the best from you.

And, of course, the campus! It is like nothing else. The one thing I miss is the serenity of that adorable campus, especially in the evenings. I used to walk, late in the evenings, along the walkways; listening to the chirping of a million birds, to the music latent in the light that dies reluctantly on the campus, sensing the dreams that sprout even as the subdued lighting of the campus takes over from the luminary dourness of the sun. I could almost commune with the souls of my illustrious predecessors!

Let me conclude with this. Whether you join St. Stephen’s or some other institution, the decisive thing is how keen YOU are to make use of the opportunities available to you. In the last 40 years, I have seen many “Stephanians” (alas!) who would have done no worse, or different, if they were in an institution in the most backward region of the country. Reject this myth that St. Stephen’s (or any other institution) is a passport to success or celebrity status. See it as a personal insult, which is what it is.

It is true that the Stephanian alumni network is powerful all over the country and overseas. That could confer an unmerited advantage on you. But where is your self-respect, if you want to thrive on some accidental connection rather than your own merit? I would think it self-demeaning to fly on some else’s wings.

I have always felt uncomfortable with the thought that Stephanians favour fellow Stephanians, which is regrettably true. But this is a shocking, perverse way of being Stephanian.

Did the college train them in the art of nepotism? Does indulgence in favouritism reflect the ethos of the institution?

I hang my head in shame. Nepotism and favouritism come to the fore when merit is dubious.

This most shocking of all contradictions goes unnoticed – St. Stephen’s is committed to the pursuit of excellence. So, Stephanians are meritorious. But they need to thrive on nepotism and favouritism – Why? Because of merit?

There are specious ways of justifying this, I know. I denounce those who are experts in defending the indefensible. I know there are a few of them among the alumni. More on that in due course.

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Image source: Valson Thampu/ Facebook

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