Higher Education in India / Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios


PDF File, HTML File

Your Eminence, Mr. Vice-Chancellor and distinguished friends:
Next week it will be three years since the National Board of Christian Higher Education was born in a similar conference of Principals at Tambaram over which it was my great privilege to preside. Looking back after three years I smile a little bit at myself and if you forgive me, at ourselves.
I smile at myself because at that time I came as an expert from outside. I happened to he the Secretary of the joint Study Commission on Education, of the World Council of Churches and the World Council of Christian Education. It was easy for me at that time to express lofty general ideas on higher education in a world context since I was blissfully ignorant of the total sense of frustration on the educational scene in India. Today after having been in India for little more than two years, I cannot gather together enough lofty ideas to fill a keynote address. Honesty compels me to be sober.
If you permit me I will laugh at ourselves also. There was a dense cloud of euphoria in the atmosphere of Tambaram both ecumenically and educationally. It was the first time that more than 150 Christian College Principals from all the Christian Churches of India had come together. The efficiency and precision of Dick Dickinson’s achievement we took as a compliment to ourselves. We were still in the afterglow of Vatican II and there was the spirit of ecumenical bonhomie and the courtesy natural among new friends. The last two years however have shown us that practical ecumenical collaboration cannot be as easy as platform ecumenism. We were also thrilled by the presence of Mr J. P. Naik. the member-Secretary of the Kothari Commission whose ideas sounded so bright and full of hope to us. Little did we realize in Tambaram that even a ministry of Education is not omnipotent and that there could he many a slip between the report and its implementation.
It is in this sober mood that I would like to re?ect on the task of the Christian College and of the National Board. I shall not take any of your time to bewail my own lack of competence in this field. I have very little direct involvement in Indian Higher Education. I speak with neither expertise nor experience. My thoughts, for what they are worth, are submitted to your mature and experienced criticism. I would like to limit my remarks to three areas: the national scene in Higher Education, the Christian College and finally the National Board.
I. The National Scene in Higher Education
No sensitive Indian can avoid a measure of anxiety in viewing the general situation in the nation today. First there is the fear that a weak centre may soon reinforce the fissiparous tendencies in the nation and lead to the Balkanization of India. At the very minimum We are in for a time of national unsettlement. Despite the affirmations of those in power that India is going to follow a resolute policy of socialist development, we can foresee that the demands of power politics will make the pursuit of any resolute policy practically impossible. There can be little doubt that education will be one of the first casualties of power politics.
At Tambaram our inclination was to the Government “Lead us and we will follow.” At Ernakulam I have to say to the Christian Colleges, “ if you do not lead, we shall all perish.” It would be unrealistic for this conference to take a passive view of our role and to seek simply to fit in with whatever the Government is doing. For the last two years we have sought to be noble as Christian Institutions and to assert that we have no private axes to grind. We have been eager to collaborate with the programmes of the Government and to fit in with the national plan. But where the national plan and national effort begin to falter and fail shall we shall go on talking about fitting in? In a nation that grows increasingly despondent, can the Christian institutions afford simply to hang their harps on the willows and weep? Or shall we on our own begin to pioneer and plod through the problems that confront higher education?
On the national scene, we find partisan thinking beclouding every issue. No newspaper, no public speaker, not even the infallible Hindu or All India Roadie makes the effort to be objective. The nation as a whole is getting caught in the crossfire of vicious propaganda between rival factions. The university is supposed to be a forum where objective thinking on issues that confront the nation is supposed be continually going on. But rarely does one find our universities seeking to bring together spokesmen of the contending sides to engage in unemotional debate for objective evaluation of the situation and honest prognostication of the future. What about the Christian colleges? Are we able to rise above petty partisanship and to become a genuine forum where opposing versions of the truth can confront each other? It is the task of the Christian colleges to render this service to the nation today– to make the voice of sanity and sobriety heard above the din of calumny and Slander.
I hope I make my point clear. The Christian church in India cannot afford simply to fit in with the Government’s effort. Where there is no leadership forthcoming in the nation the Christian college must at least serve as an island of objectivity and commitment to truth.
We all admire the Kothari Commission Report. The time has come for Christian colleges to see where they can with their own resources and leadership begin to implement some of its recommendations without waiting for government initiative. In Tambaram, we pledged our full support to the Ministry of Education and the University Grants Commission. In Ernakulam, We must reaffirm that pledge but at the same time begin to think about our own pioneering role in implementing the reform of higher education. You know why I speak thus.
There were two major proposals in the Kothari commission which could together at least have given ground to the hope that the Government will provide the forum within which Christian Colleges could seek to experiment with the reform of higher education.These were selective autonomy for certain colleges and the integration of national service with the academic programme. Some weak beginnings have been made in the latter, but no overall plan has been laid out, no proper programme has been sketched and no cadres have been trained. Inevitably, the present feeble effort called the National service Organization is bound to be a failure, for the preparation is half-hearted and apparently the convictions of administrative leadership less than strong. In the matter of autonomy of selected colleges nothing has been done, again no doubt, due to the exigencies of power politics.
It will be foolish and unrealistic for the Christian Churches to think in terms of dissociating themselves from the national programme of higher education or to try to follow an independent course. We cannot think in terms of a Christian university affiliating all the Christian colleges. We are too far committed as Christian institutions to the pattern of our secular society.
But then neither can we agree to keep on sliding down with the total national system of education. We must muster the courage and the spiritual strength to call a halt to the progressive deterioration of quality in higher education. However uphill the task may be, we must in the power of the Holy Spirit see new visions and dream new dreams.
II. Christian College
We are in a time when most Christian Colleges have enough reason to be disheartened. On the one hand there are the tensions and pressures of keeping up a great tradition which was usually established by foreign missionaries by their personal character and sense of discipline. They set very high standards for the institution. We now cannot muster the spiritual resources necessary to carry on that tradition. On the other hand there are the pressures from the Christian Community which look upon the Christian College as a place where they should have special privileges both in the matter of admission of students and in appointments to the staff. There are the pressures of raising money for expansion. In addition to all these there is the student protest and in many cases the teacher protest. The Principal, a lone wolf, has to combat singlehanded three different forces—students, staff and management and sometimes a fourth, viz, political parties or the general public. It is easy for the principal to develop a fair measure of self-pity. It is equally easy for him in contending with the day to day problems to forget the wider vision of the purpose of the college. One allocates responsibilities to one’s colleagues on the staff only to discover that they ‘are not responsibly carried out. If you are in an area where the Christians are a minority, then you find that it is impossible to maintain any semblance of Christian standards or even to make them understood.
What is the Principal to do in these circumstances? First of all I wish to submit that he can do nothing at all that is really creative and constructive until he finds access to the hidden sources of power and assurance within the Christian community. Too many of our college principals are isolated individuals unsustained by a small Christian fellowship in which they can find encouragement, guidance and correction. It is the Principal’s duty to create the nucleus of such a community where an atmosphere of mutual corrections and support in prayer can be maintained without its becoming a power centre. The Principal must also keep open channels for members of the faculty and representatives of the student body to communicate their views to him in a sympathetic and friendly way. The Principal’s success is always in forging his staff into a team where there is mutual respect and confidence as well as sharing of responsibilities. The growing gap between the Principal and the faculty on the one hand and the faculty and the students on the other can only destroy the possibility of genuine collegiality in the college.

Equally important is the need in our Christian colleges to develop a new attitude towards students. In India paternalism comes natural to us. We treat our students and our servants as though they were subhuman. Our capacity to command and terrorize students and servants seems to us the measure of our might. To show respect for the human dignity of the student and the servant would make us afraid of losing our prestige and standing. Especially those of us who belong to the middle classes do not realize that a new ethos has been developing in our societies for the last 20 years.
It is the duty of a Christian College Principal not only to respect the-students, but also to help his own staff to develop such respect for the students. If the students sometimes act irresponsibly, at least part of the reason lies in our attitudes of superiority and our impersonal relationships with them. The Christian college must boldly pioneer in giving more responsibilities to students, not only in the execution of co-curricular projects, but in the very choice of curriculum, in the plans for the growth of the institution and even in the day to day administration of the College. The idea of a college must become a reality in the Christian college. Which means there has to be a gradual switch-over from an authoritarian and hierarchical pattern of relationships between staff and students towards a genuinely democratic, broad-based, collegiate structure within which students and staff can play their full part.
It is within such a collegiate structure of community that the Christian college can seek to fulfill its twofold duty: the pursuit of knowledge and the rendering of service to humanity. A genuine collegiate structure can assist in the creation of a vital interest in knowledge which is so deplorably lacking in our present structures. Staff and students together could then engage in a common search for knowledge. The teacher though the more experienced partner should be just as thirsty as the student for new knowledge. It is also as a collegiate community genuinely interested in physical labour and service to humanity that the college can launch living social service projects.
The one thing fundamentally lacking in our educational system is zest or vital interest. Both academic standards and personal character can best be advanced in a community where there is mutual respect and concern, where everyone participates with dignity and interest and where cynicism and irresponsibility are banished by genuine love. Here, it seems to me, lies the greatest challenge to the Christian college. The creation of such a community would require many improvements in the college set up. There should be sufficient facility in the college for people to meet each other in a relaxed atmosphere and to form lasting friendships. There should be facilities for recreation and refreshment. There should be better student services including counseling and guidance. There should be more resident members of the faculty who with their families can give more time to the college. There should be co-curricular activities which draw in and utilize as much of the budding talent in the community. Above all there must be a cadre of younger teachers and senior students who are specially trained to implement and carry on the ideals of the college.
III. The National Board
I have not tried to be exhaustive in my analysis of the national scene or in my enumeration of the problems facing the Christian college. I have been highly selective in striking certain notes and shall continue to be so in this third section. It seems to me that the National Board itself needs a radical re-orientation. First of all it must cease to be a Principals’ club. Principals are distinguished people, learned, wise, efficient. But by no stretching of the imagination however, can I call a body like this to be representative of higher education.
In order to be adequately representative of even the Christian Colleges, five elements have to be present here of course, the Principals are important. But the Christian College is not built for them. The college is primarily a fellowship of students and faculty and neither of them are adequately represented in the assemblies of our Board. In all humility I would like to submit that we must find ways and means of bringing representatives of the teachers in Christian Colleges as well as of Christian teachers in secular institutions to our assemblies.
Even more important, we should get an adequate vocal, balanced, and not merely token, representation of the students of Christian colleges as well as of Christian students in other colleges and universities. We do not want to compete with the AICUF or the SCM or the Orthodox Christian Student Movement. They have their own approach to the University and its problems and we shall work in collaboration with them. But only the National Board can bring together in a single forum representatives of students, teachers, principals, management and the general public to reflect on the problems of higher education in India.
The fact that we began as a Principals’ conference does not mean that we have to continue like that for ever. We must bridge the various gaps among the five elements concerned in higher education This in itself should constitute a major reorientation for the National Board.
Secondly, the National Board must give the highest priority to the training of leadership cadres for higher education. This means training Principals, teachers and students to become animators of the higher education scene. Their training should be in three main areas
(a) in building genuine human community in the college and providing the facilities for it.
(b) in making the pursuit of knowledge more creative, zestful and interesting
(c) in organizing projects of service to the community which involve physical labour and direct contact with the poorer classes.
I even venture to suggest that the Board should think in terms of a higher education training institute with full time staff where the renewal of higher education through the promotion of better community relations, more creative methods of pursuing knowledge and effective service to the oppressed classes will be the overall concern.
Thirdly I wish to submit that Christian institutions have to pioneer in the de-westernizaiion of their own cultural traditions. The Christian colleges should pioneer also in finding a pattern of higher education which is not a mere imitation of the obsolete European and American Universities. Western culture is already beginning to pose questions about the adequacy of the urban technological paradise as a goal for society. We cannot ignore or bypass technology. In fact, only a full scale commitment to technology can bring our intellectuals and labourers together. We must constantly strive to regain the balance between mental work and physical work for every citizen of our country. But We should soon begin to plan to go beyond the mere integration of physical and mental labour. Western Universities are already beginning to ask fundamental questions about the very goals of human existence. Without proper inquiry into this and without some measure of clarification as to who man is and what he is to become, we cannot develop an educational system that is genuinely creative.
We in higher education are living in a new era. The Americans call it not A. D., but A B. ie. ‘ After Berkeley’. In the autumn of 1964, students at the university of California in Berkeley staged a minor revolt. But it was more than mere ‘unrest’. Students were asking some basic questions: “ Who is the University for? Why are students there? What are their rights?” It was a questioning of President Clark Kerr’s magnificent conception of the multiversity– the large, efficiently organized multicomponent factory with television class-rooms, teaching machines and computers, turning out ?unkeys of the consumer society by their tens of thousands. The University of California has an average annual expenditure of five hundred million dollars and invests one hundred million every year for new buildings. It employs forty thousand people and teaches ten thousand courses to some two hundred thousand students. No wonder student leader Mario Savio complained that the huge machine made him and his fellow students sick, for they all felt bound and enslaved to this faceless monster.
Our machines are much smaller. But they seem to be just as dehumanizing. Everyone is so busy trying to pass examinations that we have no time to ask the question about the relation of all this to Truth and Love, the two things without which man cannot be human.
Will the National Board have enough strength and penetration to ask the basic questions about who man is and what education is for? Can we begin to work out a new pattern of higher education, at least in one College that builds men of character, vision and wisdom ?