Out of Context — [Republica Repost]

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.

I will share the not-so-mysterious reason behind the challenge later, but here is why I wanted to start this essay with that incident. A lot of times, educational practices, intellectual discourses, and popular culture in our society seem to follow ideas and debates from more dominant societies/countries where the context is very different. Quite often, those ideas are no longer even relevant in their original contexts. Ironically, this tendency is more common among the more educated!

Take the context of education. Too much of the content that we force our students to cram for the exam has little to do with the life and society and profession that they live in or will navigate in the future. Too few of the skills and competencies that we teach them are designed to meet the challenges of local life and culture, business and profession. Our ministry of education is currently “solving” the crisis in public schools by making them compete with private schools that have successfully sold the truly stupid idea that English medium is the metric of educational quality.

We all know that our boarding schools that are good at educating our children would be even better if they could let students and teachers use whichever language works best in context. It would be far better if they could instead invest their resources on learning and teaching effectively (except perhaps in teaching English itself—although I should add here that when I was an English teacher in private schools, I used to speak in Nepali quite liberally in class, and I was a pretty effective teacher). So, why are our public schools (and our ministry of education) so eager to commit suicide in English? To borrow a fitting phrase from a certain TV character, kill me if I understand that.

Even more blatant cases are seen in the economic sphere. Take this place called KFC in our cities. My family lived in Kentucky for six years, or the place where the fried chicken is not really famous! We tried this flour-coated repulsive food (which tastes like chicken skin from the outside and poorly boiled something inside) once or twice, then started laughing about it. In Kathmandu, people seem to waste thousands of rupees on a small bucket of hormone-fed chicken from Brazil, not at all tasty like our own local produce, apparently to show that they can. We used to be a society that was quick to spot this kind of consumerist madness, but the decreasing lack of confidence in our own food and taste seems to make us very uncritical. While the choice of food itself here is merely a case in point, the larger social, cultural, and intellectual issues that the economic behavior epitomizes are tremendously significant.

Perhaps the worst manifestations of the phenomenon are seen in the area of popular culture. Take for example this funny little tradition that seems to be emerging: men use their Facebook walls to wish spouses happy marriage anniversary. They mean wedding anniversary—but never mind! These nice husbands tell their partners how many years have passed by (usually, it is one) and what great supporters and comforters their wives have been. It makes more sense when the couple has been married for ten, twenty, or thirty years; also, the idea of celebrating milestones together seems wonderful in itself. The problem begins, however, when the English phrase “have been married for x years” fails to translate into Nepali (not so much the language itself but its meaning in the local context/reality of the institution of marriage).

To begin with, we only have one word (bihe) for the two concepts: wedding (to be combined) and marriage (to be together). But since divorce is rare, the idea of emphasizing “being married”—and indeed that of “being together” and “supporting each other”—becomes an awkward platitude, at least from a public point of view. In fact, the awkward part in it may be why I haven’t seen even my European or American friends posting similar updates. I want to sincerely congratulate my Nepali friends for making another milestone but I never do so because it could sound sarcastic. For this tradition to make sense, we would first need to see a significant increase in divorce; by the way, we would do our sisters and daughters, many of whom have to tolerate awful men throughout their lives, a huge favor if our society accepted divorce better than it does now. So, in a context where the concept of “marriage” as a process doesn’t translate well, the idea of counting milestones sounds odd. Things like this make us mimic men who do things that make no sense but still think it is cool.

There are better ways to adopt ideas and practices from other societies: by adapting them, using them as means to achieve real and significant ends in our lives and society. We need more intellectually savvy approaches to letting concepts and cultures from globally dominant societies reshape our local values and practices. We need to stop putting the cart of potentially good ideas in front of reality on the ground.

I was reminded of my students who made brilliant but outdated arguments because I find a lot of our new traditions, cultures, and conversations similarly outdated and odd in our context. The reason behind the problem with my students’ research and writing, as I realized later, was that I had only assigned news and articles from until the end of 2013, and they had found similarly outdated sources to build their reviews and discussions. When I went to class the next day, I apologized for my mistake and asked students to review more recent discourse on their topics. The revised drafts were far better.

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