Hi friends! My name is Patrick Dowd, and I have just completed the first year of my master’s program in international educational development at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. Originally, I am from East Bend, North Carolina, a one-stop light town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. This summer, I will be traveling to Ladakh to research with the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). SECMOL was founded in 1988 to engage in educational reforms in Ladakh, where educational performance was incredibly low. Though the organization has branched out to engage in more activities, such as sustainable development and volunteer tourism, the heart of their work remains Ladakhi educational reforms. I want to research with SECMOL because my work at the GSE centers on indigenous language revitalization and indigenous education, specifically in the culturally Tibetan world and the Himalayas.
I first became invested in the Himalayas when I was awarded a Fulbright grant from 2012-2013 to research with Tibetan communities in northern India. Including that time, I spent more than three years living with Tibetan communities in the Himalayas of India and Nepal, studying Tibetan language, culture, and Buddhism under highly learned Tibetan lamas and scholars. I continue to feel humbled when I consider the depth of learning coupled with the profound modesty I found in my Tibetan tutors. I was also so impressed to find philosophers who believed ethical behavior and meditative experience to be inextricable from the worldview they professed; Buddhist philosophy was not mere words on the page but was something to be experienced, to be lived. I found this combination of learning, ethics and modesty awe-inspiring and it has kept me returning to the Himalayas for these years.
In the Tibetan Buddhist world, I found an incredibly sophisticated educational system discreet from the western education of my life to that point. Meeting my lamas felt like discovering people like Socrates and Jesus were still alive and teaching, cultivating profound learning and precious human qualities that they would share with any student interested enough to listen. For this reason, I felt saddened to learn of the educational crisis in the culturally Tibetan world of Ladakh.
Government-sponsored education was only introduced to Ladakh in the 1970s. Prior to this time, the only formalized education occurred in the monasteries and nunneries. When the Indian government introduced modern education, it was based entirely on the Indian curriculum, which in turn was based on the colonially-inherited British curriculum. Nothing in the curriculum spoke to the unique language, landscape, culture and history of Ladakh. The result was widespread educational failure; in 1998, a shocking 95% of Ladakhi students failed the all-important grade 10 matriculation exam.
Recognizing this educational crisis, a group of young Ladakhis formed SECMOL. SECMOL realized that Ladakhi students had no chance of succeeding as long as there was such a great divorce between their lives and the classroom. As long as the classroom was such an alien environment, teaching foreign concepts in incomprehensible languages, Ladakhi students would continue failing. In response to this situation, SECMOL initiated programs in curriculum development and teacher training, with the aim of creating Ladakhi-centric, culturally appropriate education. While still teaching the required standardized Indian curriculum, this education served as an important supplement. It allowed students to feel affirmed in their landscape, language and culture and see the relationship between formalized education and the life outside the classroom. Their work has been met with great success, such that between 2003-2006, 50% of students in Leh district passed the exam.
As someone who has benefitted tremendously from a traditional Tibetan education, I am committed to ensuring Himalayan communities are provided with the same opportunity. I find it an unbearable irony that I, a white man from America, spent years learning to read classical Tibetan texts and yet Ladakhi students, who speak this language as their mother tongue, are not taught literacy in their own language. I believe SECMOL provides an important model for how culturally appropriate education can not only improve performance on standardized tests and curriculum but also affirm students in their own language and culture. I hope my time researching with SECMOL will equip me with the skills necessary to bring similar education projects to other places in the Tibetan-speaking Himalayas.
I couldn’t be more excited about this summer and all that I hope to learn. If you have any inclination to visit the roof of the world, please visit!