Nepal and its wealth of knowledgeIntellectuals need to understand their role in privileging specific forms of knowledge while ignoring, silencing or suppressing others.
Nepal’s place in the contemporary global knowledge society is ambivalent. On the one hand, Nepal is absent from most rankings measuring academic excellence at the institutional level. On the other, Nepal ‘sends out’ large numbers of aspiring students abroad (with some of them returning). Nepal has also sent out several successful academics—i.e., Nepalis who have succeeded in becoming professors in the USA, UK, Japan, and perhaps elsewhere as well. The country also hosts many excellent privately run schools and institutions. Moreover, Nepal is incredibly rich in different forms of knowledge that currently do not count in the global race over prestige, power and wealth. These forms of knowledge either persist in the shadow of ‘modern’ educational aspirations or are under threat of suppression or oblivion.
The outbound flow of students to international destinations reflects the enhanced aspiration to join the global mainstream, linking the urge for higher education with the quest for a good life. What’s more the tremendous educational exodus—whether from rural or remote areas or from Nepal to destinations outside the country in general—indicates a perceived dearth at home of what is needed to achieve educational success.
Lacking educational opportunities, whether at the local or national scale, render Nepal’s pupils and students extremely mobile: the youth need to commute for secondary education over long distances on an everyday basis. Secondary and higher education draw large numbers of rural youth to urban centres within the country. Migration to towns is largely driven by the need to get a higher quality of education for one’s children.
Modern education became the domain of those disposing of—in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms—economic, social, cultural and symbolic capital (the latter especially important in the context of the caste hierarchy), and significantly buttressed the societal status quo. Until today, in most of the highly esteemed educational institutions, especially in the tertiary sector, the teaching/academic staff consists of high-caste men. It took a long time before women, members of ethnic groups as well as members of the so-called low castes were able to attend schools, let alone universities. Also, learning institutions are not barrier-free. When it comes to religious difference, the state privileged Hindu learning institutions above those established by other faith communities. Moreover, important languages such as Newar, Tibetan, or those spoken in the Tarai, were until recently forbidden in educational institutions and other public domains. Elite secondary schools do little to (better) acquaint their pupils with languages other than Nepali. Even though primary and secondary education is supposed to be free in Nepal, buying books and clothes, and freeing the family’s workforce for education can be cumbersome for rural households.
The recent rapid expansion of education, as well as the modernisation of Nepal’s knowledge and technology, has been closely linked to the modernist ethos of ‘development’—the dominant conceptual framework in Nepal evolving since the 1950s. A common narrative is: ‘Nepal needs to mobilise forces to put societal dynamics in motion’—a process for which certain kinds of experts are needed. But we must not forget that ‘expert knowledge’ is usually thought to be ‘out of touch’ with ‘ordinary people’. Indeed, it has much more legitimacy vis-à-vis everyday knowledge. This is particularly pertinent in agricultural techniques as well as in the field of environmental measures. Thus, the primacy of specific forms of knowledge has been invoked, forms that are technical, rational and future-oriented.
The dynamics of Nepal's strive towards becoming a ‘knowledge region’ are an expression of the spread of a ‘world culture’, influenced by neoliberal dictates that have continued to be the dominant discourse over the last decades. The corpus of knowledge, the modes of its communication, and its organisation largely and increasingly follow and uphold global patterns. These continue to be dominated by western canons as well as western forms of organisation in science and technology. A number of research and education institutions in Nepal engage in the global race for prestige, power and wealth, succumbing to global audit cultures and comparisons. These practices overshadow Nepal’s wealth in other forms of knowledge and are partly responsible for the pronounced disparities in knowledge distribution, legitimacy, relevance, and the ‘silencing’ of marginalised forms of knowledge. The emancipatory potential of alternative knowledge production in this process is not sufficiently recognised.
Given the great diversity, the historical depth and wealth of knowledge traditions, it is crucial to reflect on how bodies of knowledge are produced in persons and populations in the context of social relations. This observation prompts us to pose certain questions: What are the forms of knowledge considered to be relevant for being Nepali? What are the tacit ways of knowing and knowledge transmission that are carried out in everyday human actions? How do Nepali actors seek to actively influence their society and culture, taking into account conscious and reflexive dealings with knowledge?
Above all, we need to grasp the manifold entanglements of different forms of knowledge: first, time and again, local or indigenous knowledge (knowledge of plants, environmental knowledge, agricultural techniques) was used and then suppressed within modern knowledge systems. Second: the production of modern knowledge and educational excellence is always enabled by exchange with different forms of knowing—in particular with different forms of practical and caring knowledge provided especially by mothers, sisters, daughters, craftsmen, agriculturalists, and servants. These entanglements come along with asymmetries due to the very differential value attributed to these different forms of knowledge.
The tension between Nepal’s marginality and excellence in the fields of knowledge production and dissemination draws our attention to striking inequalities persisting in the realm of knowledge. Whether in the field of modern education, of development, or environmental protection, different actors with their differing knowledge reservoirs come together, even if in unequal social positions, and try to put their learning to use. We need to pay more attention to the co-production of knowledge and give more value to knowledge reservoirs that are not academic and that appear ‘nonmodern’.
Those engaged in elevated academic positions, as well as activists and public intellectuals, need to understand their role in privileging specific forms of knowledge while ignoring, silencing or suppressing others. The very pronounced inequalities in Nepali society are also partly the effect of our hierarchising between different forms of knowledge. Is our understanding of ‘valid knowledge’ not in need of a revaluation, given the substantial impact of everyday, local and indigenous knowledge on Nepal’s well-being? Migration scholars, Peggy Levitt and Maurice Crul, recently asked: ‘How can we create a better world if we are not clear about the premises behind the knowledge that we have about the world and how it is produced? We need to look carefully at what is silenced and what is said out loud; at what is obscured, hiding in plain sight, or given [a] central stage.’ These thoughts are pertinent for grasping the contemporary situation of knowledge production and circulation in Nepal.
This text has been excerpted from The Mahesh Chandra Regmi Lecture 2019 delivered by her on 23 July 2019 in Kathmandu.
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