In this article, I have reviewed some of the story books and short stories written and illustrated for children by Nepali authors and artists. I have also analysed poems and stories, written by children below the age of 16, that have been published in Kantipur and Setopati – two popular media outlets in Nepal. Kantipur has a special weekly edition for children titled Kopila, while Setopati has a dedicated children’s column called Ketaketika Kura. I have reviewed their digital archives of articles published between October 2018 and July 2020. I have selected writings that closely align to the theme of schooling and education. Through analysis of books and writings that are written for and by children, this article will explore some of the imaginings, perceptions and narratives around schools and education in Nepal.
In the children’s book Hamro School (Our School, in English), the story begins with two female protagonists – Chunu and Munu, dressed in light blue shirt, navy blue pinafore with white socks, black shoes and neatly combed hair, standing outside their school carrying their backpacks. In this illustrated story targeted at primary school children, Chunu and Munu take turns to highlight various facets of their school to each other. Their school is a large one-storeyed building composed of multiple rooms, and Chunu points out that students ‘climb up’ from one class to the other. Inside the classroom, there are neatly aligned desks and benches where students are all seated in their respective places, reading same textbooks.
Outside in the playground – a group of boys are playing football; a group of girls are playing jump rope games; and few girls and boys are playing maadal – a traditional musical instrument, and dancing and singing along. All students are wearing school uniform. They can also be seen interacting with their teachers, one of whom is a sari-clad female teacher with a tika on her forehead carrying an attendance register book. There is also a library room filled with books, where students are sitting down and quietly reading their books. The visual representations of school, students and teachers found in this book is common across many other stories and accompanying illustrations.
School is imagined as a distinct place away from one’s home where one goes to study, play, and socialise. There are also performative aspects involved. For example, you do not turn up at school in any clothes, but you wear a uniform, you make yourself presentable, and you carry a backpack. Once you are inside the school premises, you greet your teachers, you sit down inside respective classroom, read similar textbooks, write in your notebooks, become obedient and listen attentively to your teachers. Outside the classroom, you play and socialise with others. The materiality and performative acts of schooling perpetuated in these images and narratives are further reflected in the poems and stories written by children. Here is an extract from a poem written by a student in class 4:
Carrying books and notebooks we go to school
We also carry freshly prepared food
The guard brother sits at the main entrance smiling
As soon as we see our teachers, we go to express our greetings
[Translated by Sangita]
Books, notebooks and lunch boxes become the symbols of everyday practices of studying and spending long hours in schools. Meanwhile, the poem above also indicates how students learn about hierarchies and authority. For example, students go to greet their teachers, but the same act does not apply in the case of the guard. The culture of using fictive kin terms is reflected in how the poet addresses the guard as a brother, however, she does not address the teacher as a brother or sister because they occupy positions of higher authority. School is also about figuring one’s place and navigating different spaces. For example, the guard’s position is at the entrance, the students and teachers belong inside the classroom, which is also a space for concentration, listening and quiet interactions, while it is outside that you have fun, play and socialise.
There are two stories published in Kopila that focus on the theme of good teachers. The underlying messages in both the stories are teachers must be approachable and friendly, and they must not inflict corporal punishment on their students. In one of the stories, the teacher who uses interactive teaching methods (such as using projector to show graphs, photos, films) and gives her students freedom to coordinate their group activities is portrayed as students’ favourite teacher.
At the same time, students are described as the future of the country, and teachers are expected to teach them good morals by setting an example. For instance, in one of the stories, after receiving complaint from parents, the head teacher suspends the teacher who gave physical punishment to his student. The head teacher says to the guilty teacher – ‘Children are the future of the country. What will they learn from your behaviour? We do not need teachers like you.’ However, the parents respond to head teacher saying – ‘As a head teacher, you are the head of the household, responsible for both teachers and students. You should also take responsibility.’
The story concludes on a conciliatory note – the teacher is given a second chance to improve his behaviour and within few weeks, he manages to develop friendly relations with all his students. Meanwhile, the head teacher organises regular trainings for his teaching staff. The writer intends to inform his young readers that it is not acceptable for teachers to physically punish them, and the positive note on which the story ends is an encouraging sign for students to not be afraid of telling their parents if such incidences happen at school. At the same time, the story is built on the notion that school is like a household, where students must learn moral behaviour and conduct from their teachers. Further, the idea of school as ‘a second home’ is reiterated in poems written by children. They also emphasise how they look up to their teachers and how they are working towards building a better future for their country.
Knowledge, development and patriotism
The words gyani (knowledgeable, wise), bikas (development) and karnadhar (someone who leads) are commonly cited in poems written by children. Most, if not all, poems express the desire and ambition to study well at schools, acquire knowledge and ultimately contribute to their country’s development. Here’s an extract from a poem written by a student in class 8:
Studying, writing, spreading the light of knowledge
I will reach the summit
Obstacles will come in life
But I will persevere
Becoming educated and knowledgeable
I will make this country better
[Translated by Sangita]
The following poem is written by a student in class 6:
Books are our friends
School is our second home
We rely on our teachers
To learn skills and knowledge
Becoming good and knowledgeable
On our shoulders we carry
Responsibility of our country
Becoming doctor, engineer
We will march forward
To change the face of our country
[Translated by Sangita]
In the poems written by children, it appears the purpose of education is to acquire knowledge, become professionals, most likely in technical fields, and ultimately work towards developing their country and making it better.
Emerging understandings of schooling and education
Whether it is the literature produced for children or written by children themselves, there emerges a common understanding of knowledge and education as something that you acquire through books and teachers within particular kinds of material and symbolic school settings. School also appears to be a place where children learn to navigate different spaces, positions and hierarchies. Considering the history of education system in Nepal, which has ardently endorsed the discourse of development, national unity and skilled workforce production, it is perhaps not surprising that education continues to be associated with technical professions and contribution towards the development of the country. Overall, the alternative ways of learning and knowing are rarely discussed. And how such limited understandings will affect children’s own sense of self as well as their perceptions of their situated context, environment, local/indigenous skills and knowledge are important to explore further.
Suggested Citation: Sangita Thebe Limbu. 2020. ‘On Children’s Literature’, Think Pieces Series No. 6. Education.SouthAsia (https://educationsouthasia.web.ox.ac.uk/).