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.
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)
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.
At a dinner conversation among a few scientists and scholars from Nepal a few years ago, our host, a medical scientist, shared a whole host of “scientific” evidence about how the knowledge of the East has “always” been highly advanced and “superior” to that of modern science.
Yes, the East (though the term is old-fashioned and controversial) is a gold mine of intellectual traditions and resources. But its most visible proponents today harm more than help when it comes to doing justice to that heritage.
And, yes, there is a lot of value in the knowledge—embodied in and transmitted through folk science and philosophical wisdom since ancient times—which the East has produced. I would even go so far as to say that the South Asian region was probably one of the richest in terms of generating its own natural science as well as other bodies of knowledge. The Ayurveda (life+science) is a good example of how some medical knowledge of the time was eventually recorded and passed on in writing. Continue reading
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.
Full article here (Jan 4, 2015)
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. Continue reading