Published in The Republica on Nov 16, 2016.
As I observed my six- and eight-year-old children improve their Nepali at an astonishing speed while my family was in Nepal last summer, I wondered why forcing young people to speak in English “only” for their entire school lives in the past few decades hasn’t made them speak the language very fluently.
Perhaps it was the need to reciprocate their grandmothers’ absolute love, perhaps the right input of child-talk from the two little playmates downstairs, or perhaps the constant attention and praise from family members who found their accent cute. Whatever it was, I kept thinking about the thousands of English-failing students who pass all other subjects in SLC, English medium schools and colleges that sell myths to poor parents, and all the science and math teachers across the country who shouldn’t have to teach in a foreign language that they aren’t fluent in. I kept thinking about why no research, no reasoning seem to undermine the mythologies (and lies) about English in Nepalese education. Let me debunk the major ones, using current research.
The English ONLY Myth
To communicate effectively in an increasingly globalized world, we must understand others through the lens of “context” rather than “culture.”
“I am a Chinese citizen but I don’t have very high expectation of this place,” said a young man, as I joined a line outside the Chinese Consulate in New York City last Friday. Many people in line—most of whom were there to apply for a visa, like me—seemed tense, with some vocally complaining. “I hate this,” said another, without specifying what it was that he hated. The line was moving forward fairly quickly and the weather was pleasant. Continue reading
The belief that you need to be a “good writer” to write effectively is a myth that has insalubrious consequences
In place of a society where “writers” were a few creative and educated people who did all the writing for the rest of us, we now have a society where everyone constantly writes. And yet, many myths about writers and writing prevail. The first of those myths is that good writing requires good writers. As someone who pursued two post-graduate degrees in “writing studies,” let me share the bad news: Good writers are a myth. Good news: You don’t need to be a “good writer” to write well.
In the same way “literacy” means much more than being able to read printed words, “writing” has far transcended the mere act of translating ideas into words and sentences on the page (or screen). Within a vast range of means, modes, and functions that it encompasses, writing now includes the personal, social and professional act of using script to get things done. The other older meaning of writing, creative expression, like the more mechanical form, has also become marginal in the big picture. That is, most of us have to write “effectively” for given contexts and purposes, instead of generally “well.”
For millions of people around the world – or perhaps several billions — education means understanding and/or memorizing ideas in different subjects and demonstrating that knowledge or memory on paper. From school systems all over South Asia to stringent testing regimes in China and South Korea to increasingly standardized testing methods that characterize more areas and levels of education in the Western world, formal education is still not aligned well with needs and uses of knowledge outside school. Perhaps the most striking case in this regard, you guessed it, is our own country Nepal. However, instead of rehashing this old, rather tired theme about traditional education, let me describe what kind of education learners need in order to thrive in the knowledge economy. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
“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). Continue reading
When I said that I am from Nepal, a taxi driver in a Midwest US city quickly responded: “Oh, man, ALL the homes are destroyed in your home country. I am so sorry. Is your family okay?” I asked why he emphasized the word “all,” and it turned out that he wasn’t exaggerating: the reality was that he had only seen collapsed houses in the media!
Especially in capitalistic societies, media today typically show the public a view of the world that “sells” best, and that tends to be a world seen through a straw, based on “stories,” usually advancing oversimplified views of people and issues in the world. We could call those easy-to-sell but often problematic narratives “strawries.” Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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. Continue reading