The Golchakkar of Premier Institutions: St. Stephen’s College as a Public Concern: N P Ashley

This is a guest post by N P Ashley: For a teacher, it feels strange to defend one’s workplace in public against the experiential remarks of an individual who happens to be in some ex-student capacity in the same college. “I didn’t like X’s classes” or “I found academic excellence in St. Stephen’s College a myth”  are statements that need no attempt to be disproven precisely because the writer, Thane Richard, makes no attempt to prove them in the first place. The narrative is anecdotal and validation is through “personal experience” which can only be countered, rather weakly, through other anecdotes. Hence, I won’t get into it. But there are certain methodological problems with the entire exercise, which, if not countered, will wrongly define the concerns of the readers.  

 Thane Richard seems to operate with the following logical scheme:
1. St. Stephen’s College is one of the best, if not the best, college in India.
2. St. Stephen’s College has no legitimate claims for academic excellence, as some teachers who taught him didn’t do any good teaching.
3. Therefore, Indian academe has no claim for academic excellence.
4. This is because students are docile and don’t know what to fight for.
5. I will tell you, St. Stephen’s Students (Indian students), what to fight for.
Richard has an anticipatory bail ready to say that people don’t need to get nationalistic and defend the academic quality in India. Well, any critique, even if it comes to you anonymously, should be used for self evaluation and correction rather than being viewed as an ego issue/ attack. Thus, strictly for the purposes of this article, I would keep Thane Richard’s American origins completely outside the debate.
But how do we not address the nationalist paradigm that Thane Richard creates for the debate? In the whole article what is the relevance of the statement, “St. Stephen’s College is one of the best, if not the best” college(s) in India? Why is he drawing a metonymic relationship between St. Stephen’s and Indian colleges?  Then what is the locus standi of the position, as one teacher read out from his notes, all the teachers in St. Stephen’s College will have to be doing the same? Going even with Thane Richard’s formulation, he is taking the (supposed) worst of the (so called) best and attributing it to an entire nation. This is selective, subjective and arbitrary. If we don’t want the nationalistic frame, we need to get out of what has already been concocted by the writer- which is eminently and unfailingly one of nationalistic stereotyping.
Let me go to another side of the debate now: As for St. Stephen’s College and the developments therein, media will do itself and readers some service if they try and understand the political issue involved in the developments in St. Stephen’s College. In most colleges in Delhi, there is curfew time for women ( This applies to Women’s Hostels of the University where even Ph.D. scholars are not allowed to step out of the hostel after 8 PM). I believe that  female students should also have the rights of movement that male students have. In my limited understanding, St. Stephen’s College was the first and only college to have had a major movement for an open campus. If the media had tried to raise the issue of curfew in DU university and college hostels (and this will then need to be studied against the security debates in the city and the modalities of policy decisions in university hostels and colleges) through evoking human rights and gender equality and recording the St. Stephen’s Students movement as a manifestation of a certain kind of awareness, the movement could have brought an issue of democracy into the public domain.  Instead, the entire development was quite wrongly depicted as a one-of-a-kind issue between the students and the Principal of the college and handled precisely as that in the public realm through labeling and tarnishing ( and thus abandoning the political concerns entirely).

There seems to be a debilitating lack of understanding of the political in this entire media exercise- a mistake that was not invented yesterday but an old bad habit of legitimizing such tendencies on the basis of the “celebrity” nature of the college. If it is about St. Stephen’s College, news value was attributed to anything and everything. All the political inadequacies are then dissolved into the sensationalism of the narrative. Thane Richard also follows the same logic, making the same mistakes. On the contrary, I would argue that the 1200 students who study in St. Stephen’s College or the 88 teachers who teach can only be used as Indian samples, if and only if, one is ready to situate them in socio-economic givens.
That most visible lot of St. Stephen’s College has been members of the social elite is a felt reality and this needs to be read in the context of the historical situation that the ruling elite hasn’t changed in the country (which has been upper caste, upper class, male and urban)*. The social/economic elite in the country has been managing its power through the maintenance of hegemony (in knowledge), the site for which is educational institutions. If 7 Cabinet ministers, 19 Members of parliament, such a lot of IAS officers, many writers, artists, actors, media personalities and so on came from a single college in a vast county like India, it speaks more about the limited circles that monopolise different kinds of capital in the country than about the training they receive in college. It gives us certain insights into the very nature of “merit” rather than about the merit of the students. (This could be extended to institutions like IITs or IIMs in recent times, in slightly modified terms. This is a historical condition and a social limitation than the quality or fault of a single institution).  The nostalgic voices from those who believe in the glory of the college or the outsiders who are interested in the sensationalism around the celebrity nature of the college are not doing anything to take us into the societal, systemic nature of the problem. They merely take us around this gol chakkar of “premier institutions”.
St. Stephen’s College is one among the many colleges in Delhi University and one among the thousands of colleges in the country. For some of us, who have their memories or careers or present there, it will be an important part of our lives. But the college grows out of this topos and becomes a public concern when the issue is placed in the domain of knowledge or of human rights in the secular, socialist and democratic country of ours. Other kinds of interventions are counter productive for the very reason that they take us away from these questions, disabling us from looking at the micro-manifestations of issues from a methodologically nuanced, institutionally useful and politically sensitive position.
*I am aware of the change in the social background of students in the last two decades for a number of reasons. But I am not taking that up here, as this bunch hasn’t gained visibility as students of St. Stephen’s College yet.

(Social commentator and dramaturge, N. P. Ashley teaches English at St. Stephen’s College).

12 thoughts on “The Golchakkar of Premier Institutions: St. Stephen’s College as a Public Concern: N P Ashley”

  1. I fully agree with the right of a faculty rising to defend an institution where he himself teaches and am very impressed the by the way he did it. Nonetheless, and with all facts and points put together and presented in a logically convincing structure to counter Mr. Thane Richard’s arguments, Professor just missed (or deliberately diverted) one issue, the core the of Thane’s topic – “Quality of Education”.

    Professor argues against Thane’s picking up a single faculty and a single institution and stereotyping an entire nation’s education system with it.

    1) In fact, Thane said …”What changed my understanding was when I started taking classes at St. Stephen’s College. Except for one, they were horrible”….So he said only one professor was good enough and others were horrible. Not vice versa.

    2) Thane re-iterated,St. Stephen is not the best college, but one among the best colleges. That he was told, by people of India, students and media and whoever else are our ambassadors. This usually suggests (in common-sense), despite the historical condition & social limitation you brought to justify, St. Stephen attracts talents. ( I suppose there is severe competition in DU colleges for an admission, and St. Stephen is not an exception)

    3) Professor says Thane did not try to prove that academic quality in St. Stephen does not meet the standard ( or its glory and celebrity status?), Instead he merely states so. He cited it at several places in the topic.

    a) his was not an isolated incident — “all my fellow exchange students concurred that the academics were a joke compared to what we were used to back home” – so this reaches beyond personal anecdote – it is a group experience ( one may argue racist or nationalistic bias !!!)

    b) “Readings were required but how can this be enforced when there is no discussion that makes students accountable for coming to class prepared?”

    c) “In one political science class the only requirements for the entire period between August and December were two papers, each 2,500 words” .

    I am sure professor has beautifully countered with proper explanation and reasons the issue of disciplinary arrangements inside the campus. But at the same time, he merely touched the issue of”quality of education” by citing historical situations and elite intervention.

  2. Dear Mr. Ashley: as an Indian student when i or any Indian student, read through the article of Mr.Richard, we would be nodding our head in acceptance to what he has said. This is because most of what he said has indeed happened in every students life. Its not bout just Stephen’s College. This same thing happens from Class one to PG. We need to throw politics out of education. Education is a Service, its sanctity needs to be preserved. We need to revamp and re-energize the Education system in our Country.

  3. Thank you for your response Professor N. P. Ashley. I only wish to take issue with your breakdown – the “logical scheme” – of my argument, which can then hopefully be considered in conjunction with the rest of what you wrote.

    1. No issue here. It was conveyed to me that St. Stephen’s was one of the best liberal arts colleges while I was there and my experience since has not given me any reason to change this perception.

    2. Serious issue here. Your wording trivializes the essence of my argument. When I came to Stephen’s, the Indian students I met, the Indian students I became friends with, and my fellow study abroad students all had a common sentiment regarding the quality of education there. While I gave an example of a professor who was stunning and conceded that my classes were horrible “except for one,” which happened to be an exceptional class, that is largely irrelevant in light of the overwhelming view to the contrary. To generalize, one might expect a satisfactory campus to have maybe 80% of students pleased with their classroom experience (I am not discussing life outside the classroom here or in my original piece) and maybe 20% displeased. Maybe that is too generous, even a 50/50 split could be justified. But 80% or more dissatisfied? Amongst St. Stephen’s students, the substandard quality of teaching is an old joke, a worn out cliche, the movie that has been quoted too many times. So while I gave one poignant example of a particularly abhorrent class, the real concern I meant to convey was that nearly everyone I met at Stephen’s felt that such classes were representative of the level of education they received.

    3. I don’t know how I feel about this statement. Blanket statements like “ALL of Indian academe has ZERO claim to academic excellence” make me nervous. Though, I suppose that was your intent in presenting the logic of my argument in that way. However, despite what you write in the paragraph after your numbered list, I do think looking at the best-in-class of a category can allow a judgement to be passed on the entire system, as compared to a random sample from the middle. We can conclude one of three things from my article: 1. My experience and the experience I heard from my peers was an isolated incident, isolated by department, year, or some other factor and is thus not representative; 2. If Stephen’s is the best, then the top is not as high as we thought; 3. Our ranking system or its judges are flawed and Stephen’s has been falsely represented. I pick #2, which innately has implications for the entire system. I read from your piece that you might be more inclined towards #3, given your take on “the celebrity nature of the college” or towards #1.

    4. Disagree – I have no idea how or why academic quality at Stephen’s has gotten to its present position. If it were up to students, I doubt we would be where we are. There are many historical and social forces at play here going back to colonial India. I did not attempt to answer this question. I took the present situation (as it was for me in 2007) as given.

    5. Yes, I want to rile up St. Stephen’s students. I want them to read what I wrote and call me names and get mad. It is maddening. But then hopefully that anger can get focused in the right direction. I reject the tone of your #5 that frames me as the all-knowing arrogant sage because I think alumni should not be ostracized for wanting to guide students at their alma mater in a way they think is beneficial for them.

    Regarding your views on St. Stephen’s as a place for the elites of India to breed, I completely agree and recognized in my writing. This is why, for Stephen’s in particular, change could be so difficult because the status quo conveys numerous benefits. The notion of “merit” you describe is something that schools like Brown suffer from as well.

    1. I have two issues with this response by Thane Richard. First, Thane seems to believe that the movement needs to go in the ‘right direction’. As has been pointed out by Dr Ashley (and Aritra Chatterjee), given the patriarchal and political context, gender equality and the struggle against institutional measures like selective curfew are extremely relevant. There are many movements that can and must be undertaken, but none of them delegitimise the significance of each other. Yes, quality is a huge problem, but then so is patriarchy. So yes, we agree that issues of quality (and other issues of education must be raised) but i completely disagree that is that is the ‘right’ direction, this is the wrong one. They are both equally right. Why put down the question of gender justice for one of education? After all they are both very serious social concerns.
      Second, about wanting to get St Stephens students mad. The entire tone seems to be one of students having a knee jerk reaction to something they happen to dislike, rather than them taking a principled stance. I would like to clarify that the article posted by St Stephens students was in the form of a public statement about the ongoing issue. I feel that perhaps one could engage in a more meaningful discussion with the students by regarding them as rational beings who are willing to discuss this, without the use of techniques that anger. Angering students will not convince them of your views, particularly when your views come across as unreasonably dismissive. It seems to want to ‘guide’ us through provocation rather than thought and reason, when you say I wanted them angry. We are capable of and willing to change our opinions but not because we’re riled up. I would also like to point out that a movement does not mean getting furious and standing on the road with placards all the time. It means going forward with whatever one can do best in the situation. It means initiating such discussion on sites like this one. The article by Stephens students was a part of the movement, not outside of it. Perhaps you feel that the methods used were not adequate, but they were methods part of a movement nonetheless, not just a bunch of angry kids complaining.
      I completely agree that quality is a problem, but I’m not getting into the rest of your original post (which I feel has been been very well responded to by Aritra Chatterjee). I do not feel however that the issue of quality of education in itself dilutes the importance of fighting curfew.

      -A concerned Stephens student

    2. Sir one of my friends is joining Stephen’s this year.I showed him your article about the quality of teaching but he is still joining it due to it’s so called reputation in India.Would you advice anyone to join this college?

  4. Some comments on this interesting exchange.

    “Quality” of education is always difficult to assess. If you have a set of very smart students, then they will do well irrespective of the quality of their teachers. A good teacher teaching a bunch of really good students may still make a difference but probably not that much. Unfortunately, we typically assess the quality of an institution by looking at how well the students do in later life. This fails to take the quality of the students themselves into account and gives us a biased view of the quality of the institution. So it is very likely that St Stephen’s or the IITs or the IIMs are less good than we suppose them to be.

    A second problem in assessing quality — especially in comparing Indian ones with US ones — is the difference in institutional setups. A teacher at St Stephens has much less discretion with regard to designing and teaching a course. In fact, I would think she has none at all. From the syllabus onwards, almost every aspect is decided for her including the method of assessing the students. Working within such constraints, you can still have good and bad teachers but when you are making cross-country comparisons, these differences have to be taken into account.

    A third issue is the question of resources. We have to note that Brown is a top research university with a huge budget (at least as compared to Indian universities and certainly compared to St Stephens) and its faculty reflects that fact. Without even looking at the Brown web page, I’d venture to say that there will be top-class researchers in every department. For contrast, take a look at the faculty at St Stephens.. Let alone pursue active research, a significant number don’t even have a doctorate! One could argue that if you were to give St Stephens something like the budget of Brown, they too can hire much better faculty and provide an overall much better learning experience.

    None of this is to discount what Thane says. As the comments make clear, the inadequacy of Indian education is felt by Indian students too. Reforming Indian education, however, is going to be a huge challenge. And I’d argue that the place to start is not the university but the school. I don’t think Thane realises (but I may be wrong) the quality of incoming students in colleges less “prestigious” than St Stephens. Madhu Kishwar is lately in the news for defending Narendra Modi but it is still worth listening to what she says about education in India. Here are two telling excerpt from her article Destroying Minds and Skills: The Dominance of Angreziyat in our Education:

    Among the many very saddening exposures to how our schools are destroying brains, I would like to cite one. While I was on a visit to Vitner village of Maharashtra some years ago, the people there proudly introduced me to a teenage boy as the brightest and most diligent student of that village. I asked him to write an essay on himself and the boy sat down dutifully to do the exercise. After about 45 minutes he brought a two page neatly written essay on Mahatma Gandhi. I was puzzled and asked him why he didn’t write about himself. Somewhat embarrassed he told me that they had not “taught” him to write on “that topic” in school. If this is what our school system is doing to our brightest and most hard-working, we can well imagine the fate of our not so bright and less than average students.

    I have been experiencing the products of this devastation year after year in the Delhi University college where I teach. As with that village student, my first assignment to even
    my B.A. students is an essay on themselves. Most of them (except the few from really well fuctioning schools) look as bewildered as that village boy and many simply cannot
    write more than 6-7 lines that do not go beyond giving the student’s name, father’s occupation, the area he/shelives in and a couple of other identification points. Their excuse is the same: this topic was never a part of their curriculum. Over the years only a handful have given me something resembling an essay. This was the case even though many of them came from non-sarkari schools.

    If you are going to reform the Indian educational system, the school is the place to start. You may disagree but I’d say we can live with St. Stephens providing an inferior learning experience as compared to Brown, but we most certainly can’t live any longer with the utter scandal that is our public school education system.

  5. Well I have to admit I had to use a dictionary while reading your beautiful and thoughtful counter to Mr.Richards’ article.Very rhetorical indeed, I got the opportunity to learn a few words new to me but I still could not grasp what the article was trying to explain.

    As a former student of Delhi University who was in a lesser privileged college and who ultimately dropped out I completely agree with Mr.Richards’ anecdotal piece. I come from a backward state with a failure of an education system. All we ever did in school was to learn how to pass the exam; that was the sole motive of being in school. When I heard about Delhi University I thought this was the place where I could finally get “real” education and not rote learning. But the reality struck me hard. what I tried to escape from I ended up doing that exactly. I was enrolled in Economics honors course in college and whatever he said about the dictation of notes and the mechanical fashion of jotting it down is completely true.In my college it was not only in Economic History class but in Financial systems and banking, Microeconomics,Macroeconomics,economic systems etc also. The only classes where the professor didn’t dictate was the statistics and Math. Not only that, the notes given to us by our professors were not good enough for the exams so we had to buy additional “superior” quality notes possibly written by a professor from an elite college for that extra edge.Again the whole motive of coming to class was to take down notes for overcoming that hurdle-Exams. Now that is my personal experience and others may beg to differ.

    The whole point of Mr.Richards’ piece was the way Indian students are being nurtured and what the end-product looks like. The inclusion of St.Stephen’s was only to show that if this sort of rote learning happens in one of the premier institutions of India then what the rest will be. In my opinion he was neither belittling St.Stephen’s, its students nor the professors. It was just a simple retelling of personal encounters by a student.

    Sorry for my bad english

  6. The English professor’s shoddily vainglorious, artificially nuanced, and pathetically weak defense(!) of his workplace indeed proves Mr Thane RIchard’s point. More so, when we consider the quality of the essays in question.

    Thane RIchard’s note on his alma mater is refreshingly clear, straightforward and honest. Many would take it as a constructive criticism of the status quo and concede that its an important contribution in making things right.

    The English professor, by contrast, caricatures Thane’s points and misses the most important issue Thane dealt in his note. And he puts in some irrelevant political schemes into the issue to make the essay appear nuanced, effectively offering nothing worthy of consideration in defense.

    What is depressingly pathetic in his defense in that he attempts to defend the principal, the college, other colleges in India, different classes and groups of people of India, the academic climate in India all, in one stroke. Forget the methodology and the scheme, the result of this otiose defense is obvious.

    Thane Richard is right, we have all experienced it in Indian educational institutions. The problem in there even in the best colleges of India. Accepting the existence of weakness in the system is the first step to make powerful and resourceful.

  7. Hi Thane Richard, Warm Greetings from ‘conscience of the society’, a philosophic non-profit based in New Delhi ( http://www.conscienceofthesociety.com)

    I have read your article yesterday at ‘The Hindu’. My great appreciations for expressing truth in such plain,but powerful terms.

    The Indian story of education narrated by you was very true. The story of education as a whole in the world, including that of USA and Europe, may be content-wise and effectiveness-wise better, but the institution as a whole is NOT aiming at imparting pure knowledge for its own sake, like it was during the pre-industrialisation era. How many thinkers, philosophers and scientists emerged from the old system, seeking uninhibited pure knowledge ?

    I would like to share with you one of our blogs that expresses fears about the intellectual future of the world if it travels in the same path, at link: http://archaeologiesofthefuture.blogspot.in/ ( see para’ knowledge and learning’)

    Also share an essay by a UK student who writes about the peril of our modern business management system. Education institutions in the world are basically attempting to cater to the needs of the modern industry ! See link: http://www.ukessays.co.uk/essays/management/subordination-loyalty-and-productivity.php

  8. I expect that students of St. Stephen’s fill out a course/teacher evaluation at the end of every course. It would be nice if the St. Stephen’s administration publishes what is said by students. It would be one indication of how good the teaching is.

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