St James Independent Schools of London have been teaching Sanskrit to their pupils since 1975. Elena Jessup, who is currently doing her MA in Sanskrit at SOAS and is a teacher at the school, talks to Venetia Ansell.
20th June 2008
St James is an unlikely location for Sanskrit lessons. The schools – two junior and two senior ones – based in central London, have no Hindu, or indeed any other religious, affiliation. The pupils are by no means predominantly, let alone solely, of Asian descent; plenty of white middle class English girls and boys, as well as children from Kazakhstan, Africa and Iran, are educated here. So why Sanskrit?
“The founder of the school, Leon MacLaren thought it would be interesting to introduce Sanskrit into a Western context, mainly because of its proximity to the source of Indo-European languages,” explains Elena. The school does have a spiritual orientation too, following the school of Advaita philosophical thought, which goes well with Sanskrit – the language of the Upanishads and other Indian philosophical treatises.
But MacLaren’s lofty principles are perhaps of less importance to parents than the fact that their children seem both to enjoy and to benefit from the exposure to a language famous for its grammatical perfection and wealth of literature. Paul Moss, the headmaster, cites improved motor skills through writing in Devanagari, better control over pronounciation thanks to the range of sounds Sanskrit has, and a general increased sharpness as evidence on the advantages of learning Sanskrit.
So are London parents happy to send their children to a school where Sanskrit is compulsory up until the age of 11? The biggest problem is, as Elena explains, that most parents don’t even know what Sanskrit is. The school runs parent classes, both to introduce them to the concept of Sanskrit, and to actually teach them the language. “It means they can help with the homework”, says Elena. The school also stresses the linguistic and cultural links between Sanskrit and classical and modern European languages.
St James does use some Indian teaching methods, such as recitation of paradigms and verses, but it doesn’t favour the rote-learning of most Indian schools. Despite the founder’s desire to begin with Paninian grammar, the traditional starting point, the Sanskrit department has over the years developed a very different approach. A major constituent of this is the concept of introducing children to grammar via stories, for which a whole new set of textbooks had to be created. The school’s publishing arm now print an entire collection for the junior course, where children begin with tales of Krishna from the Bhagavata Purana, graduate to Rama and then finally encounter the Mahabharata. The textbooks use very simple Sanskrit to retell the stories for their young audience.
And it seems to work – “my pupils really enjoy Sanskrit.” The key, thinks Elena, is the systematic step by step approach, and “making them feel that they can do it.”
The senior course is trickier, and a series of textbooks are in progress. Elena admits that the subject is less popular among teenagers, but a good 75% carry on once it becomes optional, and at least half do Sanskrit GCSE, with a handful making it to AS or A level. “Mostly the girls, though”, because the boys worry more about their job prospects – the Sanskritist’s perennial worry. Elena, though, is upbeat, “from my experience, employers are really keen on Sanskrit – really they’re just looking for a sharp mind and Sanskrit definitely helps with that”.
The school also uses Sanskrit literature – which its brochure ‘Why Sanskrit?’ touts as “one of the richest and most extensive literatures of all known languages” – outside the classroom. Next week, the pupils will perform a play based on the Mahabharata written by the drama teacher. Elena is also a great fan of the new Virgin Comics’ range of Sanskrit epic-inspired graphic novels and comics. “I let my pupils read them as an after-exam treat – the boys absolutely love them”. Move over, Superman…