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Academic Excellence and St. Stephen’s College: A response by Thane Richard

April 30, 2013

This is a guest post by THANE RICHARD

I recently read an article in Kafila – more like an angry, reflective rant – written by some students from St. Stephen’s College in Delhi.  To quickly summarize, the piece criticized 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.  More broadly, though, the article’s writers seemed to be speaking about the larger stagnant institution of Indian higher education, overseen by a class of rigid administrators represented by this sexist and bigoted Principal, as described by the students.  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 program offered by my home institution, Brown University.  In as many ways as possible, I tried to become a Stephanian: 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 chai’s 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 (6 from Brown University and even more from Rutgers University in the next apartment block) 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 canceled.  Classmates exchanged cell phone numbers and created phone trees just to circulate word of a canceled 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 2500 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 is not any regular liberal arts college – St. Stephen’s College is regarded as one of, if not the best, college 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 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 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, criticizing foreigner.  They focus on me rather than the problem.  I have had people de-friend 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 color or a government document, then I would easily be a dual US-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 PricewaterhouseCooper 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 memorization 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.

The article I read by the Stephenian students was a step, but too little of one and in the wrong direction.  Dorm curfews?  The students of St. Stephen’s College need to dig deeper and question why they are in those dorms in the first place.  Griping about the loss of their democratic rights in school?  Wake up, students have no recognized rights.  If they did, then their right to an education would be respected, but the status quo says otherwise.  How dare they discuss it, says the system.

To provide another anecdote, I used to interview Indian students applying to Brown University.  While the Admissions Office says this forms a small component of the application relative to other factors like grades, activities, test scores, and essays, they nevertheless like to arrange an alumni interview whenever they can.  The purpose is to be conversational and get a sense for the human who is obscured by the very impersonal scores and grades; it is not meant to be an interrogation.  The applicant is also encouraged to ask me questions and learn more about Brown.  In all the interviews I did, only one applicant truly inspired me to write a glowing review of our encounter.  Similarly, I constantly get asked by Indian parents what the secret is to getting in to schools like Brown.  I have even been hired by a few parents to consult for them and assist their son or daughter in the application process.

What consistently struck me about these students was their (and their parents’) cookie cutter attempts to craft the perfect applicant.  That in itself was not remarkable – High School students all over the US do this – but what I found different was the lack of depth.  The students spent hours at tutorials to ace the Board Exams and maybe had an activity outside of the classroom here and there, but there was nothing, except in that one outstanding student, that provided an outlet for their personality to shine through.  I particularly focused on helping the students with their essays (I never wrote for them, only edited) and coaxed them to describe why they had done some activity or loved some class.  Dead stares and long telephone pauses ensued.  There seemed to be no spark – no inquisitive magnetism pulling them towards exploring the unknown.  I was teleported back to the economic history class I took at St. Stephen’s and I felt like the professor: these students would look up from their notebooks at me and want to know what to copy next.  These students were adapting to be seen as the best within a broken system – it was an overwhelmingly depressing epiphany.

In my opinion, the students of India have two choices: either let the government sort itself out or take ownership of the problem themselves.  Mass protest against the inertia of regressive forces is an atavistic trait in young Indians.  Indeed, modern India was born out of such actions.  Moreover, many of the cultural revolutions throughout history have had students waving the banners.  What I find inspiring about St. Stephen’s students writing the article I referenced at the beginning is that they have the most to lose in this fight and are starting to fight anyway.

Fact: every student at St. Stephen’s is part of India’s elite.  While there is a reservation system for the admission of scheduled castes and others residing at the bottom of India’s socio-economic pyramid, once every student at St. Stephen’s enrolls they become a member of the elite, irrespective of background.  With that name stamped on their diploma, the world becomes easier because they are part of “the club.”  For example, an idiot who graduates from Harvard and learned nothing probably has an easier chance of getting a great job than the genius from an unheard of college.  Sad but mostly true.  The same can be said with respect to the Ivy League, Oxford and Cambridge, and elite schools all over the world.  It would be easy for St. Stephen’s students to not challenge the system and continue to move down the conveyor belt because, relative to other schools, their actual education matters less; the name and reputation of the school relieves some of the weight that the student’s intellect would otherwise have to carry.

The opposite side of this same coin, though, is the upside St. Stephen’s students could reap.  St. Stephen’s students also have the most to gain from change.  Because St. Stephen’s College is such a great school, it can attract great names and create a great curriculum.  Imagine if my teachers had actually taught their classes?  Whoa.  Instead of just the promise and illusion of an amazing liberal arts education, St. Stephen’s students would get that education.  If the end is knowledge, then St. Stephen’s students win big.

We are entering a year of politics and elections.  With elections comes the possibility of change.  The most troubling line in the student’s article was in reference to the “wielding of disproportionate power by the Principle,” which was: “Education in India awaits a rescue from the hands of such figures.”

Who, may I ask, do you hope to be your rescuers?  Your representatives in government?  Your parents? The characters from Rang De Basanti? There is a window available if only there existed the resolve and determination within India’s students to seize it, which remains to be seen.  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.  If the students at St. Stephen’s College want to practice the potent words that they wrote in Kafila, then it is time to stand up and be counted.  If not, the only people who suffer will be themselves.

In addition to being an endless victim of name/place confusion when living in Mumbai, Thane is a journalist and editor currently calling the road his home.  You can follow him @ThaneRichard

70 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2013 6:32 AM

    Such a thoughtful and engaging and honest reflection. Thank you. I didn’t go to a college in India but have always wondered about Stephanian mythography–which channels all the feudalism and impunity that informs a particular elite notion of Indian personhood and status–as you suggest, the St Stephens brand is enough and therefore unquestioned. As a professor in a US college, I am also amazed at how the professors get away such travesties of teaching. If only Santiniketan could have flourished as an alternative model for Indian education–born from truly great traditions of the gurukul and beautiful integral pedagogies.

    • Arijit N. permalink
      May 9, 2013 3:58 PM

      I agree with you on the same, my mother is an alumnus of Shantiniketan Uni(Called Vishwa Bharati if i recollect correctly), and even in my recent visits to burnpur, i was impressed by the simplicity of the campus life, yet the conformity and adherence of the authorities towards a students need, is kept in mind. It would be great to have an engineering college there and maybe a medical one as well!! Coming back to the authors article, it is indeed sad to see such apathy from such a revered college. I however, did not understand why would a person who has faced such a hard time in an Indian college, society and environment and is UNDERSTANDABLY distraught and appalled by the state of affairs here, “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 his home,”

  2. April 30, 2013 8:08 AM

    Splendid piece of writing, kudos! What you have nailed via St. Stephen’s story is the truth of almost, or dare I say, all top educational institutions in India. Being from one such institution myself, I can certify that I witnessed similar classes (not all of them) and similar academic rigor frequently. Thankfully, there were other professors and other courses (rigorous, participatory, interactive and intellectually delightful), but more often than not that was due to the brilliance of the individual (professor) or the sheer quality of the department. The inconsistency, for me, points at flaws at both ends – the failure of academia in India to keep up with the times and the inability of the large Indian middle class (which is where a majority of the students of these institutions come from) to see education as anything beyond means of employment/status. The former, thankfully, is being brought in to focus of late and we have seen some progress while awaiting some giant leaps. The later, however, is something that needs lots of introspection and as everything that is internally oriented, might take forever.

    • sanjay permalink
      May 13, 2013 6:25 PM

      “…the truth of almost, or dare I say, all top educational institutions in India…” I beg to differ on word “all”. I studied from IIM Ahmedabad, and I can say with pride that the focus in IIMA has been to challenge your intellect. We had very few lectures – mostly discussions. Very few concepts were taught – they were learnt doing case studies.

  3. April 30, 2013 8:17 AM

    low of our higher education is too well known to all except the politicians, in the garb of educationists, who have found a better ruling concept than the old ‘divide and rule’; keep all illiterate and rule: otherwise what is the logic behind the existing in Punjab rule that no school can fail a student till class eight irrespective of his bad performance or rare attendance.

  4. April 30, 2013 9:25 AM

    I attended the same classes as you did, Thane, and I found them equally boring and mind-numbing. And yet, after having spent a few years studying in the US and the UK I can confidently say that nowhere did I learn more than in St. Stephen’s. It’s true that barely anyone in DU’s faculty cares about teaching, and the degree is a bit of a joke, but the intellectual environment I was a part of made up for these deficiencies. In comparison, universities abroad have made me work hard for my degree and taught me a lot about discipline I have chosen to study, but intellectual life outside the classroom is largely sterile. From the point of view of becoming a specialist, US universities are better, sure, but I don’t think that should be the aim of a good undergraduate education.

    • April 30, 2013 11:33 AM

      I agree with Tanmay. I have never been to the US but the case in European universities is similar. Outside the classroom, there is hardly any intellectual life and this makes me miss DU sorely. The question to ask is of this is related to the pressures of academics or some other failure of the ‘system’. Rather than solely looking to Universities abroad (as DU claims it is doing with its new 4 year programme) we need to engage with this mess directly.

  5. April 30, 2013 10:48 AM

    I am a parent of a college-ready kid, educator and someone who is a product of the same education system, and have lived and worked mostly in India. These are my experiences:
    There is a reason the photocopying business thrives best outside colleges of any kind. It was the same 22 years ago when I was a student, and is the same now. (Except, the notes are probably scanned and emailed now).
    I have not had the chance to experience a rich intellectual life which Tanmay Shukla was lucky to find, during my student years – in spite of being to some of the best institutions in the country. (Those institutions have become significantly better now, I am told). I mostly found posturing, politics and a narrow point of view masquerading as intellectual debate. Classes did not challenge me. There was unspoken pressure to hold one acceptable liberal, post modern point of view. (At least, that’s what I was required to write in the exams).I did not experience my mind or thinking expand and grow.
    I did not learn how to demand my rights. I had no opportunity to observe others doing it either. It did not even occur to me that such a thing was possible. The only protest I was capable of at age 20-21 was to make a fuss and refuse to do something I did not believe in – at a personal level, in an adolescent way. I did not resonate with the few protests that did happen around me, because the protest lost the issue too soon, gave up on any liberal thinking in a few hours, and degenerated into petty politics with people looking to gain personal advantage at worst, or score brownie points at best.
    I wish I had learned that then. It has taken me years and years to begin to learn it in my life after college. And I am nowhere near done. I wish my daughter better.

    • April 30, 2013 9:31 PM

      Manasvini, while I agree with what you say, just ”wishing’ your daughter better, sounds fatalistic. How can we expect students to fight their own battles? They don’t have the luxury of time and resources to bring about any tangible change. It has to be done by people like us, by demanding a betterment of our education systems/educators by the administrators and politicians who profess to manage the nation!?

  6. April 30, 2013 11:55 AM

    It is refreshing to see a perspective that is largely unbiased, and yet so unerringly true about the pitfalls in the Indian education system. While I cannot speak for the liberal arts colleges and St. Stephen’s in particular, as a fresh graduate from one of India’s ‘premier’ engineering colleges, I can tell you that the situation here is just as dire.

    Most professors were disinterested. They came, they dictated, they left. Others were concerned – about how the class performance would reflect on their own intellectual abilities. Thus a day prior to the exam a list of ‘important questions’ would miraculously appear. If most classes were a farce, the labs were an even bigger joke.

    The tragic part though, is that no one did a thing about it (myself included). Oh we all complained and whined about how the professor sucked but at the end of the day, it had absolutely no reflection on our shiny 9 point GPAs or our employability. Bas ho gaya, chalta hai.

  7. vishalbheeroo permalink
    April 30, 2013 12:02 PM

    I don’t disagree with the writer’s view on education system and there is a need for change and disturb the status quo. However, I disagree that all Indian students know is to protest and the recent protests in New Delhi has brought change in terms of fast track court. But, it is another thg that the changes in legislation surrounding rape didn’t brought the required change. Secondly, I don’t know St Stephens but Ive been at Fergusson College, Pune which is a fab col and I feel to a certain extent, the writer is generalising. Nevertheless. the criticisms cannot be discarded entirely and Indian students do question the system.
    PS: This opinion of mine in no way attempt to take offense on the views of the author. Most, certainly it calls for healthy debate and the points she raised carry weightage and need to be considered to better the system. It’s just I disagree with some of the arguments and would call for not generalising since I’m sure even in Europe or US, the system may not appear as it is and may be overrated. Let’s not be so gung-ho to the west.
    Cheers
    Vishal
    http://www.vishalbheeroo.wordpress.com

  8. April 30, 2013 12:04 PM

    I have been a student at an undergraduate course in my youth and a post graduate one in my old age. In between, I have been connected with educational administration. At a private college, when I introduced the system of evaluation of the teachers by the students, there was big opposition from the faculty. I told them that the students paid fees from which their remuneration was paid. In that sense, they and their parents were our customers. The customer has every right to decide if he was getting his money’s worth. He can make suggestions for a better service. The faculty were afraid that only those who joked about in the class or did not teach seriously, would get good ratings. I assured them that it would not happen. I made the dullest students to devise a set of parameters which if followed,would ensure that they would understand and retain their attention span. These parameters were included in the feedback form to be filled periodically. I told the faculty categorically that they were not in the institution to teach ; they were there to ensure that the students learnt. I told the students also equally categorically that now that they had the power to correct or even sack the faculty, they had no business to neglect studies. If anyone consistently fared poorly, in the weekly tests or assignments, he / she risked removal from the college. To be doubly sure, I convened a meeting of the guardians and got their concurrence. I also devised a feedback form for the guardians to report changes in their wards as a result of getting education. The holistic approach helped in turning out end products – the students, at a much superior level than what they were at entry level.
    One of the major problems is that education is seen by the students as a burden imposed on them. They view it as forced labour. I hasten to add that things are changing fast in my grand children’s generation. Education is seen not as an end in itself but as a means to an end which is getting a good job.
    In elite institutions like Stephen’s the intake is at a very high scholarly level. The value addition in the college itself is not commensurate with the potential of the students. Discussions among themselves perhaps adds more value than teaching by itself. There is however a danger of group think, a sort of herd mentality developing.
    Judgements are based more on WHO is saying it rather than WHAT is said. Stereotyping is rampant. We should hear what Thane says with the respect that the content of his article deserves rather than go into his credentials.

  9. April 30, 2013 12:04 PM

    Good article, and there are many points that ring true. I recently graduated from St Stephen’s myself, after spending five years there (I did both my B.A. and M.A. in English here). While many of my friends in other courses did often complain about the lack of passionate, engaging teaching, I can’t say that I have felt the same too often. The English department was lucky enough to have a host of teachers who, even if they did bunk class now and again, always brought the joy of literature into their tutorial sessions, where they really encouraged their students to push the boundaries and think beyond the obvious, even (gasp) outside the syllabus. The change from B.A. to M.A at the university faculty was jarring, since here in M.A. we were required to submit only FOUR papers a year, with a word limit of 2500 words. In college, we had been required to submit up to four papers per term of longer than 2500 words, in addition to which we presented a yearly seminar paper that went, in some cases, up to 10,000 words. My classmates and I certainly missed this rigour and engagement in our M.A, classes at the university, and we have come to realize how well-equipped we are in terms of research and paper writing as compared to many other students who did not know these things at the M.A. level.

    But I think, as Tanmay pointed out above, the real beauty of college lies in the intellectual atmosphere. My peers were all very intelligent and committed people, passionate about different things and possessing the confidence and energy to follow up on those interests. Stephen’s gives its students a confidence along with the ‘brand value’ and many people I know are doing great things with that confidence (including my juniors who originally wrote the post on curfews). Being part of such a stimulating, idea-filled environment is something I sorely miss in the ‘real world’, but I’ll always be supremely grateful to have been a part of it.

  10. April 30, 2013 2:18 PM

    This is a reflective, brutally honest, dispassionate, angry, and hard hitting essay and could not have come it seems to me, at a more important time. When on the one hand, we have all the globalized goodies on earth to offer to our young people in order to palliate them and groom them to be upwardly mobile, and on the other hand, far too many younger, aged 15 to 24, closing their eyes to real Indian realities and grabbing those goodies like there was no tomorrow…

    That such thoughtlessness exists, is the troubling part of the above essay.

    Having said that though, I would not dismiss posted by some students of St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi as angry rant, diatribe, invective or whatever.

    To use jargon that Trane ought to know since he studied in an Indian college, the poor guys probably followed ‘due process’, which means you go step by step,…from friendly, possibly sincere lecturer who is helpless to head of department,,,from him to the vice-principal, and from there to the principal, until all the students learn that there is only one axiom to be learnt:

    That is the system around here, that is how it works, and that is how it is going to be…

    I also suspect that the core or heart of that group that posted that plea of helplessness (because in the final analysis THAT is what it actually is, and this is what must catch our attention) may not have been more than 6 in number, with 4 of them possibly articulate young women. But this is just my hunch.

    In the late 60s, in most Indian colleges, the fringe elements, those with long hair, kurtas, pyjamas, Doors. leftist and existentialist and bohemian etc. were what you would possibly term a ‘significant minority’. They were there, they couldn’t be ignored, they were tough, fiery, they took their teachers on, they even took their parents on. Thye largely walked the talk. This could have been the trend till the fag end of the 80s. This transitory class may have started as hip and cool, but it also turned more political.

    If you visit colleges these days, as some of my younger friends do with a theatre ensemble – Goa, Pune, Bangalore, Chennai, right now they are touring in Hyderabad – the facts are not heartening. IIT Chennai’s annual festival had a budget of several crore but was appalling in terms of what it had to offer culturally. We lost out to Bollywood big time. In all these places, students who stay back to talk more about the ensemble’s work, who are interested in the arts, who want to know more about the ensemble’s politics and its conscious focus on young people speaking directly to young people, are pitifully few.

    What our reading tells us is that students like those from Stephen’s who posted, are what can be referred to a significantly “diminishing minority”. You put this pitiful status next to administrative measures intended to tame them, what can they possibly do?

    It disturbed me immensely that a post on Kafila went out anonymously. Then I thought it over. These kids are under the age of 22 perhaps. They may be 6 of them willing to put their names on the post. Showing balls, they do that.

    St. Stephen’s if its become the place it has, predictably screws them big time. Their parents join the party, saying “Is this what I sent you to college for?” The poor sods are arraigned, rusticated, suspended, and hanged, drawn and quartered for good measure.

    Who’s going to help them?

    If there is an alumni of St. Stephen’s students in New Delhi, can we all be be told on this forum what steps, if any, they have taken to redress the problems of their old college?

    Such a discussion can always degenerate to snide remarks being made against St. Stephen’s. I have good friends that span two, if not three generations of students, and must say, as in all colleges, and all institutions, Stephen’s when they were there was the Stephen’s they made it to be, .

    One can only hope that the powerful alumni of St. Stephen’s in New Delhi, a who’s who at one level, will reclaim their college.

    in conclusion, while there is little in Trane’s piece that does not, in fact, point to the larger ruptures we show the world as we transit from bullock cart to postmodern luxury, industrialization and even more growth, trampling trees, moving mountains, and displacing people, there are dark areas missing.

    I would have been fascinated for instance to know his Indian experiences on ‘caste’ and the issue of ‘reservation’ and the Mandal Commission; or the issue of being fair-skinned in India with the added advantage, unlike say someone from Angola or Zambia or wherever, of being invited home for a meal.

  11. April 30, 2013 2:25 PM

    Thames: Thanks for eloquently putting the thoughts that many Indians, having gone through this education system, concur with. I do concur.

    I am a data driven marketer and in my job I do nothing related to my engineering. In-fact I never did anything related to my engineering degree that I got from a private college in India and the engineering was almost like a joke. In-fact after the first year itself, I and a group of my peers realized that this engineering “knowledge” is not going to take us anywhere. While being in the college I changed my thought process and starting building skills which I knew would help me do something more relevant and something that I liked. I couldn’t quit my engineering as my parents were paying for it and everyone around me thought that this will lead to a fantastic career for me.

    The only advantage that I get out of my engineering degree is that “some people” treat engineers like me better than someone who just did an arts degree or something else. The fundamental thing missing here is that people are not respected for the value of their work but for the value of their “college”. However, the Indian startup ecosystem is changing that mindset (very nascent and small though). People are valued for their skills and their value addition.

    Lastly, I agree with your parting statement, its in the hands and minds of the student to take action and no one else. Very well said. Thanks again for writing this piece.

    Tanmay, meghasud, achalaupendran – Just for a fair conversation sake, can you please help us define “intellectual environment” and ” intellectual life”.

    Ramesh Desai: Really glad to read your initiatives. I think if the data shows that these worked out well, I am sure such initiatives should be replicated.

  12. April 30, 2013 2:39 PM

    Hi Thane Richard. Thank you for your article. I welcome your piece because someone in your position might have succumbed to the worry of being judged a “bigoted, criticizing foreigner”, whereas you have taken that risk and aired your positions with admirable boldness. I also welcome your piece because it addresses several problems with Delhi University’s (DU) teaching method, and on some occasions, the absence of any method at all, which has seriously undermined the value of degrees awarded by not just St. Stephens College, but by DU as a whole. The anecdotes you narrated rang very true, as it reminded me of numerous stories I have heard from friends in DU about their time there. I say “friends”, because although I am myself a product of Delhi University, my own experiences have been different. I can grant that your stories are probably more the norm than the exception in DU, but nevertheless, it is important to recognise that pockets of genuinely rewarding academic engagement do exist, and in order to give credit where credit is due, one must not generalise. More importantly, however, I do believe that you underestimate some of the difficulties that a public university like DU faces in India. I am currently a graduate student at Brown University, and I am therefore in a good position to consider the merits of the implicit comparisons you make, and I would like to comment on them. Before proceeding, I would like to request you to read my reponses with an open mind, in much the same way you ask of your readers. If your readers are not to pre-emptively slot you as a “bigoted, criticizing foreigner”, I ask that you not read me as a defensive narcissist suffering from “false nationalism” either. In the spirit of genuine engagement with your arguments, here goes:

    1. Most upper-tier DU colleges (by which I mean colleges that, based on their admission cutoffs, wish to attract students with high grades in school) tend to teach their liberal arts degrees in English. This is a problem, because most students in India do not speak English as their primary language. Although levels of English competency vary, most students are reading and writing in a language they don’t use in social contexts, except for a few words that have been imbibed into that interesting phenomenon called “Hinglish”. This is a major structural disadvantage for most students. Technically, there are provisions in place to study translations and give exams in Hindi, but problems with implementation make this difficult. Moreover, the ones that do study their degrees in Hindi also face the silent consensus, sad but true, that studying exclusively in Hindi rarely prepares one for well-paying positions in a job market that largely caters to English speakers. Students therefore struggle to grapple with texts in a secondary language, which is not an easy proposition when you consider that standard undergraduate humanities syllabi expect students to read complex political treatises and philosophical texts. Imagine, then, the difficulty of having to write papers on the subject, again in English. You and I (English is my primary language, so I have been spared these challenges) may find writing two papers between August and December an easy task (and, come to think of it, I don’t remember finding it all that easy, but then I wasn’t educated in a U.S. high school), but I have personally seen friends of mine struggle with this ask. And one cannot blame college professors for not helping them, for basic language training is really the task of the schooling system, which is riddled with problems of its own. We can delve further into why this is case, but for the moment, suffice it to say, language is a major issue in Delhi University.

    2. I imagine that language is an issue in American universities too, those that admit students from diverse backgrounds, including immigrant families where English is not spoken at home. But Brown University is not one of those universities, is it? As an Ivy League university, it is hardly representative of the cultural, racial and class diversity that characterises American society in general. It takes but a short five-minute walk around College Hill to see the demographic homogeneity of its student body, and but a five-minute walk downtown to see the stark difference. As a private university, Brown can afford to be “need-blind”, to use its own term, and admit only students that demonstrate merit according to Brown’s standards of academic excellence. As a public university, DU does not enjoy that convenience. As a public university, DU is committed to educating students from diverse backgrounds who enter under both general and reserved quotas. Coming from various caste, class, relgious and regional backgrounds, they have all received very different school training, and not all of them have had access to decent English language training from pimary school. Indeed, I would even venture to say that immigrant families notwithstanding, the primary schooling system in the U.S. does not face this challenge to the same degree, because English is a national language spoken by a majority of Americans. Not so in India. DU’s commitment to teach all these students means that what “upper-tier students” experience as lax standards, such as unchallenging assignment requirements, might be experienced by students struggling with the language very differently. These upper-tier students might find themselves searching abroad for a better education, as is their right, but DU is not catering to their needs alone. In that sense, everyone who enters Stephens is not automatically part of India’s elite. Admission is only the start of the story; the student’s ability to cope and respond to the training he/she receives is the rest of it. In other words, DU’s commitment to education as a public university is fundamentally different from that of Brown, which inevitably produces differences in the way teaching is approached.

    3. This is not to say that rote learning is not a genuine problem. Many of us have expressed great dissatisfaction with this method of teaching, as it reduces texts to simple factoids, stripped of depth and devoid of debate, and reduces the process of learning to simple internalisation rather than critique and engagement. I entirely agree with you there. And having been schooled in India all my life, I can also say that the problem of rote learning pertains to a larger Indian cultural approach to pedagogy. But again, I ask you to recognise that the value of rote learning is understood very differently for different students. For those struggling to cope with the very language in which the texts are taught, sometimes rote learning is the only way for people to have a chance at passing the exams. If this weren’t bad enough, the more stringent curricular requirements instituted by the new semester system in DU has neglected these problems altogether and only made things harder for students. Teachers now report a significant rise in the number of students passing by the skin of their teeth, suggesting that grace marks are perhaps being given to prevent mass fail-rates. Is this an acceptable state of affairs? Obviously not. I take the spirit of your article: to point to broader problem with India’s education system, to ask Indian students to expect and demand better from their government. I agree that teacher absenteeism is absolutely inexcusable, and I have myself encountered teachers with little or no commitment to genuinely educating and helping students. I also do not wish to excuse students that don’t invest in their own education, and I have seen a fair few stubbornly refuse to take their degrees seriously, even after DU gives them many chances to rectify their mistakes. At the same time, I urge you to recognise that English public education in India, for systemic reasons, face obstacles that private Ivy League education in America does not, and comparisons between the two will always leave the student from Brown going to DU (rather than the other way around?) disappointed.

    Finally, by way of a conclusion, I noticed you mentioned that you were a student at DU in 2007. I was student at the same time. DU has changed a lot since then. In the short span of a few years, I have personally witnessed spaces for debate not just shrink, but be extinguished altogether, as university and college authorities punish any student that speaks out against the administration. Time and time again, we hear stories about debate being construed as disturbance, to be disciplined rather than engaged democratically. Indeed, as the recent protests against the semester system and the four-year undergraduate system has shown, the DU Vice-Chancellor has no qualms taking punitive action even against teachers, who are exercising their democratic right to protest against badly formulated policy reform being imposed without due process. In such a scenario, when waves of historic strikes, which have brought teachers and students marching on the streets, have been quashed with incredible contempt for dialogue and engagement, what sort of “action” do you think should be taken? What sort of “resolve and determination” do you think is missing among students, how exactly might they “stand up and be counted”? I for one do not dismiss the piece by the students of St. Stephen’s as an “angry, reflective rant”, as it is public statements such as these that keep political critique against institutional structures alive and well in Delhi University. Whether such critique exists in Brown today, and whether it would be tolerated if it took on the force it has in Delhi University over the past few years, is a matter worth discussing.

  13. April 30, 2013 3:22 PM

    I was studying at St. Stephens at the same time as you, Thane, and, while I agree with you that sometimes the reading of notes was boring, it were those readings (and sometimes the professors going beyond the readings) that encouraged us to attend the tutorials of those very professors, bring the same discussions to the activities beyond the classrooms, and the learning was immense. As an educationist in one of the well known state university of the country, I try to overcome some of the shortcomings that I saw during my undergraduate years, but at the same time, wish that we are also able to build that strong foundation, the value system, and that intellectual environment that St. Stephens college has provided to everyone who has been a part of it.

  14. April 30, 2013 3:57 PM

    I read History at Stephen’s (1996-99) and don’t relate to Thane Richards’ piece at all. We did nine courses over three years. Two of those were among the top four I have studied in a long career as a student (BA to DPhil) at DU, TISS and Oxford. Four other courses were good to very good, two average and one poor. Ideally, all courses taught at a place like Stephen’s should be excellent to very good, and we should probably aspire to that. But realistically speaking, I haven’t studied anywhere that didn’t have a spread of teaching and course quality.

  15. April 30, 2013 6:12 PM

    One of the interesting points brought up in the article was the attitude of the students and that I think is an issue that we don’t address adequately because it means going all the way down to nursery level. Learning for the sake of learning, finding pleasure in what is being taught, questioning what you are taught is not something that is encouraged by our education system from the ground up.
    When we complain about the lack of academic discussion at the college level, when we talk about how the teachers do not invest themselves in their classes, we need to take a step back and look at what it is that creates that attitude in the first place. We need to go back to school.

  16. April 30, 2013 6:27 PM

    Well there is certainly a ring of truth in what has been written but also a lot is simply perception. For instance, being a Stephanian really does not make much of a difference unless you happen to be in journalism (which happens to have a lot of stephanians) or enter the teaching profession where you could try to boast of it.

    Since “false” nationalism is in question, let me indulge in some as well. It is well known that after the 1857 revolt, the British strategy of rule underwent a major change. Among the many changes was a small but crucial point of ensuring that the traditional ways which had held the culture for so long and ensured a revolt in spite of economic dependence on East India Company and military deterrence, were altogether put to an end. Thus came the strategy of “educating” Indians. There is a strong school of thought which holds that the traditional way of teaching in India which encouraged new lines of thought through free discussion was adopted in the british teaching system and the their medieval system was imposed on Indians.

    Without digressing into the authenticity of the line of thought, it cannot be disagreed that the problem faced by education India are many. Most school teachers are house wives who needed some additional money although they are either slightly eligible to do so or not at all. The story with professors is pretty much the same. I have professors who would get their “husband’s”notes and read them out. I have had professor who would dance into a lecture and simply tell us which pages or even which questions to prepare for. Such teachers/ professors don’t know enough to teach. The theory of preparing for a lecture is unheard of. Most questions by a student are either considered to a slight aimed at humiliating the professor or are just met with “…i’ll get back on that”. But then I have also had teachers who instead of teaching a subject, actually spent their time inculcating a love for the subject. However, almost all of them left the institution because the authorities did not appreciate such free studying and instead wanted the professor to simply stick to the curriculum.

    This is because of two reasons. Firstly, professors hardly have any independence to structure their course. They are given topics and are expected to blabber on it irrespective of whether it makes any sense to the students. Secondly, for teachers and professors who are not in the line for the love of teaching, often get frustrated and then starts the internal politics. Sadly the only losers are the students who pay money for it.

    However there is a positive side to it. Indian students have a remarkable sense of picking up vital information during their first few years in the job. Their actual education, in fact, is when they join work.

    Nonetheless, I believe India is going through a silent revolution and all this is bound to change for the better soon.

  17. April 30, 2013 7:31 PM

    I have not studied in abroad or elsewhere apart from obtaining a degree in MA Economics from Centre for Economic Studies and Planning(CESP). But, I think the Centre has helped me to realise and express my inherent intellectual capabilities that is often subdued in most of the other institutions under the enormous burden of ‘academic’ content.The Centre has taught me the essence of debates and discussions inside and outside classrooms and to accept anything unless I am convinced regarding the ‘logic’ behing such issues.Faculties are open to criticisms about their teaching from students and often such behaviour instigates you to to express your opinion in front of such eminent faculties without ‘fear’. The Centre taught me to ask ‘unplesant questions’ without hesitations( if there is something wrong in my understanding, they have corrected me, but never subdued you with any statement ‘what nonsense!’) this provides confidence among students like me who, according to most of the premier institutions, are not ‘intelligent’, to them intelligent means ‘Chatur Ramalingam’ of three idiots.I am grateful to CESP for making an ‘ordinary’ student like me enjoy my academic currilcum.

  18. April 30, 2013 8:46 PM

    I hail from a typical Indian middle class family , and after clearing my board exams , I was able to clear the cutoff for admission into the Physics department in St Stephen’s College . However , after the interview got over , my father was separately “asked ” to make a donation of about 30000 INR to the university to “secure” my admission . I remember my father taking me away that very moment . I managed to get into IIT Kharagpur the next year . And I am still thankful for the decision I made that day , after leaving the realms of St Stephens . So much for quality education from DU !

    Well to speak about this current topic further , I would say that even at IIT Kharagpur , I met some really bad professors who fared abysmally in terms of the knowledge scale and professors who knew how to illicit interest from his students . But today I can still proudly say that what I am is because where I studied . This is the sort of “intellectual environment ” that people have been speaking about .

    Now getting back to the reasons behind such a pathetic situation in the current education system . There have been quite a many reasons that have been cited in response , but in my opinion what matters most is the Indian mindset . The second generation Indian parents have mostly been bred with the view that the children they bear , must be able to get a degree by 24 years of age , get married by 26 or 27 , have kids and look after their parents , thus becoming the bread winners of the family . This idea has percolated from times right after the independence . For indians , it is imperative that they are able to brag about their sons or daughters or exhibit shows of oneupmanship when they are interacting with their relatives or friends . This mentality is however changing with every passing day . Our generation which is coming to the fore is sure to take up the realms of educating people in the right way . I am pretty much sure that there is no dearth of talent in our country , as Indians have gone on to occupy frontal positions in industry , business or academia in the world . This change will take time and it is sure to come by .

  19. April 30, 2013 10:03 PM

    Academic Excellence and St. Stephen’s College: A response by Thane Richard:
    Thane Richard thanks for providing all these details. It is a great article. You have taken the risk and expressed your positions with admirable boldness against a minority institution of India, I also welcome your piece because it addresses so many real problems in one go about St.Stephen College in particular and Delhi University’s (DU), in general. It has all the flaws and has seriously undermined the value of degrees awarded by not just St. Stephens College, but by DU as a whole. It is a great risk to speak against minority institutions in India. Because in India minority institutions are almost above, law, above constitution and above law and they are law unto themselves. The situation mentioned are very true, as it reminded me of numerous stories I have seen and heard about minority institutions in India and about in DU about their time there. I can say it is St.Stephen or DU alone where teaching standard has been fallen sharply, due to so called reckless reforms, modernization, pro-student friendly, stress free education and politicization of education.Education in India is misused to meet the political vested interest. it is the story of entire nation. And one cannot blame college professors for not helping students for basic teaching is really the task of the schooling system, which is riddled with problems of its own. CBSE and RTE have completely destroyed the school education. As a public university, DU teachers do not enjoy any convenience. As a public university, DU is committed to educating students from diverse backgrounds who enter under both general and reserved caste and communal quotas. Not so in India. DU’s commitment to teach all these students means that what “upper-tier students” experience as lax standards, such as unchallenged assignment requirements, might be experienced by students struggling with the language very differently. These upper-tier students might find themselves searching abroad for a better education, as is their right, but DU is not catering to their needs alone. In that sense, everyone who enters Stephens is not automatically part of India’s elite. DU’s commitment to education as a public university is fundamentally different from that of private universities. which inevitably produces differences in the way teaching is approached.
    This is not to say that rote learning is a genuine problem. If this weren’t bad enough, the more stringent curricular requirements instituted by the new semester system in DU has neglected these problems altogether and only made things harder for students. Teachers now report a heavy rise in the number of students passing by the skin of their teeth, suggesting that grace marks are perhaps being given to prevent mass fail-rates. Is this an acceptable state of affairs? Obviously not. I take the spirit of your article: to point to broader problem with India’s education system, to ask Indian students to expect and demand better from their government.

  20. May 1, 2013 12:10 AM

    A clarification: the article by students of St.Stephen’s was also pointing out how “academic excellence” is used as an excuse to perpetuate administrative high-handedness and curb dialogue. The need to question curfew is not separate from an engagement with the deeper ideological and social issues (gender equality, democracy, the value of education), as was mentioned in the article. It is inadequate to root the problem in just the administrators without understanding the lack of academic excellence (or for that matter, the lack of nuanced, critical engagement with social issues) as a systemic problem, I agree. But it is also important to draw attention to specific administrative factors sustaining the systemic problems. As a student of St. Stephen’s college, I’m quite critical of academic practice in college (and the University as a whole), but I think that any kind of reform has to be specifically etched out, whether it be curriculum development or empowerment of student bodies.

  21. May 1, 2013 12:18 AM

    While the focus here is on undergraduate education, I think the problem is deeper. It begins with the school system. I cannot recall, any teacher, barring one or two, who encouraged us to think creatively, apply the learning in the real world or allow free discussions about a subject. My brother was termed ‘impertinent’ by his English teacher when he attempted to correct her description of Lancashire as a country. She did not know that a county by the name even existed! I have had similar episodes in my school years too. I was branded as a ‘show off’ by my peers if I would begin to question. They discouraged anyone clearing doubts because they wanted the teacher to just get done with it and get out! Such was the interest in some subjects! In my opinion, we’re all so tired of the system at the end of Class 12, that we pretty much resign ourselves to our fate in college. Questioning is not accepted as assertiveness in India. It’s seen as challenging authority. It is Indian culture to respect and obey our elders or so we’re told. This attitude percolates into the classroom too. This is how it is and will be for a very long time.

    There are but a handful of educators who like to collaborate with their learners and who are willing to become learners too. I chose Business Management in a top college in an Indian metro, but a few days into the course, I had a similar experience as the author of this piece. A lecturer would simply enter and ask us one by one to read aloud the lines from a chapter in the Principles of Management reference book. Much like in a Class 6 English classroom. There was NO teaching or learning involved. We went through the whole year like that. Did we protest?! No!!! Our final marks were in the lecturers hands! We dare not say a word!

    My one year post-graduate diploma from a Delhi institute came as the saviour. For the first time, I realized what a classroom should be and how learning should happen. The faculty members were mostly industry experts who had a great understanding of the markets they worked in. They were no ego hassels with students and teachers. No issues about who is greater or more powerful. The rules were simple: here’s a concept, let’s talk about it threadbare and arrive at a conclusion. The learning was immense. I wished the course was longer. It has made me what I am today.

    Since this article talks about “a storyteller reading to children and trying to recall where he had last put down the story”, I have to disagree here, being a storyteller and a story-educator myself! A good storyteller seldom reads, they tell, spin magic with their voices, breathe life into every word spoken, bring the characters close to you and make you see the story. The learning then happens automatically! I understand the reference, but please don’t make it generically applicable to all us storytellers! :)

    Your article was a treat to read!

  22. May 1, 2013 12:53 AM

    Thane, I am not surprised with your comments as it is commonly pervading in elite and good academic institutions in India. If I can quickly add this malaise is also in US and Canadian institutions but degree,extent, color,pattern and nature is different.

    I am not reacting like narcissist but realistic. I studied in India but teaching in US/Canada and do not see passion in my counterparts for education. May be overall values are deteriorating and for this I always blame our educational system, which is based on standardization and massification rather than personalization. Unless we redefine education the role and purpose of education, we will keep readings blogs like yours.

    Deepak Gandhi

  23. May 1, 2013 2:36 AM

    I liked reading your opinion. I have a comment and a question though.

    I don’t agree that looking at the “curfew” question is less important. When students enroll in institutions in India we are looking at getting a good environment first, where we get to explore who we want to be. Of course intellectual stimulation through classroom discussions is important. But it’s not irreplaceable. For example, interactions with seniors in college or even peer discussions while relying on institutional resources like extensive library material, etc. can plug the hole. The most important thing is still the environment in my opinion. If that itself is flawed, then academic engagement in class doesn’t matter because you’ll never get to grow into what’s happening in class anyway if you’re being stifled outside it.

    Also what kind of protests are you looking at? I don’t see how sustained protests are practical. Yes, we’re students of elite institutions but everyone doesn’t come from the same elite background. This process is largely utilitarian for most. So without a considerable number of students backing a protest, how can we have an effective engagement from a position of equality in the first place? In the alternative, how can one get everyone to engage?

  24. May 1, 2013 3:08 AM

    I began my History degree at St. Stephens college 3 years after you did your exchange program- 2010. I’ve found some of what you wrote to be completely applicable to my experience at the college, to an almost painful degree. I’ve also followed a similar trajectory to the one you described other Indian students as taking – got out as fast as I could from a stifling education system, to join a fantastic graduate institution in the US. (What I wouldn’t have given to do another undergrad, but oh well!) Although my academic experience was not quite as awful as yours – half of our professors were highly knowledgable, the other half were great teachers – and every now and then the two traits combined. Since my only barometer of judging the standard of education was an high school that was similarly reputed but regressive, I never quite understood the depth of the fissures in the education system, and the injustice of having to grow up in it. It is only after entering an education system that is not broken, that in comparison, in dynamic, and engaging, and challenging, do I understand the stunted development that the entire gamut of colleges like St. Stephens offer. My second semester ended yesterday, and I found myself overwhelmed by all that I had learned here in a year, not just absorbing information, but building the ability to produce it. I also feel frustrated by the myriad ways I lag behing students who did their undergrad from better colleges than mine – I find myself grasping at straws analytical methods thatn every single student should have learned in DU.

    Some people in the comments section have remarked about the ‘stimulating academic environment’ outside of classrooms. It is interesting that our expectations are so low, the the environment outside classrooms is enough for us to delude ourselves into thinking it was worth it. I find the academic environment outside and inside classrooms in my grad school to be absolutely fantastic. In fact, students here often try to change the status quo, (and the university does indeed provide various democratic ways of change) as opposed to student at DU who were extremely bright about articulating the problems in the system, but not particularly adept at taking action (though the structural barriers against are far more acute in India than in the US).

    I don’t know what the answer is, or the solution. You seem to not offer much of one either. That being said, thank you for writing this brilliant piece – but where do we go from here?

  25. sshankar56 permalink
    May 1, 2013 12:21 PM

    On top of numbing incompetence is the aggressive casteism practice by both students and faculty in Indian universities and colleges, especially in North India. Dalit and Tribal students are segregated and even physically assaulted, leading to scores of suicides. This even in so called ‘premier’ institutions such as JNU and DU. The fact that China is galloping ahead, especially because of quality universal education there, has not dented the criminal outlook of the ‘upper’ caste Indian one bit. I have no sympathy for this society, it will continue to get what it deserves for its criminal practice of the ‘unparalleled social abuse of untouchability (A.J.Toynbee).’

  26. May 1, 2013 12:32 PM

    A thought provoking article.

  27. May 1, 2013 1:01 PM

    Reblogged this on amarllyis and commented:
    Add yur thoughts here… (optional)

  28. May 1, 2013 3:42 PM

    You may like this-

    I studied Chemistry at St Stephens and unlike you, did not manage to nail the minimum attendance. So I did a more comprehensive 4 year course, you could say!

    Then my career turned away from pure science to the business of science and I was happy enough to forget it al. Now recently, I had to relearn my inorganic Chemistry for an ongoing project. No matter how hard I tried, I could not recall more than 4-5 ‘things’ I learnt in class, and NOT ONE of them were to do with Chemistry. Instead, I remembered my earlier school notes for the Chemistry exam, which I used as a starting point.

    This wasn’t enough, so I went to the DU website after 15 years, saw the recommended reading and thought I’d get the books at the Chemistry deptt library at Oxford, where I was then deputed. Surprise! The profs laughed at me for reading defunct and outdated books.

    That probably explains why we do SOOOOO badly at the research component of this Higher Ed system. In short, we don’t do any, except copy notes!

  29. May 1, 2013 5:34 PM

    Hi,

    I thought your piece was interesting but deeply reflective of the kind of (dare I say it) colonial mindset that makes there v/s here comparisons. You need to understand Indian education–higher education especially–on its own terms. It is massively unfair to compare the kind of english-speaking, liberal-arts education you receive in the US with that of India’s without going into a discussion about what resources Indian universities have at hand, who the students they cater to are, what the background of the professors is, how library systems work, and how *research* itself is cultivated. I cannot speak for St. Stephens, but as someone who did her undergrad in English at a posh Bombay college, I can say that a liberal arts education at the undergrad (or at a higher level even) I can tell you that whether people are able to/allowed to/and how much they are able to “study” at home cannot be divorced from the context of how education works in the first place. You speak of the classroom, and about copying notes from bad professors: there are good professors and bad professors, some have their share more than others, depending on how lucky and privileged they are. Perhaps you need to think about what some of the more invisible students may take away *even* from these ‘bad’ lectures. Nothing justifies lazy lecturing, but the fault is not with the students. They cannot “do more” because even “they” are not a cohesive category.

    Lots more needs to be done with undergrad education, in Delhi or otherwise, but the limitations are SO many. You speak like this after attending lectures in an elite Delhi college; I shudder to imagine your judgements on education/classes in other less metropolitan cities may have been. Ones that do not, for instance, even *have* exchange programs with posh ivy leagues.

    Class, caste, gender: these factors don’t “disappear” once you enter a campus, St. Stephens or otherwise. You may belong to an elite education but you already are, by virtue of entering an english-speaking, Delhi college environment. In your case, your whiteness is hardly a non-factor, and it seems unfair to speak for those who are less privileged. My point is then: the lecture you, with your Brown education, found lacking, would have perhaps not been the case for others.

    Nationalism: it is convenient to quote those who are nationalists and defenders (especially of St. Stephens) because that is a whole OTHER conversation to have. Nationalism is an issue even otherwise. It does not add to this conversation in any productive way. The concerns and oppositions from people that you have detailed are largely middle-class/elite ones. I find it hard to believe that even St. Stephen’s students all fit neatly only in this singular bracket–your piece seems addressed to them, at any rate.

    Bad essays, disinterest, blankness, absences: these are factors and features of most undergrad education classes in the liberal arts (again, I speak from my Bombay background, and that is my limitation). Some students make the most of it in ways that are visible to teachers, others in ways that no one ever sees. Perhaps *that* would be a productive conversation to have?

    Best,
    Sharanya

  30. May 1, 2013 6:22 PM

    I read your post with extreme interest as an ex-Stephanian (1988, Eco Hons) and someone living abroad for the last 12 years.

    I think your post is thoughtful albeit from the lens of someone who spent only one year in college as apposed to 3 year students (not trying to belittle, just stating facts). Some points are valid, some are overstated and others understated or not stated at all.

    Yes, it’s unlikely that a foreign student spending a year would be fully accepted as a Stephanian – in fact in college the students in residence always considered themselves to be more Stephanian than those who were not (like me) – perhaps rightly. There may even be a divide between Delhiites and those from small towns. It’s the age we’re dealing with – 18-21 years with kids from all over India. They are probably having their first experience in national integration leave alone international.

    Yes, Indians want to hear what they want to hear. And yes any foreigner who criticizes is probably going to be “dropped”. It’s where India and Indians are today. India has not grown out completely from its post-colonial mind-set. You can see this in the news everyday in every political speech and even in social conversations.

    In my times we had similar issues with some lecturers teaching from their note-book and students being expected to write down verbatim and reproduce in the exams. It can’t be argued then or now that this is a good way of teaching. To an extent (albeit not sufficient reason) these lecturers were replicating the known formula for success for Delhi University. It cannot however be said that there was no discussion in college – what about the tutorial system? Why have you ignored this very important aspect of college life?

    And did you find all lecturers equally uninteresting? Many members of the faculty, many ex-Stephanians, were trained in the US and the UK and gave up the potential of cushy high-paid jobs to accept a lecturer’s position in college. They were in fact extremely well trained in critical thinking even if their teaching style was traditional. You picked on Economic History which is full of facts (albeit even here discussion should be employed as a tool for teaching in class), what about statistics or macro-economics? Did you not enjoy any classes? In my times we had outstanding lecturers for both these topics – both in the classroom and in the tutorial room. You may be disadvantaged by coming to college in the third year of the economics program – which is known for the more boring rote learning stuff.

    It’s difficult for me to believe that someone finishing a 3 year program wants to start life from scratch in a US university. Wow, whatever for… not even logical! What they want is to get credits for 3 years and enter on the 3rd year of a 4 year degree so as to get a US undergraduate degree on a full scholarship losing only 1 additional year. This is known formula that Indian students (not just Stephanians) adopt to get over the limitations of their economic circumstances and also to go to a good US undergraduate school. The intention is to then move on to graduate studies with a US degree (yes, most Stephanian’s will do graduate studies in some form or the other). This does not mean that they regarded their 3 year degree as being insufficient. It’s just a solid stepping stone for some to graduate studies at an Ivy League university.

    It’s also unreal to state that most wanted to go abroad or the US. Yes, it’s an Indian weakness that the grass is greener on the other side. Also an unreal obsession for many. But both then and now, Stephanians were known to be serious on the Indian civil services. There were many who simply wanted the good life, but many others were serious about contributing to society. Stephen’s was overall a solid intellectual place and has made a very real contribution to India. Fact.

    It’s easy to state the US system as being far superior to the Indian system. But not sure if it is overall, even if some aspects are in fact superior – particularly the issue of critical debate in a classroom. Rote learning is obviously bad – but some memorization is in fact good. In fact its easy to beat a multiple-choice system prevalent in the US – even if you don’t know the correct answer, you can often guess intelligently what is incorrect… fact.

    The fact is that Stephanians are hugely successful as a community – both in India and abroad. You may attribute this to brand, or that they were great students anyways. But to give no credit to the academics who run the institution would be an injustice. Even biased. Even unreal.

    Students who criticize the Principal must remember that they are studying at (to quote from the website) “a religious foundation drawing inspiration from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ”. Would you not expect the principal to be conservative and perhaps a bit autocratic? Get real. This is also India which is intrinsically a conservative culture. I’m not saying I agree with all of this, but it’s just the facts as they are.

    Lastly, for a Stephanian, his peers and lecturers serve as an inspiration both in college and in life. This speaks for the quality of students and also for the values that many (not all) lecturers try to impart to students.

    Criticisms

    More importantly, both then an now, St Stephens had some drawbacks you never mentioned.

    Many of the college lecturers and students lack humility. The college in fact does not teach humility as a value (not acceptable for a “religious foundation drawing inspiration from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ”). In my first year on the first day I was told that I was part of the “best of the best” and extremely fortunate to be sitting in the Economics class in college. This message was then repeated by various lecturers through the three years of college. It was a sure formula for leaving young students with an over-sized ego and an illusion on what the college brand meant in their lives. In reality, it was a great brand with the admissions offices of foreign universities, but anywhere abroad the man on the street and in offices is unlikely to give a Stephanian any extra points the way a Harvard graduate gets. Life has many separate milestones and exams planned for each of us. Fact.

    The other criticism that I have for college is that some academics and students were simply unreal. They did not genuinely believe in many of the things they said and seemed to try to speak and write in a manner that was complex and difficult to understand and was even an unreal flashback to the college’s Cambridge connection over 100 years ago. The college simply does not teach the key idea of effective communication which is to use simple language and deliver a short but clear message. This is a necessary skill for life in the 21st century.

    Conclusion

    Judging from the confusion in Delhi University around the change in format from 3 to 4 years without sufficient thought, the college would do well to follow the lead of Christ College Bangalore which broke away from Bangalore University and is now an independent University. This will help the college to upgrade its curriculum faster and also evolve its teaching style. Lecturer ratings from students is another important measure to improve teaching quality. Some introspection on modern day values and approaches would also be good.

    To end with a quote from Gandhi (perhaps not in fashion but an inspiration for those who seek inspiration) – “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. Students at college will do well to work within the system – with the Principal and academic staff – to bring about the change they actually want. No point cribbing about it to each other.

  31. May 1, 2013 9:47 PM

    That bit about foreigner criticising Indian institutions making Indians defensive is bothersome. I am now sitting here worried that my reaction that this post is a careless response to that ‘rant’ will be thought of as only an paraphrased Bharati Mati ki Jai. That post by the students of St Stephen’s complains that ‘academic excellence’ is being used as a hammer by the Principal (which, I believe, is how they spelt it) to beat down student demands and involvement. Yes, they need to show up the chap who passes off reading his notes out as a class as well, but the claim that their expression of dissent is a “step in the wrong direction” is strange. In fact, this Principal might approve.

    On a different note, I am impressed by this fellow who could reproduce the Mahabharatam, in its entirety, from memory, during one night, without waking up the rest of the bus. :)

  32. May 2, 2013 12:24 AM

    It is not only Stephens-at least they don’t charge a whopping amt as fee!Scenario is same all over India…..Stephen is one of the species of dat genus…..it is more frustrating 2 hav spent so much money 4 studying in d same way as in a normal state college!

  33. May 2, 2013 1:49 AM

    Although the author makes some good points about higher education in India, I think he seriously misunderstands the Indian schooling system and where people start from at the college level. This not to deny the shortcomings of higher education but to understand why even this kind of college education is valued by so many alumni. Having said that and from my experience of studying in India, UK and the USA, I think there are inspiring and “boring” lecturers/courses everywhere. People who want to put in effort and learn are actually able to do that in India. The main problem in India, it seems to me, is that even if you put in low effort you are not penalized. Some kind of imbalance in incentives which needs to be corrected through systemic institutional changes subject to debates and discussions.

    Also I am not sure how the author counters the article “Academic Excellence and St. Stephen’s College”. If his point is about student rights, then the original article is precisely about that – right to dissent (yes, even if you think the matter of curfew is trivial!!! Students should be able to express their concerns, whether they are important or unimportant in your eyes, without having to deal with the threats of expulsion in any educational institution.) It also states very clearly that we have to have an environment where we can engage with larger struggles in society. These larger institutional changes are not possible when you have a principal threatening students who are demanding something as basic as right to equality on campus.

  34. sharada21 permalink
    May 2, 2013 5:00 AM

    We do not have to study abroad to realise how terrible our education system at the undergraduate level is. I was terribly bored out of my mind during my 3 years at college in Andhra Pradesh and it was pretty much what was described here. Photocopied “notes”, learning by rote, dictation of notes and filling up answers for “5 sides of a sheet for a 20 mark answer, 3 sides for a 10 mark and a one page for a 5 mark answer.” Because I studied in a women’s college, most women were only gearing up for the married life, a la Mona Lisa Smile after graduating. Only two classes, one in Political Philosophy and one in French kept me awake, because the professors encouraged active participation in class. We’re taught from a young age not to question anyone or anything and merely accept what is told to us.

    My father himself is a professor of engineering at the undergraduate level and he cringes at the thought of talking about the crop of students bunged in from “coaching centres.” which operate on similar lines to Korean Cram centres. Most “students” cannot combine data to make something comprehendible and apply them to real life situations. Towards my final year, a few women took up working part time just to get over the unchallenging atmosphere at college. I just took to reading books in between lectures, rebelling, tearing up question papers and boycotting internal exams when they seemed terribly like an insult to humanity for the sheer stupidity of nature of question papers. We were handled like we just had begun learning our alphabets. I got off lightly in retrospect, possibly because of my ability to detach education from memorising well to fulfill exam requirements. Delhi’s undergraduate circuit at least has a good mix of extra curriculars. in AP’s engineering crazed landscape, most other colleges, especially arts are seen as a token degree. For those genuinely interested in them, there’re zero facilities. Political activism, or sports were something unheard of. Or, sports were the best way to bunk classes.

    It was during my Master’s that I found respite. We had excellent professors, most with extensive scholarly experience at academic institutions around the world, who encouraged thinking and questioning and debates and fights. I honestly felt alive for the first time and like I had a brain and individuality. The level of students varied drastically from undergraduate to postgrad levels. Even so, the “exam” system was so ridiculous. We had exchange students as well who would crib about writing 1000 words for an answer that could easily be explained within 250.

    It really stems from the fact that education in India is a ticket to a “job”. It is not for a better life, or to expand one’s mind. Education here is just some data that has to be vomited out on to sheets for marks. It’s this route of marks+degrees= high paying, no work involved job+wife+2BHK+2 Kids+ one car. More and more companies these days are ruing the quality of graduates who cannot think for themselves. The few who can are probably not going anywhere because thinking is vehemently opposed in a land where we’re encouraged to take the shortest path to a life of ease.

  35. May 2, 2013 10:52 AM

    There are two main issues plaguing India, whether it is polity, economics, education or whatever. One is the Control & Power paradigm and the other is our obsession with WHO rather than WHAT. Our Management Institute was run by the students themselves largely on the understanding that WHAT was more important than WHO. Certain outcomes were laid down and reasons for them explained. It did not matter who administered so long as desired outcomes were there. Students were happy as their concerns were met. They learnt in the process how to run things. We needed less administrative staff. Less costs and consequently less fees. A win-win situation all round. I did not want to control the students. They did not want to control me. Both of us wanted to control outcomes and did so together. At present achievers are not allowed to achieve unless they are controllable by the powers that be. It is only when Achievement paradigm overrides the Control & Power paradigm that the country can and will progress. For this, we have to inspire the young to think and manage things on their own. It takes a stronger heart to allow the young to run things than run things ourselves. When shall we acquire this large heartedness ?

  36. May 2, 2013 3:34 PM

    First, I would like to thank all the commenters and readers for taking the time to read my article and consider it thoughtfully, whether your reaction was one of agreement or not. @Rohan Bedi, @Tanmay Shukla, @sharada21, @Gemma Bindra, @sauravmaximus, I read your comments with interest. As an aside, the “except for one” class I mentioned in my piece was a 3rd year economics class that I would put in my top five classes from undergrad.

    I do not want my piece to be broadly construed to mean that US colleges are better than Indian ones. Such generalizations, to me, carry little weight. While I can point out flaws in Indian colleges, an Indian could assemble an equally length list about American universities. I believe in there being a universal human standard of excellence that institutions like education or health care or governance should be measured against, not an imported American or British standard (@mshyar, my response to you). It is no secret that the US is going through its own education crisis and more and more failing that standard. However, I will stand by the assertion that through my experience at two elite universities, St. Stephen’s paled in comparison to Brown. To me, this shared experience at two top tier liberal arts colleges best approximates a specific comparison of apples to apples. My opinions were formed from my experience and the experience of those around me, which I made no secret of in my writing; rather than breadth, I was able to achieve depth. But I am skeptical that my study abroad tenure happened in a silo and cannot be used as a limited barometer of the system as a whole.

    In reading the many comments and pieces of feedback I have gotten here, on Twitter and via Facebook, the most overwhelming sentiment I have received is concurrence. Countless individuals, from current students at Stephen’s to alums of other institutions, have told me how accurate my take on the matter was. This is not meant to be self-praise, but to point out something that only I, as the author, can observe: my experience at Stephen’s is a common one across India. Perhaps it is a selection bias that only those who strongly support my view would comment, but I did get some detractors too.

    Several of those who disagreed stressed their own experience being completely counter to the one I described. That makes me happy because it means that not every student had the same experience I did, which is encouraging. Another common thought has been that it was the experience on campus that was the most valuable intellectually. That’s great, it so happens that my Brown experience was also most wholesomely defined by the people I met and the conversations I had outside class. However, that does not mean I did not write a letter to the Chair of Brown’s Economics Department about an extremely disappointing econ senior seminar I took that had been dumbed down because it admitted too many freshman who did not know calculus. A great out of class experience should augment classroom learning, not replace it.

    Above all, the most encouraging thing is that I agree that the best part of Stephen’s was what happened outside of the class and the students I met. Through Facebook, I have followed the work of many of my classmates and they are doing enthralling things with their lives. It is for this reason that I feel even more strongly that they, a deserving group of thinkers, were cheated.

  37. May 2, 2013 8:59 PM

    You have written very truly and I appreciate your honesty. As a teacher in Delhi University, I can just share my frustration that this situation cannot improve, not with four years, not with three years, unless few changes are made:
    1. Make it compulsory for all teachers teaching the same (similar in syllabus content, I know my colleagues they are good in can finding loopholes) subject for more than 20 years to either go for voluntary retirement or do either post doc or Phd and then come back to profession.
    2. The teacher should change the papers they are teaching after every three years. I may be PhD in Optoelectronics but that doesn’t mean I can only teach that paper. Teaching is possible only when a teacher is ready to learn. And when teachers do not change subject, they stop to learn and also forget what it is like to be a student.
    3. There should be a check on plagiarism both at level of question paper making and at assignment submission. It should not be that everyone knows, read last ten years and you will qualify.
    I agree this will not completely change the system, but it will become better slowly as the old fishes will leave and new one will come prepared in the profession knowing that it is a continuous learning process.
    P.S. Many of my colleagues may disagree with me, but truth is truth.

    • pranav permalink
      June 23, 2013 9:10 AM

      thanks for expressing your views so openly.it would be a great help to students if you please answer the following question -
      studying philosophy is better at which college at undergraduate level- st. stephen’s or hindu
      please reply at pranav4vishnois@gmail.com

      • Sonali permalink
        June 23, 2013 4:45 PM

        Dear Pranav,
        Philo at St Stephen’s College is carried out between a small group of students – the small class size is better suited for one on one discussion which is the basis of good teaching in philosophy. Also, the professors are amazingly brilliant. Especially Dr. Barua and Dr. Tankha (HOD). I dont have much experience of how philosophy is taught at Hindu, so I refrain from any comments about that. I am myself an alumni of philo depart. at Stephens.

        • Sonali permalink
          June 23, 2013 4:48 PM

          Also, you must realize that such a comparison is not so straightforward. I am sure Hindu College also has a good teaching faculty, motivated students and weekly discussion groups. Your choice must take into account the kind of teaching you find yourself most comfortable with.

  38. May 2, 2013 11:54 PM

    hey,
    i am not a Stephanian but of course a post graduate and i do believe in the system of education for the up-liftment of thought and also effects the response of the individuals. But as you rightly said in India education is not about making critically thinking individuals but about creating a robotic dead people who could well fit into some system of the society who though quite well read but don’t stand the chances of understanding what is read or written. This is the curse that i have been through. The thought provoking discussions or the initiative on the part of the students is lacking. On an average every Indian home almost every creates a couple of mechanically tuned student for the society, who would without questioning adopt all what is inflicted on them whether they agree or not to the ideas being talked about. Most of them wont even know why they are a part of the education system at all.
    The educational right in India is a mere right on the paper, till the time students don’t understand the right in its true sense and would remain disrespected. Well the article above was well thought of and good to hear the aspect were Indians are not being nationalist in the drive of being a part of the defensive society they are just being narcissist. Agreeing to the whole article but still the question of awakening of the dead remains……….hope all realize this soon and raise their voices from different parts of the country for the cause..

  39. May 3, 2013 10:19 AM

    There are some people who realize the need for action and are acting. I do not mean the endless useless conferences addressed by aging ministers who talk of promise and the demographic dividend as if they like Dhritrarshtra had created this dividend! The same poor standard of teaching plagues the IITS. The action?
    Look at what IIT Mandi and IIT Gandhinagar are doing to make the faculty work hatd on delivery; look at what this greenfield university http://theglocaluniversity.in/ is doing .
    I am associated with the latter deeply. I come from the IIT system where we had an eminent Systems Professor issue cyclostyled(the parent of photocopy!) notes and read the same out in calss. Even the solitary joke was written in the “notes”

  40. May 3, 2013 11:02 AM

    Thane – see the article below. Sounds like your concerns have already been factored in by the college and the Principal.
    Best wishes,

    http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-01-06/delhi/28362190_1_university-status-college-alumni-college-management

  41. May 4, 2013 9:42 AM

    Very Insightful, very correct in all observations. Interesting that even today i look back at my educations days ( not at Stephens ) and i have memories of only one or two professors who went beyond the ordinary, who taught that “deep diving” was not the exception but the rule, left us a bit baffled at that stage but so true in real life. I guess as a country our products, our designs, our concepts therefore by and large remain good in aesthetics but lack in terms of depth of thought.proud of,I must also admit that we are as a nation Ghetto-ists at heart so we rise up to protect what we perceive are ours to be proud of and and yet do nothing to change the things which no one can be proud of. I wish the students in Stephens and other and all other institutions of that level in India take this up as a serious matter. The education system lays the foundation of any society, any nation and i shudder to think what we are continuing to produce generation after generation.

  42. May 5, 2013 12:22 AM

    Its true not just about Stephens but about every college in the Delhi university. Professors read their age old notes from their notebooks and some even from post cards!

  43. Rohit Negi permalink
    May 5, 2013 12:30 PM

    Thanks much for the piece, its much needed and is for me about a broader set of malaise in Indian higher education and not Stephens alone. So let me get my beef out of the way up front: Brown is not and cannot be a baseline for ‘foreign education’ by any means, as the author seems to imply. I studied at two land grant universities in the Midwest, and while the general level of education is high, there are regularly UG classes with over 90 students being taught by an MA student (the ‘TA’ syndrome, if we must call it something).
    Within a few weeks of beginning my MA, I found that I could get straight AAAs in my classes with less than 1/2 the effort i’d put in my UG in India at SPA, Delhi. In other words, grad education in the US, at least for those of us lucky few who’ve gone to the better institutes in India, is easy peasy.

    What IS truly remarkable about the US are the resources it provides to graduate students: the wonderful libraries, the labs with updated versions of GIS (for eg) and everything else, the mostly excellent faculty (many sourced from ‘substandard’ Indian and other third world institutions–my committee had a Brit, a Ghanaian, and a faculty from Hong Kong), and a slew of grants that allowed me to do a year of fieldwork in Central Africa. We just do not have any of this here in India, although things are beginning to change.

    But where I do agree with Thane is that the problem is not infrastructural alone. Having now spent three years teaching at a new public university in Delhi, I am also like the author struggling to come to terms with a number of issues: concerns about being accountable to the institution and students are met with extreme, self-righteous positions by the faculty, who equate responsibility with, shudder…biometrics (something I actually don’t mind [false consciousness, maybe?], since I’m at the uni every day anyway–but there some who show up a few times a semester). Meanwhile, unlike the Stephens of the country, we get students who have not had the opportunity to be educated in ‘good’ high schools or colleges and our school is the first time they find a professor actually caring about their learning and assessments. We see a remarkable trajectory of growth in some of these kids. Still others could not be less bothered about school, admission for them being a parking slot for a year or two while they try to get into DU/JNU or the civil services. Anyhow, we can go on.

    Point is, the issue isn’t about a college or even the Indian university, but we are in an all round deep mess, and where collectives are merely concerned with their piece of the pie: students want free education and faculty wants to be left alone to do whatever it is they are doing.

  44. jesterfall permalink
    May 6, 2013 5:07 AM

    Thane Richard, thank you for being constructively thoughtful, and thank you for being more Indian that most of us elite Indians reading your piece. Dissecting your article sentence by sentence, it is not only difficult to diagree with the facts presented, but indeed defensiveness gives way to admiration at how the facts have been marshalled to lead to abstractions and insights. Nationalism versus narcissim, the comfortable conveyor-belt to success that the elite enjoy, the lack of accountability for onesleves — these are wonderful ideas

    Even while I agree with most of the conclusions, why do I refuse to buy the overall thesis that Indian (post-secondary) education sucks so badly even at St Stephens, that its students would do well to repeat their degrees at a relatively-even-ranked US university? Having had something to do with education administration for the better-part of my 55 years, why do I dissuade my elite friends from sending their children abroad for their first degree, telling them that Indian undergraduate education (at the institutions that they would deign to consider) is really very good?

    So here are a few observations that might balance the picture …

    First, we are not talking about the mass of Indian education — we are talking about St Stephens, and other also-rans in that hall of fame. The mess that is the mass of Indian education is a separate story altogether — but the conclusions of this article are clearly about elie Indian education.

    Then, a “statistical” reality. In a country that contributes about 30 of the World’s Top-50 Universities (and UK contributes a number of the rest), Brown University is ranked about 50th, and many of its Social Sciences departments — Thane Richard’s domain — rank within the Top-25. In contrast, DU does not figure in the Top-400 in the world (and incidentally, only a few of the IITs — the nerds who look down on Liberal Arts — do). Comparing one-of-the-best in the US with one-of-the-best in India may be appealing, but it really makes no sense. Though it pains me to say so for my narcissistic-nationalist reasons, evaluating against the best in Arkansas or Missisipi may be more comparable, though even there the positive rub-off of the overall US education system would distort. We are not discussing how to raise the level of “average” Indian higher education, nor what we should do to raise the quality of “best” Indian education — Thane’s article is about how bad is the “best” Indian education, and my response is simply that it is a no-brainer that it would be significantly inferior to the best in the world. Do we ever compare the best University in a remote North Eastern state with DU, and make a song-and-dance when we find deficiencies?

    Since we are bantering anecdotes, I cant help being reminded of the Computer Science faculty of 25-years’ standing whom I met — at Boston of all places, and she was a WASP to boot — who left me speechless when she confided that she had never realy fathomed what was “relational” about Relational Databases. Shall we trade our note-reading History professor with this lady? And more than two 2500-word papers per month in high school in the US? Really?

    Of course we should do something about it, and Thane suggests some actions. But we tend to ignore one phenomenon — the advantage of “natural selection” that the best institutes enjoy. The best students, and the best faculty go to the best Institutes, and the best administrators, the best grants, and the best research projects follow. Is it any surprise that the best innovations in pedagogy take place at these institutes? After the best in India — students, faculty and everyone else — have left for Harvard, Oxford and Brown, the best of those left behind do gravitate to St Stephens, and that’s why…. This is not to lament “what can we do?” — this is simply to point out what we are up against when we try to improve quality of education.

    And that brings me to the final observation. It is not faculty alone who drive the “learning” of the students or the attainments they achieve — nor administrators, curricula or pedagogy in isolation. The biggest contributors are missing in this list — first, the intrinsic ability of the students themselves, and then the INTERPLAY — the complex cosmic chemistry — between students, faculty, curriculum, pedagogy and processes. Of course we should have faculty who dont read from notes — but we would be foolish to bet on it. But by working on this interplay — maybe by stimulating discussion among the peer group of students (as many of the posts above have said), or by a few inspiring instances from a few people for a few students, or by tinkering with curricula (as DU is now doing) — can we FIRE a few minds to leap to the next level? Going by the number of graduate students and professional-achievers that we contribute — St Stephens and the best Indian institutes probably already do.

  45. sreeparna19 permalink
    May 6, 2013 1:53 PM

    An interesting article Thane. I have experiences on both sides – I went to Brown for an M.A. and Ph.D. but did an undergrad from an elite Bombay college. I don’t know about St. Stephen’s but my Bombay college had a mixture of very inspired and extremely boring teaching. There are a couple of points that are worth mentioning on the Indian education system, particularly in the liberal arts. Firstly most Indian college teachers are paid a pretty bad salary and many of the contracts are indefinitely temporary. Even in elite Indian Universities, the wages cannot be compared to those of Professors at institutions like Brown. This starts off a cycle of low or no reward and therefore no incentive to perform well. Most elite Indian students who you mention (and who go on to seek second undergraduates) are extremely wealthy. I could only afford a Brown education because I received a full tuition waiver and was a T.A. for the first few years in Grad School. For many of these students (and yes I know because I am a Brown alum interviewer like you) going abroad is a strengthening of their brand – their parents own businesses which they are expected to run when they return to India. It is not for getting a ‘real education’ abroad as you seem to think. Of course there are exceptions but for the most part this is the garden variety of elite students I have come across. And finally the rot in the Indian education system is deep – there needs to be a major overhaul starting with improvement of working conditions, wages etc and completely restructuring the curriculum..

  46. May 7, 2013 11:36 AM

    I don’t think there’s anything new I can say, that hasn’t been said already in the previous comments. But let me make a sincere and critical effort.

    Some of Thane’s reflections echo of my own experiences as an undergrad student in St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, even though I wasn’t an international student. At the same time, however, I was truly privileged to have a wonderful faculty–many of whom are products of Delhi’s educational institutes (none from Stephen’s though). Which leads me to my first comment: even within institutions, there is a disparity between how faculties function. Now, with centrally funded universities, like most in India, it’s not a valid argument to discuss funding and performance. But the regressive nature of certain faculties can be attributed to the general sense of malaise that has gripped our institutions. They have ceased to be critical because they have ceased to fashion themselves as institutions that cultivate and promote discussion, and not just education.
    In ways more than one, this is a continuation of the literacy v. education debate that still plagues India; it’s a vicious circle of logic – what one of my professors referred to as ‘Marks-ist’ frame of mind: wherein, marks, scores and grades become the sole criteria for evaluating a student’s intelligence. In fact, this logic dominates the entire nature of pedagogic process: teachers tell students what matter, marks-wise, and students follow.

    This problem can be attributed to two factors: the first of which Richard already discusses in the post. The second, I believe, is more relevant. I’m not aware of the nuances of St. Stephen’s, but in my alma mater, St. Xavier’s Mumbai, the BA/BSc courses are heavily subsidised by the government. Students literally pay peanuts for their higher education. And this leads many of them to take education for granted. I remember having a conversation with a professor who explained the difference between his BA students and BMM (which is a self-financed course, and costs about three times as much). The BA students had a very poor work ethic–despite the said professor being very good at his subject. The BMM students, on the other hand, had to take their education seriously because a) they paid for it; b) their drive to perform was a consumerist one (this presents a problem for further discussion).

    Another huge problem that confronts education is the constant danger of political interference: governments change syllabi at their whims, vice-chancellors censor syllabus because political parties express their displeasure over it, professors get beaten up in broad day-light for their criticisms of the political executive. How can we expect education to remain free and fearless in the face of such grave challenges?

    Thane is right when he exhorts students to take charge in shaping their own experiences, but unfortunately, the nuances of these problems escape his analysis. We’re still living in a culture that constructs aspirations for its children, that refuses to engage in critical dialogue with its youngsters, that still claims it knows what’s best for us. Because, as students, we have to contend with a) parents; b) the faculties; c) the administration; d) government; e) political parties; f) partisan student bodies; g) the industries.

    These are forces that students cannot contend with unless and until there are systemic reforms in education, which–including but not limited to civil society, and academia–puts together a concerted stance, which can lay the foundations of an strong alliance.

    These are a few problems, among the many. Hopefully, once we identify the problems, we can aspire and dream to solve them, and the conditions that create them.

  47. Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal permalink
    May 7, 2013 8:07 PM

    This is really shocking, especially considering what a famous name this is. Am glad to say it was not my experience at all, and I studied at a small women’s college (Nirmala College for Women) in my hometown in southern India. Our professors came to class well prepared, several of them were excellent teachers who inspired in us a great love of literature. The only drawback was, we had few discussions in class, unlike the case in most universities in the West. I did finally go West, but only for my second Master’s and my Ph.D and this is where I teach now, but I consider my college years back home in India as among my best.

  48. Ekajanabi permalink
    May 8, 2013 7:09 AM

    An interesting and useful debate. I applaud Thane for calling out authoritarianism in Indian life and its basis in family and education.
    It does not relate my own undergraduate experience in Delhi, though – I went to LSR not Stephens and my undergraduate years were about being liberated to learn, after the stifling dead end of high school.. My teachers at LSR were amazing people, intelligent and committed. And yes, they did lecture, sometimes even read from fading notes. Those lectures were worth listening to.
    I think the core of my response is about the relativity of ideas like creativity and freedom. Having completed a doctorate in the US and taught here for over fifteen years, I can see that the relative lack of pressure on undergraduates here to conform produces a valuable life experience. No doubt having the financial ability to act on one’s dreams and to travel widely (at least for students at elite institutions in the US) helps in creating a more open outlook. And I truly value the American can-do attitude, the hands-on work that contrasts with the just-talk Indians have to make do with, even if it is progressive talk.
    But freedom has its limits and sometimes greater freedom creates a better illusion of absolute freedom. This is certainly not the reality of faculty life in American academia, where the tenure-track and now the collapsing job market produce conformity, mediocrity and not to put too fine a point on it, a## kissing; perhaps it is part of the illusion of freedom that one does this voluntarily, to advance one’s career.
    Perhaps that is the value of the cross cultural encounter: it allows us to see ourselves through comparison with the other. In India the stifling of creativity and humanity by authoritarianism is a grim reality. I wish there was a way past it. Just as I wish there was a way in the US to see past the illusion of freedom, to recognize that certain non-threatening forms of creativity are just about as meaningful as kindergarten finger painting, in the face of popular acquiescence in corporate and government misrule.

  49. Rekh permalink
    May 8, 2013 9:46 AM

    Here are some other points related to the rot in our Indian education system:

    1. Go see how university faculty recruitment are made in Delhi university and elsewhere: favouritism, ad hoc faculty recruitment, guest faculty setting and whatnot. Even in places like JNU that claims to be a very enlightened one. All over India actually.

    2. Rote memory is what defines Indian education in many ways. From schools to colleges and even bureaucratic file work.

    3. Go see our UPSC Civil services aspirants and coaching institutes for all competitive exams. Everything is dull and silly. IAS aspirants read the same, cheap roadside material (guides etc.) year after year to get ranks. Government is sleeping. And people think we are producing bright candidates every year!

    4. Many of our students can’t speak or write clearly or think clearly after decades of education. Teachers and the system stop you from getting creative. Toe the line, get the job, settle in life. That is our education.

  50. fini permalink
    May 8, 2013 11:12 AM

    harsh but true!

  51. May 11, 2013 12:01 AM

    Well written, I couldn’t help but nod with what you had to say, but that’s just the problem (which I’m a part of like any other) One alone can’t always make a different, it’s the fingers tightly together as fist which leaves a mark.
    The education system is rotten throughout the country, the only way to escape the disease is to not be in it.

  52. Saurav permalink
    May 12, 2013 4:40 PM

    Though I include myself in the category of “Nationalists” I have to wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Richard. After all my interpretation of nationalism is not blind defense of everything your country has or does but pointing out your countries weakness and helping find a solution to the problems plaguing us.
    I found myself at the same position as Mr. Richards during my college days calculating the number of attendance at the start of each semester to qualify me for the final exam. The graffiti on the college benches are testimony of people like me attending classes. Now please don’t get me wrong there are professors who would always have almost full attendance and who would always be cherished by the students as long as they remember their college life. But the truth is the courses like B.A. B.Com & B.Sc has been reduced to a joke, anyone who has not seen a book the whole year can study a few hours before exam can easily score a first class. (probably except practice based subjects like Accountancy or maths) I was told this is cause the govt. wants to boost the number of graduates in the country and pass courses like these helps paint a better picture of our economy. Reading some articles here I came to know its cause we need to help get the weaker section of our society get educational opportunity. Oh Come on !!! (the word patronising was invented to exactly describe this attitude) I received my schooling in one of the remotest corner of the North Eastern part of our country studying in a govt school with 100 kids packed in the same class room where when every one attended 4 people cramped in benches made for 2 used to fail to find a sit for every one. That did not stop me from getting educated and if the courses are made better rather then easier it will definitely not stop the weaker section of the country from getting a proper education which will really be worth it. The current education system is the reason why around 90% of our graduates are not employable and why professional courses like MBA has come to be regarded as a finishing degree in India.
    But from where would the salvation come from asks Mr. Richards from student politics, which is more concerned about destroying public infrastructure (here is your unstoppable force Mr. Richards) if fees increase by Rs 40 or taking to the street in protest of a delay in student body election. No Sir you wont see them in the street asking for better education for everyone, they are more concerned with memorizing and chanting their party lines.
    The Government oh yeah sure !!! In another 100 years or so…. probably!!!
    The hope rests with the young Indians who have suffered under this system and who now have attained the working age and are eager to prove themselves and change the system. The hope rests with not the elite leftists but the much marginalised nationalists.

  53. Maria permalink
    May 23, 2013 1:46 PM

    THANK YOU for writing this. I gave my parents a long lecture on this just yesterday. The Indian education system is demotivating, uninspiring, staid and pointless and it churns out thousands of clones every year: people who don’t know how to think independently, people who are only focused on getting into IIT and IIM for the sake of the huge pay package that is sure to follow. I studied at an Indian college for my undergraduate degree after many years of studying in schools abroad and I was absolutely sickened by what I was faced with. For a political science exam I had to memorize the preamble to the Indian constitution! There was no analysis, no thought-provoking debate on why those specific words were chosen to be included, whether the values of the preamble were being upheld today. Nothing. The question patterns of exams were unvaried and predictable and the few attempts to make the curriculum diverse absolutely failed. But the biggest tragedy of all was with regard to the professors. I won’t deny that I had at least four or five sensational teachers, who were interested in research and debate and were well-prepared for class, but all the rest were dreadful. And with dreadful teachers comes the apathy that most Indian college students suffer from – a general disinterest in attendance, a disinterest in submitting assignments that are strong and well-reasoned and not just lifted from the internet. I shudder at the thought of going to another higher education institute in India, and my friends and contemporaries share the same feeling.

  54. Eliza permalink
    June 17, 2013 2:29 PM

    This article elicits very clearly about the state of our university level education in India. I agree with the writer and these bring some fond memories of the college I studied in.

    I have never been to the US/UK. But I got a chance for an eight – week bridging course in New Zealand. This was a opportunity for me to experience a foreign university education. I felt that every grade I received was hard earned. Different learning methods were employed. I started thinking more. I started applying the concepts in a more practical way. My understanding of the core subjects improved. I had the freedom to ask things which I would normally be hesitant to ask if I were in an Indian classroom for the fear of being ridiculed. The teaching technology was fantastic, especially the simulation equipment.

    I completed my Masters in Paediatric Nursing in a premier institute of India I felt that the standards were similar and I could easily blend into the new work environment. I had a sound theoretical base. I think the fact that we used American textbooks in our Indian classrooms had a role in this.

    As much as I enjoyed the bridging program. I feel that it is the post graduate study that helped me the most. I agree that the teaching techniques should be improved and we must be challenged more as students.

    Interestingly, when working here as a preceptor/mentor to the fresh graduate nurses in New Zealand, I sometimes find, that quite a lot of them lack the sound theoretical base that we had in India in the same situation. The critical thinking skill is lacking. They have few hours of clinical experience and most of them as students are reluctant to actively participate in the running of the hospital. I remember that as a student we were expected to literally run the unit. We were so much more accountable. Despite such a good learning environment I feel that these new graduates would be lost if left to their means! So much that the hospitals and universities have designed new graduate entry to practice programs me to help them settle well in their new roles.

    I feel change is necessary in our higher education system. But I do not think that the existing system has no merits. We have to pick and choose methods of teaching that work best for us rather that blindly copying the western world. Something that inspires and is evolving. We as Indians must embrace change if we expect a quality education. Change means a lot of effort as a teacher, faster acceptance of proposals for such change. Use of technology for things for needs other than photocopying. Encourage creativity. Designing smarter curriculum and more exposure for teachers. Mandatory license renewals for teachers based on their performance and contribution to the teaching methodolgy would be helpful.

    As for blending in, you will always be a foreigner if you live outside the country you were born in. I face the same situation in New Zealand, despite endless rugby games and fish and chips, I am asked which country I was born in. So much that when asked by a colleague where I was from, my boss answered on my behalf, ” She is from Auckland” and I was stunned to hear that.
    I agree with Mr. Thane that the students and the society in general must face the more pertinent issues of the actual teaching – learning than dorm issues. These are things that affect them the most in the long run.

  55. Prachi V Sharma permalink
    July 11, 2013 4:12 PM

    Just one thing to add about living in India and still not being Indian enough. Well, I have a bunch of friends in America, a few of them even born there and all of them say the exact same thing about America too. Born in America, lived in America all their life but still not American enough. I guess it’s the mindset. You’ll always be made to feel like a foreigner in a foreign land.
    India is evolving and the youth is becoming more active and aware. I guess and I am sure there is going to be a change, in the mind set, in the system.
    Amen.

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