[Reader-list] 'PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Of Fact And Fiction'

shivam shivamvij at gmail.com
Wed Jun 22 19:54:40 IST 2005

PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Of Fact And Fiction

The Statesman | 21 June 2005

Children studying in day schools often wonder what it would be like to
live in school even at night! Would there be secret parties at
midnight? Pillow fights and ragging from older boys and girls? Would
there be adventures in the dark corridors or eerie playgrounds?
Delicious meals and serious slogging too?

Such thoughts are but natural for urban children belonging to the
elite and their parents brought up on a diet of Enid Blyton's school
series — Malory Towers and St Clare's. These things happen every other
day in her wonderful stories of the O'Sullivan twins. Blyton created
residential schools in which one worked hard, had fun, lazed and was
scolded; where children could play innocent tricks on their
unsuspecting teachers, such as Mamzelle, who shared in the joke if it
was funny and did not victimise them. Teachers in such schools were
understanding, loving and strict. The naughtiest child turned over a
new leaf at the end of the term, the virtuous were rewarded and the
wicked punished. I wonder what Dame Blyton would have said had she
faced the kids of the 21st century who have problems ranging from
severe depression to nervous breakdowns, who flirt with sex and end up
in mobile-scandals among other things!

The residential schools that she created were so liked by children and
parents alike that in those days she used to receive loads of letters
inquiring about the whereabouts of the schools from parents intending
to send their children to such boarding schools. Truly, Enid Blyton
was perhaps a great educationist. The schools she created on paper may
have simplistic but they upheld all the virtues that are so sought
after in today's residential or public schools. The self-rule, the
camaraderie, the cooperation that she talks of in her school series
are very much a part of the public schools of today.

The term "public school" emerged in the 18th century in England when a
group of institutions educating secondary-level students began taking
in students whose parents could afford residential fees and thus
became known as public in contrast to local schools. Their tradition
was aristocratic, exclusive, formal and classical. Their main goal was
to develop "leaders" for service in public life. The first book on
public schools — "Tom Brown's School Days" by Thomas Hughes and about
life at Rugby, a famous public school in England in the early 19th
century — eulogised residential schools and probably did much to
further the establishment of similar institutions in the countries
under British domination.
Even today most public schools in India are run on the principles of
honour, glory and competition. Whether such competition is healthy or
not remains unanswered by the fiction of most writers. JK Rowling,
following in the footsteps of Blyton, creates a wonderful world of
make-believe for her young readers. Codes are strict but one need not
feel the pressure to excel in everything one did. But since Rowling is
after all talking to children of the 21st century she also does not
deny the fact that sometimes such competitions can create jealousies
and rivalries and even lead to death. For the reality, one has to go
to the autobiographies of Roald Dahl or Ruskin Bond.

Dahl, a Norwegian by birth, had to undergo long years in British
public schools and learnt all about the "stiff upper-lip", "bonhomie"
and "do-or-die attitude". Reading Dahl makes one realise that perhaps
the system that has been so praised by Hughes may have its
disadvantages. He talks of corporal punishment, lack of proper food,
extreme ragging and masters bent on breaking the spirit of children.
Dahl is extremely critical about such schooling. He first went to
boarding school in 1925 called St Peter's in South Wales and he says:
"An English school in those days was purely a money-making business
owned and operated by the headmaster. It suited him, therefore, to
give the boys as little food as possible himself and to encourage the
parents in various cunning ways to feed their offspring by parcel-post
from home". Both Roald Dahl and Ruskin Bond met teachers who were
cruel, sadistic and could have had better job satisfaction in a
butcher's shop. Ruskin Bond had his schooling in a public school of
Dehra Dun and had his own taste of bitter experiences of teachers who
are insensitive and are in simple terms "bullies".
However, all is not darkness in such schools. There is a sort of
bonhomie, of friendships through-thick-or-thin that could help one to
overcome pain and sorrow. It is undoubtedly true that public schools
make you tough in spirit. In the stories of Bubla Basu who again
writes from her own experience of teaching, one learns why such
schools leave a lasting effect in moulding children the right way.
Bubla Basu talks of teachers who discover the worth of each child in
the school and who believe that no child is intrinsically "bad". She
feels that with love and guidance any problem child can be brought
back to the mainstream and that is what a good public school should

The recent boom in residential and "international schools" in India
advertising undreamt of facilities for the students and charging
mind-boggling fees makes one wonder whether education has finally
arrived as a lucrative business. Will it be the same as the schools
founded by great thinkers, educationists and seers such as
Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, Krishnamurthy or Sosaku Kobayasi,
who thought of education not in terms of leading to a cushy job but to
the development of an individual so that he understands himself and
the world around him.

Opposed to the education system of the British, Tagore established his
school in Santiniketan as an alternative. It was based on the
tradition of the gurukul systems of the Vedic ages where students came
to live and study in the teacher's house amidst sylvan surroundings
but without a fee. Education had not then become the bastion of the
elite. Patha Bhavana, Tagore's dreamchild, had been established on
these ideals. It is still a school with a minimum fee structure
getting the help from the central government and is still not a
profit-making institution. However, that is but half the story.
Supriyo Tagore, in his book, Ananda Bhavana, merges fiction and fact
and builds his story of an ideal residential school around some

Rigid rules
But the heartbeats of his story are the same ideals and vision that
founded and guided the original school. Only in "Totto Chan" written
by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, a famous TV personality in Japan, does fiction
echo fact. The dream that was dreamt by Sosaku Kobayasi, a leading
educationist of Japan, found fruition in his school where Tetsuko had
studied when she was a child. This too is the story of a little girl,
imaginative and unusual, who hates the regular school with its rigid
rules and regulations. Nurtured in this atmosphere of trust and
openness, of freedom, Tetsuko or Totto Chan (as she prefers to be
called) learns to enjoy studies.

Kobayasi's school was not the residential school or public school of
today's world with AC rooms and classrooms and swimming pools and golf
courts and room service and intercoms and cold drinks in small fridges
in the library. It was rather simple and the classrooms were in a
converted railway compartment. But the spirit that guided it can only
find some resemblance in the alternative schools of Krishnamurthy or
Aurobindo. If the modern era is one of child-centric education these
schools have really focused on building the character and psyche of a
child. Their focus is not on producing efficient workers for the
civil-service or other white-collared jobs.

They are intent on producing men and women who are confident because
they have come to terms with themselves as well as the world around
them and who enjoy the freedom to choose and if needed build their
future themselves.

(The author is assistant lecturer, Patha Bhavana, Visva-Bharati)

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