A couple of people have asked me how I select the subjects for my blog. I told them the catalyst is usually something I read or information sent to me.
I was recently sent pictures of my high school, Allidina Visram HS, in Mombasa, Kenya (thanks Prem Saint) and it brought back a flood of memories as well as a chance to reflect and ruminate on four critical years I spent there before I left for England to pursue Chartered Accountancy. AVHS looking at the pictures appears to be in remarkably good condition and exactly like I remember it from almost 50 years ago!
AVHS, was probably the premier high school for Asian students in Mombasa. Kenya was still a British colony and education like many other facets of life was racially segregated in practice, if not the law. It was a high school for boys since the sexes were also segregated. The school was built by a philanthropist after whom it was named. The only students allowed admission into AVHS were Indians, Pakistanis and Arabs. There were other schools for Africans (the term used to describe the indigenous people) and for Europeans (the term used to describe anyone who was white). Almost all of the teachers were Asians though there were a few who were British, one Canadian and a couple from Australia. My father, AG Joseph, taught English there from the early fifties until 1961 and my brother, George, taught Economics at AVHS from 1960 to 1966.
One of the striking contrasts in terms of the education at AVHS and the schools in the US are the methodologies used and what was deemed the norm. Teachers were not allowed to paddle students but errant students would be sent to the principal where one was “caned” on the buttocks. The severity of the caning would range from one strike to a maximum of six. There was no need for any parental notification and students who were caned were anxious that their parents knew nothing of it – and if they did, it would probably mean a round of punishment at home as well! Teachers disciplinary methods included making an errant student stand on his chair for all or part of the duration of the class while all the other students were seated! If one were the victim of this punishment, it was not so much a humiliation as much as a feeling of sheepishness and concern about not losing one’s balance while standing!
The high school consisted of four grades (to use US parlance) before one graduated. What was amazing, upon reflection, is that each grade had four “streams” (A to D) consisting of about 30 students in each stream. The brightest students were in stream A and the least academically proficient were in stream D! So it was considered to be very much the norm to, in effect, “label” the students as being “bright” or “less than bright” (being polite) from the very start. Once one ended up in a particular stream, it was usually not easy to be “upgraded” because it required someone else to be “down-graded” to maintain class size. Upon reflection, it really was a very retrograde system though we never had a second thought about it. Just as we never had a second thought about the races being segregated.
We were graded on “marks” received out of one hundred. The passing grade was around 40 and anything over 70 was considered to be a “distinction”. Scoring over 70 in any subject other than mathematics was a rarity. If one scored as high as 80 one was considered to be a genius! Very different than the grading in the US! Each month and at the end of each term (semester) the cumulative “marks” obtained in each subject was posted for every student on the notice board in the class and we were all ranked based on those marks from the first to the last! The ranking was something that anyone could view – whether from within the class or from another class! I think part of the thinking was that publicizing the results like this would motivate students by encouraging those who did well and humiliating those who did not so that they would strive harder. Never mind that any such ranking system would inevitably result in someone being ranked first and someone else being ranked last no matter how well the latter fared overall!
The education we received was generally excellent and the culmination was having to sit an exam called the Senior Cambridge which was conducted under the auspices of Cambridge University – the questions were formulated there and the exams were evaluated there as well.
Kenya was still a British colony and the text books were generally by British authors with all of the biases one would associate with a colonial regime. For example, we were taught that Columbus “discovered” America and Vasco da Gama “discovered” India! Never a suggestion that both countries existed well before they were “discovered” and no suggestion that, perhaps, both these explorers were the first ones from Europe to visit these countries. But we students would repeat all of this as a matter of routine.
We were taught British history including British rule in India. The text books referred to the Indian Mutiny in 1857 when Indian soldiers “mutinied” against their British masters. We came to accept that what occurred was this unlawful rebellious group of soldiers acted against the legitimate authority. Never a second thought about its implication that British rule was legitimate. We were taught that the main reason for the mutiny was that “the sepoys had to bite a newly issued bullet cartridge open. It was believed that the paper cartridges that were standard issue with the rifle were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims, or tallow (beef fat), regarded as anathema to Hindus” as quoted from Wikipedia. The reasons were much more complex and Wikipedia offers some interesting background. Today the so-called “mutiny” is referred to by other labels such as “India’s First War of Independence”.
Much of what we learned had a Euro-centric focus. All the great discoveries in the sciences, mathematics and the arts were attributable to the West. I don’t recall a single discovery being taught to us as having emanated from a non-Western country, whether it be China or India or Middle Eastern countries. My brother, George, wrote an authoritative book called “The Crest of the Peacock” which focuses on the Euro-centric slant with regard to mathematics that exists to this day and the lack of recognition of the considerable contributions of other countries and cultures.
A recent blog entry regarding a speech by Dr Karl Paulnack about the contribution of the Greeks to music brought forth these comments in an email from a friend:
“Whether it was the Greeks or the early Indians ( Saraswats) who considered music as an integral element of life is I suppose a position one may take depending on their upbringing but in my childhood I was told those many stories about early Indian holy scriptures, Goddess Saraswati was the one who was revered as embodying the value of art, music and knowledge. Her images are always shown as holding a musical instrument.
Then of course we have Krishna and his flute. Some of the stories I have read, the effect of his flute playing had on ‘ gopies ‘ in essence is what appears to be the key thrust of Paulnack’s speech.”
But these thoughts about Euro-centrism, text books authored with a decidedly colonial bias, etc were things we never even thought about. It was a much simpler time in many ways. We were wonderfully happy in our school which overlooked the Arabian Sea. There was never a thought about integrating schools or fighting the system. Our fondest hope was to complete the Cambridge School Certificate with a First Grade and, at the least, obtain a Second Grade!
Tags: Allidina Visram High School, Cambrige School Certificate, Crest of the Peacock, Euro-centrism, First Indian War of Indenpendence, Greek influence on music, Hindu influence on music, Indian Mutiny, Karl Paulnack, Kenya, Mombasa, paddling of students, segregation in schools, Senior Cambridge