Oped

Cultivating intellectual curiosity

  • Learning and knowledge acquisition is a dynamic, long-term and a complex process
- MAHENDRA P LAMA

Jan 9, 2019-

Salubrious weather, lively students participation, honoured parents and inspiring speech by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli marked the 44th Convocation of Tribhuvan University. this year, 74,284 students graduated across disciplines, communities and geographies—once again highlighting the critical role a national university has in nation-building. When the Vice Chancellor Tirtha Raj Khaniya, while quoting London-based Times Higher Education ranking, mentioned that Tribhuvan University figured within 801 to 1000 of the best universities in the world, the audience was elated. His team aimed to reach a ranking between 401 to 600 within the next few years. Education Minister Giriraj Mani Pokhrel emphatically reiterated higher education as a public good and was fully aware of the multidimensional problems and constraints that Tribhuvan University faces today. 

The Prime Minister, while stating that no children will be left outside the school system over the course of the next few months, called upon students to now practically climb and swim as they have earned the basic tools to do so. In his erudite yet extempore speech, he called upon universities to plan, educate and train human resources for Nepal’s developmental growth. 

Both in India and Nepal, many of our communities are first or second generation learners. At the same time, there are 4th to 10th generation of learners too. Given this very conspicuous disparity, our children have to catch up fast, compete and reap accomplishments sooner. It sounds difficult and formidably challenging. However, there are ample and inspiring examples where first generation learners themselves have reached the summits in several professions. 

In this increasingly and intensely knowledge-driven world, the cultivation of knowledge is the most effective way to success. For this to happen, the most fundamental instrument is to imbibe reading habits at the very early stages of childhood and more so during student days.  Today the core of learning is interdisciplinarity. One cannot punish a student for once choosing a wrong discipline. Both curriculum and admission processes should be interdisciplinary. Let students jump from one discipline to another till they find the best grounds for their pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Geographical and intercommunity inclusiveness makes a classroom diverse and competitive. Teaching must be geared to cater to their aspirations, hunger for learning and more crucially, their career needs. 

The agenda and discourse in the global world is driven by some dominant forces and institutions. It is vital for universities in India and Nepal to be a part of this agenda-driving process. Tribhuvan University could play a pivotal role in generating what is called a ‘critical mass’ or a pool of ‘nichod shakti’ in all fields of concern like science, technology, finance, law, economics, governance, among others. This would actually drive national and global agendas and  provide Nepal with a new platform for global recognition.

Students who have got their degrees in prestigious universities abroad have paid back to their countries by helping to set up quality institutions. They bring knowledge, skills, technologies and values of pluralism, inclusiveness, innovative practices, and fine tenets of democracy. This has happened in India, China, and many other Asian and African countries. Many Nepali academics and professionals who have studied and are working abroad would like to help build existing and new institutions. Nepal may find this project of reconstruction through national galvanisation of its own global diaspora doubly appropriate to reorient and reinvigorate ever-aspiring Nepali youths of today.

As a relatively old teacher now,  I have always believed that classroom teaching is a very insignificant part of learning. Learning and knowledge acquisition is a dynamic, long-term and a complex process.  Observation, visits, inter-plays, discussion, interaction, food and cultural assimilations, joint projects and experimentations are some of the best ways of learning. That is why, when we were building Sikkim University, a national institution, besides the curriculum with a strong local and global contents, we initiated hands-on learning programmes like ‘Hiundo Yatra’—Winter Sojourn, where students and teachers from all disciplines used their winter holidays to study subjects like water, energy, disasters, trafficking, natural resources, social movements and conflicts and alaichi and amlisho. They prepared interdisciplinary reports and presented before the civil society, policy makers and other stakeholders. This is how we tried to connect communities, governments and people at large with the institution of  higher learning.

Similarly, we started ‘Maukhik Itihas’— Oral History project to document our generational knowledge on heritage by documenting the voices of several groups, including eldersm Dhami, Jhankri, Fedangma, Bonbo and others on issues of traditional medicines, cultural practices, ecology, disaster management and agriculture heritage. We  had an abiding theme: ‘Baje Mare, Boju Mureen, Duiwata pustakalaya lierai gae, aba yesto huna dinnauhai’ (Grandfather passed away, Grandmother crossed the horizon, took away two beautiful libraries, we shall not let it happen again). These projects soon became a movement and mission in Sikkim, Darjeeling and, the North East region of India. 

The challenge today is how to make our universities outward looking and more relevant. How do we graduate from the mere degree-providing situation of today to a nurture and develop ‘degree plus’ paradigm of education.  Many of the universities abroad that have done exceedingly well belong to this category of ‘degree plus’. In ‘degree plus’ universities, the ‘plusses’ that bring out the best from the students and communities must be identified and promoted. This would provide an innovative framework of larger India-Nepal relations.

Students and teachers have an important, symbiotic relationship based on mutual dependence.  A university like Tribhuvan provides a space for the fusion and blending of these two magnificent and powerful forces represented by teachers and students. This is where the foundation of powerful nation and idea of a global player is laid down. The mountaineers while climbing the peaks are driven by a motto of ‘sanu sanu maruhat’—‘may you climb from peak to peak’. This 44th Convocation of Tribhuvan University drives us back to mountaineering where young generation in Nepal will endeavour to climb from peak to peak. And this will firmly reposition Nepal and Nepali people in the regional and global world. Neighbouring India would always support and celebrate this achievement of Nepal.

This piece contains excerpts from Lama’s speech as chief guest at the 44th Convocation of Tribhuvan University. 

 

Published: 09-01-2019 07:25

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