A progressive educationist

Print edition : August 13, 2004

The birth centenary of Kuruvila Jacob, educationist and institution-builder par excellence, is being celebrated this year.

HEADMASTERS are a class by themselves. They play a significant role in educating their pupils, sharpening their intellect and moulding their character. They live on in the memories of their wards - some as strict disciplinarians, some as scholars, some for their teaching skills, a few for their loving care, and fewer still for all these and more. But men like Kuruvila Jacob, whose birth centenary is celebrated on August 3, 2004, belong to a now-lost generation of headmasters whose influence went far beyond the boundaries of their institutions. Kuruvila Jacob, who served as the Headmaster of the prestigious Madras Christian College High School for three decades, is remembered to this day not only by his wards of two generations but also by enlightened members of the public for his role in shaping the education policy of the new-born Indian Republic.

Kuruvila Jacob was the first Indian headmaster of the school, which was started by a Scottish missionary, Anderson, in 1835. When appointed to the post in 1931, Kuruvila was only 27 years old. Although he had no previous experience as a teacher, he had a Diploma and a Master's in Education from Leeds in the United Kingdom. Within a few years of his taking over, the school began to make rapid strides into being a model institution. His holistic approach to education and his strenuous efforts to ensure the all-round development of the children under his care began to pay dividends. Many of the school's alumni hail the period when he was the headmaster (1931-62) as "the golden age of the school."

The second half of his headmastership (1946-62) brought greater challenges in its wake. New governments at the Centre and in the States in independent India set in motion development planning, one of the core parts of which was public education. Kuruvila Jacob, with his long experience and proven expertise, became one of the most sought-after educationists for governments to be advised on policy initiatives. He was asked to serve on a number of committees. As a member of various study teams he had to make frequent visits to many Indian States and also to countries such as Germany, Denmark, Britain and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He served as Education Adviser to the Government of Kerala when E.M.S. Namboodiripad was the Chief Minister. Kuruvila Jacob helped the Indian Education Commission (1964-66), headed by D.S. Kothari, make its highly acclaimed recommendations for revamping the education system in the country. Although the Commission's report was termed "unique" by the then Union Education Minister, Justice M.C. Chagla, and hailed as "progressive" by many other national leaders, it saw the light of the day only after 20 years, even after which it was not implemented in full. Kuruvila Jacob waged a spirited battle through newspaper articles in order to get the recommendations implemented (see box).

BORN into an illustrious family in Cherthala in the present Alappuzha district in Kerala on August 3, 1904, Kuruvila Jacob did his school education in several towns in the then Madras Presidency as his father, Kunnerkeril Jacob, held a transferable job as District Munsiff. However, he spent the best days of his childhood in his mother's village, Aymenam, a peaceful green hamlet (which figures in Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things). Kuruvila graduated from the Madras Christian College, Chennai, in 1927. Before leaving for the U.K. to pursue higher studies at Leeds University (1929-31), he married Grace Elizabeth in 1927 as desired by his father. Three months before the completion of his post-graduate studies at Leeds, he received an offer of headmastership from the management of a school in Kottayam, Kerala, where he had studied. The Bishop of Kottayam extended the offer in person. However, Kuruvila Jacob declined it only to accept an offer from the Madras Christian College High School soon after.

When Kuruvila Jacob took charge as headmaster in 1931, he had to face a lot of resentment from the professors of the Madras Christian College because the practice until then was that one of the professors was appointed headmaster of the school. Some of the professors even resigned over the issue. But Kuruvila Jacob was able to steer clear of these hurdles with the splendid support he got from other teachers. He took a special interest in pupils who were weak in studies and introduced several measures to improve the quality of education. He felt that shifting the school from the crowded business centre of George Town to a less noisy place would help extend more facilities to students, and made special efforts to find a new location. He persuaded the management to accept the proposal and arranged for the resources needed. The school was shifted to a new, spacious building, constructed under the supervision of the headmaster, who found time for it amid his tight daily schedule. The school was provided with a number of facilities such as large playgrounds, a fully equipped laboratory and a well-stacked library.

But Kuruvila Jacob was not merely interested in technical excellence in education. He went far beyond this, and incorporated the social issues of his time in the field of education. His interest in and commitment to the cause of advancing education among Dalits, for instance, was notable. Indeed, he proved his contention that even children in the cheris (slums) could imbibe quality education if they were offered good teachers and an environment that compensated for their disadvantages.

Students of Kuruvila Jacob recall with pride their association with the institution. They say that their "H.M." encouraged students to develop their skills in whatever field they could. Marks were not the sole criterion; performance in games and extra-curricular activities was given due importance. He showed a special interest in sports and wanted his pupils to make use of all the three large playgrounds on the campus. He arranged for special coaching in cricket and other games, and encouraged pupils to participate in them. Most of the awards in inter-school competitions went to the school's teams.

Members of the Headmasters' Association with C. Rajagopalachari, Chief Minister of Madras State. Kuruvila Jacob is third from right.-

Old students recall how the headmaster arranged for his boys' frequent interaction with reputed players in various games. In 1956, the school received one such distinguished visitor, the legendary athlete Jesse Owens of the United States, who won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Former students recall the excellent facilities available in the hostel, which was located on the campus close to the residence of the headmaster, and feel the food served there was the "best". The Kuruvilas used to take special care of the hostelers when they fell ill. Recalling old times in an article on his father, Chakko Kuruvila, who too studied in the school, says, "The `sick room' in our house always housed a boarder, over whom my mother fussed endlessly, soothing a real or at times imagined fever which she knew was nothing more than a longing for home and a mother's touch."

AFTER retiring from the Madras Christian College High School in 1962, Kuruvila Jacob became Principal of the Hyderabad Public School at the invitation of the Andhra Pradesh government. The school, started in 1923 for the benefit of jagirdars, was in an extremely bad shape when Kuruvila Jacob took charge of it in 1962. He put it back on track by taking or threatening to take harsh measures against wrongdoers. Thanks to his efforts, the school's educational standards improved remarkably and it started attracting students from all over the country. In 1969, he was offered the post of Principal of the Bombay Cathedral and John Cannon School in Mumbai, a British school, which until then had only British heads. The school was well run, but it was completely cut off from Indian tradition and culture. Kuruvila Jacob's task was to help integrate the school into the Indian education system. One of the first things he did was to organise, for the first time, Republic Day celebrations, when the Indian tricolour was hoisted. One by one, he got rid of many of the British customs practised in the school. A parent-teacher association was formed and several innovative schemes were introduced. Since the school did not have a playground, he hired the playgrounds of some local clubs. It was during his stint at the Mumbai school that he received the Padma Shree (1970), in appreciation of his invaluable contribution to education in India. He retired from service in 1979, at the age of 75.

He and his wife settled down in Vellore, where he spent the rest of his life in the company of his children and grandchildren. He remained an educationist, articulating his views on various aspects of education in newspapers and magazines, until his death on August 25, 1991.

IN the midst of his preoccupation with the Madras Christian College High School, he was invited to join an international team of educationists, comprising four members from India, two from the U.S. and one each from England and Scandinavia. As part of the team, he visited Denmark, the U.K., and the U.S., besides travelling all over India, and made a comparative study of school education in these countries. Kuruvila Jacob found the visit very useful and felt that the Danish model of `folk school' may suit the Indian conditions as Denmark, like India, had an economy based on agriculture. Enriched by the trips, he tried to implement some of the schemes practised in other countries that he found useful. As the founder of the City Headmasters Conference in Chennai, he paved the way for joint action on issues that were of common interest, especially while dealing with officialdom.

Describing Kuruvila Jacob as "a giant among headmasters", educationist and former President of the Tamil Nadu Headmasters Association S.S. Rajagopalan recalled his contribution to the formulation of government policy on education, particularly school education, soon after Independence. "Kuruvila Jacob's role was significant in the revamping of the system at least in three respects," Rajagopalan said, in a brief interview to Frontline. The first was the introduction of the emergency teachers' training programme. When the first Education Minister of the composite Madras State in Independent India, T.S. Avinashilingam Chettiar, wanted to open schools in all villages under a mass education project, he felt that one of the major hurdles was the shortage of teachers. Kuruvila Jacob, who was consulted on this, suggested an emergency short-duration training programme on the pattern of the post-War project of the British government to provide jobs for discharged soldiers. The government accepted the suggestion. The second suggestion, to introduce bifurcated vocational courses such as engineering, agriculture, secretarial practice and teaching, was also accepted. As a member of the Board of Secondary Education he could get the suggestion implemented in Madras Presidency in 1948 with the support of Professor G.R. Damodaran, another member of the Board.

The third area in which Kurvila Jacob played a key role related to the modification of History and Geography syllabi. During the British period, schools taught "The outlines of the History of England and India, and Geography." Indian history dealt only with kings and emperors, the disunity among them, and so on; there was nothing about the people. Avinashilingam Chettiar wanted the history of England to be dropped and the rest revamped with stress on people's history and progress over the centuries. This was sought to be done on the basis of American philosopher John Dewey's views. A new subject, Social Studies, which traced the evolution of human civilisations, was suggested. Kuruvila Jacob played an important role in preparing the syllabus. However, this had to be diluted later, under pressure from a section of teachers. The result was that only the merger of Indian history and geography took place.

Kuruvila Jacob was forthright in his comments on education policies, Rajagopalan said. He added: "Fearlessness and staunch independence were the hallmarks of his character." He said that while dealing with officials Kuruvila Jacob was polite but not docile. The author of Kuruvila Jacob's forthcoming biography, Usha Jesudasan, has found that "faith" and a "sense of gratitude" were the most important elements of his life. In his Foreword to the biography, Editior-in-Chief, The Hindu, N. Ram, who is also an alumnus of the school, observes: "Kuruvila Jacob was a visionary with the gift of practicality, which made him a great institution-builder. ... Strong and clear in his personal faith, he was exceptionally broad-minded, secular, and progressive."

The Chennai-based Late Kuruvila Jacob Birth Centenary Celebrations Committee will soon be launching "Kuruvila Jacob initiative for excellence in school education," according to one of the conveners of the committee, S. Viji. "The basic objective of the initiative is to enhance the operational performance of schools in educating students," explained I. Jairaj, a member of the core committee. There can be no better tribute to a visionary who throughout his life championed the cause of affordable quality education for all.

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