Most of the issues discussed in exile community, be it in media or any public forum, are political in nature. Discussions on education-related issues are rare, if not nonexistent. While we find popular Tibetan websites and journals flooded with articles on situation inside Tibet and exile Tibetan polity, how often do we get to read about the problems and challenges that we face in the field of education today? For instance, no matter how naive, most Tibetans are cognizant of Middle Way Policy and the fact that it is the official standpoint of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA); but how many of us are aware of CTA's Basic Education Policy (BEP) and its salient features?
As a person working for Tibetan Education, I often end up discussing on BEP with teachers, administrators, school children and parents. To my surprise and dismay, even after nearly 10 years since the BEP was promulgated by CTA, not many people in our community have even a rudimentary knowledge of the policy and its features. Worse is that many have skewed understanding of the policy which leads them to blatantly discredit it. In this article, I am highlighting three common myths about BEP amongst the Tibetan populace based on what I heard through grapevine and formal interactions.
Myth 1: BEP is Synonymous to Tibetanization of Medium of Classroom Instruction
This is the most common myth about the Basic Education Policy in our community. There is definitely a clause in the BEP document which underscored the need for full conversion of medium of instruction to Tibetan in our schools. However, neither is BEP just about this clause nor is this clause the most important aspect of BEP.
While people may debate on the legitimacy of mother-tongue based classroom instruction (although scientific research in this field has proven beyond any ambiguity that mother-tongue based classroom instruction leads to better conceptual understanding in children), taking one's impressionistic disliking for this vernacularization aspect of BEP as the sole basis for discrediting the policy as a whole grossly overlooks the significance of the key features of BEP- most of which have universal appeal.
For me the essence of BEP lies in the four aims of giving education viz., enabling to fully awaken the students' discriminative faculty of mind to be able to distinguish right from wrong which constitutes the principle of "freedom"; students embracing other beings as more precious than the self and sacrificing the self for the service and welfare of others which constitutes the principle of "altruism"; enabling in students the ability to preserve Tibetan culture and natural environment constitutes the principle of "upholding the heritage"; and finally the principle of "innovation" stresses that students should be to introduce new principles, systems, movements and so forth in accordance with the needs of time and place.
Besides these four aims of providing education, BEP endorses: student-centered teaching methodology, abolishment of 3 hour examination system, inculcation of higher order thinking skills, Inclusive Education, teaching of traditional subjects (such as Valid Cognition) and so forth. In short BEP envisages a 'paradigm shift' in our education to address the crucial issues plaguing our society such as lack of professionals, unemployment problem and cultural uprooting of youngsters.
Here, I also feel Department of Education is partially responsible for reinforcing this myth in the community. It has overemphasized the Tibetanization of instructional medium through implementation of various BEP related projects over the years. These projects, lopsided towards efforts to vernacularize medium of instruction left more crucial issues (like effecting positive changes in teachers' classroom practice) almost unattended. I strongly believe that as long as BEP fails to bring about quite a radical change to the existing classroom practice of the teachers, it shall remain just a policy document.
Myth 2: Implementation of BEP will Adversely Affect the English Language Proficiency of Children
At times common sense can be tyrannical, causing unnecessary impediment to progress. The assumption behind the second myth is that below-par competency in English Language will be an obvious side effect of the switch in medium of instruction to Tibetan, and introduction of second language only after III grade as per BEP.
Quite counter-intuitively, many scientific researches in the field of mother-tongue based education system has shown that developing a strong foundation of mother-tongue language in children, rather than impeding, actually helps in acquisition of second language later in school, provided this alternate system is implemented properly.
Retrospectively, for about 40 years since the first Tibetan school was established in India, all the Tibetan schools followed a system wherein medium of instruction was English right from I to XII grade. Going by the (commonsensical yet unscientific) logic behind the second myth, the students who graduated from the Tibetan schools under the previous system must be reaaally good in English! Are they? If majority of the readers objectively respond to this question in affirmative, my argument would stop here. However, if the general response to this question is negative, I won't hesitate to voice my argument that 'just as following an English Medium System doesn't guarantee good English Language competency in children, switching the medium of instruction to Tibetan will not necessarily hamper the standard of English in schools'.
For me this question of language competency (be it Tibetan or English) has very little to do with medium of instruction rather, it has much (if not all) to do with quality of our language classes. Cases of teachers teaching English language in Tibetan medium (even at Secondary and Senior Secondary Level) are not uncommon in our schools, the absurdity of which cannot be fathomed. Emphasis on creative writing, speaking, developing reading habit and so forth which is absolutely crucial for developing language skills has been seriously lacking in most of our schools. How then can we expect our children to possess good competency in languages?
Myth 3: Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche Formulated BEP
On several occasions I have heard people say that BEP is a 'utopian vision' of Ex Kalon Tripa Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche which lacks practicability hence, fails to garner popular support from people. Some even go to the extent of saying that Rinpoche is a monk and has no children; therefore for him to insensitively formulate a policy which undermines children's career prospect is understandable.
If only these people study the rigorous drafting process of BEP, they would realize that BEP is not a handiwork of an individual. Rinpoche prepared the outline of the Policy in 2003. Subsequently, an Education Drafting Committee was appointed in 2003 comprising of five members chaired by Ven. Karma Gelek Yuthok, then Secretary of the DoE. The committee submitted the first draft to the Kashag. After giving the draft a thorough consideration, the Kashag produced a second draft which was distributed amongst all Tibetan educational institutes and scholars in exile seeking their comments and suggestions. The DoE compiled all the suggestions that were received and submitted them to the concerned authorities. A seminar of Indian scholars distinguished in the fields of traditional as well as modern education was held in January 2004 to consolidate the professional advices and suggestions received on the second draft. A similar seminar of Tibetan scholars and administrative panel was held in February 2004. Thus, a third draft was prepared by the Drafting Committee and it was reviewed by the Kashag. Later an international seminar of modern academicians was convened by the Kashag in June 2004; final version of the BEP document was prepared after making some changes according to the suggestions that came from the seminar.
Finally, in September 2004, the document was tabled at the 8th Session of the 13th Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies (ATPD) for approval. The Assembly held discussion on the document, made certain changes accordingly and then voted on; the BEP document was 'unanimously' approved by ATPD.
The reason why I presented this narrative on the rigorous process of drafting of BEP is to make people aware of the fact that the policy was not casually formulated overnight. It involves hard work of many eminent academicians and scholars in both traditional and modern education over a period of time. Therefore the question arises; are we justified as an individual to discredit the policy simply based on our impressionistic views?
I presented my viewpoints on the BEP in this article not with the hope of making everybody agree with me. I know that would be unrealistic. However, I feel that healthy discussions on important educational issues (such as the one I brought here) is seriously lacking in our community; therefore my primary intention for writing this article is to spark intellectual discussion on the topic based on sound reasoning and proper analysis.
Being political refugees in India, I understand that political activism is much hyped in our exile community. I don't have anything against that. However, we must realize that our struggle is non-violent in nature; education is the key weapon for a nonviolent struggle. In that sense, a collective effort from the community is required to improve the overall standard of education. Working towards a better education is thus, a form of political activism!