Beyond Beating Dead Horses

From Frustration to Actions on Language Policy and Quality of Education for All

Shyam Sharma

Shyam Sharma

A couple of days ago, while I was video-chatting from here in New York with a cousin in Nawalparasi, the conversation turned to education. This thirty some year-old brother said he had discontinued education since we met a decade ago, gone to the Middle East to make money, returned home to start a wholesale store (which wasn’t doing well), and wasn’t sure what else to do. He didn’t have the desire to return to college: he didn’t see any point in pursuing higher education. “Higher education, especially if you can’t go to super-expensive private colleges, doesn’t lead to opportunity in this country,” he said. “Not anymore.” I did not know how to respond as he went on to generalize. As a fairly successful “product” of public education, I found the education part of the conversation depressing (in spite of all the joy of connecting and chatting with him about many other topics).

In rhetoric and writing courses, I teach students that effective communication depends on analysis/understanding of context, audience, medium, and purpose (CAMP). When my cousin gave me a mini lecture on education, I thought about my context (distantly chatting with a relative after a long time), audience (someone whom I didn’t want to disagree with, given his experience), medium (a video chat where the quick back-and-forth of an informal conversation didn’t facilitate deeper engagement), and purpose (it made no sense to try to challenge him on the subject of education in general). What he said was probably true for him, and it was probably true for other people in his situation or mindset. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how I as a scholar could have communicated better about education. I certainly wasn’t effective (unless giving up was an effective thing to do) and I also thought that people like me aren’t good at engaging members of the public about complex issues about education.

When I hung up and I returned to writing this post, I couldn’t help drawing analogies. Knowing what I know about the context, audience, medium, and purpose of this writing, I couldn’t find much enthusiasm to write it. I am writing in a context where many people like me have written about multilingualism as an asset, about the lack of language policy in the country, and about the dangers of monolingual instruction in the name of “quality” education. The audience, which will include mostly scholars/teachers of language and ELT, many of whom have also written many times about fundamental realities regarding language and language policy. The medium of a blog and this particular venue didn’t look like the best way to achieve my purpose (or, rather, desire) of making any impact in how the public and policy makers think about multilingualism and language policy in education.

Regardless of what a few scholars/teachers say, private schools are going to continue to sell English language (a medium) in the name of “quality education” (the objective). The Ministry of Education will remain being the dog that the mythical tails about English will continue to wag. And, even more depressing, even scholars of language will continue to repeat superficial nonsense about English. Just scroll through Facebook and you will find our most informed scholars repeating the platitude that English is “the world language”; don’t tell them that more Nepalis need Hindi and Arabic to find opportunities in the world beyond our borders. Go to fancy conferences and nobody will show exactly how teaching in English somehow magically improves education; don’t ask those who are making grand arguments with all the grand assumptions if they have research evidence since some British guy did a study in the 1980s (surprise, surprise, he found that because there weren’t enough teachers who could use English fluently, it was hurting learning). Don’t ask our scholars why they still don’t oppose English “only” as the medium of instruction in private schools, why they don’t talk about education at large, why they conflate the currently terrible situation of public education with the inevitability of public education as an approach to educating the public in a country like ours.

Like it was pointless to challenge my cousin about the value of higher education (he had figured it all out, for himself and for everyone), it also seemed to make little sense to write one more time about changing course, formulating new policies, rethinking dominant assumptions . . . regarding language teaching, language policy, and multilingualism. More broadly, I thought about how unfashionable it seems for Nepali scholars to defend and seek to improve public education, and that made me almost give up and say sorry to the editor whom I had promised a blog post for this issue.

So, what’s the point of beating the same old dead horses?

Then it dawned upon me that I was looking at the situation only through a pessimistic lens. I was failing or refusing to look at more positive things. By focusing on persisting problems, I was unable to recognize more promising developments in society. Maybe I could redirect my energies if I want to contribute more than I now do? Urging a similar shift in perspective for us as a group of language educators and public intellectuals, I would like to share some thoughts. I think that we should reframe our conversation after nearly a decade (on this forum) of focusing on realities and challenges about multilingualism and language policy in Nepal. What can those of us who are not at home contribute best—how can we better partner with colleagues on the ground? How can those of us on the ground affect policy and public opinion even better? As we strive to keep the conversation alive, what new directions could we take?

First, while we may be concerned about persisting mythologies of monolingualism and the absence of well-informed language policy, let us also recognize positive developments. People are more conscious today about the dangers of monolingualism, especially those of suppressing minority languages, than before the democratic revolution. Nothing may have happened in terms of government policy or even seriousness among scholars who could reshape language policy, but it seems to me that the questions and debates are out there in the mainstream today. Building on whatever progress we see, let us keep working to emphasize them. Let us keep calling out intellectual laziness, pointing out logical flaws, and acknowledging complex thinking about language policy. Let us continue the conversation, writing in venues that reach larger and larger audiences. Let us network with people in positions with policy or even political impact. We owe it to society to inform them—far beyond just complaining about them.

Second, let us work with the private sector to improve quality of education, to implement common sense language policy, and to use the leverage of their resource or willpower toward affecting public education as well. For example, there are a lot of private schools whose administrators and teachers are willing to invite public school teachers and administrators into training and conversations. There is a lot of goodwill (as well as desire to market brands) in the private sector. Many educators who are in the private sector also work in the public sector; many of them came from public education and they have a deep sense of loyalty and responsibility to protect and improve access to quality education regardless of financial ability of their fellow citizens, now and in the future. Many of us attack the villains in the private sector—or, rather, we see villains and ignore the average, hardworking educators and education leaders in them. This is a problem I need to overcome a little more myself :). I think we must partner a lot more than we already do with private schools, contribute our expertise, engage their leaders, and listen to them more carefully.

“We must partner a lot more than we already do with private schools, contribute our expertise, engage their leaders, and listen to them more carefully.”


Third, we should do our best to help the society stop blaming the victims—which we can start by directing our own energies from attacking the villains to appreciating those who do it right—in the public sector. For example, a lot of well-meaning intellectuals working in education (as well as people working in different professions) are angry with public school teachers for engaging in politics, for being lazy and dishonest, for their irresponsibility and unprofessional attitude. The problem with focusing our energies on what is wrong is that we may end up aggravating the problems while doing nothing toward solving them. What if we look at public school teachers as the victims and products of a certain social and political condition? What if we can contribute toward shifting their energies from politics to professional development? In some of the professional development webinar series that I did with a regional public university, I have felt very strongly that we were able to greatly encourage professors who wanted to stay away from politics and leverage the power of knowledge and change that they could affect through teacher training and professional networking. One of the most politically aggressive teachers came on board and emphasized how eager he is now to join the professional development initiatives.

Fourth, let us shift attention from discourse to practice. Of course, we should not create or reinforce false dichotomies between theory/discourse and practice: we are in a profession where talk is our trade. We talk to teach students, to train teachers, to engage the public, and to build and expand professional networks. But we should think more clearly about the outcome of our talking and writing: do we want teachers to go to class with a different mindset about language, administrators to change the current language policy, institutions to listen to us more because we speak to them? How can we develop training programs, modules, materials, and teams that can shift the focus from outdated views about language and multilingualism to practices that will empower students from different linguistic backgrounds? We can turn conversations on social media into series of webinars that involve educators and academic administrators in conversations about policy and practice.

“We can turn conversations on social media into series of webinars that involve educators and academic administrators in conversations about policy and practice.”


 

Fifth, let us reach beyond the city. Technology now allows us to expand the reach of our conversation, networking, training, and resource-sharing. I remember my cousin telling me: “If you don’t want to forget your brother, you don’t have to anymore”—telling me that he was speaking to me from a nearby petroleum pump where there was wifi. It is important, however, to be patient and realistic—both about technology and about what we want to achieve. It takes time and willingness to change our own perspective (and gain patience) when working with people in new contexts. Last year, when I landed in a small town in western Nepal after having run a yearlong webinar series on how to integrate writing across the curriculum (a series that later shifted focus into “how to implement the semester system), I was shocked to find out how bad wifi and data bandwidth were on the ground. While I was working online for nearly a year, I had only seen the few determined colleagues on the ground who must have done everything possible to find or create a fairly good connection before they talked to me: I had assumed that the same kind of connection must be available for most people. As I sat on one particular flight of stairs of a hotel in Surkhet where wifi worked—in total darkness, attacked by a thousand mosquitoes, after midnight when the connection got better—to try to answer any important emails from my university in New York, I was humbled to the point of tears. At that time, I was not as angry at the mosquitoes as I was with myself, when I remembered saying, “For future meetings, let us make sure in advance that we have good connection so that our conversation is uninterrupted.” It turns out that my colleagues would prepare for good connection but no amount of “preparation” would guarantee good wifi. These days, I am much more patient when someone isn’t there, when technology doesn’t work, when new participants need to be brought up to speed, and so on. If we keep expanding our conversation and our commitment and patience for it, we will be able to look back with pride in ten more years—both regarding language policy work and regarding the quality and impact of education at large.

Finally, let us not be afraid or shy to speak our minds. We have seen a lot of negativity against scholars who tried to share their ideas, even when they didn’t challenge established power structures. I don’t know where all the leg-pullers have gone, but we have seen those who continued to share knowledge thrive and grow and make bigger and bigger impacts on society. If you have ideas and energy, come join the conversation here; contribute to other venues if your ideas better fit there; comment and like and repost and having fun learning and sharing ideas on various blogs and other social media. We must invest more of our energies for maximum impact, and one of the ways of doing that is to keep writing and connecting and supporting others. Since we started this humble venue in 2009, I have observed how many contributors and facilitators of this forum have realized their potentials—especially by contributing to the potentials and progress of others.

Let us keep giving back to the profession, the society, and the world! Thank you for reading this post, and hopefully for writing (more) for Choutari in the future.