Nepal, Personal Opinion, Secular Humanism

Emancipate the Enlightenment!

As I’m writing this, I’m very well aware that I should be going through my own little curriculum instead of this blog, but I have a habit of jotting down stuff instantaneously and, if I deem it’s worth it, sharing it with others. But this blog is not about me or my life, it’s about an obvious thought I had on which I really want to elaborate. It’s about higher education in this country in general.

There’s no point in regretting even the bad decisions you make in life since you can’t go back in time and right the wrong, but you definitely have a responsibility to redeem yourself or others from similar mistakes or misfortunes by trying not to put yourself in that sort of situation again, and by warning others at present or in the future. So this blog could be a useful insight for people who are, at present, in the same situation I used to be in the past. I have to say, with a heavy heart, that it was a grave mistake to have studied my undergraduate course in Nepal. However, I do think I have tried my best to compensate for the lack of diversity of ideas, absence of proper scholarly training and poor standards of scientific methodology in my medical college curricula, with amateurish self-education and a couple of online courses on research writing skills, thinking skills and professional skills albeit without any formal degree of any kind. None of which I got the opportunity to learn through my Alma mater nor through my university. Probably the most common demerit of studying in a private, non-autonomous medical school (does not include reputed public institutions).

But this blog is not just about medical education, but instead about the entire pattern of the local undergraduate system. I will also make an effort to question whether or not we should maintain technical disciplines such as medicine, engineering or law as undergraduate degrees. The blog is not meant to blame anyone directly, but instead to point out a serious problem in our education system here in Nepal (the scope of the blog focusing mainly on higher education and perhaps secondary, but not really primary education). However, we should with an open mind and honest self-reflection, be able to realize that all of us, perhaps myself included, are part of the problem.

Rigid System

If I see a fundamental flaw in our system of higher education, be it secondary, undergraduate or post-graduate, then it must be in the design and enforcement of restrictive and rigid curricula. Such is their pattern and strictness, that it is almost impossible to change subjects or streams midway through a course. Of course, I realize people will make the counter-argument of one having the responsibility to decide for themselves in due time. That makes sense, but it should also be realized that to be able to decide in that manner, students who are not really primed should have the right to receive a detailed orientation program providing an apt introduction into the system, before they have made their payment or admission. But they don’t get it.

I also realize that due to pragmatic difficulties in tackling the rampant bureaucracy, cronyism or nepotism or all at once, this arrangement may not be immediately feasible, but the troubling thing is, it looks like as if none of us are eager to solve the problem at all given the time many cohort of Nepali students have had to deal with such problems. Well, if this arrangement doesn’t fit within our system, then there should be an easier alternative, to be able to change the stream midway within the same university ecosystem. But that is not allowed without heavy consequences. Academic flexibility is simply non-existent. This, however, does not apply to technical disciplines such as medicine or engineering because since a lot of time and investment is required to train students, it would not be a viable or sustainable model if respective institutes came with a free abort switch every semester or so. But where such provisions do justice, there can be found none.

So students are stuck mostly in a rigid system of education, wherein a humanities student cannot major or minor with a science degree or a science student cannot minor in a philosophy degree (of which Nepali universities are seriously lacking in quantity and quality) and the like. As this does not apply to technical fields, such fields should be instead transcended up to the post-graduate tier. In short, to try and model them after the American system. Before addressing any rebuttals, I’d like to stress on an evident fact that high school or secondary school students are not fully capable to directly transition into a technical field without proper orientation or without undergoing the intellectual maturity-inducing buffer of undergraduate degrees. There is thus a reason why higher education in the United States of America is still the most sought after option for students globally. One general reason is that most of their universities are autonomous and allow students to discover themselves within a vast pool of career options. Another general reason is that despite the vast pool, they always have the flexible option of selecting add-on, alternate or double majors or minors, limited perhaps only by the individual’s capacity. And since they get an enormous amount of practical, theoretical and social exposure during their undergraduate years, only the surest of them will opt for the essential yet difficult technical fields as graduate studies.

Critics of this idea may dismiss it as a far-fetched and an overtly idealistic one, but if you look carefully into the history of education in the United States, they too had most vital technical education as under-graduate degrees as late into the 1980s. It was after a paradigm shifting legislation that most technical disciplines got raised into graduate-levels, allowing students time to be sure of their academic prowess during their undergraduate years. We don’t necessarily have to copy the Americans exactly. If you look at other western countries such as the United Kingdom, despite having technical disciplines included as undergraduate level degrees, prefer at least a year of internship, experience or related training and a well-guided, informed orientation before enrollment through a standardized exam. I guess that time lag provides a minimum buffer for students before painstakingly mugging up for entrance exams only to be abruptly thrown into an inescapable well of professional responsibilities.

I’m in no way saying students out here are incapable of pursuing technical studies right after secondary school. But I guess, having experienced the unfair pressure and also the irrational feeling of race to get a degree, a little bit of buffer of any kind would be more than welcome. Of course there are pretty competitive students who despite being of young age achieve any feat other international students achieve, or maybe even better. But these are outliers, and when talking about improving a system as a whole, we need to look at where the average lies. Sadly, our average is even below just ‘disappointing’ to be honest.

Mushrooming Privatization

To add to our misery, in spite of this country declaring itself a socialist-welfare democracy in the constitution, the exponential mushrooming privatization of educational institutes could probably make even the red-state libertarian capitalists in the US jealous. As we all know, decades of political instability, and lack of stable regulations allowed this nightmare to project as reality. As you walk the streets of any big city or town in Nepal, you’ll definitely come to see at least 4 poorly established, cramped up, two-storied private schools every block or so. Going further, the story of colleges are similar, just only slightly regulated as the economic incentive is relatively higher. Moving on, even a pep talk about the frequency of private medical colleges or engineering colleges in the nation is enough to elicit a big, synchronous, nation-wide face-palm.

A university is supposed to be a self-sufficient, autonomous institute dedicated solely for the purpose of furthering scholarship and broad academic progress to help the society it exists in. But despite founders of the two largest universities in the country having that vision, their visionary goals definitely did fall victim to agendas carried by sycophants and crony bureaucrats, for us to today witness a disgusting trend of capitalization of an essential sector. Universities here prefer to hand out profitable affiliations wearing thick blindfolds without regard for any standard. Private medical schools, to be specific, screen students through, mostly but not always, poorly regulated entrance exams. That too, taken actually by their affiliated university and not they themselves. And there’s no trickle of standardization at all. One year the pattern is A and another year it’s like B and the subsequent year maybe even a Z! No wonder why Dr. Govinda KC keeps up his hunger strikes for more than 20 days each time. Entrance exams have no systematic curricula, people who make questions aren’t always taken fully in confidence liable to become leakers, and the question-makers depend almost entirely on Indian question-banks, without having to waste any intellectual effort to rigorously design a scientific or standardized pool of questions. An easy way out. Similar is the case for all private engineering colleges as well. And despite all this, they expect professional standards to rise (perhaps miraculously by way of some unseen entity).

Education in Nepal is heavily influenced by the Indian system. Rote learning, point-blanc in-your-face questions that test memory more than concept, and an ever increasing race-for-life fostered by a paucity of academic space amidst an ever-growing population rate. To be fair to India, institutes there are already starting to up their standards and loosen the pressure on students due to popular and intellectual demand across many places. But our institutes show no sign of budging from the ridiculously regressive, plagiarized standards of education that go completely against human nature itself!

I honestly do not have a pragmatic solution in mind for solving this. I guess perhaps people with better experience and knowledge than myself have even more workable solutions. I am just pointing out a problem from the point of view of a dissatisfied graduate who claims to have learnt more through foreign textbooks, curricula and the internet than I should have from the local curriculum or system. To tell you a story, as we were interns, demanding a raise in our stipend as per university guidelines, we were lambasted and lampooned by the authority quite literally as “immature children going against their guardians” (I never knew we had to pay a large sum of money to get such dishonest and insecure guardians). Despite giving us the raise, the college greatly cheated us with regard to rooms for interns saying ‘internship is not for resting’. Provision of rooms for interns remains, however, till this day, strongly etched in university guidelines for private medical education. A room that pops into existence every time the university inspection arrive and disappears right after they leave. And no one ever went further to ask for the room ever, because private colleges here actually have the tyrannical ability to hold individual students as academic hostages. For instance, if you open your mouth too much, your degree can be held back or your letter of recommendation not issued, conjuring up with some obscure and bureaucratic clauses for not doing so. It’s basically career suicide to voice against your college administration. Such is the reality, as I can write now as a safely emancipated graduate.

Anti-intellectual Hierarchy

What may have happened to the world of philosophy if Socrates had never questioned the way of his teacher and his elders? Where would we be with the practice of blood-letting and operating without anesthesia had someone not doubted on their efficacy at one point in history? What would have become of this country had we not thrown out the Rana regime out of dissent? We would perhaps still be wearing long pointy masks to treat a global Bubonic plague with bear-bile and perhaps be taking our sick to the shamans to treat infections. Or perhaps be prosecuting dalits for spoiling the village well as per the first Muluki Ain set by Janga Bahadur Rana. Humans have come a long way from obsolete practices because people could doubt and improve on their doubts thereafter. As an old latin proverb goes: Where there is doubt, there is freedom.

But the trend we have in our education system, is that of a masochistic submission to the sacred ‘Guru’. Especially prevalent in medical education, if not in others. An anti-intellectual hierarchy that tries to suppress doubt and dissent from their juniors. To be fair to some inspirational tutors who really are dedicated towards encouraging openness and academic dialogue, I’ll say that you people fall in the minority and this isn’t about you lot. The pervasive mentality is still that of a hierarchy of age or professional graduation. ‘Thou shalt not go against the professor’ is the common save-your-asses trend. Or even the nonsensical ‘call your immediate seniors dai or didi’ or the anti-humanistic tradition of “Ragging” (Formal bullying of freshmen by seniors). Because if the professor or the senior has a problem with you, it’s highly likely that you’ll have a problem socializing or even passing. Academic dissent can easily turn into a sequence of personal vendetta and thus professional or academic sabotage, from which there may not be any redemption. One reason why students self-suppress themselves even in the face of inaccurate or outdated information. Ask anyone who has gone through an archaic testing pattern known as Viva-Voce in medicine. If you question the teacher or the examiner, you’ll hurt their ego so keep quiet instead and mug up their notes for some bloody marks or points!

To be a little optimistic, this trend is dwindling, thanks to the advent of broad band internet and an increasing awareness in part of the teachers as well as recently graduated students who became teachers themselves. But it’s not surprising to see students joyful whenever they find a good and welcoming teacher, because those still are rare. It’s this mentality that must be upgraded for us all to better our system. Students should never be held academic hostage for dissent or difference of opinion. How else is anyone supposed to broaden their mind and think outside the box? There’s a reason why freedom of speech and expression is vital in educational institutes, it’s to foster legitimate dissent without the fear of prosecution, formal or informal. A virtue which Nepali students almost certainly are deprived of in their institutions.

Race for the Holy Grail

Spoilers ahead! By the holy grail, I actually mean academic degrees. That’s all that matters to a majority of parents, students, teachers and institutes. We are, in this tiny country, in a serious race for some academic degree and to earn money faster than our neighbors or cousins. A superficial counter-scholarly trend that is prevalent in this part of the world. Knowledge, professional training or skills should be the desired means as well as the end of any academic of educational institute or student. Out here, paper certificates, many times liable to be counterfeit, are treated as the only important end. Degrees, though they seem important, are but just means to make a get some academic recognition and to earn a living. The end should, rightly always be, the knowledge and expertise one gets through the process of education.

Such is the provision out here, that students can even obtain a degree (however poor their academic or professional prowess might be) simply by passing a black and white exam that only screens for their ability to recall volatile memories. Concepts and practical skills are rarely well-tested. Now of course, as I’ve pointed out earlier, there are outliers who can excel in the same system as much as the outliers at other end who constantly fail and never get anywhere. Again I’d like to stress on the fact that it’s the average we should be after, not the outliers. Any body or group of people genuinely interested to improve the standards of graduates of any discipline, technical or others, should always strive towards improving the average. But that doesn’t happen here, at least not according to my experience and knowledge. It’s a culture reflected by acts such as schools displaying the names of their best 10 students on hoarding boards outside their premises, who have gotten good marks in a certain board exam. Much like one of those cheap click-bait advertisements we see on the internet for Viagra.

Colleges, campuses and private medical schools all exist, annoyingly fostering this dystopian mentality. Instead of improving the average, their focus is too often just on the outliers for the sole purpose of advertisement, possibly to pull in more students. The blame can partly be put on the society as well. These profit houses disguised as professional institutes, are mere stamp pads bearing the emblem of the university’s degree. Their fodder actually comes from the society’s priority of superficial taglines over the more important pulp of education: The real-world application of their knowledge. The major incentive is solely profit and nothing more, with certain exceptions of course, but very little. The people who run such institutes perhaps have no sense of responsibility towards the nation or the society at all. They can be justifiably called factory houses that package students with respective degrees, which occasionally hand out the best employee or best package award to keep the money flowing. A massive disgrace to scholarship indeed.

Hope

I repeat, I do not claim to have a solution at hand at the moment. I’m just a mere blogger highlighting what I saw to be wrong and disturbing. From the beginning of the history of scholarship, from the time of the first universities and schools established in the first civilizations, it is well known that the quality of any society is an indirect but proportional reflection of the quality of their education or scholarship. As a matter of fact, we can grossly estimate where our nation stands at the moment.

I really want to be optimistic on this regard though. Despite my harsh criticism, I do need to point out that this country has made significant strides in the sector of education as a whole, considering the nascent history of democracy and a sluggish yet emerging free market. Bureaucracy is not as pervasive as it used to be during the Panchayat era and it is being easier for citizens to access government services as per growing popular demand. Corruption and nepotism is being scrutinized, and efforts at improvement are being made by related individuals and groups in related sectors. The first actual federal government hasn’t even worked for a year and federalism hasn’t had an actual chance to test itself. Foreign graduates and expats are returning and there’s an ever growing entrepreneurial spirit reflected by the the emergence of new startups and them turning later into successful businesses. These are hopeful aspects of this nation. But never really enough to be content. Not yet.

Despite the visible glitter, attitude towards scholars, intellectuals and professionals are still not impressive though. Those who do opt to stay in Nepal to further their fields are seen with contempt, many even labeling them as elitists or non-relatable privileged class. Opinions of experts are not given more importance in policy making than those of a less educated but powerful politician. Celebrity worship is on the rise, but intellectuals and scholars are looked down upon with the stereotype of talkers and slackers (more than often, rightly so). It’s simply a paradox of dissatisfaction. All hope may not be lost, but anyone concerned should seriously need to contemplate on this grave matter.

If we supposedly need to start from any one point in the long and tedious process of bettering our society, then definitely top priority should be given to education and scholarship. Do we wish to stay in the dark and keep blaming our politicians for eternity, or do we wish to better our society by recognizing, respecting and emancipating our potency for enlightenment?

3 thoughts on “Emancipate the Enlightenment!”

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