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Dr Valson Thampu, an educational refugee from Kerala speaks
Still Kerala has not developed an academic culture that brings out the best in a student of promise. says Dr Valson Thampu.
IN A free wheeling chat, Dr Thampu, Principal-St Stephens College, New Delhi, shares his views on work, education, new media, family and St Stephen’s college. He rates Mrs. Sonia Gandhi as the best reader in politics circle. And it sends a strong message to the politicians in India - it is impossible to be a leader without being a reader.
Govindan: At 60, you look so energetic. Can you please reveal the secret of this?

Dr Thampu: I enjoy what I do. Meaningful work that expresses creativity is a source of happiness. Work that enables one to grow never results in burn out. A workaholic, in contrast, could get burned out. There are people who use work as a means either of escape or of self-immolation. They too work very hard, but they neither grow nor experience happiness through what they do. One who seeks and finds happiness through work stays young in spirit, even though his body remains subject to the ravages of time.

I do not deem myself a workaholic. Nor am I a busybody.

Govindan: Can you share some golden tips that your father and mother had taught you?
Dr Thampu: I did not have the privilege of growing up with my father. My home got broken before I turned six. The foremost influence on me was my mother. Whatever that matters in life I have learned is from her or on account of her. She taught me the power for the good that a human being holds. From her I learned that it was possible to look adversity in the face and derive strength from it. She lived the generosity and magnanimity of the soul that challenged me with a sense of the greatness of being human.

Above all she taught me that human beings are meant to be blessings on each other. She warned me against the aberrations of covetousness and the harm it could do to the human person. She always insisted that it was impossible to be fully human without godliness. Yes, mother was the inspiration and strength for me.

Govindan: What prompted you to join in St Stephen’s College?

Dr Thampu: The thirst for intellectual fulfillment led me to St. Stephen’s. When I was in Kerala, campus-politics was the bane of higher education. I am scared even now it is not vastly different. Still, Kerala has not developed an academic culture that brings out the best in a student of promise. I was inwardly gnawed by a sense of weariness about the uninspiring routine that studies meant. What aggravated this even more was the bleak prospect for employment that Kerala offered. Education seemed purposeless. It seemed like a bus-ride to nowhere.

The fame of St. Stephen’s had reached me like rain on parched land. My expectations were more than fulfilled, once I reached here. The two years I spent as a post graduate student there were really the turning point in my life. I blossomed in a way that took even me by surprise. This made me acutely aware of the incomparable value of an institution of excellence and the power of a robust academic tradition meant to promote the all-round development of a student.
Govindan: You are heading a reputed educational institution in India. Can you share your experience or memories at St Stephens College? As a captain, how do you motivate the staff and the students? And what’s your work strategy?

Dr Thampu: By common consent I am supposed to be occupying the ‘hot seat’. I am not quite sure if this seat is really hot, but I am quite sure that I have not become the Principal of St. Stephen’s merely to warm the seat. St. Stephen’s is not merely an institution. It is a myth, in the positive sense of the term. There is something about it that shapes young people and challenges and equips them as very few other institutions can or do.

My foremost memories about St. Stephen’s are two: (a) the institution being the nursery of my growth, the place where I grew up to be a man, where I discovered my potential as a student (b) the arena of my work that brought enormous fulfillment and which became also my launching pad to national life. I doubt if I would have had the sort of opportunities that came my way, if I had been anywhere else. This is not to say that the mere ‘label’ of St. Stephen’s will carry a person through. It won’t and should not. There are two things St. Stephen’s can do for anyone.

First, it can stimulate one’s growth and prepare him/her for the opportunities of life. Second, it can ensure and enlarge these opportunities. Both comprise the power of a dynamic tradition.

Govindan: As a teacher whom do you love – leaders, professionals or students with good academic records?

Dr Thampu: I enjoy being with young people and being part of their growth and development. It is not intellectual giants who enrich or excite me but those who are willing to grow up in the given context and become part of a shared journey of discovery and development. I value every colleague as a gift from God and an invaluable institutional treasure. There are difficult colleagues; but they, more than others, are the catalysts of my growth and achievements! I feel grateful to them in a special way.

I love the experience of giving my best to the students, or to anyone for that matter. And I have been –must confess this- a bit partial to students hailing from underprivileged backgrounds; for they are keen in their spirit of appreciation and their willingness to struggle and to grow.

Govindan: Now college-goers and school-goers hardly spend time for reading as they are engaged in sending scraps, tweets, sms etc. Do you think the rise of new age media is a threat to our society? What are the solutions to revive our rich reading heritage?

Dr Thampu: This is true, thank God, only to a small and limited extent. Young people still read a lot. I think they read much more than my generation did. I have watched my two daughters grow. They too are computer savvy and very facile with the cell phone and with latest technologies, but they are avid readers as well! This is true of a majority of my students in St. Stephen’s. This is not to deny the influence –not always felicitous- of technological gizmos on the youth. It makes them more self-absorbed and less socially sensitive. It nudges home to the backburner and makes the world a greater influence on them.
Parents are the greatest losers in the process. The resultant tragedy of parents is kept wrapped in a conspiracy of silence. Since young men and women do not treat their parents justly they also become cynical of married life! Books are not the foremost casualties to the dependence on technology. It is relationship and, beyond that, the richness of life. We could be poorer because we are the have-nots but because we are the have-notes!

Govindan: Can you brief on the role of St Stephen’s College in promoting reading habit. Do you think that it is enough?

Dr Thampu: Apart from providing one of the best libraries in the country at the undergraduate level, St. Stephen’s does not do anything special to promote the reading habit. Perhaps the greatest influence is the ambience of the college where a person who does not read cannot feel at home, except in small pockets of handpicked friends. Being a well-read person is part of the profile of being a Stephanian.

Govindan: Aggressive leaders, who are book-lovers, were the pride of many campuses. Can you name three leaders from our country whom you admire for their passion towards reading and leadership?

One of the best readers I have come across –this might surprise many- is Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. I have been astonished on many occasions with the painstaking attention she pays to whatever she reads. There was a time when her political adversaries used to sneer at her as a reader rather than a leader. This used to amaze me. Can a leader afford not to read? Of course, the point of the jibe was different. It was meant to be a dig at her inability to speak extempore. The way she has, since then, developed her skills as a public speaker, sends a message - it is impossible to be a leader without being a reader!
I am also deeply impressed by Mr. Hamid Ansari, the Vice-President of India. He is a voracious and perceptive reader and we are very fortunate in having him as our Vice-President. I deem Mani Shankar Iyer to be one of the best-read men in public life. Those who listen to his lectures and speeches and have read his books will agree readily.

Govindan:Will you agree with my statement - syllabus regarding our freedom struggle and leaders are less and history has to be rewritten by giving due recognition to our national and regional heroes?

While conceding the point that education must keep the coming generations renewed in our shaping and formative experiences as a nation, I would maintain that the foremost lacuna in our educational approach is not the lop-sided sense of history it promotes. It is, instead, the escapism it is predicated on. Education is meant to be an engagement with the given context. It must be a celebration of awareness. It should prepare the young minds to engage with and solve the issues of a society. What happens is exactly the opposite. Education is seen as a race to the largest share of the national cake. It breeds predatory selfishness from which the country as a whole suffers.
Education for nation-building is a good slogan and we have been hearing it for long. What happens, more often than not is education for nation-bleeding. It is the educated class that fills this land with corruption and injustice. The mega scandals that tumble out of the national cupboard like super-athletic skeletons are not the handiwork of the uneducated or the illiterate. They showcase the depravity of the educated and the hypocrisy that reigns in the domain of education.
I would advocate radical means for promoting a spirit of service and a commitment to social transformation through education at all levels. Education should no longer be allowed to poison the soul of the country with predatory selfishness that choreographs as a culture of corruption. The educated class spreads even the tolerance of corruption.

Govindan: Do you dream about a team of young leaders (politicians who are good leaders, tech-savvy, practical thinking, youth) setting aside political views to join hands for a New India?

I wish this would happen! But I doubt if this will, unless, of course, our approach to education as well as our public culture changes very radically. As long a “club is above the country’ (Lalit Modi of IPL fame) or party is above the country (all parties) and personal profit is above public good (most educated people, barring some glorious exceptions), the prospect of young leaders coming together to work unitedly to promote public good is a pipe-dream. Has the media, let me ask, done what it could have to promote this prospect? Are the religious leaders of this country able to look beyond their parochial borders and liberate the people from pettiness for any noble and altruistic coalition?

The youth are still idealistic and will continue to be so until they become adults as we did. And they too, as we have, will let the next generation down. There is a crying need, I readily agree, to break this cycle of cynicism and suicidal shortsightedness. But the question that sneers at us is still the old one, who will bell the cat?

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