Freedom of Speech The title of an article in an American newspaper reads: “Last Week French Officials Stood Up for Offensive Speech. This Week They’re Arresting People for It.” The understandably complicated response of French government to the terrorist attack in Paris last month is an interesting case from which we can learn how seemingly universal principles and values—such as the “freedom of speech” in this case—are actually contingent on specific cultures and complex sociopolitical issues.
I came home from school one day to find my father and uncle Padam sitting beside the beautifully decorated Tulasi platform in the front yard that my mother, sister, and I had built the day before.
Uncle Padam [speaking to my dad]: Brother, you have such great artistic skills, you know. Look how beautiful that muth is!
Daddy: [smiles and continues to smoke]
Me: No, uncle, dad didn’t build that. Mom did, and sister and I helped her decorate it.
Uncle: Hey, phuchche [little kid], don’t be a janne [knower]. Go to play.
Published in the Republica on Nov 20, 2014
Around fifteen years ago, “pharsi” started becoming “farsi” in the mouths of many Nepalis, particularly in the cities. Replacing the Nepali “ph” with the English “f” may sound more “modern,” but it is not only linguistically absurd, it can also be a symptom of an insidious social problem that I want to discuss in this article.
The process of borrowing, mixing, and developing new sounds, words, meanings, and perspectives are natural to any language (though it is sped up by globalization more than ever before). However, the attempts to “leave behind” what is natural and integral to a local language—and by implication, to thought processes, art forms, and knowledge-making—can also be counterproductive. Such attempts can signal a lack of confidence in the foundations of local languages, cultures, and epistemologies—and thereby a failure to productively exploit the resources provided by these systems. Languages and communication can be gradually impoverished, art forms stymied, and knowledge-making stuck between disappeared richness of the local and half-explored potentials of the non-local.
Read full article on Republica (Nov 20, 2014)
[Beyond Identity Politics]
When growing up in Manipur in India, I knew Nepal as a distant land that was all our own, a nation of Nepalis, or, rather, “not India,” which was a place where the Nepali immigrants were treated by many people with insult that bordered abuse. Nepali kids were bullied at school as outsiders; families were regularly burglarized by masked men who often turned out to be neighbors (and the police didn’t care); and anyone who needed to cross state lines had to carry “movement certificates”. Because of such experiences Nepal was our romanticized homeland.
But when I eventually returned to Nepal, while the society was generally nice to my kind of families, I quickly found out that it was not for many others. People didn’t have to be “foreigners” to be marginalized. The national identity based on the ideals and ideas of the mainstream, the privileged, felt frustrating. I started recognizing the paradox of my father expressing his Nepali identity back in India by chanting mantras in Sanskrit: there was not much Nepali about those texts written in ancient India, but the dominant group where my family belonged had adopted the Hindu, caste-based, and class-shaped “Nepali” identity and taken it to India. read full post…
First article of my column/series published in the Republica on June 21, 2014.
I now teach at a prestigious university within the largest and one of the best American public university systems, the State University of New York.
But twenty-four years ago, when I first appeared the SLC, I failed.
Now, I am not about to tell you a wonderful story. Sorry, there are more stories of suicide than of success in this regard. I am instead telling my story, for the first time beyond my family, in order to make a very broad point about the SLC exam and our society.
The precise reason I failed the exam was that I went to a public school in ninth and tenth grades. I passed the exam after I went to a private school for a year and retook it. Again, before any advocates of private schools start licking their lips, let me make something very clear. In the big picture of education system where I failed—even though it was in the Indian state of Manipur where there was a similar testing system as in Nepal—the private school that helped me pass the exam was NOT a solution of a problem. The emerging phenomenon of private schools was, or it was becoming as it also is in Nepal, a manifestation of an insidious social crisis. Let me explain. read full post…
English is an important world language, and we all know that if we can make our children proficient in it by the end of high school, they’re more likely to enjoy greater professional success in the future. However, the idea that we should teach “all” subjects at “all” levels in English in order to make them proficient in this language is just an absurd belief that we’ve come to embrace and promote as a society, a belief that comes out of a combination of ignorance, snobbery, and dishonesty. In fact, this absurdity is further sustained by an even uglier, more dangerous assumption that using English as a medium of instruction will automatically improve the quality of education.
As I will argue in this essay, it is extremely important that we garner the moral courage as a society and start confronting the above myths. Acknowledging their absurdity can help private schools provide better education than they do today. Facing the reality can help community schools not have to put on the same funny hat in order to claim that they too can dance well (instead of improving the educational dance itself). And starting to correct our misunderstanding will help us as a society to finally focus on real and complex challenges against quality education. read full post…
I’m not sure if this is a new phenomenon, but the word “technology” automatically refers to the “latest” technologies, and among them one or two things. In our time, it’s computers and the internet. Similarly, the one or two “latest” technologies—whatever their uses and benefits to society—are also associated with progress, efficiency, productivity and a lot of other positive things.
Now, if assumptions like the above didn’t significantly impact major social institutions, we could ignore them. Unfortunately, the tunnel vision created by those beliefs adversely affects people and societies. When people don’t think critically about the latest technology, they not only devalue anything that is no more fashionable, they also overlook any limitations, side effects, and false beliefs about dominant technology. Let us look at the effects of these phenomena in education.
The phrase “politics of language” is all too familiar, even saturated in our society. But let me situate it in the educational context where the “political” part is rarely acknowledged. All the way from primary school (when children bring home joy when they speak in English words and sentences!) to the university (where even the national language, Nepali, is getting displaced by an all-powerful global language), language carries power. That power extends to the professions, and to society and culture as a whole. So, when someone says, for instance, that Nepali language is a shared language among all Nepali citizens, that is as much a statement of interest and ideology as it is of a fact. Or when someone says that learning English increases your opportunity in the professions, that’s not only a statement of fact (at least to a considerable extent) but also an act of embracing an ideology.
Learning a more common, more powerful language often increases one’s professional opportunities. So, for instance, good English language skills will help you go abroad for study or work, to adapt and succeed, and to be more of a global citizen. But when you choose the above examples and offer the above reasoning, you are also presenting/accepting a vision of the world where success is defined by going abroad, by speaking a dominant world language, and so on.
[Negative Self Image]
In a basic writing course I teach here in New York, I assign an essay that requires students to describe and compare two different education systems or cultures. For some reason, most international students compare the worst aspects of education back home with the best features here. Chinese students describe theirs as outdated, based on rote learning, and unable to prepare global citizens for today’s world. Indian students write about how much they hated lectures, exams, and the pressure that their parents put on them. Smart students from over the world somehow pick rotten oranges from one side and compare them with fresh apples from another! They somehow interpret “compare” in my essay prompt as “show one side as superior.”
I am often reminded of the faulty arguments made by those otherwise talented students when I read opinion pieces in national newspapers, social media conversations, and discussions in professional forums in and about Nepal. In the attempt to be modern, globalized, educated, and ahead of the curve, many among us assume that our local institutions and value systems are automatically inferior to those of more “advanced” societies (which we seem to also assume are “universal”). Whether it is gender role or social justice, educational practices or popular culture, good governance or science and technology, we tend to describe or assume that our society, institutions, and traditions are entirely backward. read full post…
[United, we win] —Higher education reform
It was early 2006 when members of the Maoist party in the city had just started coming out—though it also seemed that many were simply claiming association with the party because incentives were high and risks small. I was a lecturer at the Central Department of English in Kirtipur, and I had been happily doing what I was supposed to do: teach students, help them with their research and writing, and have conversations about teaching and learning with colleagues. One day, out of the blue, two of my students started using loud voices and harsh words, accusing me of being “against students”. They had heard that I had objected to an institutional practice of increasing students’ final marks rather than maintain the grading policy. These two gentlemen had not only been highly respectful toward me, they had also been particularly friendly. So I was shocked that they would go to the extent of warning me not to go to the university, or else. Nothing bad happened, and a few months later, I left for further studies in the US. read full post…