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ST.  STEPHEN’S AND THE INDIAN RENAISSANCE

Valson Thampu

 Decades ago Shri. Aurobindo, the visionary genius, commenting on the growing clamour for universalising education wrote, “But there is not quite so universal an agreement . . . on what education is, or practically or ideally should be . . . We have in fact entered into an atmosphere of great and disconcerting confusion.” If I had withheld the source, the readers would have assumed this to be an astute observation on the state of education today.

The Founding Fathers of St. Stephen’s College were committed first and foremost to the meaning and purpose of education and only thereafter to the size and scale of its practice. The bane of the modern age, said Albert Einstein, is that means are pursued to the neglect of goals. The mechanism, in other words, overrides the meaning; the process eclipses the purpose. The Founders of the College had a clear idea as to what a Stephanian – the end-product of education - should be like and, hence, how the College should contribute to fostering a sane and wholesome society. To them in the late ‘70s of the 19th Century, as indeed to Swami Vivekananda later, education was all about ‘man-making,’ the harmonious and holistic development of young persons, nurturing them to be responsible citizens “alike of heaven and of ea  rth”.

At a time when this premier national institution is completing 130 years of its tryst with the destiny of India, it is with mixed feelings that I reckon the ever-growing craze to enter its educational sanctuary. As against the 12000 applications for 400 seats in 2007, there were 28000 in 2010. Perhaps we should be proud? Perhaps not! It all depends on why young women and men are desperately keen to be on the rolls of the College. Is it because of the Stephanian alumni network, awesome and ensconced wherever it really matters, it pays to have the Stephanian label, amounting to immanent job-reservation in important places? Or is it the hype of the disproportionate representation of Stephanians in the Parliament and the cabinet at the present time? Or, alternately, is it because the vision and practice of education pursued in “The College” is life-enriching and is, for that reason, to be preferred above all else? Is St. Stephen’s, in other words, an invitation to engage with the soul of education or is it a lurid label, a brand-name, to be coveted? This is a crucial question as it affects the day-to-day educational transactions and re-defines the “heritage,” honouring it or cheapening it, as the case may be. Ironically, those who relate to an institution for its ‘brand-value’ erode its brand-value. The reason is simple. Brand-value is alien to the purpose of every great educational enterprise in history. It is a symptom of incipient commercialization. It is dishonest to equate participation in a tradition of excellence with the derivation of brand-value! Obsession with ‘brand-value’ degrades relationship with the alma mater into a one-way traffic, subverting ‘character-building’. It re-casts students into parasites and prevents them from developing into responsible, harmoniously developed citizens.

As St. Stephen’s completes 130 years of service to the nation, there is a need –indeed a duty – to be clear about the basics; for it is not only by what we do that we serve the nation. It is, even more fundamentally, by what we are. To the visionary Founders of St. Stephen’s College, education was an intervention in the on-going process of social formation. An institution is not an island, but an outreach of transformative service. The Founding Fathers, and the great men who followed after them, dreamt of a society united and free, whose building blocks – the citizens – were men and women of sound learning, true religion and sterling character, who will be a blessing on the land. This was their idea of excellence! It was this vision of excellence we find exemplified in C. F. Andrews, Gandhiji’s close associate.  This seed of excellence sprouted over the years and provided the academic shade under which generations of students found their ‘second homes’. This idea of excellence will not become redundant so long as we remain human. For that very reason, it is worthwhile to re-state and re-affirm its bare essentials at a time when this country is poised for an unprecedented renaissance in the domain of education.

To the Founders of St. Stephen’s, teacher-student relationship was the soul of education. The medium of instruction is a language. The medium of education, however, is  a relationship. The importance that the character-smiths of the Stephanian tradition attached to this shaping principle of education is obvious from even the lay-out of the College campus. 90% of the infrastructure is residential! The academic and living spaces comprise a seamless whole. Educational experiences cannot be confined to classrooms. The campus, indeed the nation as a whole, is the nursery for human formation. It is from St. Stephen’s that I imbibed the life-transforming vision that India has to be my ‘teaching space;’ for it is for the service of the nation, after all, that the students are to be prepared.

Second, the total growth of the person - not competition and success– is the raison d’Ítre of learning. Joy is the hallmark of growth. Joy morphs into gratitude and enduring bonding. The fact that this indeed was the case in the Stephanian tradition is amply evident from (a) the stature of the alumni, which does not have to be argued (b) the deep bonding that they continue to experience with their alma mater. You can be only as attached to your college as you have grown on account of it. Those who spend their college days in “that agricultural activity called sowing the wild oats” (Charles Dickens) can only pretend to “owe everything” to the college. It is urgent to note this, as market forces, gate-crashing into the sanctuary of education,  today sideline the holistic growth and character-formation of students. Young women and men are extremely talented. They achieve a great deal. But will they be a blessing on the nation? And what will be the substance of their commitment to realizing the India of our dreams?

Finally, the founders of St. Stephen’s envisaged St. Stephen’s as a river of blessing, spreading on the surface of the sub-continent, kindling dignity and hope, unity and brotherhood, competence and conscience, achievement and greatness. The best come to St. Stephen’s. We must send out the very best. They must be imbued with a sense of duty to serve as catalytic agents in the unfolding destiny of this great nation. As “the College” completes 130 years of life and service on 1 February 2011, we re-dedicate ourselves to the service of the nation which is the secret of growth, stature and fulfillment.  The St. Stephen’s Centre for Translations, inaugurated recently, is envisaged to be an early statement of this renewed awareness and commitment. “The College” is happy to welcome into its fold all who want to participate in the educational renaissance of India, which has to be as much a matter of the heart as it is of the head.

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The author is Principal of St. Stephen’s College and Member, National Integration Council.

 

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