My son, started school this week at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, one of the finest educational institutions in this country. Or at least, being Thomians, this is what most of us believe and often proclaim. Others rightfully may beg to differ. No one school defines education, and no school can itself claim to be superior to another. Yet superiority is inextricably entwined into the fabric of a Thomian education and psyche. There is this apocryphal schoolboy story of a student from a rival school walking down a street with a brash swagger thinking he owns it, and the quiet, self-assured gait of a Thomian knowing he does. This sense of superiority is a benevolent elitism at best, a stupid arrogance at worst and sadly, at its most frequent. I am glad my son gets an opportunity to make up his own mind about S. Thomas’ growing up in and by being part of its student community. I would not have thought of any other school for him, but in the process of applying for his admission, went through, as a parent, the motions of examining what it means to be a Thomian and the idea of education.
Generally, being a Thomian is almost always defined and expressed through hyperbole. Thomians are better than the rest, often the best, always excel, display grit and determination, are in many ways superior, exude qualities and credentials envied by many, attainable by a few. Yet, if only because of the sordid media coverage last year of S. Thomas’ twilight face, questioning this is vital to the school’s own rejuvenation and education, as much as it seeks to impart its signature qualities amongst its student body. Exaggeration of relative merits help lubricate well-intentioned jibes during sporting encounters and associated Bacchanalia, but believing in it literally is to promote fiction and myth that then risks a dangerous blindness to very real shortcomings. If anything, the education I underwent at S. Thomas’ was more than a rigid teacher-student relationship – it taught the value of questioning established wisdom, the merits of irreverence over supine conformity and suggested that learning – throughout life – was more than regurgitation and rote. It powerfully demonstrated through example a commitment to diversity, both religious and ethnic. Through an open door policy, a student of any faith above a certain grade was welcome in the College Chapel, the pews within which, in my time, was the locus of heated discussions on power-sharing, federalism, capitalism and other esoteric topics that are the stuff of inter-school debates, complete with hushed expletives, lest we incurred even as heathens the wrath of God. Any student, of any ethnicity, from anywhere, whether day scholar or boarder was eligible to hold any office in the student community, save of course those linked to a particular faith, sporting tradition or skill. Sport was encouraged not as a luxury, but a vital vitamin to help more bookish pursuits. Mens sana in corpore sano was imprecisely and variously maintained by the student body as a whole, yet the importance of which we were rarely allowed to forget. When a student – for whatever reason – faced the shameful prospect of not being able to attend College because of unpaid fees, I can’t remember a single instance where the entire class didn’t chip in to cover it without a second thought. A few gave more than others, but everyone contributed what they could. There was inter-house rivalry and ugly fights, but if you choose to take them, lessons larger than the strict adherence to syllabi were imparted in College. I expect much the same in and from any other school, but what S. Thomas’ perhaps offers more through class structure, lush campus and egalitarian context is a sense of belonging to a larger, overarching identity. One is always a Thomian, and school is always referred to as College as if it was the only one in the country. It is easy to get lost in the romance of all this. Many do.
Yet there are of course other, more inconvenient narratives some would prefer kept on the margins. School politics often mirrors the more parochial, partisan national variant. Favourites of teachers, and family connections still matter far more than they should. Sons of politicians sometimes captain sports with little or no merit. The College Board remains heavily politicised. For a school that promotes and values independence of spirit and mind, inviting as it did last year a President who represents all that is inimical to the development of both was a low point in its history. Students, especially in senior grades, often in reaction to uninspired teachers who bore more than teach, are often guilty of subject specialisation, with no interest in broader pursuits or ideas. There is ragging – real, bloody violence at an impressionable age – that many either fear to openly speak about, or speak vaingloriously about. Teachers are often guilty of channelling to tuition what lessons can and must be taught in class. Perhaps these are challenges of secondary education writ large and not endemic to S. Thomas’?
Seeing the mix of parents during induction and the first day of school, it was evident that they cut across many sections of society. In this country, it still matters to go to, and be seen to be going to a ‘good’ school. This social gradation of schools drives the most awful, distressing of annual contests where parents go to unbelievable lengths to just put their daughter or son to a school that in their minds will offer a better education, the key to la dolce vita. Schools are guilty of pandering to this informal gradation, making a business enterprise out of what should be the running of a school and imparting a sound education. My own father is from Dickwella Central. He is more of a Thomian than some I have gone to school with, and those who have before. He was one of the first to go to Peradeniya University from his village, learning English after leaving school. All of that which S. Thomas’ says it imparts to its students – values of a gentleman, integrity, honesty, grit, a master of English – he has. It begs the question whether the quality of education is inextricably pegged to the reputation of a school. In some cases, it is. In many, it is not. And even when this is divined, parents will still prefer the social cachet of sending their child to a ‘good’ school over one that is more convenient to access and perhaps as good. This is not good education. It is a tragic contest of optics over good sense.
I am grateful to my father for sending me to S. Thomas’. As a first generation Thomian, I had no access to stories at home about how College was back in the day. With no political or powerful connections, I had to rely on pure merit to get elected to student office and represent College. When I look back now, it doesn’t matter at all that I won the most amount of prizes in a single year by any student since the inception of College. No one remembers. No one cares. It matters more how I was taught what I learnt. I can’t remember anything significant even from my A/L syllabi. I do remember the preparation for inter-house and inter-school debates. I remember the presentation of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet for Current Affairs – a student of Arts presenting the intricacies of astronomy. I remember the clean, cool, cement floor of the College Chapel and resting on it whilst fleshing out a position on whether it really is money that makes the world go round (as opposed to – and you guessed this – love). I remember the chiaroscuro of the Chapel Garden and its trees – centuries old. I remember a Warden who greeted every boy by his name, surprising us every time he did it. I remember the senior prefects room and a carom board covered in talcum powder smoother than a baby’s skin. I remember the library and getting blissfully lost amongst its shelves. I remember the teachers who never failed to bore (and bore suitable nicknames remembered long after their real names were forgotten), but am grateful for those who adopted Government textbooks more as a guide to what was more important – teaching. They understood the value of questioning, and helping students figure out what questions to ask. They guided more than instructed, inspired more than threatened. I really don’t know what S. Thomas’ is today. At the induction this year, the new Warden bored an entire generation of new Thomians and I am not entirely convinced connected with even the old Thomians in the audience. One puts this down to first appearances, and besides, College is so much more than its Warden. As a Thomian, I hope my son gets punished for asking the inconvenient questions, for being the outspoken one. I hope he gets into fights and learns that violence is often not an answer to a vexed question. I hope he falls, bleeds profusely and cries. I hope he makes mistakes, and is denied what he thinks he is entitled to if it is unfair to another student. S. Thomas’ at its best teaches that all this is necessary to learn, and inextricably entwined with classroom lessons. Mindlessly harking back to tradition isn’t going to help the school survive into the future, with a more globalised, connected student and parent body challenging the myths and fiction of yore. But what my alma mater can offer, just as it did to me, is an environment where he is free to imagine, express, create and curate, not held hostage to another’s worldview and appreciate difference as something that is good, and vital.
And even amongst a lot of other good schools in Sri Lanka, I believe S. Thomas’ is still uniquely placed to impart this to those willing to imbibe it.
Published in The Nation, 15 January 2012.