One week in Nepal and I can’t help but think of words like inequity, justice, and literacy. As Murari mentioned to me at lunch today, there is a new caste system coming to Nepal. I wonder if the country can survive it.
We spent the better part of today at Little Angels School, a sprawling private campus of 60 students, grades K-10+2. That is, while most high school (secondary) students complete their diplomas by grade 10, those who push into college will complete two more years and then join the university students. The new university building for Little Angels will be open in two months.
Thirty years ago there may have been one or two private schools in Nepal; now there are more than 900. Public schools, to hear the LAS principal describe them, are poorly-taught, have high drop-out rates, and have no organization. In other words, the elite at LAS (scoring 99.72% success rates on their final exams) are the best and brightest of Nepal.
“Do you keep track of where they go after they leave your school?” I asked. The vice-principal told me that about 40% leave the country.
I’ve been wondering about literacy here, from the young middle school student who told me she wished to study in Delhi to the one outside the pashmina factory who—wrapped in a grimy tunic—would never hope to see a school. I’ve been wondering about opportunities and to whom they are offered. I’m wondering about a country which carries some of the deepest spiritual wisdom but practices some of the poorest policies around it.
Certainly in Kathmandu education often provokes a desire to escape. The odorous caste system works powerfully, despite its being banned in the ‘50s. Corruption and party politics seem chaotic at best, and poverty dominates much of the life of these three million people.
The yogi at the Vishnu School Thursday reminded us that knowledge is holy, that once one develops a character of selfless service, then they must follow the path of wisdom, which ultimately allows them to follow the path of unconditional love. Knowledge and learning are good, but if wisdom is not changed to love, it creates isolation. More, those without wisdom are limited—they produce conflict, violence, war. </p<
Now I’m not so simple as to believe that schools create wisdom, but I do know that education—literacy—produces questions. Paulo Freire tells us that the best education simply means offering people a literacy of liberation, providing the vocabulary for the concepts they feel. Once this is done, literacy not only elevates, it allows people a voice to speak about what little they have.
Is literacy in Nepal a “fantasy” key for escape? Is it a tool for exclusion? (The families at LAS pay about $20/month for their students to attend even though they may make as little as $30 per month—we are told there are scholarships for the gifted.) Is literacy a useless application when the graduating students find that there are few practical places to apply it? (Vocational training is low here, but a diploma or degree is a sign of social status, not a guarantor of appropriate career placement.) Is it a policy sieve through which the best students leave Nepal in a brain-drain effect (just as those without education may leave for Middle East oil jobs in a muscle-drain effect)? Is education here in any way an internal fulfillment regardless of its practical use?
There are only so many resources the country can extend. Only so many jobs. Only so much clean water, electricity, and even roads. The Nepalese are told this now: they accept or resign themselves to it, I’m not sure which. Many of my fellow teachers here are impressed with the spark and spirit of the Nepalese, and I do not argue it. But I’m also anxious that such a spark, provoked by literacy (in the privileged) or its hope (amongst the rest), will create a demand for more. It has created a demand for more.
What does a compromise around such questions which literacy raises look like? Will freedom of expression be limited? Will indigenous peoples be denied after they’ve read the UN Declaration of their rights? Will satellite TV’s promises of suburban lawns and two-car garages be rejected? Vin Diesel is dubbed in Nepali here, and one little girl at LAS is obsessed with High School Musical. The newspapers advertise PlayStations.
Some will acquire these, certainly, those who are literate and politically or economically connected. For the rest, they will begin to ask questions. These may be spawned by a bit of schooling so long as a young person can afford it or they may be provoked by a twist of Western media via a cybercafé, television report, or billboard.
Tomorrow we leave for Pokhara to meet our partner-teachers in the private schools. I can’t explain how excited I am to meet these students, hungry and earnest for more. I know they will empower me. I will give them everything I can in the short time I will be with them. But what of all those who will not reach the school?
As I told the group tonight, I’m not convinced how much longer the internal and spiritual disciplines of these fascinating people will endure the wait, this expectation for learning. LAS advertises that “Wisdom is divine,” and I would agree. But as Western media and modernization erode spiritual values here, new questions of justice and equality are about to begin in earnest.
And it’s exciting.