Sunday, May 29, 2011

Future of Learning in the Himalayas

Patan Durbar, Nepal

“That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.”

- Entry for ‘Education’ from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary.

Tibetan intellectuals are passionate about promoting education. Practically every person in the Himalayan world that has managed to receive a higher level of education is guaranteed to be concerned with the educational possibilities of people back home. I’ve seen this to be true so many times both inside Tibet and in neighboring countries with Tibetan populations. Inside Tibet, especially, they are bound to support schools taught in Tibetan-language medium, or at least those offering classes at suitable levels of Tibetan literacy. Until a few years ago a large number of Tibetan parents, including Party cadres in Lhasa, were willing to risk sending their children over the Himalayas to Dharamsala, to the Tibetan Children's Village in particular, as their only hope for the children receiving an education with real Tibetan content. The alternative? Culturally alienated Sinified children. These days not only is it more and more strongly forbidden to send the children to Dharamsala, it has also become much more difficult and dangerous with the increasingly strict border controls. Now it is all the more vital that Tibetan medium education be promoted in Tibet. And moves by the PRC authorities in recent years have been going in very discouraging directions.

In Nepal, at large, education is a huge concern. I remember 20 years ago they used to say that the number of Nepalese  unable to read stood at 70%. Now I understand it’s more like 50%, which seems to me like a woefully inadequate improvement, especially given the requirement of reading for most reasonably good occupations available in the early 21st century. Still poor after all these years, this gradually developing democracy has been preoccupied for the last decade with a Maoist insurgency. Now they, the Maoists, have been brought into the government, and if for this reason only there would be hope of more positive developments. Still, the fighting against them took so much energy and resources away from much-needed infrastructural improvements that these days Nepal can only produce half as much electricity as it needs (explaining those daily hours of “load shedding”),* and public education is so abominable that nobody wants their children to waste their time with it. Part of the problem with education in Nepal is just that so many parents are too poor to allow their children to spend much if any time on it. Their earning power, although small, is more important. Child labor can still be seen everywhere these days, especially in the metalworking shops. Forbidding child labor won’t help much to get at the root of the complex of problems. Education would seem to come much closer.**
(*By way of contrast, nearby Bhutan has plenty of extra hydroelectric power, and makes much profit diverting the excess to the Indian grid. The dams and generators were, I believe, largely built with Indian financing.  **Don’t be too surprised if I say that education can also be a source of certain kinds problems. For example: It’s well known that successful rural education programs promote migration to urban areas leading to increased unemployment, housing problems...)
I’m still trying to remember ever once meeting a learned Ladakhi who didn’t have a hand in building or managing one or more schools. I haven’t been in Ladakh myself, although I’ve visited neighboring valleys just south of it. I haven’t been to Bhutan, either. Of course I’d love to go. Who wouldn’t?

So this is what I have in mind. I’ve found out about two schools, one in Nepal and one in Ladakh, both of them intent on instilling Buddhist values, both run by intelligent, idealistic and trustworthy people, and both much in need of help. Actually, the Ladakhi school, which I haven’t seen, appears to be in much sadder shape financially than the one I visited in Kathmandu.* Its classes are taught mainly in Ladakhi-Tibetan (there are classes in Hindi, Urdu and English), while the Kathmandu school, like very many private schools there, is taught in English medium. If you also feel the concern and see the need to act, I’d like to ask you to conspire with me, not only with the idea to help them out financially if possible, but also to visit the schools and try to find out more about their conditions and needs and then, of course, to spread the news to a few other people so that more can get done.
(*Both schools already have well established physical buildings and have been in existence for some decades by now.)
All you have to do is send a comment in the comment box below. I won’t publish your comment (I screen comments... they never go up automatically). But if you will send me an email contact, I will write back with the details of what I know about one or both schools and we will form an informal email group that will share information and ideas about how we can help these children in a more private way, without any fanfare and without a penny wasted on overhead or administration (I won’t be handling anyone’s money for them). I’d especially like to hear from you if you are planning to travel to Ladakh or Nepal in the near future. Helping is important, but it’s also important to do it in a smart way.

§  §  §

An open door at Oxford?

If you are interested in supporting an organization that builds new schools in the Himalayan region (meaning primarily eastern Tibet and Nepal), I’m particularly impressed by what Karuna-Shechen has been doing, especially their support for Bamboo Schools in Nepal (read this story). Of course there are other school support organizations at work.

I recommend this page at Cultural Survival website.

Catriona Bass has written up some solid research on the state[s] of education inside Tibet during the late 20th century. If you are seriously interested in the topic, try her book Education in Tibet: Policy and Practice since 1950, TIN and Zed Books (London 1998).

For some insight into the state of Nepalese educational institutions, both public and private, look here.

People sometimes succeed by chance,
yet no one would think of them as wise.
When the worm is finished with its meal,
if letters appear it's still no scribe.

ma dpyad pa las don grub pa //
byung yang mdzangs par su zhig brtsi //
srin bu dag gis zos pa'i rjes //
yi ger byung yang yig mkhan min //  


Sa-skya Legs-bshad, ch. 3, v. 27


  1. If a group of Ladakhi families would put me up in my own quite room, with simple meals every day, and my responsibility was to teach English and culture in the mornings and be some sort of advisor for the village - I'd leave everything here and do it.

    Whats holding me back is opportunities and visas. I don't know what's out there, but I know I'd have to drag myself through endless bureaucracy to get it and keep it. That's why I'm still here - for the routine.

  2. TZ, From the sound of it you'd probably be wise to push yourself out of that routine you speak about. I've been doing some of that this year, and it sure has been good most of the time.

    Thanks to those people who wrote with their email addresses. I'll send out the first group email in a couple of weeks. Remind me if I don't.


  3. The following URL connects to an especially underdeveloped children's school in Ladakh, one associated with Matho Monastery.

    Matho (Ma-spro) Monastery, founded in the 15th century, is said to be the only monastery in Ladakh that belongs to the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism.


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