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.
When I completed my MA in English from Tribhuvan University in 1999, I felt like I had studied old Sanskrit texts whose meaning I didn’t really understand. I was excited to have read English literature spanning centuries, literary criticism and theory from the Western world, and some linguistics. But I didn’t see any socially significant application of that knowledge. As a teacher, I summarized what the textbooks said; students understood and remembered it for the exam; a small number of them got their degrees (the majority failed); and most of those who passed went out to professions that had little to do with what they studied. Some came back to do what I did—repeat. Interestingly, those who passed the exams were hot cakes in the market: they went into diplomacy and business, non-profit organizations and journalism, and study abroad and policy-making. But what they learned seemed rarely applicable to any of those professions.
The MA in English has primarily been a status symbol. A vague but powerful aura of privilege fills the room when those who have this degree gather at fancy social events, but when we go out in the world, we are little more than language teachers—positions that, strangely, we were not educated for. A few scholars serve the society as public intellectuals, writing for and engaging the public on significant issues. The rest of us are like water lilies, floating around on attractive leaves and bearing nice flowers but rarely put practical use.
Many years later in the US, I sense an emergence of a worldview that goes to the other extreme: societies around the world increasingly demand that all of education have immediate, pragmatic, and materially beneficial application. While degrees in business, medicine, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math—or some variation of this fancy package) are touted as real education, the study of history and culture, society and politics, creative arts and communication are all viewed as secondary, inessential, distracting from the real mission of valuable education. The idea of using education as a means for building a broad intellectual foundation doesn’t appeal to many people—not just because they don’t see lucrative careers in these fields but also because they don’t recognize the unique and complementary importance of different disciplines and the value of interdisciplinary engagements.
Now, I am not about to arrive at the old cliché that the sciences and the arts need to complement each other, that they are incomplete in themselves. Instead, I argue that we must go beyond acknowledging that complementarity into deliberately designing and practically implementing curricular and pedagogical strategies to realize that goal. Especially at the university level, and especially in disciplines like language and literature, it is time that we situate the curriculum in the local/national context, the various professions into which our students go, and the challenges of a rapidly changing society and world. Otherwise, as the world changes, increasingly rapidly, more and more disciplines will look more like the priest’s tattered Sanskrit scripts than like living, growing bodies of knowledge.
If a balance is maintained, even the natural sciences can and should be built on the understanding that humans value memory, stories, myths, symbols, playfulness, art, creativity, imagination—not just instinctively but also out of necessity. It’s not enough for us to walk: we extend that into dance, and dance has no “practical” value, such as, well, walk. We dance because it fulfills a deep-seated human need. We’re not satisfied with talking: we sing, we create poetry. We extend everyday activity into drama. We develop visual communication into painting, shelter into architecture. We don’t just eat food, we also decorate it. We don’t just cover our bodies, we dress up. We design information for appeal, we create knowledge for fun, we learn to play. We don’t just develop social institutions, we create cultures. We just don’t live life—we ritualize, perform, enjoy. The impractical stretches the boundaries of the practical, enriches and gives it additional value and meaning that we cannot recognize if we only subscribe to short-sighted and materialistic worldviews.
However, if humanists insist on the purity or superiority of their knowledge and shun the need to establish pragmatic significance of it to life, society, and professions, it will be easier for the superficially practical-minded to throw the babies of its intellectual value out of the window along with the bathwater of their seeming social irrelevance.
And there is yet another danger of failing or hesitating to ask questions about social/practical significance of the soft disciplines: the majority of students have been failing in these fields because they don’t understand what they study and are not inspired by what they understand. While a few people at the top of the class got out with the gold medal and honor, the overwhelming majority have left the university in humiliation of being defined by low percentage scores—generation after generation.
The same problem has also led educators to inflate grades instead of improving teaching. It has prevented the development of pedagogies that value and enhance learners’ epistemological agency. It has stymied efforts to professionalize teaching and scholarship.
At the level of the classroom, one common excuse is that with the large class sizes that we usually have, it is impossible to engage students in practical activities, one-on-one support, primary research, and so on. This is a poor excuse because, in reality, we are enamored of the complexity, abstractness, and foreignness of curricular content. Like the priest and our parents, those of us who are in positions of power/privilege—those who have academic degrees, jobs, positions for creating academic curriculum and policy—don’t want to disrupt the barriers between theory and practice, abstract knowledge and practical application, complexity of ideas and the need to communicate them clearly. Our urge to treat content as king, to insist that quality means complexity, to let knowledge dominate the learner all serve to maintain the status quo. Abstraction, complexity, and obscurity are means of filtration and exclusion of others and privilege for us. Thus, even when social issues enter the classroom, we do not invite learners to participate as active creators of new knowledge.
In order to prevent education from embodying social hierarchies and intellectual barriers (instead of a means for breaking them down), we must start elevating the learner to the status of knowledge-maker. We must help them demystify knowledge and disrupt the dynamics of sanskritization.
What would poojas sound like if the priest’s books were translated into local languages? I bet they would still sound like poojas—but only if we have the courage to translate the texts in the first place.