It’s an enviable view that Vijay Stokes has from his family home, Harmony Hall. It crests his very own hill in Kotgarh, 3 hours north-east of Shimla, and on a clear day he can see snow-capped Himalayan peaks ring the horizon while the Sutlej river snakes through the valley below. Pickaxe in hand, and dressed in his customary Pahari kurta and waistcoat, the 78-year-old is reworking an experiment his grandfather, Samuel Stokes, had begun nearly a century before him. And it has to do with an apple which was as much [continue reading…]
I am writing an article to explore the qualities of outstanding teachers. After much thought and introspection, I decided to use my BCS student experience as a guide for analyzing the qualities of good teachers. Any thoughts you might have on what makes a good teacher would be most welcome—especially if you can draw on your personal experience from your school years.
The purpose of this note is to solicit your help in getting relevant information on the teachers and staff with whom I interacted during my years at BCS from October 1948 till August 1954. Any inputs on my request, including resources that might be able to help, would be much appreciated.
More specifically, the following information will help:
1. The full name of Mr. “Taffy” Jones. The years he worked at BCS—he may have been at BCS at two different times. The classes he taught—I know he was the class master for Upper II. Any biographical information—where he came from, his formal education, … —would be of great help.
2. The full name of Mrs. Nanavati, Matron (Linlithgow)
3. The full name of Miss. Hannah, Matron (Box Room)
4. The classes taught by Mr. and Mrs. Murray and their full names.
5. The classes taught by Mrs. Barker, her full name and that of Mr. Barker (Bursar?)
6. The classes taught by Mrs. Fisher, her full name and that of Mr. Fisher, Headmaster.
7. The classes taught by Mr. & Mrs. Knight (Senior Master) and their full names.
8. The classes taught by Mr. Cuzen (House Master, Lefroy) and his full name.
9. The classes taught by Mr. F.M. Brown (House Master, Ibbetson?) and his full name.
10. The full name of, and classes taught by, Mr. T.P. Paul.
11. The full name of, and classes taught by, Mr. Das Gupta (Art).
Looking forward to your inputs,
And with regards and best wishes,
Vijay K. Stokes
Rivaz House: 1948-1954
Benchmarking Other Schools – Anecdotal input from a Doon School alumnus
Vijay K. Stokes
Rather than to continue to look for collaboration or guidance just from schools in the UK, such as Marlborough College, it makes sense to also benchmark what other well-known schools in India are doing—an exercise that may help BCS to better develop a vision for its future.
In this spirit, here is an input from an alumnus of The Doon School who was my classmate in Banaras Engineering College (1957-61). In August 2010 I had written to him to say, “As an alumnus of The Doon School, you might get a kick out of an article that I wrote on the occasion of the first 150 years of Bishop Cotton School.” Here is an excerpt from his response:
“I have read your article on BCS and agree with you to quite a degree, but perhaps the changing world also means some loss of pure Indian culture and a mixing of it with other cultures. And perhaps, this is not a pollution but a rejuvenation of sorts. … One thing I must say is, that the Doon School never seemed Anglicized to me—we always had a dual curriculum of Indian and western music, arts, theatre, etc., and all our prayers and hymns were sung in Hindi and were Hindu. Almost a 100% of the students were Indian. Many of our teachers were Britons, but were required to attend the prayers at assembly each morning. We were also required to go into the villages and help local people build homes and schools and clear land for farming, and even teach at their schools. It was quite different, however, at my previous boarding school—the Oak Grove School in Mussouri—which was for the employees of the then East Indian Railways, and was very British indeed when I was there from 1948 to 1951 and only about 25% of the students were Indian.”
BCS: Some thoughts relating to the future
– Does the school have a future as a high-quality institution?
Vijay K. Stokes
What is wrong with this picture?
Now that the successful School Sesquicentennial Celebrations are behind us the school needs to focus on its future. This write-up raises some issues that, hopefully, will help initiate a debate on what needs to be done. It is divided into three parts: The current state of the infrastructure as an indication of institutional decline, possible remedial measures, and the realities of what can be done—given that the governance is essentially controlled by the church.
Based on my limited exposure to the school during the recent celebrations, the infrastructure is in a state of continuing genteel decay in a manner similar to that occurring in cemeteries around the country: During a service in the school chapel, I first noticed the ugly painting job on the pews, wooden panels, and the walls. The wonderful wood-grain structure of the pews had been painted over, the paint on the panels overlaps the light paint on the walls and vice versa, and the liberal use of clear polyurethane “varnish” reminded me of over-oiled hair. Next I was horrified by some sort of a patch on the side of the school organ, which I believe is not in working order. I felt that bringing and playing a synthesizer on a portable stand in front of the choir detracted from the solemn dignity of the occasion—the least that could have been done is to play the instrument behind the organ. The PA system did not work properly, even at an event for which the Bishop of Amritsar was present. And I found the lamp suspended from the vaulted ceiling near the altar to be incongruous with the simple original architecture of the chapel.
While exiting the chapel after the service, I noticed that on several of the brass plaques on the rear wall memorializing past masters the screws and nails had come off, resulting in the plaque corners projecting out. Clearly the plaques were too thin and the calligraphy and finish of the text was of poor quality. This condition of the chapel, which should be of importance to the Christian hierarchy overseeing the running of the school, does not bode well for the future well being of the school.
Outside the chapel, as we walked toward the dining hall, I saw that some of the angle iron supports of the walkway roof were twisted out of shape, and askew electric wiring was hanging off the roof. The sidewalls of the walkway were poorly designed and constructed, and did not match the architecture of the surroundings.
After the festivities, my classmate Ashok Sopory sent me the photograph of the very poorly painted school crest shown above, which I believe is on the War Memorial. On it, the word “overcome” in the motto has been split into two separate words “over” and “come.” On November 23, I pointed this error to the Headmaster:
I want to bring to your attention an error in the painted version of the BCS Crest (on the war memorial?) which I suggest be fixed as soon as possible. As you will note from the attached photograph—taken by my classmate and friend Ashok Sopory at the recent Founder’s Day—the word “overcome” in the motto is incorrectly spelled as two words “over come.”
This error brought back memories of the time when the then Headmaster, Mr. Fisher, refused to allow a poster made by Kaura-2, in which Bangalore had incorrectly been spelt as “Banglore,” to be exhibited in a School Art Exhibition. The poster was only exhibited when I prepared and pasted an overlay with the right spelling.
To many, the above comments may appear as “much ado about nothing.” But to me, they indicate the poor level of aesthetics that the school has sunk to over the years. Although these conditions are bad enough, the real concern is that no one seems to notice these things or consider them important enough to worry about! This means that our students study in a chalta hai environment; they leave school programmed to accept shoddy work and surroundings.
Clearly, this deterioration has occurred over many years during which the Board of Governors (BoG) and the Headmasters did not have the necessary understanding and vision to appoint the right staff capable of maintaining the traditions of quality and with keeping up with the times. Now the purpose of this note is not in any way to place the responsibility of the present state of the school on the current Headmaster (HM) or the present BoG. But, if the school is to make the necessary drastic changes, the BoG will be responsible for coming up with an appropriate vision statement and policies, which would then have to be executed by the HM.
How does one fix a system in a state that does not recognize its shortcomings? One lesson can be learned from the creation of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) system: Realizing in the mid-1940s that the then technical education was archaic and needed a revolutionary change, which these institutes were not capable of making suo moto, the Government of India created the IITs which, unfettered by the existing education system, could experiment and develop modern curricula and teaching methods. Of course, besides recruiting outstanding faculty, an important reason for the success of the IITs is that they attracts the best and the brightest from the country, chosen strictly on merit by means of an entrance examination.
Our school does not have these options! So, if there is a will, after mapping the needs of the 21st Century, the school will have to undergo a rigorous staff retraining programme to change its values system and to adopt modern technology and teaching tools. Even if the staff welcomes such a change, this is going to be an extremely difficult task. As opposed to the IITs, the main criterion for admission to BCS is the ability to pay its very high fees. This leaves out a very large pool of talented students. This shortcoming can be overcome by filling a small, say 10%, of the vacancies on the basis of merit or merit-cum-means through a school subsidy; something that is done by many high-quality institutions. This would improve the mix of the student pool; the regular students would benefit by the presence of such intellectually superior students. Through the resulting competition, it would help raise everyone’s aspirations and goals.
Finally, we need to address the chicken-and-egg problem of how the process of change can be initiated and sustained. My understanding is that school policy is set by the BoG. Is the BoG aware of some of the issues I have raised? And, if so, does it have plans to initiate a change process—by appointing a competent committee to come up with a vision statement and a plan for executing on that vision? I have no feel for the thinking of the BoG on these issues. But, independent of what the BoG is or is not doing, the OCAs can be of great service to the school by debating these issues and then coming up with well thought out recommendations for the BoG.
What with the availability of the internet for E-mails and telephones, interested OCs can easily communicate with each other. What I have written is just a starting “straw man” to be challenged and modified. I would hope that concerned OCs would provide totally different perspectives and ideas. If we weigh and treat each person’s inputs and ideas with respect, several iterations could result in the emergence of a strong consensus, a polished version of which could be presented to the BoG.
With many outstanding schools coming up in all the major metropolitan centres, the pre-eminence of our school is fast declining. Its greatest asset is no longer its declining brand image; it is the value of the real estate on which it exists—and that too is now surrounded by an unplanned urban mess. One remote possibility could be to sell the existing land and buildings and rebuild the school in a larger, more isolated surrounding.
Many once famous institutions and companies that did not keep up with the times have disappeared. Let us hope that our school wakes up before it is too late.
Message from VIJAY KHURANA:
Vijay Stokes’s insightful mail makes for a more meaningful dialogue. As always, his inputs are well thought out and his incisive analysis attempts to get to the issues that need to be addressed. There are several more and his previous analysis was equally profound and thought provoking.
Neel Mehra pointed out to me at the Sesquicentennial celebrations that most of the buildings were in a state of utter decay. The absence of a sense for detail, and good aesthetics was visible in several places e.g. the poor lettering on the various boards riddled with errors, names incorrectly spelt and the same name spelt differently on different boards. Vijay Stokes refers to this in more details and this is symptomatic of a larger malaise. While this is visible in several other schools, BCS with its low numbers could have managed and needs to manage on quality. In the years ahead, and with such a strong focus on education in the country, BCS will need to be even more relevant and position itself as a place of learning delivering outstanding quality.
What are the issues an alumni should and should not address ? Where and to what extent should it commit itself to the school and in what form are issues that must be clearly demarcated and resolved. What should the alumni do for its members and in what manner? A good alumni builds the image of the institution and there is a constant need for both the school and the alumni to retain a strong synergistic relationship. The IITs, are a good example. Most of the involvement and interest with the OCA seems to emerge from the years between 1950-1975 or there abouts. The younger generations do not exhibit the same degree of involvement though I am told that individual classes do stay in touch. Why is there the absence of this interest and what can we do to bring them in.?
The present cry for a change is not likely to address the issues since the objective is limited and certainly short sighted. We need at the helm an OC who has the vision and the stature to execute a very large agenda. I am not convinced that any of the present candidates measure up to the tasks that face the OCA. The recent Sesquicentennial event, well executed, concentrated solely on the matter of celebrations.However it was also a terrific opportunity to place before a larger body the vision of the OCA and what it intended to do. We missed a good chance and I do not think the OCA centenary celebrations will provide the same kind of attendance and therefore the forum. The Sesquicentennial celebrations generated greater participation and therefore involvement with the OCA as a body. The present disquiet, perhaps logical, has resulted in a lot more questions of the effectiveness and activity of the present body. OCs have become more involved and interested in their alma mater. They are asking logical questions over a very limited agenda and that is unlikely to take us any further. Vijay Stokes’s direction is the way to go.
I think what we need is a healthy debate. I would suggest that we nominate Vijay Stokes and a few prominent and eminent OCs’ to put together an agenda for the OCA and the School. Place this agenda before the larger forum and then elect the President and the Executive Committee to execute such an agenda. Finally, it matters little where the President & Secretary are based since in today’s world communication is swift.
I look forward to your inputs.
My kind regards
Message from NARINDER CHAUHAN:
The communication by Mr Vijay Stokes and Mr Vijay Khurana’s views are the only two positive insights into which direction the school and OCA should head, ( i also endorse Shorty Mehta’s views on the usage of OC funds). It is understandable cottonians would want to continue their link with BCS, albeit in a more participatory environment; the credit for galvanising this process goes essentially to Mr D.C Anand and the support by OCA India to individual OCA chapters.
I am not clear whether an electoral process is the beginning or end of the disquiet shared by a several OC’s, I do feel as a first step the executive committee should be strenthened and personalities like Vijay Stokes, Vijay Khurana, Justice S.S Sodhi, G.S Gill, Major Vijay Mankotia, B.M Singh and other individuals who can lend value to the School, should ultimately be co opted as members of the BOG. I agree with your views that BCS is run by the Head Master and not the OCA, and students should be insulated from the politics of OCA. Nevertheless, the past few weeks have given the impression that Indian vote bank politics is being mirrored in the OCA.
I recall every speech day the Headmaster announcing that several Ambassadors and Generals have been products of BCS, i have yet to meet one! (Gen Batra’s son was my senior in Curzon), the point i am making, is that bigger issues require consideration of the OCA, whereas after the sesqi celebrations the single point agenda seems to be to be to ring out the old and ring in the new!
We must remember that currently five Old boys are on the Board of Governor’s (a creditable feat), if these five can not deliver, i am afraid the OCA will certainly not!!!!!
Principal Secretary (Govt. H.P)
150 Years of Bishop Cotton School
– An assessment of the past … and the future?
Vijay K. Stokes
The students with whom I should have 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, visited the school, where they had several meals, and attended a service in the School Chapel and an evening of student music competitions. The “56ers” presented the School with an Honour Board and a trophy for the best all-round student, planted a few trees, and presented the non?teaching staff with blankets. And, of course, there was the inevitable staff versus the old students cricket match—watched by the current students—that was won by the staff.
It took no time to break the ice among the 56ers many of whom were meeting for the first time in 50 years; common shared experiences provided the bonding. Not all of them had had all their schooling at BCS; some joined early and left in between while others joined in senior classes to finish with a Senior Cambridge. But, no matter how short the stay, it was enough to earn the brand of being an Old Cottonian and to become a member of an elite club in which one could address classmates by their school?days nicknames, providing an important means of networking.
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, I felt that 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, resulting in this critique.
Some background will help to understand this assessment; my experiences before joining and after leaving BCS were somewhat different from those of my classmates: I joined BCS in October 1948, at age nine years and two months, not knowing a word of English, not even the alphabet. By covering two classes per year for two years 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 broad eras: 1859-1947, during which 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 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.
In the 1859-1947 era 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. During this period, which overlapped the industrial revolution and the age of the steam engine, British society was very hierarchical with children of the upper classes attending Public Schools—such as Rugby and Marlborough on which BCS was modelled—the products of which fed major universities, such as Cambridge and Oxford, and then went on to join the ruling class. Except for the highest tier of British functionaries in India, such as the Viceroy, whose children must certainly have been schooled in Britain, hierarchically most of the expatriates were second tier persons who did not have much 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 was the proper accent and deportment, the ability to make polite conversation, and proper mannerisms. 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, when I was about fifteen years old, 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. After he died in 1946, my mother sent me to BCS.
Although I did not know a word of English when I joined BCS in 1948, I had had a few years Urdu and Hindi and had memorized the 16×16 multiplication table. Because of my age I was able to pick up English fairly quickly. To my horror, I soon learned that most Indians outside the school system 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 which time 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: khakis and greys for everyday wear, Sunday suits for special occasions and for forays into Shimla town. And of course, wearing the right clothes and shoes for each sport was very important, perhaps even more important than the sport itself.
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.
Encouragement to participate 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 an intense sense of competitiveness—which many outsiders admired—it also resulted in making people somewhat self centred; while they might have talked about what the UN was doing, there was very little interest in Indian society at large.
Before Indian Independence a large number of the teachers had degrees from Cambridge and Oxford. In my earlier years, when Mr Fisher was the Headmaster and Mr Whitmarsh-Knight—who set a very high standard as a role model for integrity and as a teacher—was the Senior Master and my House Master, the school was well run. Later, as the qualifications of the teachers declined, many of the good practices became rather lax, and richer parents could ask for the rules to be bent; the school tended to become more of a “finishing school” for the rich.
The high point at school for me was the association with Mr Jones, fondly known as “Taffy,” when he was our class master for Upper II. He was an empathetic teacher who encouraged and brought out the best in everyone: Besides overseeing swimming, teaching fretwork, paper mache, and a host of subjects, penmanship was important. Each student felt that “Taffy” always looked after his interest.
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. But then those who were good at this slow-paced gentlemen’s game were considered role models.
During most of my stay, other than joining the family business, the three jobs that people most aspired to be in were to become a covenanted officer in a British bank (they served beer and sandwiches for lunch), 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.
Through three of my younger brothers—the youngest of whom was the School Captain during 1967—and several cousins who also attended BCS after I had left, I vicariously kept up with the changes in school. Evidently, while the food became more indianised, with changes in several Headmasters, school discipline, the core values of equality, and the quality of the teachers declined. 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.
After the economic reforms instituted in the early 1990s India has been on the move at an ever increasing rate. The changes at BCS have not kept up with the times: Although the current administration is producing much better results, with many more students passing out with first divisions, BCS has been in a reactive mode. It has not contributed to the debate on academic reforms necessary for tooling up for the needs of the 21st Century in which knowledge is becoming obsolete at alarmingly rapid rates. In an era when students are able to use computers to access the highly processed information on the World Wide Web, what and how should the students be taught? Only when the school is able to 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 it 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 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 the required revolutionary 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 school 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.