and a staunch advocate of a liberal arts education
Santosh Kumar Mahadeo, who passed away recently, was, above anything else, an English teacher of exceptional brilliance and inspiration for many of his students; his was a decisive cultural influence, not just on their education but on their lives. Few who were taught by him would forget the experience; many continued to see or correspond with him decades later. With his enthusiasm, and wide-ranging scholarly interests, he was a source of inspiration to so many of his students whom he taught. So many people benefited from his incredible breadth of learning and interests, and his intellectual rigour.
As a student of Royal College of Port Louis in the 1960s, he befriended the likes of Dr Lucien Finette, Jacques Panglose, and so many others who still occupy posts of leadership in the country. He spent almost two decades in the teaching profession where he met late Daniel Koenig who exercised a tremendous influence on him. In the 1990s, he joined administration as Rector of Royal College of Curepipe and Sir Leckraz Teelock SSS Flacq, and later as Director of Curriculum Studies in the Ministry of Education, but his real interest – and gift – was in the teaching of literature. Unfortunately, for many young people today, learning the plays of Shakespeare can be a tormenting experience. Often they fail to see the relevance of reading centuries old texts and cannot see how these texts apply to the world today. However, the brilliance of Santosh Kumar Mahadeo was to make Shakespeare feel so relevant today, and he had the art of making the plays applicable to our society and to the lives of young adults. He used in his classes to explore examples of leadership in Shakespeare’s works and discuss how they could be applied to modern times. He provided examples of both good and bad leadership, citing characters in many plays, including Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, Coriolanus, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear and Julius Caesar.
I recall his favourite was Antony and Cleopatra, a play about how passion, mingled with power, treachery, and misunderstanding, can lead to a tragic end. He liked to stress how Shakespeare’s works show what it is to be human, and bring forth timeless themes of humanity. He challenged the thinking of his students by leading class discussions based on the books they read, and by choosing topics for composition and essays that would certainly bring them to a different level of appreciating the writers and poets, and the times they lived in. Many who knew him are unanimous in saying that they benefited immensely from his incredible breadth of knowledge and his sound advice, not to mention his mastery of the English language, which in our island is gradually becoming a forgotten skill.
Greatness in teaching is just as rare as greatness in medicine, law, or any other profession. Teaching, like every other serious profession, requires time. By investing his time – to prepare for class, to go over student work, to meet students outside of class, to talk to parents, Santosh indicated to his students that he sincerely cared about their learning . No wonder he became a strong advocate of ‘pastoral care’. He never gave up on students who didn’t seem to grasp an idea. He would ask questions, one after another, until the student untangled the logic of the given question and came to the conclusion. He liked to ask questions to provoke thinking.
Santosh will also be very deeply missed for his defence of the value of a liberal arts education which is diminishing day after day in colleges and universities. Our institutions are increasingly dictated by market forces, globalization, and economy-driven governmental policies. The trend set for education seems to be favouring studies in business, applied science, high technology, and profit-driven research – all at the expense of Social Studies and Humanities. With the attention on money-producing programmes, colleges and universities ignore the intellectual breadth that a liberal education can provide. A liberal education encourages students to think creatively and independently, and to develop their own reasoned inquiry as opposed to simply absorbing knowledge from previous generations. Criticism and skepticism, used reasonably, can be valuable in resolving public issues in and outside the education system.
Mahatma Gandhi was once asked to describe an ideal lifestyle and he responded by saying “Simple Living and High Thinking”, most probably influenced by Wordsworth’s own phrase “Plain Living and High Thinking”. Santosh completely agreed with his thought and tried to emulate this in his own life, which explains his aloofness and uneasy relationship with the pretentiousness and artificial glitter of town life. He was never interested, like so many have done, in leaving behind his roots in the rural area where he was born and lived and died. The phrase “Plain Living and High Thinking” functioned as a kind of motto or slogan to epitomize his vision of a natural spiritual culture, an alternative to our modern “soul-killing” industrial civilization.
With his demise after a prolonged period of illness, he leaves behind a standard of excellence to strive for. He will be deeply missed.
“After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well”
– Macbeth, Act III, Scene 2
* Published in print edition on 18 July 2014