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
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. Continue reading
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.