Mirror, Mirror — [Republica Repost]

[Negative Self Image]

In a basic writing course I teach here in New York, I assign an essay that requires students to describe and compare two different education systems or cultures. For some reason, most international students compare the worst aspects of education back home with the best features here. Chinese students describe theirs as outdated, based on rote learning, and unable to prepare global citizens for today’s world. Indian students write about how much they hated lectures, exams, and the pressure that their parents put on them. Smart students from over the world somehow pick rotten oranges from one side and compare them with fresh apples from another! They somehow interpret “compare” in my essay prompt as “show one side as superior.”

I am often reminded of the faulty arguments made by those otherwise talented students when I read opinion pieces in national newspapers, social media conversations, and discussions in professional forums in and about Nepal. In the attempt to be modern, globalized, educated, and ahead of the curve, many among us assume that our local institutions and value systems are automatically inferior to those of more “advanced” societies (which we seem to also assume are “universal”). Whether it is gender role or social justice, educational practices or popular culture, good governance or science and technology, we tend to describe or assume that our society, institutions, and traditions are entirely backward. 

Social critiques based on realities or value systems of very different societies somewhere else can be harmful. They are problematic because they disregard material conditions, cultural values, and complex social forces that have historically shaped the local system or issue. The image they create of a society could be not only incomplete and unfair but also invalid.

Negative self-image can certainly be a reflection of the current social condition. For instance, prevalence of hierarchy in our social sphere is indeed bad. But it still matters where we are getting the criteria of measurement to determine what a problem is and how serious it is. How relevant and valid are value systems of the societies we’re borrowing ideas from to describe and assess our situation? Perhaps we should pay more attention to improving things using our own ideals. Let us consider a few specific issues.

Ours is not a very individualistic society, so we may seem to have no regard for individual freedom and privacy and confidentiality; we may seem to have a solid system of disrespect. We seem to keep our children from pursuing their dreams, to treat our students without dignity. Love may sound like just another name for domination and subservience in any relation. But things look bad that when we pick the worst examples, when we are willing to disregard material realities, when we compare to judge, not to understand.

Seemingly universal ideals are often ideals of dominant nations and cultures—some based more on general human aspirations and perception of “ideal” than others. This is why we find it difficult to use words and ideas about family relationship or marital status from another society. Think about our children suddenly starting to drop the many terms like mama/maiju in favor of uncle/aunt. Or try to translate “I have been married for ten years” into Nepali. When I first came to the US, I used to make blunders with English words whose meanings I thought I clearly knew. But I couldn’t say that children and students need to be “afraid” of their parents and teachers; nor could I say that I was “troubling” a friend by asking a favor; forget implying that my wife just made a “stupid” mistake (I got into trouble for this, but not with my wife, because she knew exactly what I meant!).

The ideas and words we use to describe them embody social realities that may only be bad if we think so. The terms and ideas are usually based on deep-seated cultural and religious values, intertwined with intricate socioeconomic structures. For example, we feel responsible to take care of our parents because we don’t have a social safety net for “senior citizens.” Our parents tried to stop us from being too mobile, which we knew was to prevent a longstanding social fabric from falling apart (and now it has). There were babies in both those old bathtubs: economic sense, family bonds, more extended and stronger relations. Those value systems were born out of, but outlast, specific social needs and conditions. Often, even when we realize that they need to change with time, we want to preserve them. So, we should assess locally contingent value systems in local terms as well.

Back to my international students. I require them to rewrite their essay drafts by a) better studying the features of education on both sides, b) describing the two sides without creating good/bad oppositions, c) trying to show how the same feature may be both beneficial and problematic, and d) explaining the underlying social conditions and (possible) rationales of educational practices on both sides. Interestingly, when I provide these simple guidelines, most of them greatly improve their writing. For example, a Chinese student who had written that he “hated memorizing” updated his paper to say that he could also see memorization as beneficial: he said that, for instance, he could use it as a powerful tool to help him meet the new demand of “responding to” texts. An Indian student said that he does appreciate his parents’ pressure because it came from love and concern: “I don’t think I would have finished high school without it.” When students go beyond simplistic binary oppositions, they see that all systems and cultures have their own strengths and weaknesses, often packaged together.

Our ideas about respect, our norms about equity, even our understanding about progress may need to be updated. We certainly can and should emulate and adapt new ideas and values from other societies. We may also be becoming more “global” in the sense of adopting ideas that are more broadly accepted in the world. Similarly, general principles such as human dignity, need for self-realization, freedom of speech, and so on are universal: their application will and should be shaped by local realities.

We certainly shouldn’t allow local realities to distort or diminish our social ambition to be a just, fair, and progressive society. But the foundation and the application of justice, fairness, and progress can be our own. And it goes without saying that we also need to look at positive aspects of our society and culture, to build on the strengths of our traditions, to improve rather than discard where we can.

The moment we stop “assuming” that certain value systems (whether local or global) are always superior, we begin to see where and how our own local systems are also meaningful (as well as problematic) in their own ways.

Published in Republica on Dec 27, 2014


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