Cooper Jacobus reports from India

First Day Recommendations:

If you go on exchange to the Doon School, the first thing I recommend you do after taking your bag to your room is to get a uniform. I found that this was an important step for two reasons. First, you will feel much less out of place once you have a uniform. Chances are, when you arrive, you will still be wearing whatever you wore on the plane, while the rest of the boys are required to arrive already in uniform. This will make you feel even more out of place than you would normally. You will feel much less obtrusive once you have a uniform. Second, your clothes are likely not a fit for the climate, while the uniform is. If it is hot when you arrive, you will want to put on something breathable, which the uniform surprisingly is.

Once you have gotten yourself a uniform and unpacked, you should introduce yourself to your roommates. You will likely be in a room with four other boys, one of whom will be your exchange partner and you will have to get to know the other three. These will be the boys who will look after you and make sure you are doing alright. They can only do this if you get to know them.

Hierarchy:

Seniority is everything. Older boys have the power to make younger boys their servants. Younger boys will have to wake up early with alarms so that they can get dressed before going upstairs to gently wake the older boys. They also distribute snacks at night to the older boys while they are studying. If they fail to do this in any way (skip a room in the morning, wake someone up too violently, forget a person when distributing snacks, etc.), the older boys will punish them by making them hold a push-up position for as long as they feel is necessary. Younger boys will be expected to yield to older boys in any situation. They will be very confused if, for example, you do not cut them in a line.

Academic Culture:

One of the most interesting things about the Doon School is the culture built around academics. The school is the absolute best in the entire country, which means that it intrinsically attracts students who are academically motivated and then only selects a choice few of those who are especially capable. Thus, all the students who attend must be distinctly smart and academically motivated. Once inside it is apparent, however, that the reputation of the school precedes the characteristics and motivations of the student body. In an obvious attempt to address this issue, the administration tries to fabricate more academic motivation in the following ways:

  • All grades, marks, scores, etc. are 100% public to anyone who wants to see them at any time regardless of relation. Rankings of students are posted in the classroom and are attached to report cards. This is designed to make the top boys feel competitive for the best spot and to shame those who fall to the bottom, so that all boys feel more motivated to do better than their peers.
  • The Average Grades on standard tests by class are posted on the doors of the teacher’s classroom, so that it is obvious which teacher’s classes do best on tests. This similarly encourages the teachers to compete and thus to spend class time pressuring their students to study harder rather than teaching the material.
  • Houses compete for the best overall grades. Even if pressure from your teacher and yourself is not enough to motivate you, you will be pressured by your peers in your house to do well.

This is very effective. Students care A LOT about receiving High Marks.

NOTE: They score with a similar system of Letters (A* instead of A+) except that everything is shifted down. In a math class, it might be something like A* = 100-90%, A = 90-80%, B = 80-70%, C = 70-60, D = 60-50%. I am unsure if this is a kind of grade inflation or if the grading is just harsher in general to make up for this.

Food Notes:

Food is safe. Somethings which you think will be spicy (like chicken) will be plain. Nothing is guaranteed.

What I found more interesting than the local food, however, were the foreign foods. They apply their own tastes to foods from the US and China: pizza usually has chicken, chow mein is spicy, etc. This is especially notable in non-American foreign foods. This strikes me as evidence that we in the US also do this (which we already knew). If we are also changing the food from its original, then to go from the American adaptation to the Indian is two degrees of separation instead of one. This idea suggests the existence of a kind of feedback loop where a food could be exported, changed, imported, changed, exported, and so on. This happens with a lot of Mexican food. This also allows for repeat parodies, like Indian pizza, which is an adaptation of American pizza, which is an adaptation of Italian pizza.

Curriculum Notes:

At Doon, they study a lot of the same things we do at Athenian. I was able to wander into Physics, Chemistry, and Math classes and keep up with no extra effort. They hang posters about the American Revolutionary War in their History rooms. They offer Spanish classes. They study authors like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in their Literature Classes. The only distinct difference in the general curriculum was Economics. They offer Economics as a year-round class from 10th through 12th grade. Many students take it for all three years. I took this class. I have to say that it seems like very valuable knowledge and that there is too much for our new seminars to be able to fully cover.

Religion and Spirituality:

IMPORTANT NOTE: I was born Christian and technically identify as Atheist and this will inform my analysis.

The other exchanges and I attended a religious ceremony on the bank of the Ganges River in nearby Rishikesh. There were many differences between the prayer there and common prayer in a Christian church in the US: Polytheism, Dress, Language, etc. What I found most interesting, however, transcends those more appearance-like aspects of the spirituality. To draw this distinction, I will again compare to the traditional American Christian church. A common church in the United States is arranged such that there is a podium in front at which a religious figure preaches and receives prayer from the audience as a representative of ‘God.’. I call this method of expressing spiritual devotion “indirect” as you pray to something which is abstract and because the sacrifice you make is generally monetary (indirect in its own regard) and is lost once it leaves your hands. In direct contrast to the American Christian church, the Hindu religious ceremony I attended was designed such that everyone (attendees, priests, musicians, etc.) was sitting together on the same stage, all facing towards the water (the actual, real-life, physical embodiment of the divine). In this regard, the ceremony is one of more community – the religious leaders sit next to the average attendee and do not preach but rather guide the prayer, a prayer that they do not receive but rather encourage. The sacrifice made here is not monetary but takes the form of fire given to the river on hand-sized boats. I call this more “direct” because the community prays together directly to the divine embodiment. There is no middle man and there is no disconnect between the devotees and the aspect of their devotion. I feel that this distinction is rather profound, because the average person is much more spiritual/religious, which I attest to this.

While in Delhi, I visited several religious places, including a Mosque, a Sikh Temple, multiple Hindu Temples, and a Bahá’í Temple. The Sikh Temple serves free meals 22 hours a day and has a pond with holy fish (which you apparently can’t pet). One Hindu Temple has an amusement park containing animatronic nativities and an indoor boat ride/exhibit depicting the lives of religious figures. The Bahá’í Temple is shaped like a massive nine-pedal lotus. The Bahá’í religion is interesting. It concludes that prophets and holy messengers from other religions like Jesus, Abraham, Mohamed, Krishna, Buddha, etc. (notably not Joseph Smith) are all representatives of the same God and are carrying effectively the same message. Because of this, they are very accepting to basically any faith that enters their temple as they believe in a portion of the Bahá’í faith.

There is a sort of comradery between faiths. Many people respect each other for their beliefs as there is a lot commonality between them. In the same regard, many are confused or offended by the concept of atheism. It contradicts their faith in more ways than other faiths because it doesn’t make sense that someone would not have something to believe in.

Miscellaneous:

The Emporium – Every driver in Delhi tried to convince us to go to this place called the Emporium. Some drivers we found were even waiting on street corners for tourists to pass by so they could walk beside them to earn their trust and casually mention the Emporium. (Most are pretty good. They walk in front of you so you don’t think you’re being followed and offer assistance like “now’s the time to cross the street.”) One driver was honest and said something like “they have good handicraft and give me a gas voucher if I bring tourists” so we went with him and they gave him a voucher proportional to how much we spent.

Bracelets – Many of the boys in my form wear these silver bracelets. This seemed odd to me because I think of bracelet-wearing as a feminine thing and noticed that the boys who did tended to be the more masculine ones. I learned later that the bracelets function as a weapon. They can be taken off and used as a kind of brass knuckle. I never saw or heard about these ever actually being used; however if you know what they are, they work as a pretty good ‘don’t mess with me’ fashion item.

Teachers ask, “any doubts?” instead of “any questions?” to which students almost never respond. At first this struck me as a challenge, like, “Do you doubt my lecture?” I now think it more of a symptom of an overall culture of not asking questions because you do not want to appear stupid.

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