Imagine this. Some higher secondary school graduates from Kathmandu are in the US for further studies. During the orientation session, this is how they introduce themselves. One says, “I am a graduate from Pentagon College.” The second adds, “I was educated in the White House.” “I studied in Texas College,” the third chimes in. The others around will perhaps just stare in disbelief.
Also imagine young Nepalis having to explain to their western colleagues that educational institutions in Nepal name themselves after major American states and cities, world famous western universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard without taking affiliation from them, football clubs as well as American personalities and presidents. That there is a government body to dis/approve of such names but it does not really care. Perhaps Nepali students in the western world have not had to undergo such embarrassing moments thus far—perhaps due to non-intrusive and individualist western mores.
But since 1992, when the concept of ten-plus-two or plus-two schools (which are also wrongly called colleges) was provisioned through National Education Commission, adopting foreign names, sometimes even inane ones, have become a kind of cult in the private education industry. So we have Texas, Florida, Liverpool, Chelsea, South-western State, and White House, all in Nepal. However, since the beginning of this month, the phenomenon has come under attack.
Nepal Students’ Union, the sister organization of Nepali Congress, pulled down hoarding boards of plus two schools with foreign names besides smearing black soot on them on July 7. Among others, ‘Liverpool’, ‘Columbus’ and ‘Florida’ were their first targets. Now, perhaps because of the pressure from the mother party or fierce resistance from the institutions, NSU seems to have stopped this movement. But taking a cue from NSU, Mohan Baidya-aligned student union, ANNISU(R), is on a rampage of sorts, vandalizing educational institutions with foreign names.
On Wednesday, they ransacked the Southwestern State College and set fire to a school vehicle of Rato Bangala School (which, by the way, has absolutely no ‘foreign’ element in its name). However, as amusing and illogical as the culture of such names of schools/colleges may be, such vendetta as demonstrated by NSU and ANNISU(R) against these institutions is superficial, misguided, ill-timed and undemocratic.
Student unions have cited the cause of nationalism and national pride behind their violent spree. But this is far from convincing. Not all foreign-named educational institutions are under attack. There are scores of other institutions with foreign names apart from the ones mentioned above, which have been thankfully spared. This shows that these unions are targeting only those institutions that are not generous enough in doling out donations to them. As one of the commentators in this daily said, they are “bent on blackmailing private schools to raise funds.”
Another reason why this supposedly ‘back-to-native-name campaign’ has received flak is that it is being carried out by students’ unions that have questionable credibility, especially with regard to their relations with Kathmandu’s private schools. For private educational institutions, student unions (whichever party they may be associated with) are much like bullies. Union members enter schools unannounced and demand hefty donations. They speak in an intimidating manner and threaten ‘action’ against the board of directors if they refuse to comply with their demands. (Disclosure: this scribe had been at the receiving end of such occurrences when he served as a coordinator in a private plus-two school a couple of years ago). Apart from this, student unions are trying to achieve mission impossible with their latest campaign. If we really are to return to native names, we will have to permanently do away with more than 90 percent of private schools and colleges in Nepal, which is nearly impossible.
Be that as it may, ‘back-to-native-name’ campaign comes at a time when the nation is debating and deconstructing the notion of Nepaliness and Nepali identity. We are at a point when what is national to me could be anti-national for you and vice-versa. Unless the debate on redefining Nepali identity finds a political and social landing, it will be naïve to force established educational institutions to adopt ‘native names’. The call for ‘native-ness’ is, thus, ill-timed.
All this is not to absolve private education institutions of their excesses and modus operandi. There are rots within their systems too. They are expensive, they misuse parents’ hard-earned money for cheap and misleading advertisements, and they underpay teachers. In terms of output, they are producing meek, politically disinterested young adults who tend to find faults in everything in Nepal and appreciate everything foreign.
However, even though such foreign names can be considered to be objectionable and un-Nepali, unions cannot put the blame on schools alone. Private plus-two schools made their way into education sector in 1992 and mushroomed thereafter. It is important to note that from 1992 to 2002, Nepali politics was largely monopolized by Nepali Congress. And for the past five years, politics has been revolving around the Maoist party. So instead of venting their rage at schools, NSU and ANNISU (R) should seek explanations from their own leaderships and the authorities that gave licenses to these institutions.
The problem is not with the name, but with the mindset. The urban middle class thinks that to place their wards in an institution with a typically Nepali name, say for example Guheshwari College or Saraswati Vidhyashram, is an insult to their hard-earned ‘middle class status.’ They need English sounding names, no matter how ridiculous they may be, for their wards to maintain their ‘status’. And tapping into this desire of their clients, college founders come up with catchy western names. Make no mistakes. Private education institutions are not charity organizations, they are business organizations. And they will obviously produce only that which sells.
As amusing and illogical as the culture of western names of schools/colleges may be, the vendetta against these institutions is superficial, misguided and undemocratic.
A reputed plus-two-school in New Baneshwar sold its infrastructure, gave up its foreign name, relocated and rechristened itself after one of the mountain peaks of Dolpa to start anew last year. The consequences were telling. The education entrepreneur that bought the infrastructure from that school founded a plus-two school, naming it after one of the renowned football clubs of Europe. The new establishment was able to attract thousands of students in its first year. Whereas the one that shifted to a native nomenclature had to work almost right from the scratch. It is truly costly to return to native name. Only few can dare this venture.
During their rule, the British in India tried to colonize Indian minds by imposing colonial education, the objective of which was, as its architect Thomas Babington Macaulay had said, to produce “a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” It seems that the specter of Macaulay has influenced the Nepali psyche. A large section of us take excessive pride in educating our children in English sounding schools, speaking in English and behaving in western manner.
This obsession with Macaulayism can be treated only with self-awakening, self-realization, and respect for national character. And for that, dear student leaders, vandalizing and pulling down hoarding boards of ‘foreign-named’ schools will hardly help.