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Published on: 01/26/16 8:35 AM

Book review: With a Little Help from my Friends by Dev Lahiri

The Headmaster`s Story

 Highly intelligent. Quicksilver character. Maverick. Quick study. Impassioned. Born educationist. All these words fit Devapriya Lahiri , former Headmaster of Lawrence School, Lovedale, as well as  Welhams Boys, Dehradun, to a t.

It`s been an eventful, even chequered career for the educationist who has recently written his memoir, called With A Little Help From My Friends. While the book makes for a very interesting and informative read, the real nuggets are the ideas Lahiri puts forth.

But first, something about the man himself. His early years are a classic example of the  square- peg- in- a- round- hole syndrome; nothing seems to have held his interest or attention for too long. After graduating from St Stephens, he tried his hand at being a tea planter but didn’t last long there.

Then he headed off to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and did very well there, making good friends… and having to give up his room to Benazir Bhutto! On his return, he had a stint at the Oxford University Press in Kolkata, then joined Doon School as a teacher. From there,  it  was down south to the Nilgiris, to head the Lawrence School Lovedale,  a period he looks back on with mixed feelings.

After Lawrence,  it was onto a rather unsatisfactory stint writing  content for education software in Bangalore. Thence to Dehra Dun where he headed Welhams Boys School, another stint marked by controversy.

A year at the Wasatch Academy in Utah followed, and now Lahiri leads a retired life in the Doon valley, along with his charming wife Indrani,  and his many dogs.

In the first public school he headed, bullying was rampant and he took several steps to put an end to that, steps which pitted him directly against truculent  students and even more truculent parents, not that he cared.

In the second school, it was drugs, and there too, he undertook several innovative ways to rid the place of this deadly menace. Driven by his desire to reform and set right several maladies inherent in the education system, Lahiri fights what seems to be a pitched battle at times and does not always meet with success. But he perseveres….

And in between, as if all this excitement was not enough, there are  continual arduous battles to be fought literally for his life, culminating in a seven-hour surgery after his organs all began to shut down one by one. But this long-distance runner is nothing if not indomitable and he perseveres…

The book contains quite a few insights into the education system. Talking of schools, he says, “It is my considered belief that schools in India spend too much time looking at themselves. It`s all about better board exam results than the others, winning all the inter-school tournaments and other such
accomplishments. While all these are certainly important, it is equally important, I feel, to teach children empathy, especially for those not as privileged as themselves. Schools must produce citizens who will not only have a burning desire to excel in whatever they do but also want to make a difference to the society around them. “

Lahiri  then takes apart the public school system with its uncompetitive salary structures for faculty, rigid hierarchical structures, its old world style of management. Public schools, avers  Lahiri, need to seriously reinvent  themselves if they have to stay relevant.

Parents don`t escape the harsh glare of the spotlight, either. One of the biggest impediments to the progress of our educational system is the lack of cooperation between parent and school, says this educationist. “It is one of our biggest failures to not be able to evolve a culture of partnership between the two. In the old days, parents were quite content to hand over the child to the school, secure in the belief that the school would do its best with the child. This naivete had its own pitfalls…Now the pendulum seems to have swung to the other extreme particularly with the media, ever anxious for a story,having jumped into the fray. TV channels are quick to pull the trigger and bring in panels of experts to pass judgment on what may have happened in a school, and the voices of the Principal or the teachers are completely lost in the din. Too often, parents see their role vis- a- vis the school as one of `them` and `us.` … both parents and schools need to work very hard to build a partnership and eliminate the trust deficit if education is to be truly meaningful.“

Elsewhere, Lahiri  avers that our school education system has become completely bogged down with content. The syllabus is king and the teachers spend all their time and energy in fighting the battle to deliver it. In the process, creativity, problem solving, research and reference all fall by the wayside. Somehow we must arrive at a more equitable balance between skills and content. We must learn to value an education for the sake of an education.

The searing honesty in every word of this book is the first thing that catches the reader`s attention. The style is direct, looking the reader in the eye at all times. The sentences are crisp, the humour wry and often self-directed.

It has been a long and winding road for this impassioned educationist. In the end, the author wonders aloud if life would have taken an altogether more peaceful path if he had played ball both at Lawrence, Lovedale,  and at Welhams Boys.` By then, though, the reader has a clear idea of the manner of man Dev Lahiri is. In the end, as he says, a man must do what a man must do.

Hundreds, thousands of his loyal students will second this sentiment, loudly, vociferously,  emphatically.

With A Little Help From My Friends by Dev Lahiri. Rupa Publications.

Dev Lahirieducation reformsLawrence School Lovedalememoirpublic schoolsWelhams Boys School

Sheila Kumar • January 26, 2016

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