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Schooling worldviews

In the past year, two politicians who studied in Loyola — Shibu Baby John (1978) and Anoop Jacob (1995) — have become Ministers in the Kerala government. It would be interesting to ask them (and ourselves) how schooling influences the way we absorb or shut out what we ‘see’ and make sense of in our daily lives — about family, colleagues, society, and politics.

I remember touching upon the subject while writing about politics in Loyola. The thought resurfaced while reading this year’s Pulitzer-prize winning commentary — In mayoral race, forget high school. In that article, Mary Schmich writes about the segregation in Chicago; we can talk about the inequality in our land.

The Good Doctor: Regi M. George

The Good Doctor: Regi M. George

The best of Loyolites is also the least known to us.

Meet Regi M. George (1975 ISC).

By now, his work has been celebrated in India’s mainstream media: in Reader’s Digest (2001), in Outlook (2006), in Open (2009), and in Mint (2010). This week, India Today portrayed him as an “Action Hero”, one of the 50 applauded for being “citizens who can and do” usher in change.

The Loyolite doctor and his wife have been serving adivasi villages in Tamil Nadu for the past 17 years. Let us hope that the school and the alumni movement, at least now, will wake up and see them.

Any fool (and school) will merely invite the couple, hand over an award, bask in reflected glory, and move on. It will be much more meaningful if we — students, old boys, teachers, parents — use this as an entry point to learn and think about taking science to tribal villages, routes to social change, career choices, values, etc. By doing so, all of us will benefit, and the school will be closer to realising its own mission of educating society.

Learn about the work done by Regi and Lalitha…

The Druids of a Lost TribeOutlook magazine

Doctors on CallOpen magazine

Providing Low-cost HealthcareMint newspaper

Website of the Tribal Health Initiative – run by Regi and Lalitha

Hat tip: Joy Elamon (1978)

Back to School

Back to School

DesiPundit

An old boy who visits Loyola School is always greeted with affection, whatever his station in life.

On arrival, you are glided into small talk by a priest or staff member who recognises you. You ask about the teachers of yesteryears, and comment on how the school looks different. In turn, you are quizzed about your whereabouts, whatabouts, and family. If you have chosen to visit alone, you are asked why you did not bring your wife, or classmates. The school seems to always have space for more of us.

I wish I could say the same for the colleges and universities I attended. A few years after we left Mar Ivanios College, a friend and I visited the place. The nice folks there could not grasp why we would care to visit our teachers. The security guards stopped us at the gate. A teacher-nun walked by, acknowledged us with a smile, and requested that she be spared from recommending our entry into the campus. A phone call to the Principal did not help either. It was probably an off-key day at Mar Ivanios. But such a situation is unthinkable at Loyola, even for a day.

Why do old boys visit Loyola? In the early 2000’s, I saw old students regularly dropping in to play football in the evening, on their way home from the nearby engineering college. During annual events like the basketball tournament, the School Day, and the inter-school youth festival, Loyola is invaded by hordes of alumni. Official batch reunions are usually held on holidays or weekends. On a weekday, if you find an old boy on campus, he is most likely handing over wedding invites to teachers personally. I could go on.

Perhaps it is easier to turn the question around and ask “Why not visit Loyola?”.  After all, who wouldn’t drop in at a place he is so welcome to bathe in nostalgia?

Loyola is warm to those who visit her, and less kind to those afar. Do not expect an active Loyola fan page on Facebook. Or an up-to-date website on the internet. Loyola wants old boys to pamper her, as much as she pampers them. Hospitality begins, and ends at home.

Yet, visiting one’s school is not always a pleasant experience. The sadness too springs from the same deep well of nostalgia. For our images of the school are frozen from the past. On entering now, the tree-lined avenue and the fresh coat of paint lend the school a youthful appearance that syncs with our evergreen memories. But minutes later, face-to-face with more snapshots — a fenced playground, vanished woods, ugly buildings — our eye readily absorbs, but our mind refuses to accept. It takes a few hours to sink in: like us, the school has moved forward in life.

In that mood of reflection and appreciation, let us seek to uncover the secret of the school’s hospitality. What do we really mean when we say that the school welcomes us? Peel off the abstract layer. Look behind the buildings, and amidst the trees. Fr M.M. Thomas. Joseph Uncle. The priest, the teacher, the handyman, the bus conductor, and the gardener — they who continue to serve. Our visits to the school would be poorer without these people who link our past to the school’s present.

As the school grows bigger and older, and familiar faces fade, we will perhaps rely on abstract symbols like the school song, or House colours, to connect. But how will the school connect to us?

Elections in Loyola

Elections in Loyola

Once upon a time, the school leader was elected by students.

In the 1980s, when school reopened after summer vacation, class leaders and assistant class leaders were elected (or in some classes, selected by the teacher). A week later, students chose the school’s leaders. If the first was a class election, the second was a caste election.

Any student from the 10th could stand for School Leader, and anyone from the 9th could stand for the Assistant School Leader. All high-school students (8th to 10th) voted for both positions; representing 5th to 7th standard students, their class leaders and assistant class leaders voted.

The visible event was the school assembly, 50% of which formed the electorate. There were no campaign issues, and no student organisations; the candidates did not have to form opinions, or rally the audience’s support for any cause. Hence candidates’ “election speeches” were banal utterances on leaders and leadership, and vague, neta-like promises to “strive to the best of my ability”. Speakers relied on verbal pyrotechnics to spark applause, and tell tales “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Long before Abdul Nasser Maudny, Loyolites knew to hold the audience’s attention by acting breathless, and screaming and spitting into the microphone.

Once every few years, a candidate would come up with a gem quote. Like Suraj Jacob in 1988, who concluded with one from Abraham Lincoln: “I want you to vote for me if you will; but if not, then vote for my opponent, for he is a fine man.” (For an interesting anecdote, read the context in which Lincoln praised his opponent.)

The chief election commissioner was the school’s politico: V.C. Jacob. He led the candidates into each classroom, made them stand near the teacher’s platform, and asked the students to exercise their franchise. A candidate voted when the entourage was in his class.

The ballot paper did not have the candidates names printed on it; the school seal was stamped on it to prevent rigging.

Once the high school classes had voted, the election caravan wound its way down the stairs to the gents’ staff room. There, the class leaders and assistant class leaders of standards 5, 6 and 7 were called in to cast their votes.

V.C. Jacob explained the value of each vote. A vote from Std 10 fetched 3 points for the school leader candidate, and 2 points for the assistant school leader candidate (see Table). He then began counting the votes, in the presence of the candidates.

[TABLE=3]

After a class’s votes were done, he took a sheet of paper and — in his neat, firm and legible hand — jotted down the number of votes, and the values. Once all the votes were counted, the losing candidate congratulated the winner, and all walked back to their respective classes. The following week, the school leader and his assistant were sworn in, along with the general captain and house captains, who were selected (I assume) by the management as advised by C. T. Varkey, the physical education teacher.

Here, I’ve documented the election for only one reason: such school leader elections are no longer held in Loyola.

Since the mid-1990s, the school’s leaders have been elected in different ways, from different classes. Briefly, the present-day arrangement is as follows: There is one school leader (from the 12th), and two assistant school leaders (one each from the 10th and 9th). Only the 12th standard students vote for the school leader, and only the 10th and 9th standard students vote for the assistant school leader from their respective years. The teachers vote for all positions. The counting of votes is done in-camera (by the Principal or Vice-principal, it is believed), and the winner’s name is put up on the notice-board a few days later. There is no investiture ceremony even though the school diary carries a date for the imaginary event.

An amusing feature of elections in Loyola in the 1980s was the undercurrent of caste politics. I refer to the ICSE vs SSLC “war” of those days as caste politics because it was a battle over group identities based on which division you belonged to. As the ICSE was a tougher course in high school, the SSLC students were perceived as lower castes; on this blog and elsewhere, I have been told by recent ISC students that the discrimination turned more open in the 2000s. No wonder that the ISC vs HSC war continues in Loyola at the time of elections.

The only difference I see is the role of the teachers and the management — they did not play caste politics in the elections of the 1980s because they did not interfere with the electoral process. Now, with the election becoming less transparent, and less democratic (from the students’ angle), the teachers and the management too seem to be playing caste politics during elections. In the past, if their golden boy did not win the election, they gave him the Best Loyolite award later in the year. In contrast, these days, they have their way in electing the school leader too. It got exposed in the 2007 election. That year, for the school leader post, there were seven candidates from 12th ISC, and the caste’s votes got split, while the lone candidate from 12th HSC mopped up the votes in his vote bank. When the result was announced, students were surprised: an ISC student had been declared elected. For a moment, it seemed that caste — ISC or HSC — no longer mattered. On second thoughts, it showed that numbers did not matter, caste probably did.

Though the school leader election has thus lost its credibility as an exercise in student democracy, there have been a few positive developments.

One, the school leader nowadays has more responsibilities (not merely giving speeches and saying “Classes, Attention” in school assemblies). Hence election speeches are a bit more substantial, with the odd promise thrown in. Elected leaders try to fulfill their promise, even if they don’t succeed always. So, there seems to be greater authority for the school leader, even though he lacks legitimacy.

Two, there are more elections in Loyola. The general captain and the house captains are now elected, and in these elections, only the students vote (the teachers don’t).

The Principal and the teachers need to do one thing: they should stop interfering in the school leader election, and make the election as transparent as it was in the distant past. Giving the school leader more responsibilities has been a positive step. But to give more powers to one (the school leader) by taking away the powers of the many (the student electorate) can hardly be justified. The student leader derives his legitimacy from being elected by students. He is a leader; he should not look like a lackey.

Hat tip: Arun Sudarsan (2009)

Long Walk to Freedom: Cherry Mathew

Long Walk to Freedom: Cherry Mathew

Photo: http://www.freedomwalk.in/photos/image/173

Cherry Mathew (1995 ICSE) is walking from the northern-most district of Kerala to the southern-most.

He is a member of Freedom Walk, a project led by Anoop John, who along with Cherry co-founded Zyxware Technologies, an infotech company in Thiruvananthapuram. The project website says, “Freedom walk is a project aimed at spreading the message of ‘Freedom in Society’, ‘Freedom from Environmental Issues’, and ‘Freedom in Software’ and to promote activism around these freedoms.”

The Walk began from Kasargod on Gandhi Jayanti, and is scheduled to end next week at Thiruvananthapuram on Children’s Day.

When I met the walkers last month in Kozhikode, much of our talk revolved around the third freedom — freedom in software, by which they mean the use of open-source software. In Kerala’s government schools, children are taught open-source software. Similarly organisations like the Kerala Police and KSEB use systems that run on open-source software. (The Freedom Walk has been supported in quite a few places by KSEB officials.) And yet, the walkers sensed “inertia” among people to migrate from Windows to Linux. From the other side of the table, a government administrator who uses open-source systems at his workplace, voiced the concern that technical support, after installation, was inadequate.

Whether inertia or lack of technical support, the way our discussion was framed, I felt “freedom in software” was a business issue that could be tackled by entrepreneurship, however paradoxical the solution might appear to the anti-capitalism brigade that’s backing the walk. And on that canvas, Freedom Walk can be read as a marketing tool to spread awareness in the market. A fun-walk by a bunch of geeks, cynics would add.

But that’s not the real agenda, I think.

Photo: http://www.freedomwalk.in/photos/image/396

Let us not dismiss the effort because of its multi-coloured umbrellas, its tricolour t-shirts, and its let’s-go-to-the-beach appearance. Unlike the science walk in the 1970s organised by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (which roped in hundreds), the Freedom Walk has had only three people walking in all districts, and they have been attracting mostly a few tens of people. The size of the dog in the fight is small, but not so the size of the fight in the dog.

In the media, the Freedom Walk has mostly been painted as a walk for freedom in software. The walkers blogged recently, “We were disappointed that the media had stripped out the soul of our message, and reduced it merely to Free Software. The underlying philosophy of ‘being the change you wish to see in the world’ had been glaringly missed out on.”

I think Anoop John’s real goal is to connect with Keralam — to know their aspirations, their problems, their strengths — so that he can do meaningful work in society. That’s why the Freedom Walk, despite its awkward clubbing of socio-political freedoms with technical issues, might find a place in history.

When the walkers halt for the night, in a church or a PWD Guest House, I hope they ask themselves everyday: Can those of us from upper class families connect with those unlike us? Can Kerala connect with Keralam?

Politics in Loyola

Politics in Loyola

The Jesuit saying “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man” does not apply to the political man. Our political beliefs, I feel, are shaped and re-shaped till we are a couple of years into our adult working lives. Yet, can we forget the politics at school and the traces it left on us?

Protest by students in Kerala; Source: The Hindu on the web

A few weeks ago, Ashok Mathew (1995) reminded me of Loyola’s reputation as a place that had classes even when other schools were closed for bandh or hartal. Indeed, as schoolgoers, our most celebrated political encounters were on bandh days. In case the previous day had ended with only a lingering rumour of the impending bandh/hartal, the suspense would have been carried over to the day’s morning newspapers and radio news. And even if a government official had announced a holiday for schools, there would be anxious parents and hopeful kids who asked, “But is it a holiday for Loyola?”. After all, the Jesuits were known for combing through an announcement and coming up with clarifications like “It says holiday for city schools. Our school is not inside the city. It is a working day for Loyola.”

The Jesuits were proud of successfully resisting bandhs/hartals and when talking to students, would add it — along with “punctuality” and “merit-based admissions” — to the mystique of Loyola. The anti-bandh sentiment of Loyolites seems partly rooted in this culture of resistance (to resistance) which we grew up in. So, when Cheru Cherian John (1995) narrates a Kerala bandh to his classmates in a business school, I see Loyola in it as much as I see Wharton. Similarly, when my classmate joins the anti-bandh caravan with his comments, I find him carrying a satchel from school.

The Jesuits in our school were anti-Communist (who can forget Fr Pulickal’s potshots at the communist leaders, especially E.K. Nayanar?) and there was no Leftist teacher let loose on the students. So, instead of fair or serious discussions of communism and socialism, we got only caricatures. The school did not sensitise us to the struggles of the poor, or of the castes and religions discriminated against in India.

I say these not to attack teachers or Loyola but to point out that the school left us in the safe tents of Kerala’s anti-communist, secular, middle-class politics — a terrain marked by political apathy, than intervention. Even those Loyolites who later dabbled in college campus politics on an SFI platform may not be able to identify any strong and genuine political streak in themselves. Perhaps, the lone exception is Joy Elamon (1978), who took to pro-poor politics seriously, and in whose case Loyola would be the last to claim credit.

For sure, being political is not just about affiliating oneself to a political party. The school inculcated in us values like fairness, honesty, dignity of labour and concern for the poor — all of which define the contours of our worldviews, including our politics. And in everyday encounters, faced with choices, we reveal our preferences and our politics.

When a lady is harrassed at the bus-stop, a Loyolite is likely to watch inactively, or move away. It is unlikely that he will step in or gather a crowd to stop the injustice. The Loyolite will avoid such a political act in a public space, if he can. This apathy, I believe, stems from the school’s fostering of obedience and acceptance as virtues, and questioning and protest as inappropriate.

For like any “good, Christian school”, Loyola was free from campus politics. The gate was always closed to political student organisations like the SFI and KSU; this ensured that no students’ issues entered the campus from outside. Strikes by students were unheard of, and when Loyolites left the school and entered colleges (where strikes were common), they nostalgically wrote letters praising the no-strike atmosphere of Loyola. Recently, I came across one such letter in a school magazine of the early 1980s.

Within its walls too, on issues specific to Loyola, the school discouraged voicing of opinions in public. The English newsletter LENS and the school Assembly unique to Loyola were platforms that could have been used for pamphleteering or political speeches.

Loyola School's Assembly steps

But in the Loyola of the 1980s, the fear of suspension and dismissal was so high that few dared to question any action by the authorities. Each batch may have had its school Assembly or farewell Assembly where a student boldly aired his disapproval of something that had happened. For example, in our farewell Assembly in January 1991, one friend lamented Loyola’s razing down of the beloved “jungle” to make way for a stadium. But such Assemblies with local political content were rare.

Every year, there was only one major election in Loyola for students: to choose the school leader. In the elections from 1985-1990, the SSLC vs ICSE spirit ran high and students voted along SSLC/ICSE lines. Since crude identity politics played itself out, I would classify the elections of those years as mildly political. Otherwise, elections were essentially popularity contests, not issue-based political battles. After all, the school leader was not really involved in the running of the school. I hear that these days, teachers too vote in the election of the school leader.

In many such ways, as Loyola protected us from having to take sides or join in a common cause, it also distanced us from the rough and tumble of politics. If today we are establishmentarians and loyalists in our workplaces, the “discipline culture” of Loyola probably has something to with it.

Invisibly too, the school might have shaped our political attitudes, as for instance through the textbooks we studied. In Brown Man’s Burden, Amar D. Dhinsa writes about studying Ricky Ticky Tavi in the Radiant Reader

This story was written by Rudyard Kipling an English writer. It was an English perspective on India. We were taught to identify with the English family rather than with the snake. In actual fact, the cobra is the ‘normal’ element in India and the English family was the ‘abnormal’ element. Therefore we were being taught to identify with the outsider. We were being educated to see our country through imperial eyes, to see Indianness as the other.

I would not go so far as to accuse the priests and teachers at Loyola of choosing “imperialist” stories and texts to shape our young minds. Such influence on our worldwiew flowed unknowingly, I believe.

Was Loyola of the 1990s and 2000s different politically? I do not know. My guess is that politics is still a dirty word in that part of the world.

While the school seems to have thus shaped our politics visibly and invisibly, it would be unfair not to acknowledge others. If we are anti-bandh and anti-hartal today, the credit should largely go to Kerala’s political parties and their student outfits, whose terror tactics have devalued democratic forms of protest. For our “let-us-not-get-involved” political apathy, who can deny that Loyola fostered only what our families practised and desired. As we moved away from Loyola, we might have become more aware of political issues, but our busy workspaces keep us distant from political action, as much as Loyola did. If we are anti-communist, it is also because we watched the decline and decay of communism in the 1980s and 1990s, and grew up when neo-liberalism was on the ascent. And then, of course, there are the hard knocks we have endured alone, starting with having to pay a bribe at a government office.

When it comes to politics, we have learnt more from life, than from Loyola.