Millennium Post

Old order needeth change

The boarding schools, the last of the surviving British legacies, are under attack. The Scindia School incident left me worried for two reasons -- first as parent of a 13-year-old who is at a boarding house, as some people would put it, in the hills; and two I am an alumnus of one of such British legacy. Your reporter went to a school which Prince Edward, the then Prince of Wales, personally inaugurated on his visit to Dehradun in 1922 and gave it his name – Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College (RIMC).

During my stay on the sylvan campus we were regularly administered the philosophy of British public schools through quotations like – The battle of Waterloo (the last of Napoleonic wars) was won on the play fields of Eton. The British believed that what made them win the war were the qualities of team spirit and fair play learnt on the playgrounds of their public schools. The public schools, Eton, Radley, Winchester and Harrow being the more famous of them, were said to build superior characters of its young men by indoctrinating them in the cricket oval rather than in the classrooms.

The public schools looked at games to be as important a part of curriculum as academics. Outdoor activities were seen as tools for teaching discipline, respecting hierarchy and developing necessary qualities for leading fellow mates. Spirit of participation in games and not the desire to make profit from sports were idealised. But the bottom line was that the men of character were to be tested in the service of the British Empire.

Though the British encouraged setting up schools on the lines of Eton and Harrows, the latter was attended by Jawaharlal Nehru, in India, it did realize that there had to be an Indian condiment to what essentially was British flavour. This is reflected best in Prince Edward’s address to the masters and 37 cadets on 13 March 1922, at the inauguration of the RIMC at Dehradun.  ‘It is the first few blows on the anvil of the life that give the human weapon the set and temper that carry him through life’s battles,’ the Prince said and then referred to the old Indian tradition of ‘Guru and Chela’, the relationship of mutual love and reverence between the tutor and the taught. This for long years formed the basis of the ethos of the public schools across the country.

In this context I recall a note by RC Singhal, a long-time head of academics at RIMC and Cambrian Hall at Dehradun. ‘A master draws immense pleasure when his old students walk upto him and say, ‘How are you sir, you haven’t changed a bit.’ He enjoys seeing an 11-year-old grow into a successful man. His joy is immense and and such occasions numerous,’ wrote Singhal.

I was therefore shocked when a former principal of a leading public school claimed that parents hired goons to get him beaten. In a recent article, Dev Lahiri, formerly principal of Lawrence School, Lovedale and Welham Boys’ school, Dehradun wrote, ‘While I was Principal of a prestigious boarding school, a group of parents hired a bunch of goons to beat me up as I had quarantined the school on account of a bird-flu epidemic which unfortunately coincided with Diwali!’

In 2007, when I put my daughter in a boarding school in the hills, I was surprised to learn that the children would have a weeklong Diwali break. This was something unheard of in our time and in our boarding school. Times have changed. It has been nearly a hundred years since Prince of Wales made his famous speech at Dehradun. The demand on the school is not just to ‘give the human weapon the set and temper that carry him through life’s battles, as the Prince of Wales had said, but also fetch sufficient marks to get a seat in a prestigious university. The definition and composition of the elite and aristocracy, whose children study in these schools, too has changed.

Boarding schools have been affected by the societal changes we have witnessed in past 25 years, first unleashed by introduction of the Mandal commission report and consolidated by the opening up of the economy. Given the need to score 90+ per cent in class 12 examination to get admission in a good university degree course or attend coaching classes to enter a reasonably good professional college has forced many a service class parents to pitch for ‘mugging-based’ curriculum of the day schools rather than go for ‘wholesome’ curriculum of the boarding schools.

The space vacated by scions of the service families have come to be occupied by children from post-Mandal politically empowered clans, who have started to send their children to these schools for two reasons – one they look at them as good finishing schools and two a lesser per cent in class 12 doesn’t bother them as they are assured a seat in colleges thanks to the reservation for the other backward classes, the criterion of creamy layer notwithstanding, which is routinely flouted. No wonder that Dev Lahiri in his article mentioned, ‘Papa will phone Minister Uncle who will suitably browbeat the Principal,’ syndrome which afflicted him.

But we can’t put all the blame at the doors of the new patrons of these schools. I once had to point out the principal of my children’s school that he had turned the boarding house into Wackford Squeers’ Dotheboys Hall, the infamous boys’ school in Charles Dickens’ third novel ‘Nicholas Nickleby’. While I inherited the ‘discipline’ and my boyhood was moulded in the British prefectorial system, as a parent three-decades later I found some of the public school regulations and catholic ways to be decadent.

Change is something permanent and so the public schools would have to change to meet the challenges. The administration of the schools cannot be anymore left completely to the archaic prefectorial system. Greater involvement of teachers in the grooming of the pupils has become necessary; and this system calls for such tutors who would have the right temper and education to meet the challenges posed by the adolescent mind. His or her charge should at no point develop an aversion for the adopted tutorial methods. And this can be achieved with patience, affection, encouragement and a feeling of bonding on the part of the tutors. In my three decades of exposure with the public schools, I must say that I have met principals and masters who have successfully risen to meet the challenges posed by the rise of new gentry, consequent societal changes and intrusion of technology. The public schools have strong foundation and its edifice can be saved by giving it the necessary makeover in its brickwork from being taciturn to amenable.

The author is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post
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