Sumpolites | The giant among teachers

The lessons that Dr. Radhakrishnan taught about teaching itself is far more valuable than the subjects he taught.

My paternal grandfather loved to tell tales, tall tales, odd tales and vividly descriptive tales. Late evenings after dinner used to be story time, he used to sit in his rocking chair, his rich baritone voice describing the exploits of “Thupariyum Sambu” (Detective Sambu), or stories from Mahabharatam and Ramayanam. On a few rare occasions he used to talk about his childhood and life in small town Kurnool. Long after we graduated from those storytelling sessions to the demands of school and board exams, I found myself sitting with him one evening. I was trying to figure out my future history was one of my choices for an undergraduate degree. I was talking about making a visit to Presidency college in Madras. He smiled, moved to his rocking chair, cleared his throat and asked me if I wanted to hear a story about my great grandfather, a history teacher who studied under Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in Presidency college.

My great grandfather, taught history at a municipal school in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh. A staunch khadi wearing gandhian, his principles and determination to not work for the British directly pushed him to run away from his work as an accountant from Pune and pursue work as a teacher in Kurnool. Stories about his stubbornness that enforced his swadeshi ideals on his family, his anger at the occupation and steadfast determination to teach his 11 kids the value of money and education were legendary. What I hadn’t known before was that my great grandfather was also a student of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. He did his M.A honors in philosophy under Radhakrishnan and owed his education to the great teacher.

When my great grandfather enrolled in Presidency college, Madras for his M.A, he had no money and no means of support either for his education or for food. All he had was a passion for the subject and an eagerness to learn. He approached Dr. Radhakrishnan for help and advice. The teacher got him two jobs, as a tuition teacher for the Diwan of Travancore son who was also a student there and another odd job for his other expenses including food. Years later, when my grandfather at the age of 15 left for Benares Hindu University to study Chemistry, my great grandpa wrote a letter to Dr. Radhakrishnan, who had gone to become the vice-chancellor there. He took one look at the letter, recognized my great grandfather’s name and gave my grandfather admission. My grandfather used to joke that he went on to regret the introduction when Dr. Radhakrishnan used to recognize him around town on the days he bunked college. The vice chancellor, my grandfather used to say, was a strict man and was particularly passionate about ensuring that each and every student under his aegis got the best education they could. He could recognize students and could recollect each student’s work in great detail. He had zero tolerance for students who did not take their education seriously. His passion for the subjects he taught, his ability to hold his audience’s attention through teaching and the extraordinary ability to remember each and every student he had taught, made him a giant among teachers. The respect and awe that he commanded, were matched by a tenderness and affection that his students had for him

There are very many speeches by Dr. Radhakrishnan that extol the virtues of being a teacher and stress on the need for institutes of higher learning to use absolute diligence when selecting teachers. He wanted teaching to ultimately be a vocation dictated by passion for the subject and directed by a selfless desire to see every student find themselves and to pass on a desire to use that knowledge to change their world.  He saw teachers as opportunity-givers.

The idea of what teaching is supposed to be was best expressed during a convocation address at a convocation address he gave at Gujarat University in October 1955

You, Mr Chancellor, referred to the distemper which prevails in certain places in our country. I have been a teacher for over forty years of my life. I want to tell you there is nothing radically wrong about our students. I want to say that we are not giving them the opportunities which they should have. Look at our teachers : no man is a true teacher, if he has not love for his subject and enthusiasm for transmitting his zeal to the pupils. They should, of course, be placed above the verge of want. But we cannot have teachers who feel that they are first and foremost members of a party, or a clan, or a caste, or a community; who are not able to rise above all these considerations and serve the interests of the society as a whole. We should strive to make our boys and girls citizens of this great country.

The lesson that my great grandfather learnt as Dr. Radhakrishnan’s student, and the one that my grandfather taught me was about passion, dedication, selflessness. The lessons were also about humility, and the extraordinary ability that teachers have to touch their students lives. Our greatest tribute to Dr. Radhakrishnan would be to get rid of the shackles that hold teaching back and bring back the ideals he stood for and followed throughout his illustrious career.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.