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
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.
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.
While attending a talk on campus (at Stony Brook University) this afternoon, given by Elana Sohamy, an Israeli scholar, I had a moment of despair.
The title of her talk today was “multilingual testing” and the backdrop of her presentation was the monolingual regime of language testing and its effects on multilingual language users across the world.
As teachers of language and writing/communication, we keep saying in theory that language learners take 3-5 or even 9-11 years to be fluent and accurate in a new language, depending on where and how they learn. But in practice, we continue to resort, very quickly and thoughtlessly, to the logic of pragmatism, of institutional policy, of the need to make sure that our multilingual students can perform in English. Continue reading
Sitting down to write this post on diversity and ELT, I remember a story that scholar David Foster Wallace tells in a famous college graduation speech. Two younger fish ask an older one: “What the hell is water?” The point of the story is that “…the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
The point I want to make in this post is that while we are a nation of very diverse peoples, cultures, languages, and so on, we have to pinch ourselves to remember that we are diverse. I argue that as educators, it is worth pinching ourselves and our students—intellectually, that is—into realizing the value of diversity as a broader goal of education, especially in a country like ours and an interconnected world like today’s.