Karl-Heinz Kraemer
Department of Political Science of South Asia, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg

Thomas Döhne, 2000. Zwischen Bildungsgewinn und Erfahrungsverlust: Schulerziehung in einem Bergdistrikt Nepals. Frankfurt: Brandes & Apsel. 322 S. ISBN 3-86099-295-3.

Review in: The Kathmandu Post, 12 November 2000

Rural secondary school education in the Eastern Nepali district of Okhaldhunga is in the focus of a book recently published in Germany by Thomas Doehne (Zwischen Bildungsgewinn und Erfahrungsverlust: Schulerziehung in einem Bergdistrikt Nepals. Frankfurt: Brandes & Apsel, 2000. ISBN 3-86099-295-3). After a short introduction into the adapted research method the author describes the historical development and structure of the public school system in Nepal. The description of physical and social facts of the Okhaldhunga area is followed by detailed research on the three high schools of Okhaldhunga Bazar, Rampur and Umbu. The author presents a new perspective when linking education problems with aspects of ethnicity.

The population structure of Okhaldhunga district can be seen as representative for rural Nepal. The constitution introduced in November 1990 admits to multiethnicity as an essential aspect of the Nepali state. Government, administration and political parties are urged to implement the equality of all citizens irrespective of religion, race, gender, caste, tribe or ideology as guaranteed by article 11 of the constitution. But numerous statistics and anthropological studies have proved that the given facts in many respects still differ from constitutional ideals.

But ethnic and other social organizations have contributed to a greater awareness of people belonging to ethnic groups or the low Hindu castes (dalits). This awareness seems to be growing with the level of education. But education has a double function in modern Nepal. It is not only the agent of awareness but is also used by the traditional state elites to preserve their own political, social and economic privileges.

Doehne's area study illustrates this contradiction. Views and experiences of protagonists and those concerned contribute to qualitative findings and statements about education in rural Nepal. It proves that the dominance of the traditional state elite has left behind its traces in the foundation history of all the three schools, and that it has been present in the daily routine of the schools till today. It turns out that special population groups – the Tibeto-Mongolian ethnic groups and, even more, the occupational Hindu castes thought to be untouchables – are disadvantaged by the current Nepali school system in respect to participation and chances of success (p.279).

The socio-cultural background of the students is also decisive for the reasonable integration of the knowledge transferred by the school into the everyday conditions of life. Besides, Doehne proves the existence of socio-economic and gender-specific inequalities. The former aspect is especially distinct towards occupational castes. It is further intensified by the social stigmatization and exclusion of these castes. The economic plight forces to look for alternatives; often, the student's world collapses in case of failure at school. The strong discrimination against girls, which is found in the whole Nepali society, finds its reflection in the field of public education. It is especially present among caste Hindus where the status of women is ideologically based on religious conceptions. Thomas Doehne explains the relatively higher school enrolment of girls from the so-called upper Hindu castes less by the lifting of gender specific conceptions but by the improvement of marriage chances and the status elevation of the future husband (p.281). The gender specific inequality is further proved by the fact that parents rarely give their daughters a chance to repeat a failed SLC exam.

Caste status and chances for success at school seem to be closely related; social norms and values at school are totally designed for the children from upper Hindu castes. The teachers, themselves mainly from high Hindu castes, interpret this phenomenon in an ethno-centric way by higher intelligence of Bahun and Chhetri children. This education differential is further intensified by the exclusive use of Nepali, the mother tongue of the Hindu castes, as general medium of education. Doehne found this differential along the lines of gender and caste/ethnicity at all the three schools. But there were also differences between these schools based upon the respective socio-cultural milieu.

The situation of rural schools differs from that of urban schools in many respects. Especially the involvement of the students into the working processes of their families leads to very irregular visit of school. Another important aspect for a successful school visit is the distance of the school from the student's house.

A very special problem lies in the discrepancies between the school curricula and the practical needs in the rural area. Knowledge derived from cultural tradition and local experiences alone is no longer sufficient for survival in the villages, where rapid processes of change wash away the local and historical social structures.

Doehne sees the rural education in a dilemma. It shall be oriented in the future and prepare for processes of change. But the latter happen so rapidly that all those involved cannot cope. School education is only aimed at the passing of the SLC exam. It is "oriented in a linear thinking, the characteristic of which is individual contest, competition and choice, education for punctuality, and the acquisition of knowledge presented in a register like way. This orientation requires time, energy, money and other resources, but it returns little back to the local economy and the village community" (pp.299-300). Since the youth cannot apply in the village what they have learnt at school, they have no other chance but to look for a job outside the village.

Doehne's research is impressive for its detailed analysis of the situation at the three schools in Okhaldhunga district. His many years of co-operation in a project and later repeated returns allow a comparative analysis for a longer period. The author's good knowledge of Nepali was a precondition for uncounted interviews. I found it especially laudable that Doehne has integrated numerous Nepali terms into the text instead of only using German or English translations. To sum up, Thomas Doehne managed to illustrate the interrelations between education system, caste/ethnicity and future perspectives in Nepal. Besides, he provides valuable insights into fundamental problems of the rural Nepali education system.

Copyright © 2000, Karl-Heinz Kraemer