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.

 

Boarding the Illusory Train

Uttam Gaulee

Uttam Gaulee

When I had a brief stint as principal of a private school in Nepal circa 2008-2009, I had to deal with two frustrating parents representing two contrasting groups that created financial hardship for the school to run. One group represented the canny and the other naive. Mr. Chatur (pseudonym) represented the canny group, the smart well-to-do parents who didn’t pay fees and Ms. Saralmati (pseudonym) represented the naïve, poor parents.

Mr. Chatur was a businessman. He ran a retail-cum-wholesale store not too far from the school. He sold school supplies including uniform, shoes, belts, etc. to our students. Being one of the parents and due to proximity to school, he had an advantage to win business from the school community. We also recommended his store for parents to buy uniforms for consistency of color shades, etc. My problem with this otherwise fine gentleman was that he never paid the tuition for his sons. Clever as he was, he took advantage of an existing provision of a flawed school policy of tuition waiver for the top-performing students. Both of his sons topped the class every year and Mr. Chatur claimed the waiver for them. It would not be wise to do away with this merit benefit because all other schools also adopted it. My disappointment with this businessman grew when I heard that he hired a personal teacher to teach his two sons. Business minded as he was, in the wrong way, I would add, he figured out that hiring a personal teacher for a couple of hours a day was in fact more cost-effective for him than paying full tuition for his two children. This way, he was saving tuition money. Obviously, he was rich enough to pay the full tuition for his kids. Irony.  

One day, I talked to him and asked him to consider donating something to the school after congratulating him for both of his sons’ excellent academic performance. I indicated to him that we needed some lab equipment for school. He said okay for many times, but he never donated anything. Finally, after months of my requests, he showed up with a cheap plastic wall-clock. His annoying business-sense was visible in the advertisement of his business printed within the dial of the clock that he wanted us to hang on the school’s most prominent wall. I was sad but I laughed at my own success as a fundraiser.

Ms. Saralmati represented the naive group. She was the guardian to her grandson Raju (pseudonym). Her son worked in a Gulf country and her daughter-in-law (Raju’s mother) had married a different man so Raju was technically an orphan under the elderly woman’s care. Ms. Saralmati had no money, and Raju was an average student. At one point, his tuition had not been paid for 18 months. The number of parents not paying their kids’ tuition was significant and was steadily increasing. They would just send their children to the English Medium School because this was in itself prestigious in the community. This prestige issue coupled with the demonstration effect of a conservative society was so deep that it defied rationality in terms of the parents’ ability to pay. Such parents were a great problem because due to their delinquency in paying fees, teachers often had to wait for months to receive their already meager salary, the only reward of their hard work. As school principal, my desire was to recommend raise for teachers’ salary.  

At one point, teachers decided to prevent students with fees due from sitting for the final exam, a decision that I came to learn after I took the position of the Principal. Notices had been sent to parents in advance stipulating that any students with tuition due would not be allowed into the examination hall. When the examination day arrived, a number of parents led  by Ms. Saralmati, along with their respective kids, lined up to my office door. When I reached school, Ms. Saralmati caught me at the feet and started begging and imploring that her grandson be let into the exam hall. “Please, Sir! Don’t end my grandson’s education today. My son is in the Gulf. He will send money one day and I will pay you! I have nothing to offer right now!” I was moved and torn apart from the story of her financial hardship, which was real. But if I let her child in, I would lose the trust of the teachers. I called these parents into my office to talk.

My conversation with the parents

I knew that the conflict was hitting both sides so I tried to direct it towards a productive end. I explained to Ms. Saralmati and those parents that I was bound by the rules of the school and the trust of the teachers and so was not able to allow their children to the examination hall that day. But I assured them that I could arrange to have a separate examination the following week so that their kids’ education is not jeopardized. As they felt better, I asked them one by one what happened and why they were not able to pay tuition for their kids. Each of them had a unique story of financial hardship but the interestingly resounding promise was that they would pay later somehow. Their record of long delays has a more serious story behind. They were financially unable to pay the tuition in the reasonable future.

“Why don’t you consider sending your kids to public school?” I asked the blunt question in as polite a way as I could be while pretending as if I was just curious. Everyone went silent. I knew it was a hard question. But since Ms. Saralmati had already been vocal, she disclosed the reason.

“Sir, we know that the public school is free but as everyone says, the free education has no value in it.”

“But it is not free in that way,” I tried to explain. “It is free for you because the expenses of the school are paid for by the government.”

“Oh really? So does it actually have value then? Would my naati get a job by going to iskul [public school]” Ms. Saralmati asked, while other parents listened heartily. All nonplussed.

“Yes, it does. I was educated in a iskul myself!” I explained.

“But there were no Boardings [English medium schools] when you went to iskul, were there?” asked a cynical parent.

“That’s right, but there are still good reasons to send your children to the public school. First of all, your kids will feel better and more confident in public schools because they will know that they don’t owe money to school. Secondly, as I explained to you, the government is spending a lot of money on public schools. Thirdly, they also teach English once a day!”

I showed them the calculation how we spent Rs. 11,255 per student from what we get from the parents while the government spent Rs. 13,359 [estimated]. They started looking at each other when I put my principal hat back on and reminded them not to forget to pay the tuition dues.

Looking Forward I offer this story to the intellectual community asking all of us to think what this says about our education and society. How does this relate to ELT and what should language teachers take away from it? Benefits of multilingualism and the mythology of English medium’s equivalency to quality education has been discussed before in Choutari

This is one of the consequences of that mythology, a consequence that impacts parents severely, that destroys private schools (which tend to be seen more as villains than as victims), and demoralizes students across the country. Also, when I reflect on my own brief tenure of principalship, I now understand what made me so uncomfortable that I quit the job in less than six months. The system in place was and is still, aggravating socio-economic inequality and injustice. I will write in next blog what I think could potentially solve a principal’s plight of having to hate Mr. Chaturs and avoid poor grandmas. Until then, please let me know what you think.

The author: Uttam Gaulee is a doctoral candidate at the institute of higher education, University of Florida in the USA.