150 Years of Bishop Cotton School

bcsAn assessment of the past … and the future?

Students of Bishop Cotton School (BCS) who graduated in 1956 celebrated their Golden Jubilee in 2007. Over three days in Shimla, classmates and their spouses socialised in the mornings and evenings at a hotel, and participated in several school activities. It took no time to break the ice among the “56ers” many of whom met for the first time in 50 years; common shared experiences provided the bonding. No matter how short their stay in BCS had been, it was enough to earn the brand of being an Old Cottonian, allowing them to address classmates by their school-days nicknames.

The camaraderie and discussions brought back memories, some good but others not so good. Almost all the discussions were in English as was most of the music to which the spouses danced as they would have in the socials of their school years. Most of the Oxbridge accent had gone and the conversation was peppered with Hindi or Punjabi words and metaphors. But a sense of belonging to an elite group was still very strong. Although we got along well, my recollections of school were somewhat different. I would not have mulled over these differences had I not been exposed to the hoopla associated with the School Sesquicentennial Celebrations starting this October.

Some background will help to understand this critique; my experiences before joining and after leaving school were somewhat different: I joined BCS in October 1948, at age nine years and two months, not knowing a word of English. Through several double promotions I caught up with the regular batch that graduated with a Senior Cambridge in 1956. However, I left school in mid-1954, matriculated privately from Punjab University, obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Banaras Hindu University—where, for the first time, I was exposed to real Indian culture and also studied Hindustani Classical Music for five years—and obtained a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Princeton University. Clearly, my path as a student was very different from the preferred BCS-St. Stephen’s College-UK path for the Arts and Sciences or the BCS-Loughborough path for Engineering.

Over the past 150 years, although BCS has changed in many ways, its core philosophy has remained unchanged: a sense of elitism, getting along with the prevailing power structure, and a belief that networking amongst its alumni is important. Its history can be divided into three eras: 1859-1947, when Great Britain ruthlessly ruled India; 1947-1992, a slow transition in which the school lagged the rapid social changes in Independent India and during which job skills started to become important; and post 1991 India—marked by Dr Manmohan Singh shepherding major economic reforms by abolishing India’s Licence Raj, resulting in opening up of India’s economy—in which the advantages of hierarchical privileges are increasingly being replaced by a knowledge-based society in which merit counts far more than privilege.

During 1859-1947 the interests of the staff and students—who almost exclusively were wards of British functionaries charged with keeping India within the British Empire—were antithetical to the interests of the subjugated Indians. In this era, which overlapped the industrial revolution and the age of the steam engine, British society was very hierarchical with children of the upper classes studying in Public Schools and in major universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, and then joining the ruling class. Except for the highest tier of British functionaries in India, such as the Viceroy, most of the expatriates were second tier persons who did not have prospects in Britain; it is mainly their children who attended schools such as BCS. The much smaller number of Indians came from upper-class families who toed the British line; it was in the interest of the Raj to attract Indians to their cause by offering them titles such as Rai Sahib, Rai Bahadur, Rajah, Sir, and Lord.

During this period high-quality jobs went to the well-connected upper class for which form was very important, content and intellectual attainment were not: since the pace of innovation was very slow, all that was necessary was to maintain existing institutions. What mattered were the proper accent and mannerisms, and the ability to make polite conversation. Jobs resulted from one’s connections and status in society, so belonging to the right club and wearing the right tie, indicating one’s affiliations were important; therefore going to the right “finishing school” was important.

The changing environment is best understood by considering what India was like just before and after Independence. Thanks to the freedom movement a generation of younger Indians was becoming more aware of their heritage. Inqilab Zindabad was in the air. What better manifestation of this change than my maternal uncle, whose father was made a Rai Sahib in 1915, telling me that “Rai Sahib ka khitab angrezon ke pitthuon ko milta tha.” In contrast, my paternal grandfather, an American who settled in India and made it his own, fought for Indian freedom, for which he was jailed. For his family taking pride in being Indian was important. He would not have countenanced my attending a school such as BCS, to which my mother sent me after he died in 1946.

On joining BCS in 1948 I had had a few years Urdu and Hindi and had memorized the 16×16 multiplication table. On learning English, to my horror, I soon found that most Indians outside the school were referred to as chhokra boys, with whom one did not associate. Indians were also refereed to as dhoti parshads. By the time I left school in mid-1954, by when the number of Indian students had increased dramatically, these appellations referred to “lower class” Indians, such as those who frequented the Lower Bazaar. Even students of the close-by St. Edwards School, a fine institution in its own right, were not considered worthy of attention. In some sense, the Indians at BCS had taken on the mantle of the British as being superior to other Indians. The music at school was entirely Western as were the affected mannerisms and Socials with the local equivalent girls’ schools. It was important to dress the right way.

Some really good things about my school years: Irrespective of their backgrounds, a rigorous enforcement of the uniform and pocket-money codes, a strict enforcement of the leave policy, and an equal treatment of all parents made all students “equal.” Personal integrity was considered important as was telling the truth. One did not do underhand things—that just was not cricket! The school motto, “Overcome Evil with Good,” was in consonance with Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals.

Participation in all activities resulted in well-rounded persons; more importantly, it brought out the best in every person. Dividing the school into four houses introduced a sense of competition which drove students to give their best. While this atmosphere inculcated intense competitiveness—which many outsiders admired—it also resulted in making people somewhat self centred; while they talked about the UN, there was very little interest in Indian society at large.

Before Indian Independence the school was well run by teachers a large number of whom had degrees from Cambridge and Oxford, as in my earlier years did the Headmaster and the Senior Master—who set a very high standard as a role model for integrity and as a teacher. With changes in several Headmasters, school discipline, the core values of equality, and the qualifications and quality of the teachers declined. Richer parents could ask for the rules to be bent; the school tended to become a “finishing school” for the rich. While the products of the school were still able to fend for themselves, they continued to be highly anglicised—conversed mainly in English, have core Western cultural values, including enjoying Western pop music. Most had a very poor understanding of Indian cultural heritage and values.

Although I was not particularly interested in the many sports that we had to participate in, the absolute low point in school had to be the then gentlemanly sport of cricket. To have to be all dressed up, complete with the school cap, and to sit on a bench for two days to see a match with a visiting team, and having to clap from time to time, was the most painful experience of my career.

During most of my stay, other than joining the family business, the three jobs that students most aspired to be in were to become a covenanted officer in a British bank or a manager in a tea estate or join the National Defence Academy; of which only the third has survived as a desirable career path. Later, joining the Indian Administrative Services also became desirable.

After the economic reforms instituted in the early 1990s, while India has been progressing at an ever increasing rate, BCS has not kept up with the times: Although many more students are graduating with first divisions, the school has been in a reactive mode. It has not contributed to the debate on academic reforms for the needs of the 21st Century in which knowledge is becoming obsolete at alarmingly rapid rates. In an era when students can use computers to access highly processed information on the World Wide Web, what and how should the students be taught? Only when the school can attract the calibre of teachers who understand the exponential changes that are taking place will it be possible to create the kind of stimulating environment in which students will enjoy stretching their minds.

Indian schools are trapped by rigidly defined curricula and evaluation systems in which students have to cram enormous amounts of information. The ability to think independently and creativity, which should be the main aims of education, are casualties. This system has to, and will, change. Decentralisation of the curriculum will have to occur; it will allow schools to experiment with curricula for this century. Will schools such as BCS have the necessary intellectual horsepower to generate ideas for new curricula? Or will they continue to react to the fast-changing academic environment?

While producing well-rounded persons is important—and I have no issue with the unnecessary focus on the time-wasting activity of cricket, even though other sports provide more active and healthier group activities in much shorter time—this knowledge-based century will place a high premium on thinking and creative persons: The focus of education must shift to training the mind to think—which is the essence of education—and to inculcate a sense of curiosity and enquiry that best prepares persons for rapidly changing environments. This will require high-quality teachers who can make science and mathematics more exciting than cricket. The status quo will just not do.

The future elite, or the “privileged”—that schools such as BCS caters to—will be thinkers, innovators and entrepreneurs, who will look for schools that understand the revolutionary changes needed, and have developed the proper learning environment to prepare them for the rapidly changing world. Working out these changes in education is certainly beyond the ken of the current staff; new education models may have to be developed by external think tanks. But the current staff may not even have the horsepower to implement the coming revolutionary changes.

To maintain its position as a premier institution BCS will need to make major changes, starting with a well thought out vision for where it wants to be. Else it will again degenerate into a finishing school for the second-tier rich. And while there is nothing wrong with being interested in Western music and culture, it would seem that students and their parents would want to have a deeper understanding of what it means to be an Indian. There is nothing inherently more attractive about Western culture—this perception of students results from the conditioning that the school environment subjects them to: hopefully, this too will become more India-centric.

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