Monday, June 21, 2010

Identity crisis of a school for 'gentlemen' (June 20, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the past fortnight, La Martiniere, Kolkata, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The tragic suicide of 13-year-old Rouvanjit Rawla, a student devastated by insensitive teachers and harsh punishment, has incensed people and disgusted the alumni. Was the tragedy an unhappy aberration or symptomatic of deeper institutional rot?

Having spent an exhilarating six years in La Martiniere, it is difficult to believe that the values that governed the school have changed so much. Being caned by the principal was not unheard of in the 1960s, but it was rare. A clip behind the ear for talking out of turn or being asked to run three rounds of the school grounds for picking a fight were the usual forms of punishment — and these were accepted by staff, students and, for that matter, parents, as part of schooling.

Discipline also extended to personal grooming. Polished leather shoes were obligatory, tight trousers were not and long hair would often result in the school barber being summoned for mass haircuts. La Martiniere was not known for scholastic rigour but it acquired a reputation for smartness. In the world of petty snobberies, this mattered.

Punishment was governed by an unwritten code of fairness that applied to both students and teachers. After all, the primary responsibility for maintaining school discipline fell to the student prefects. These were coveted appointments based on leadership abilities and trust. Just as a ‘house captain’ couldn’t misuse his authority to appropriate a junior’s pocket money, it was unthinkable for a teacher to demand a bribe from a student.
In today’s La Martiniere that trust has broken down. The moral assumptions that governed school life don’t seem to be shared by all, least of all the school authorities. The transmission of tradition from one generation to another has been disrupted.

Admittedly, we were a caricature of a minor English public school. There was the school’s elaborate coat of arms; a lusty school song sung on important occasions; a school prayer; a morning service led each day by the principal that followed the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer; and even something called the ‘Maxims’ — a collation of homilies, including the need to maintain a sense of humour on all occasions.
Tradition was a defining feature of school life. The school ‘houses’ were named after three imperial heroes — Warren Hastings, Job Charnock and Lord Macaulay — and the founder, Claude Martin, a colourful French adventurer who made a fortune serving the British. And there were the rolls of honour stretching back to the 1830s, listing the boys who had won the gold medal and the ‘good conduct’ medal.

When I left school in 1971, many of these traditions had already begun to look jaded in a rapidly changing India. La Martiniere’s emphasis was on producing gentlemen — well spoken, well groomed, at ease in a jacket and tie and possessing good table manners. Ideally, they would be at home in a 1930s Anglosphere that, tragically, no longer existed.

Did the school succeed in its noble mission? Did that wonderful athlete who was naturally awarded the ‘good conduct’ medal on Founder’s Day do anything worthwhile in life? Whatever happened to that lanky boy who was such a good opening batsman? Did they make a meaningful mark? Or were they brushed aside by an India that had redefined its values and priorities?

Today’s La Martiniere faces a crisis. But it isn’t the only one. In 1947, the departing British left behind many institutions that had sought to remake little corners of India into England’s green and pleasant land. In time, control of these institutions passed from those who stayed on to the Anglo-Indians and, finally, to the ‘native Christians’. Yet, these schools weren’t really Christian in the way the Jesuit-run schools were. The attachment to the Church of England (and its successor churches) was nominal, and ‘Christian education’ was a euphemism for ‘English education’.

Today’s parents demand an English-medium education that doesn’t end with fluency in the English language. They expect rigorous teaching, scholastic excellence and an upbringing that will facilitate entry to an IIT or an American university. The likes of La Martiniere aimed at producing ‘gentlemen’ and ‘ladies’ in a more settled age. They could have reinvented themselves, as many public schools in England have, blending tradition with cutting-edge modernity. The ‘secular’ Indian public schools, moved beyond their narrow gentlemanly focus to embrace the excitement of the capitalist dream. They made the transition to a new India.

La Martiniere, unfortunately, got trapped in a self-serving, church-run ghetto. Lacking direction, it is living off its inheritance and real estate. Maybe, the Church of England should consider reclaiming what it bequeathed to unworthy natives.

Sunday Times of India, June 20, 2010

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