The order of educationThe SLC is but the culmination of 10 years of the same system, one designed to churn out students who are little more than automatons
Every year, the commencement of the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examinations prompts a flurry of opinions on education and the particularly incongruous model that Nepal had adopted. A few months later, when the results are published, to no one’s surprise, a significant majority has duly failed. Last year’s pass percentage was 47.43 percent, up from 43.92 the year before. These numbers are dismal, a fact not lost on the host of commentators. And this is the SLC, a woefully ill-designed end-of-year assessment that has little room for creativity and fosters rote repetition and regurgitation, but which still manages to exert disproportionate influence over the lives and careers of students. The SLC is but the culmination of 10 years of the same system, one designed to churn out students who are little more than automatons. It is no wonder that our schools, public and private alike, refer to their alumni as ‘products’.
The heart of the problem is not so much in the inane intricacies of the system, but rather in our very approach to education. Most Nepalis, parents, teachers and students all, still seem to see education as a means to an end, rather than valuing education in itself. This blinkered approach is what sets the tone for education, where all involved tend to see learning as a chore, something that must be suffered through if only to acquire a piece of paper that ‘certifies’ the learning undergone. Thus, the factory assembly line method of production that defines the Nepali education project.
This state of affairs has largely come about because of a host of factors but we must begin laying blame from the very top. During a conversation long ago, the brilliant Kedar Bhakta Mathema, former Tribhuvan University vice-chancellor, lamented just how little priority the Ministry of Education gets among politicians during their perennial sharing of the spoils of government. In the past, no one seemed to want the education portfolio, not least because it provided little room to line one’s pockets but also because it was seen as a less ‘prestigious’ ministry, compared to say Home or Foreign Affairs. Mathema seemed astounded that so few desired a ministry that pretty much allows an ambitious minister to mould the orientation of an entire generation of Nepalis. Of course, this has changed somewhat in recent times, but for all the wrong reasons. It is not that Nepali politicians have realised the value of education and by extension the education portfolio, but rather, there has been a lucrative boom in schools teaching medicine.
But we can excuse our politicians—we didn’t expect much from them anyway. This apathy towards education has trickled down to all rungs of society. Parents labour under the misconception that the more expensive a school, the better its education.
Teachers assume going ‘off-book’ on long winded personal tangents makes for interesting teaching. Students, prodded along by their parents and teachers, subscribe to a strict hierarchy in subjects, where the tough sciences and maths come at the very top, followed often by English, with anything related to the arts and creativity coming dead last. In fact, schools tend to go out of their way to discourage creativity, sometimes even punishing it. Any deviation from the standard ‘acceptable’ answer is marked wrong, and harshly.
This marked privileging of the hard sciences and mathematics (‘technical’ subjects) is not a negative per se. What is wrong is the manner in which these subjects are taught, along with the belittling of everything else. The way the sciences are taught in schools is dead boring, forcing memorisation of data that is easily available today at one’s fingertips. It makes little sense to learn something by heart when the larger thrust of what is being taught remains unlearned. There is too much focus on ‘information’ rather than idea and application, which is where creativity comes in. The sciences are fascinating in all their intricacy but the manner in which they are taught at Nepali schools leaves most with a bitter taste.
All of this is common knowledge, of course. To say that our educational regime teaches little except the cramming of random facts would be to state the obvious. But despite this assertion, there is little effort to change the status quo. Students who score highly on the SLC are still celebrated and garlanded as heroes, despite knowing just how fraught the exams are with problems. Perhaps it is a celebration of the perseverance of these kids to have been able to cynically manipulate the system to come out on top. I have known students who built near-eidetic memories and extravagant mnemonic devices, all to cram every single word from their textbooks into their brains, as is.
Learning should be its own reward, and in younger years, when the SLC is far away, it is. You learn for the sake of learning, but with grades nine and ten, the iron gate casts too large and black of a shadow. Our system thus fosters narrow individuals for whom learning happens in schools and nowhere else. But education is not something that stops when you graduate; it is a life-long endeavour. The way our current system is set-up, it encourages complacency in knowledge—that what you know, if you know everything that is in the books, is enough and will always be enough. This paradigm follows students out of high school and into college and university. This is why I have encountered so many psychology majors who still quote Freud without irony and so many English majors whose diction is stuck in the 1950s. There is little room for evolution, even though knowledge is never static.
Someone famous once said that the whole point of education is to turn mirrors into windows. Mirrors are only able to show you a static image, of you as you are. There’s no telling what lies outside of windows, the horizons are endless. True education is the kind that opens up opportunities to pursue knowledge, that arms you with the tools required to never stop questioning. When it comes to knowledge, it is not the end goal that is important but the process. As Socrates would have it, the pursuit of knowledge is the only good life. After all, the unexamined life is not worth living.