Thursday, February 14, 2008

Western Education and Subalternity

When I think of the first day and the frantic, frenetic energy that coursed through the campus and classrooms, I felt utterly lost when I stood in front of my first class. What was I supposed to teach them? I lacked a reference point. I did not know their culture, their language, their learning styles, or where they were in their studies. But I needed to teach them something, so I thought back to what I had learned in 6th grade and started writing examples on the board to see if they could follow it. Multiplication they knew by heart. Decimals they finished before I could. Division they chimed in quickly. Long division the room got quieter. Long division with decimals and there was dead silence and blank stares. I now had somewhere to start. I didn’t know how they had been taught before so I taught them the steps the way I had learned them, and we got through a problem together. By then, the class was over, but this would be the way I would teach during my time at the Gandhi Ashram: the western way I knew.

Chakrabarty's article identifies Indians as being subaltern because much of their history has been shaped and evaluated through the lens of western culture. Their measurements of success and failure have not been defined by their own experiences but the experience of western culture. Europe is viewed as the pinnacle of human society and India is constrained in its ability to evaluate itself outside this value structure. While many parts of Indian culture have begun to break free of these constrictions, the system of education is undeniably English. Although the topics have been molded to fit the needs and goals of the educators, the values intrinsic in the institution are undeniably western.

I am proud of how much I was able to teach the students, and how much they were able to learn during the two and a half weeks I spent at the Ashram. However, I still wrestle with whether I helped to lift the children out of their subaltern status or further entrenched them into thinking the only way is the western way.

On the one hand, Gandhi Ashram gives its students the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty and pursue their dreams. All the students recognize this and want to succeed, not just for themselves, but for the sake of their families and their communities, whom they hope to help in the future. The more they learn, the better they will perform on exams and the better chance they have of getting a university education. The only other option for these children is to work the fields with their parents and eventually become subsistence farmers with high vulnerability to poor weather and crop failure and little possibility of social mobility.

On the other hand, the Ashram is suppressing the heritage that these children have and implicitly devaluing it in favor of western traditions. The children are taught every subject in English except for Nepali. They learn to play violins, and the pieces they play were written by Europeans for European audiences. Every morning they line up and say the Lords prayer and pray before each meal, in English. Very little of the curriculum seems to have any relation to the students own culture. Because of this absence, western culture is put on the pedestal as being intelligent, public, and rational while the heritage that the children have grown up in is meant to stay at home in the private sphere. It is implicitly made to back seen as backwards, holding them back.

I felt that our program only reinforced this preferentialism. We arrived at the school and were thrust into the classroom without a reference point to their culture or their language, let alone their learning styles or where they were in their studies. As a teacher, I couldn’t appreciate what they had to offer because I didn’t know. I couldn’t try to uplift and bring out the skills and specialties that the possessed because of their subalternity because I had no idea what they were or how to find them. All I could do was teach in the style that I knew with the values I had and do my best to reach the kids. I didn’t know what they needed to learn so I decided based on my own education what I thought was important. I was the embodiment of dominant culture directing the path of marginalized culture, even though there is nothing to say that the path I see for them is the right or best one.

I find myself answering my initial question about my effect on the students of Gandhi Ashram as yes for both sides. These children and their families want them to be at the Ashram so that they can learn and have the opportunity to fulfill any dream they have. In order to do that, they need to master the education system and that system is western in nature, both in structure and in values. Ashram strives to teach them so that they are prepared once they leave to take the next step in their education. The Colby JanPlan program helped and will continue to help with that goal. When I think of all that could be done with these kids, the possibilities are endless. They have a ton potential that could be better captured with a more rigorous and focused curriculums and improved resources. That I think Colby will provide that as the program builds in the coming years. However, I think it must build carefully. I feel that I went into the program completely blind and while it was an eye opening experience, my ignorance prevented me from recognizing the culture I was teaching in until it was pretty much too late. While the children need to better develop their critical thinking and English skills, it must be in a way that includes their own background and culture, not pushes it aside. Only in that way can they truly come to master their subalternity and use it to propel themselves forward.

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