Children should learn not for marks but for the joy of learning: Thampu

Valson Thampu, principal of St Stephen’s college, debunks the charge of elitism against the institute with an admission process different than the rest in Delhi University. He says he is embarrassed by the high cut-offs at DU. Edited excerpts from an interview over email with Ritwika Mitra:

St Stephen’s College is set to introduce aptitude tests before students are interviewed for admission from the upcoming session. Do you think this will make the admission process more fair and transparent?

Undoubtedly.  We tested this out last year in two departments – Economics and Mathematics. It helps, most of all, in reducing the subjective element in interview as well as in standardising a third of the interview process.

In St Stephen’s we take interviews very seriously; hence this continuous quest for making it as reliable an instrument as possible for gauging merit, especially at a time when class 12 marks have become somewhat unreliable in this respect.

Should the introduction of the aptitude test be seen as an attempt to rely less on marks obtained in the Board examination?

Not entirely. We shortlist candidates for interviews based on class 12 marks, which is the only criterion available to us at that stage. Once candidates are shortlisted for interviews, we assess them very carefully.

This is all the more important as candidates from all over India apply to St Stephen’s. There are substantial differences in standards between Boards.

We also need to ensure that the candidates selected are the ones likely to benefit from the vision of education in St Stephen’s. Our experience is that the proverbial ‘bookworms’ usually don’t.

What are the other changes that are expected in the admission policy at St Stephen’s this year?

There is no change in the admission policy as such. The relevance and dynamism of the policy evolved over the past five years are now well-established. St. Stephen’s does not believe in innovation for its own sake.

What are the new courses that are likely to be introduced in future?

I was very keen to start an Honours course in Political Science. Unfortunately, the permission for this could not be obtained in time. There are other progressive steps that the college has been contemplating in order to meet the educational aspirations of a larger number of young people.

But we are stuck as approvals for these have not been forthcoming for the last three years.

Do you think the image of the college has suffered after the e-zine controversy?

That is for others to say. What I can avow is that there is a complete contrast between the inner life of the college and the turbulence contrived about the college from beyond its boundaries. In the last seven years that I have been the principal, not a single teaching hour has been lost due to any reason.

By June 15 – the last date for applying – we shall know if the image of the college has been dented by this “controversy”. My own conviction is that the common man is far more intelligent and discerning than he is made out to be. He/she is not carried away by motivated propaganda.

Will the online magazine remain suspended even from this academic session?

This is sub-judice. The college will abide by the instructions of the Honble High Court.
How do you think is St Stephen’s College different from other colleges under Delhi University? ‘Elitism’, both intellectual and social, has been commonly associated with the college?

It is true that elitism marked the college for a few decades. It was not intellectual elitism, but social elitism. There was something artificial about it; the reason why it came to be resented.
I have made a determined and systematic effort to dispel this false aura and hitch the college to social and human realities.

Anyone who experiences the college today will vouch for that it is now marked by far greater degree of inclusiveness than ever before.  Commitment to social justice is the antidote to social elitism.

 It is because I broke the spell of social elitism that I have come under sustained attack from the custodians of social elitism. The college has now moved from elitism to enlightenment.

Has the institution evolved over time? What do you think is the clinching factor (beyond academics) for students when they seek admission into an institution like St Stephen’s now? Have the values of students admitted at the college also changed over time?

Change is the only constant. St Stephen’s is no exception. As regard the students, surely there is an undeniable change. There are good and bad aspects to this.
A good institution will accentuate the good potential and minimise the negative ones. This may involve some ‘unpopular’ steps.

But they need to be taken, if education is to remain what it purports to be.

How important is it for St Stephen’s to gain the status of an autonomous body? (How will it change the educational scenario at the college?) 

I find my colleagues caught in two minds on this issue. On the one hand, they are unhappy – often loudly unhappy – about the way the University is. (I feel, though, that this is exaggerated).

On the other hand, many of them do not seem to be ready, as yet, for the additional responsibilities that autonomy could entail. Autonomy as a mere change of labels is not worth it. Even without autonomy there is a great deal more that we can do, which we are not doing at the present time.
Your comment on the current educational system. With the high cut-off marks, students who have scored between 90-95 per cent face difficulty getting into Delhi University colleges. How should these students be accommodated in the educational structure?  

I have been profoundly unhappy with the education system. This very obsession with marks is un-educational!  Children should learn, not for marks, but for the joy of learning. It is a crime to kill the joy of it, which happens all the time.

We compound this crime further by perpetuating the gross imbalance between “demand-and-supply” in education. Only about nine per cent of those who complete class 12 reach higher education. Torturous cut-offs (which always embarrass me) are a by-product of this willful, systemic cruelty.

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