The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Here's Vir Sanghvi, trenchant as ever, on the recent uproar following Rahul Gandhi's remarks that questions were not encouraged at St. Stephen's College.
St Stephen’s College: I was intrigued by the response to Rahul Gandhi’s statement that the Indian education system does not encourage people to ask questions. Surely, this is entirely true? The whole foundation of our education system rests on the so-called ‘respect for teachers’ which is usually twisted to mean “don’t question what they say”. Our exams test mugging ability and book-learning rather than the capacity to think for one’s self. Where Rahul went wrong was in singling out St Stephen’s, his old college. I’ve no reason to doubt him when he says that he was discouraged from asking questions there. But there is an unwritten rule among Delhi’s governmental, media and professional elites that you simply do not say anything bad about St Stephen’s. Otherwise its old boys and girls will pounce on you and suggest that you have committed blasphemy. This is quite unlike say, Britain, where Oxford and Cambridge are routinely attacked in the media. I wondered how all the outraged Stephenians (as they call themselves) who had condemned Rahul for speaking out felt when they saw TV footage of his visit to the college on Tuesday. It was as though a rock star had visited his fan club. Students panted excitedly, they surrounded Rahul, they sang his praises for the TV cameras and they kept taking his photos with their mobile phones. Outraged by what Rahul had said? Hell, they were thrilled to bits by his very presence! Maybe he let them ask questions.
I had a brief overlap with Mr Gandhi in College. He was forever accompanied by studly commandoes who tried to fit in among the student body by wearing supposedly fashionable attire. They were so bored out of their skulls that they took to snitching to the Dean whenever they saw a girl sneak into the boys' hostel. Rahul himself was not much of a student, by all accounts. Sporty chap, though: he got his colours for marksmanship or distance running, or some such. Anyway, he didn't hang around too long - I don't think he graduated from Stephen's. When he vanished, those tough Black Cats went with him.

I have no idea what it was like in the other departments, but in Mathematics, we had at least two teachers who encouraged interaction and constant questioning. There was one lecturer, though, who confounded us perpetually. He told us at the beginning of the academic year that he would help us out with homework problems in case we were unable to solve any. When asked for assistance, he would start on the solution, muttering to himself as he scribbled on the blackboard, and stop and flounder exactly where we had gotten stuck. He would then tell us that the rest of the solution was trivial. I can't say I learnt much from him, but after the rigid and mindnumbing resistance to any sort of intellectual give-and-take in high school, St. Stephen's was a welcome relief. Good times, all in all.


Guru said...

Was he serious or just doing the rounds before the election is due next year? He looks sincere enough though.
Remember in History Hons. we were in the throes of massive questioning. All established thought systems were brutally questioned - Nationalists, Cambridge school of thought, Subalterns, various other leftist positions were all assailed. Of course most of us were too happy to have the bloody cocktail without question.

Fëanor said...

Guru: Didn't Rahul do History, too?

Shefaly said...

Without saying too much, any culture where there is lecturing instead of class discussion, is exactly the same - Oxbridge included. I have had recent experience so I can say with confidence. The only teachers who encourage questioning in Cambridge are those who are not English. Do the math, as they say over the pond.

Fëanor said...

Shefaly: Same story in Cambridge, eh? I thought with the tutorial system (adopted in Stephen's) there was more scope for questioning and interaction. I guess not, eh?

Shefaly said...

Feanor: I was not a undergraduate student in Cambridge so I cannot comment on the 1-to-1 daily tutorials with the DoS in one's college. My comment is based on what I saw happening in the graduate classrooms. Sometimes, when an enthusiastic teacher wanted to elicit a response, the class sat in numb silence. I always spoke within seconds mostly to save the teacher blushes (at least one of them has become a good friend, despite our poles-apart personalities). I was also of course contrasting with my experience as a graduate student in IIM Ahmedabad, where we were noisy and curious and questioning (we were also being graded for CP - class participation). MBAs here are quite quiet by comparison although they speak more than the non-MBAs. See several hypotheses emerging?

Fëanor said...

Shefaly: I'm baffled by the reticence shown by your Cantabridgian classmates. My grad classes at City Univ were very interactive, with lots of class participation. I guess math finance types are not that different from management types: always want to get a word in!

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