Never afraid of speaking his mind, Valson Thampu’s forthcoming book is likely to blow away quite a few reputations Trained theologian, certified anti establishment figure and contro versial educator, the reverend Valson Thampu believes in fully inhabiting the present. Currently living a semi-retired life in Thiruvananthapuram, Thampu assures you that he’s done and dusted with St Stephen’s, his alma mater and, subsequently , the site of his crusade to transform one of India’s best known educational institutions from a cosy , self-serving club of social elites to a hive of intellectual and academic excellence.
In his new book, `On A Stormy Course’, set to hit bookstores by early November and which TOI was privileged to read in its manuscript form, he does touch on his long tenure there and narrates the ure there and narrates t story of how he took on the system. Thampu doesn’t hold back on his views but nor does he, despite the courteous caveats, hold back on his own significance. Entirely pardonable, if only because he is so articulate, as you will discover in the excerpts below from an exhaustive interview.
It’s been more than a year since your tenure as principal of St Stephen’s College concluded. Do you still keep in touch with the college and its affairs?
No, I don’t; because of my concern that my successor should not be disadvantaged in any manner, or distracted from lending his genius to the stewardship of the institution. Each tenure, I believe, is a new beginning. Hangover of the old needs to be minimized. My philosophy of work is, “Do a hundred percent, while you are in it; and cut-off cent percent, when you are out of it.“ No one should serve as a ghost, at least while alive!
Some people view your stewardship as “the worst thing to happen to St Stephen’s College“.
On A Stormy Course is, in a sense, the answer to this inference. Mine is not only the `most controversial tenure in the recent history of the college’, it is the most controversial in the history of both of St Stephen’s and of higher education in India. This could mean either of two things: that I was an outright calamity to St Stephen’s, or that I was trying to address something significant, something fundamental, to higher education with a drift at variance to the present tack in the sector. In such matters, it is best if non-partisan members of the public form their own independent opinions.The only legitimate thing to do is to make relevant facts available to them, which is what I do through this book.
Most of your life, starting from your childhood to your tenure as an academician and principal, you have had numerous conflicts with the church and its authorities. How would you describe your relationship with God and church?
God has been my only refuge for as long as I can remember. Reli gion has been for me a theatre of trauma.
From this I con clude that the sur est sign of the de generation of a spiritual tradition is that religion be comes an enemy of godliness. Signifi cantly, this is at the centre of the biblical narrative. It was religion, in the guise of Judaism, that got Jesus killed. I believe with Voltaire that there is nothing more dangerous than perverse religios ity. Not even God is safe from it.
Even before you began your tenure at St Stephen’s, you were subject to criticism from different sides of the intellectual spectrum from Arun Shourie (back in 2007) to Ramachandra Guha and popular teachers’ union leaders in the years to come. What is your opinion on the intelligentsia of this country?
Opinions of blind prejudice issued by those who are labelled as `intelligentsia’ should not be seen as having to do with the function and role of the intelligentsia. Most of our intellectuals don’t seem to realize that `intelligentsia’ is a word of Russian origin and in that tradition the hallmark of the intelligentsia is profound moral passion, not cerebral pyrotechnics. It is a tradition that I have taken pains to investigate both through Russian fiction and Russian orthodox theology . In my opinion, those who do not rise above personal or group prejudices do not deserve to be acknowledged as `intelligentsia’.
What is your opinion of the current status of higher education in India?
Put simply , the entire sphere of higher education in India is nothing short of a national disaster. For one thing, education is our last priority . From resource-choking education to neglecting basic ingredients like accountability vis-à-vis work culture, countenancing large-scale corruption, remaining woollyminded about what education is, or should be, perpetuating and rewarding mediocrity in education, there is a whole gamut of issues over which we are sleeping. I’d plead for a national audit of higher education, based on a small set of basic parameters, so that the ground realities are understood and addressed.
On the matter of attendance, more and more colleges in the country are adopting a compulsory attendance policy. Many of them are even insisting on uniforms. Your views?
I am convinced about two things: (a) coercion is incompatible with intellectual welfare or excellence, and (b) students really value academic stimulation and they don’t need to be compelled to accept what is good for them. By forcing students to attend classes we are turning them into captive audiences. The assured availability of students in classrooms takes away from them any motivation to improve the quality of the work they do. This is an issue that merits clinical attention or, as is the fashion now, a surgical attack.
Did you have an objective in mind before writing `On A Stormy Course’? And what milestone does this book represent?
Of course, yes! We do not have a candid case study on what ails higher education in India.Most administrators pursue the `path of peace’ and avoid confronting issues of vital significance to pursuing excellence in higher education. If and when issues come to the fore, with the shock and awe that they at times generate, it is deemed prudent to keep them under wraps. In my book I try to lift the carpet under which issues have been swept and kept for too long. This, I believe, is the least I should be doing for higher education as I fade out gratefully from its landscape.
The Times of India (Kochi)