Republica Repost–The Education Disconnect

Around the age of ten, I once asked my father why the local priest didn’t translate his Sanskrit scriptures into Nepali. The answer was: “that’s how it’s always been!” That was not really a “reason,” but it worked for my father, given his faith in the system.

There is something about our social institutions that encourages just doing things without really understanding what they mean and why they are done. In fact, if they are made clear and simple, they seem to lose their power and appeal. In the field of education, this “sanskritization” (so to speak) not only characterizes disciplines like painting and poetry (where obscurity and complexity may be necessary and beneficial); it also typifies education at large. Instead of striving for clarity, pragmatism, and relevance to life and society, we want to keep it disconnected from life and work beyond the classroom. read full post…

Republica Repost–(Un)Easy Arguments

Around the age of eight or ten, I asked a Hindu priest what caste people were if they didn’t have a designated label, as in the case of Christians, Muslims, and all the people in other countries. He said that all those “others” would be “mlekshas.” In the old days, this term, derived from “malechh,” referred to those who don’t know Sanskrit or those who are unclean or unholy. That evening, I also learned that my parents, who were Brahmins, used the word for “anyone who is not a part of the Brahmanic relationship to the divine.” So I asked them this: “What if those ‘others’ say the same thing about us?” This time, instead of an answer, I got a straightforward order to shut up. read full post…

Republica Repost–Universal Deceit

“In a time of universal deceit,” said the novelist George Orwell, “telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” The School Leaving Certificate is one such mind-boggling deceit for the majority of our children, describing which with an open mind can make you sound crazy. A hundred and ninety thousand students passed, out of more than four hundred thousand; only a hundred thousand out of three hundred thousand were from public schools (whereas 91 out of 102 thousand passed from private schools). We’re investing 86 billion rupees per year in education, and we largely continue to blame teachers in public schools for this national disaster that we are collective responsible for. Let me explain how the real problem lies with our society’s fundamental misunderstanding of education (including the function and value of exams). read full post…

Republica Repost–Out of Context

One night earlier this year, as I was reading drafts of essays submitted by students in a college writing course, I found myself getting more and more frustrated, confused, and almost angry with myself as a teacher. What had I done wrong in designing the course, selecting reading materials, or teaching students how to conduct research and discuss what they found on a topic?

In preparation of that assignment, I had assigned texts (mainly from national media in the past few years) representing arguments for and against the idea that massive open online courses (or MOOCs) would radically change higher education. Students had to ask their own research questions on sub-topics of their choice and “review” how different scholars and stakeholders approached the debate. Yes, they had surveyed a common set of texts, but how did almost all their research questions assume that MOOCs are likely to replace or dramatically transform higher education—for good or bad? I was baffled because, as I thought they should know, the current scholarly conversation makes it abundantly clear that MOOCs are unfit for credit-bearing, degree-worthy education. read full post…

Republica Repost–Open Letter

Dear Managers of PM Disaster Relief Fund,

Once again, I just failed to donate to the Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund from the program’s website at www.pmrelief.opmcm.gov.np. This was probably the fifteenth attempt in 28 days. I have asked many other Nepalis across the US if they have tried, and I haven’t come across anyone who has been successful with any Visa or MasterCard. Some believed that it was their card, others weren’t surprised because it is Nepali PM office, and yet others joined the chorus of people who say that you are either incapable of fixing the problem or you don’t care. Many, including me, don’t know or try to use the alternative bank transfer method for contribution. I am still waiting for the site-based method to work. read full post…

Republica Repost–Global Citizens

Two days after the devastation back home, when I reached the office of India Studies Center at Stony Brook University (where I teach), about a dozen students were seated around a table. I knew that there are about five undergraduate Nepali-speaking students in the university, among nearly 24 thousand students total. Here were about a dozen, so I thought some must be from the rest of South Asia. Turns out, as usual, that didn’t matter: whatever their language and background, they were all global citizens who blurred boundaries of identity with their big hearts and their ambitious actions. The main agenda was a big South Asia- focused cultural event for fundraising. As I want to highlight in this piece, these students broaden the meaning and function of education as members of a global community of humans in an interconnected world, especially when another part of the world can use some support from people around the world. read full post…

Republica Repost–Narrowing Minds

Not all of education has to be immediately useful. Some learning should form a foundation for life

While I was teaching in Kathmandu, in the early 2000s, a BA first-year student handed me an assignment with the word “Bachelor” written next to his name at the top of his paper. “Why announce your marital status on your homework?” I quipped. “No, Sir. It means that I am getting the bachelor’s degree.” When I hear my undergraduate students who are starting to take engineering courses begin their sentences with “As an engineer, I…,” they remind me of the “bachelor.” But if my student in Kathmandu had stopped using that term when I taught him the word’s usage, my “engineers” today don’t seem to care even when they learn how the word is practically used.

I don’t entirely blame students who call themselves “engineer” prematurely. For one thing, it is not just that (like the other word “scientist”) this term can be used in a generic sense, but there is an underlying issue that is affecting higher education seemingly across the world. Instead of helping young people build more flexible and interdisciplinary foundations of knowledge and skills, nations are disinvesting in education and creating narrower tracks. Even as knowledge diversifies and the professions demand broader knowledge and skill sets, they are creating rather than alleviating financial pressures on those who want to build broader foundations. And the seemingly practical response to financial pressures is creating a belief system that makes students increasingly want to avoid foundational courses in language and communication, mathematics and statistics, creative and critical thinking. They try to be whatever they want to be from the get go.

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Republica Repost–Whither Education Policy?

Good private schools are being praised for the wrong reasons and the rest are selling snake oil.

During a recent conversation about education in Nepal here in New York City, a fairly informed fellow Nepali essentially argued that public schools are a thing of the past. So I asked him what percentage of students he believes goes to community schools in Nepal. He said 25 percent. The actual proportion is above 80 percent!

Among “city people” like that gentleman, the belief that “almost everyone’s children now go to private schools” seems widespread. And that is disturbing because such blurred vision or willful disregard of reality also underscores educational policies. While our educational experts and policymakers certainly know the statistics, they seem similarly insensitive to the vast majority of poor people around the country who can’t afford private schools. Even worse, the general premise for everyone’s strange attraction to “private” schools is that these schools are inherently superior. Good private schools are being praised for the wrong reasons and the rest are selling snake oil. And if that is the direction that we are headed as a nation, may the Lord Pashupatinath help us.

Read full article on Republica (Feb 16, 2016)

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Republica Repost–Knowledge Economy

No amount of money, my colleagues say, would motivate them as much as the desire to help the next generation catch up to the reality of our times

When he returned after the first day of teacher training, Gokul (pseudonym) told me proudly: “You see, I’ve earned my first fifty rupees today. And that’s all I am here for, young man, the allowances—for forty days of bhatta.” This was during the summer of 1993 and I was just beginning to dream of becoming a teacher. So I found it deeply offensive that someone entrusted to educate the community’s children would come all the way from a remote district to the regional teacher training center in the city, occupy a college student’s single-room apartment, and brag about his bhatta. This is challenge one, among many others, in Nepali education: monetary incentive has failed and nothing seems to improve professionalism among the vast majority of teachers.

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Republica Repost–Covering the Fields

Published in the Republica on 17th Nov, 2015

Students, parents and society need to take popular beliefs and assumptions about different fields of study with a grain of salt

covering the fieldsAmid yet another crisis at home, one issue that worries me is how the education of younger generations is being affected. I’ve written about privatization and phony ideas about quality education that are making it increasingly difficult for the children of the vast majority of poor people to become successful on the basis of their talent and hard work alone. Rising cost of education is one of those forces that lead parents and students to ask the wrong questions about what to study and what career to pursue. So as they pursue higher education in the fog of crisis after crisis, how are members of Nepal’s young generation choosing what to study, what career to pursue?

Full article on Republica (Nov 17, 2015)

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