The ‘elitism’ debate, and why I am not the college I went to
This post is written more as a reflection on, rather than a response to, the stereotypes that prevail about St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. It is not so much an argumentative post as a labour of love.
Update: Even as I am surprised by the media attention, here’s another edition of ‘Politically Incorrect’, with Mani Shankar Aiyar and Swapan Dasgupta, on elitism in academic institutions.
There has been some noise in a few corners of the intertubes regarding some unnecessary and superfluous comments made by an alumnus of a Delhi college about an alumnus from another college within Delhi University. The comments were not in good taste, and sound snobbish. However, these comments were taken out of context (which was a political one) to berate St. Stephen’s and the presumed ‘snobbery’ that goes with it. I’ve spent three very memorable years of my life in St. Stephen’s and there is something I have to say about it, even as some Old Boys continue to talk about the college they went to which I am not sure was the same place that I went to. Institutions evolve, as do individuals and society. Sometimes, though, our perceptions remain rooted in the past, perpetuated in the present, and thus unfortunately prejudiced — indeed, stereotyped — for all of future. This distorts our ability to appreciate what is and is not the case with the present. And I write this to put the present in context. I can’t talk of how snobbish an institution St. Stephen’s was in their time since I wasn’t there to witness it, but I can give an account of how nurturing it was while I was there. This is a rather longish post so feel free to jump to parts (indicated in bold) that interest you.
How St. Stephen’s happened to me
The fact that I went to St. Stephen’s was quite a matter of chance, if not so much a matter of choice. A teenager just out of school, unclear where to go next (which happens, especially if you don’t crack the IITJEE), I knew what I wanted to do. I’d picked up an abiding love for physics in school, and I wanted to become a physicist. I did not know how. Everyone talked about being an engineer or a doctor or a chartered accountant or sundry other things. The word ‘physicist’ was quite alien to most folks around me (most mistook ‘physician’ to mean a ‘physicist’, so you can imagine what I mean!), except a teacher who had managed to kindle an enthusiasm for physics when I attended his rather fun, if eccentric, classes. The most straightforward way to go about it seemed to do a B.Sc. Physics (Hons) at Delhi University. The first thing you expect (and which is what happened) when you make such a choice is disapproval (or at any rate, no show of enthusiasm) from friends and family. After all, all the bright kids (‘bright’ being a euphemism for top-scorers in Board exams, nothing more) were supposed to be engineers. My father wasn’t sure if I was in my senses. After all, I expressed this desire soon after he had paid some ten thousand rupees for provisional admission to a B.Tech. (Mechanical Engineering) program which I had opted for of my own free will, since I thought I can do a B.Tech and then switch to physics. He was confounded by what appeared to him a sudden change of plan. In retrospect, though, I have reasons to suspect that a chance meeting with a pretty girl doing English (Hons) at Kirori Mal College, Delhi University — who, it must be mentioned, had dropped a year after school for Medical entrances but decided to do English anyway! — played some part in motivating me in ways more than one, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, it was physics I wanted to do. It took some convincing (or so I believe they were) arguments to win over my parents’ trust in my ability to make my choices. And, understanding as they are, they reluctantly decided to let me apply to Delhi University — with one rider though: that I make it to St. Stephen’s, and that if I don’t, I’d go back to that B.Tech. course they had got me provisionally admitted to. I accepted. Perhaps I was very overconfident in my ability to get into St. Stephen’s, especially since I had scored way above the stipulated cutoffs. But then there were interviews. St. Stephen’s is the only college in Delhi University where interviews are a mandatory part of the admission process. Perhaps, the idea is to assess the individual and his/her capacity to grow within and contribute to the ambience of Stephania. When all the interviewees are academically as good, this becomes the distinguishing — albeit somewhat subjective — criterion. My day came, the interview happened (it wasn’t exactly great, that interview), and soon enough I found out I was put in a waiting list, and not in the first admission list. I was devastated. Not particularly because I didn’t get in, but much more because of my parents’ rider about making it to St. Stephen’s or going back to the B.Tech course. The other colleges I had applied to — Hansraj, Hindu, Ramjas, perhaps also Sri Venkasteswara — would gladly take me in, so I had to somehow convince my parents (again!) to let me go to one of these colleges. It was not that my parents had the slightest idea of how St. Stephen’s was different from any of these colleges — what they did know was the perceived prestige that goes with being in College. So this time I had to argue against this notion of ‘prestige’ etc. I had to convince them that it did not matter which college I went to as long as I was doing what I was happy doing. Thankfully, they heard me out, saw that I was serious about my aspirations, and gave me a chance. I enrolled in Hansraj College.
Hansraj was my first exposure to college life and in some twenty days or so that I spent there, I made many friends and much happened in and around what they call LP (“Lovers’ Point”) over there. I wasn’t expecting a call from St. Stephen’s. I was just happy being given the chance to do what I wanted to do. But the call came. And, after a bit of hesitation (since I felt ‘settled’ in Hansraj and believed that it was St. Stephen’s misfortune that they didn’t take me in — well, that is how I preferred to think), I decided to give St. Stephen’s a chance, and see what’s in there for me. Much, as it later turned out. Though, I must emphasize that I did not go there because it gave me some misplaced sense of ‘having arrived’. I went there because there was much I had read about the college and of how it was a place with a rich history, filled with interesting people and ideas, and I wanted to explore all of that. Of course, the physics was still primary. I did not apply for any other courses there, or elsewhere.
What is so ‘Stephanian’ about it?
Much is made out of how unique a place St. Stephen’s is, and how it is unlike any other college. None of this is an exaggeration (well, usually), but it needs to be put in perspective. When you join College almost a month after classes start, you’ve missed on some of the rites of passage that incoming Junior Members (that is what students are referred to as, in St. Stephen’s) are supposed to go through. Even so, I was quite enthusiastic about the flood of activities that were offered in college. The sheer number and diversity in clubs and societies that are run by students (with Senior Members serving as Staff Advisors to these societies) is mind-boggling. There’s something for everyone there. And if there isn’t, you can create it!
One thing anyone would notice while in college is the pluralism — cultural, academic, or otherwise — that is at the core of its being. It is a liberal arts college, with strong departments in Science, Economics, and the Humanities. The space — both intellectual, and social — that it offers you to experiment with life, to find your own creative niche, and to engage in conversations (meaningful, or otherwise) with a refreshingly diverse bunch of people, give it its much-deserved aura. College is the context within which many individuals have found an expression of their being. It gives you the space to be and the opportunity to become, if you show the initiative to do.
A spirit of togetherness, that of inclusiveness, and of learning from each other — about culture, language, food, or the zillion other things that happen in ‘Rez’ (the Residential Blocks for students) — is very much a part of the college experience. It is in St. Stephen’s that I first had the chance to meet, interact, and become friends with folks from very different parts of India — from Assam to Gujarat, or Kerala to Kolkata, and from so many more places! I had the opportunity to attend and engage in informal discussions with all kinds of people visiting college. Much that was learned in college was never ‘taught’. Former students often mention that much of the learning happened outside the classroom, and this is what in some sense imparts an inter-personal character to the process of education — one that is defined not by a syllabus, but one that emerges and organically evolves out of the relationships that members of the college share and nurture.
Teaching kids during evening classes was a joy! The Social Service League of the college had (and, presumably, still has) an active ‘evening classes’ programme where Junior Members could volunteer to teach kids from underprivileged backgrounds. That was where I realized that teaching is not an easy job, rewarding though it is if one is able to communicate ideas effectively to kids. It was where I felt a sense of responsibility whenever I decided to teach children. I had two students and I taught them math and science. I used to indulge them in freewheeling conversations where they could ask me anything they wanted to. There was another little kid (very shy) who used to show up every once in a while, and I used to draw cartoons for him which he then would copy. Experiences such as these engaged my mental and emotional faculties, and helped me grow into a more caring individual. We also have a tradition called the ‘Rudra dinner’ where members of the college serve the people who otherwise serve us the rest of the year — those in the College Mess, those who serve the residential blocks, and so on.
This is just a brief sample of the inner life of Stephania, one that is a far cry from the ‘brand’ called St. Stephen’s that is often invoked and as often berated for alleged ‘snobbery’. There are countless other things that happen in College, things that individuals do and contribute to life in college and outside, and it would be impractical to try and give an account of all of them here.
A misplaced sense of personhood – a comment on institutions and individuals
The impression of the ‘snobbish’ Stephanian is probably an artifice of the past, if at all. The people I know from college are generally level-headed individuals with ambitions, like everyone else. Having attended St. Stephen’s College is not their only ‘achievement’ in life. Although when they consider it their only ‘achievement’, there’s a greater chance of them having a misplaced sense of personhood, equating everything they are with the college. As someone famously said, ‘Why blame the college?’
An important distinction must be made when talking about institutions and individuals. Many kids enter St. Stephen’s every year, and many graduate. To hold the college responsible for what any one of them says — considering that as something that reflects on their college’s character — is to overstate the issue. Individuals must be held responsible for what they say, not their institutions. An institution is not a ‘person’, it is a context. It doesn’t teach you anything per se. It is a space within which individuals come together to do something meaningful. And we deal with, and grow within, a number of contexts other than the college we went to. While Stephania has been a very important part of my growing up, and I take pride in that fact, I’m not the college I went to. No one is.