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Schools as organizations: on the question of value consensus

Do all members of an organization – for present purposes, I focus on schools – have to share the same goals and values? Or, to put the question in a more answerable graduated form: to what extent do goals and values have to be shared by all those who participate in a school environment?[1] Anthropology once answered this question with a resounding affirmative: social units need shared values and these are inculcated through, and expressed in, shared rituals. Over the last forty years or so, the functionalist and Durkheimian assumptions underlying this position have fallen decidedly out of fashion. Conflict, resistance, shifting networks, and radical change have all been emphasized instead.

Thus, discussion of values or morality, seen as implying old functionalist approaches, was equally out of fashion. In recent years, however, the anthropology of morality has made a comeback and it is claimed that it now constitutes a recognized sub-field of the subject (see, for example, Laidlaw 2002 and 2013, Agrama 2010, Faubion 2011). The contributions to this sub-field have on the whole emphasized the point of view of the ‘self-making’ individual and so have not addressed the old question of shared values – which is still very much alive in other branches of the social sciences that specialize in looking at organizations.

One of the points made in the introduction to Inside Organizations, amply borne out by the case studies included in the book, was that different people within organizations have very different views of what the organization should be doing or standing for (Hirsch/Gellner 2001: 9). It would be naïve – as hardly needs to be said – to assume that all members of an organization subscribe equally or even at all to the mottos and mission statements that the organization puts forward to the world as summing up its values. In this paper I wish to go a step further and suggest that at least some organizations can exist and function perfectly well even when there is a total disjunction between the aims of the different parties to, or stakeholders in, the institution in question. In the case of the school I shall be discussing, it is possible for it to function admirably even though the various stakeholders concerned disagree fundamentally on whether the school is about producing and sustaining linguistic and cultural difference or not.

Educational processes need to be seen in the wider context of which they are a part; that wider political and economic context determines much of what happens and what is possible inside these organizations that we call schools. It is surely also uncontroversial to argue that including the class background of the children studied in some fashion or other is essential if we are to understand educational outcomes.

Methodologically, I argue that there is an irresolvable tension, an ‘antinomy’, between our small-scale, local methods as ethnographers, on the one side, and the global links and forces that we must take into account and try to study, in their local incarnations, on the other (Gellner 2012). We have to live with that tension and try to do justice to both ends of it in our work as ethnographers and anthropologists. Anthropology, or more correctly social and cultural anthropology, believes it has a special claim on the method of participant observation usually called ethnography. It is heartening, if occasionally alarming (as when a teenager first leaves home), to see ethnography flourishing within so many other fields, such as sociology, cultural studies, and educational studies (e.g. Delamont/Atkinson 1980, Eisenhart 2001).

I must thank my ex-colleagues at Brunel University, where I taught between 1994 and 2002, for really bringing home to me that children could be valid subjects of ethnographic investigation: not only that they could be, but that any study that took social change seriously had to include them, and not just as objects but as subjects of the research process, as ethnographic informants in their own right with (in the famous Malinowskian phrase) ‘their view of their world’. Children could be ‘natives’ too. This led to brief fieldwork in two schools in 1996 and a substantial report on that fieldwork published some eight years later (Gellner 2004). One of the schools was right next door to the house where I had lived for 19 months when doing my doctoral fieldwork. The other school, to be discussed in detail below, was and still is a fairly unique experiment, a school founded as a way to maintain the Nepal Bhasha or Newari language and funded by a Japanese social service organization.

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Pupils at JSB reciting the daily prayer to Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, and the national anthem

The Nepali context

Nepal as it is today was largely the creation of King Prithvi Narayan Shah ‘the Great’, who reigned from 1743 till 1775. He inherited the tiny kingdom of Gorkha and expanded it to a kingdom larger even than the contemporary boundaries of Nepal through many years of cunning, diplomacy, and conquest (Stiller 1973). For this achievement he is still a hero to many people today. He famously described his new domains as a yam between two boulders in Dibya Upadesh, the testament that he dictated to scribes shortly before his death in 1775 (Stiller 1989).

Prithvi Narayan’s image of the yam notwithstanding, Nepal is not as small a country as it is often taken to be – it only appears so because of the size of China and India. The area of the country is about 60% of the UK or about 40% that of Germany. Its population is 26.6 million (with an estimated 1.92 million working outside the country) according to the early results of the 2011 census. Put another way, it is considerably bigger in geographical area than Switzerland and Austria combined and will soon have double their population.

Nepal is characterized by enormous social complexity and diversity. Over 100 different caste and ethnic groups were counted in the 2001 census, from the Kusunda with just 164 people to the Chhetris with nearly 3.6 million. Many of these groups were not publicly recognized before 1990. From 1960 to 1990 Nepal experienced a form of authoritarian guided democracy under which political parties – claimed to be ‘foreign to the soil of Nepal’ – were banned and only non-party assemblies, known as panchayats, were permitted. It was a period of nation-building and de-emphasis of ethnic difference (see Hoftun et al. 1999; Whelpton 2005; Pigg 1992; Hachhethu/Gellner 2010). Cultural difference was allowed in the sphere of music and dance, but not in politics (though it was noticeable that, unofficially, attempts were made to maintain a rough balance of ministerial posts as between major groups). With political parties outlawed, a fortiori no politically based ethnic mobilization was permitted.

After 1990 there was an explosion of ethnic self-assertion. There was also, from 1996 to 2006, a serious Maoist insurgency/civil war which, as the price for peace, put an end to the monarchy and introduced a republic. Following elections in 2008 to a Constituent Assembly, with an unprecedented level of reservations for women and ethnic minorities, there were high hopes that a new form of federalism would be worked out for the country. But these hopes foundered four years later in 2012, when the period of the Assembly came to an end and the Supreme Court refused to allow it to be extended any further, after repeated extensions over the previous two years. The key issue, over which the parties failed to agree, was the ethnic one: how far would the different federal units be defined in ethnic terms?[2]

Migration and movement have been facts of life throughout Nepalese history, but migration beyond national borders for work started to increase rapidly in the 1980s. Underlying this movement out of the country were a number of trends, including a rapid rise in literacy rates, and improved health outcomes – but little work, and a big decline in the willingness of educated youth to perform agricultural labour. Enormous numbers of private schools and colleges have sprung up catering to the universal faith in education as providing a way out of poverty and (for many) a way out of the country. There are educational consultants who send people abroad – often to dodgy colleges that charge small fees and provide low-level courses, giving people time to work. Fees for private schools at the top of the range cost well over the monthly salary of a top civil servant. As in so much of Asia, the government schools are poorly run and teachers frequently don’t teach; state schools become sumps for the low status and poor. Everyone who can afford it sends their children to fee-paying private schools, where, though the education may be little better than in the government schools, at least teachers appear in the classroom and go through the motions of teaching. Education, in short, is big business, and many people have made a lot of money out of it.[3]

The immediate background to the founding of Jagat Sundar School

In 1990 the Panchayat regime collapsed in a street revolution – known in Nepal as Jan Andolan 1 or People’s Movement 1 (as opposed to People’s Movement 2 of April-May 2006 which finally got rid of the monarchy). The 1990 movement introduced multi-party democracy and a constitutional monarchy for the first time since the late 1950s. It also, relevantly for the subject of this paper, as part of the new Constitution of 1990, introduced the right to have education in the mother tongue in primary school (though not in secondary school). In 1991 the census started to collect data on ethnicity, so for the first time the politically highly sensitive figures became public knowledge. For the first time it became known that the two jointly dominant groups, the Bahuns and Chhetris (Brahmans and Kshatriyas), formed only 31% of the population. The groups formerly known as ‘hill tribes’ and now as Janajati or (in the activists’ preferred English translation) nationalities, when all added together, outnumbered them. Analyses of jobs held in the senior Establishment posts show that the Bahuns and Chhetris between them have two thirds – more than double their proportion in the population, whereas Janajatis have only 7%, about a fifth or less of what believe they should have.[4] The hill Janajatis feel aggrieved thereby – but they are by no means so disadvantaged as many other groups, especially Muslims and Dalits (ex-Untouchables), who have even fewer representatives at the top levels of society, in relation to their share of the population. There is strong and fighting talk of exploitation, imperialism/ internal colonialism, and the need to right historic injustices and to re-write the history books (see Bhattachan 1995 for an early statement of the position).

These systematic inequalities gave rise to a strong ethnic rights movement, which in the years after 2000 received considerable support and encouragement from the Maoists. In 1991 the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities was formed, which aimed to be the confederal body representing all minority non-Hindu ethnic groups in the country. It is essentially an anti-Brahman movement (as found in parts of India, especially the south), since, far more than Chhetris, it is Bahuns who dominate at the top in almost every sphere of modern employment requiring high levels of education. The Nepali movement took sustenance from the global movement for indigeneity, which had been launched in the early 1990s. Before 1993 the activists in Nepal were barely aware of it, but when the UN declared first a year and then a Decade of Indigenous Peoples, it became essential to link up, and they did so very successfully (see Gellner 2001; Mishra/Gurung 2012).

The putatively indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley are known as Newars. They are sub-divided by caste, with each caste having a different myth of origin. By religion Newars are traditionally both Hindu and Buddhist, some combining them, some being one rather than the other. They have their own language Newari or Nepal Bhasa, which is Tibeto-Burman in origin, but has been much influenced, for at least 1500 years, by Indo-European languages. In that respect it is like Maltese, which is essentially an Arabic dialect that has wandered into the sphere of the Romance languages. Newar culture (including caste distinctions) is undergoing rapid transformation (for example, inter-caste marriage is common nowadays, whereas it was treated as highly anomalous just thirty years ago).[5]

The Newars, like all big groups in Nepal, have their own ethnic activists and campaigns (see Gellner 1986, 2008[1997], 2003; Shrestha 2007). The Newars are the most urban, and therefore the most educated, and on average well-off, of all Nepal’s groups. As such they have a long history of modern activism, going back to the 1920s. However, their activists were slow to campaign politically on specifically ethnic grounds compared to other groups such as the Gurungs. There is now a Newar political party, the Nepa Rastriya Party. It was founded very late in the day (over a decade later than similar attempts on the part of other groups) shortly before the elections in 2008. It managed to win enough votes (37,757) under the proportional system to receive one MP in the Constituent Assembly.

Historically, Newar ethnic activism before this has largely been about the language, how to preserve it, how to regain the official status it had till 1965. It is this history of language activism that lies behind the creation of the school, Jagat Sundar Bwonekuthi or JSB.

The School

Jagat Sundar Bwonekuthi is a private, but government-recognized, institution founded in 1990 (Gellner 2004; Shrestha/Van den Hoek 1995). The name of the school comes from one of the heroes of Newar cultural nationalism, Jagat Sundar Malla (1882-1952), a schoolmaster from Bhaktapur who translated Aesop’s fables into Nepal Bhasha. A statue to him was erected in the school in 2001.

The school was founded taking advantage of the provision in the new constitution allowing primary teaching in the mother tongue. During the ferment of 1990, while the constitution itself was still being drafted, women of the Nepal Bhasa Misa Khala (Newari language women’s group) decided to start teaching poor Newar children, who otherwise would not attend school. They received sponsorship at 3,000 rupees per child from luminaries of the language movement such as Prem Bahadar Kansakar. The well-known children’s NGO, CWIN (Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Centre), sponsored five children. Rajbhai Jahkami, another activist, offered the use of the ground floor of his house. A governors’ committee was formed chaired by Laksmi Das Manandhar. Ratna Devi Kasa was the first principal. The teachers taught without taking any salary. The principle of selfless social service with which it began continues even today, with the salaries of the current teachers considerably lower than the private sector norm.

In 1991 a Japanese woman called Kumashiro, who was on her way to Swayambhu, happened to pass the open-air shelter where, before the move to Jahkami’s house, the women of the Nepal Bhasa Misa Khala were teaching. Impressed by the teachers’ spirit of social service, she made the first foreign donation of $70.[6] Then contact was made – via Shobhana Shrestha Masoka, a Newar married to a Japanese and living in Japan – with a non-governmental social service foundation called HIKIVA (Hirakata Katao International Volunteer Association), based in Osaka.

Japanese members of HIKIVA pay ¥17,000 (these days approx. US$209) per year (¥12,000 goes for fees and other expenses of the child, ¥5,000 for general expenses of the school, see HIKIVA). HIKIVA currently funds six schools in Nepal: one of the other schools is in Kathmandu, and the remaining four are in districts outside the Valley (Dhading, Makwanpur). Jagat Sundar Bwone Kuthi is the school with which it has had the longest connection and where it supports the most children (in 2007 it supported 240). Selection of the children for sponsorship is carried out by the staff of the school and is on the basis of need. Teachers from the school interview the parents in the home to assess the economic level of the family. The amount paid by the Japanese sponsors appears not to have increased at all in the years since 1991. Unlike Japan which has experienced deflation, there has been considerable inflation in Nepal, so that an amount that was generous then and could stretch to expenses such as books and uniform, today barely covers the fees.

New buildings, on the edge of the Vishnumati river and funded by HIKIVA, were opened in 1993. The standard of the buildings and the facilities is certainly higher than most ordinary government schools, despite the fact that the school lost part of its grounds to the new Vishnumati link road in 2002. There is a large hall which is often used for meetings not immediately connected to the school. The JSB pupils are largely from poor and/or low-caste backgrounds. Most, but not all, are Newars by ethnicity.

A serious issue for the school in 1996 was the question of expansion up to class 10, so that they could offer the School Leaving Certificate. Until that point, it appeared problematic, because the 1990 Constitution did not guarantee the right for secondary schools, only primary schools, to be operated in languages other than Nepali. After a period when children were transferring to other schools for their last two years before the SLC, eventually the school was extended up to SLC.

Restudying children from 1996 eleven years later

When I did my original research in JSB in 1996 I asked the children to draw pictures and write essays on three topics: on themselves and their families, ‘on an occasion of illness’ (this is more idiomatic in Nepali or Newari than it sounds in English and the formulation avoided obliging the children to talk about themselves), and on their neighbourhood. I was particularly interested to see if there would be any evidence of ethnic consciousness emerging from the last topic. My conclusion on that was as follows:

The fact that [JSB] was founded and is run in accordance with the ethos of Newar cultural nationalism did not appear to make a big difference to the children at the school…This suggests that it is the experience of being at school as such, not the particular kind of school or ideology that guides it, that is the most important determinant of the Nepali child’s experience – though again this should be tested by further research comparing so-called ‘English boarding’ schools with government schools in Nepal. (Gellner 2004: 44)

In August 2007 I had a week in which I was able to do some research in Kathmandu. Thanks to the help of Basanta Maharjan, I was able to find and make contact with 13 out of the 22 children from JSB whose responses I had collected in 1996 and published in 2004.

It was striking that, with one partial exception (a girl who writes poetry in Newari occasionally), none of the 13 children contacted showed the slightest interest in Newar cultural nationalism, despite having been educated for eight years or more in what is taken by many to be a flagship Newar cultural nationalist institution. One brother and sister pair were actually very uncomfortable speaking Newari and the interview had to be carried out in Nepali; they were very clear that they were definitely not interested in politics and did not approve of the idea of ethnic autonomy (their mother, who was also present in the shop where we met them, chimed in, “Everyone is one jat [‘kind’, caste]”).

All the young people, as they now were, had very good memories of the school, recalling in particular how kind the teachers had been; some still visited the school on occasion. All recalled how people either had never heard of the school or, if they had, thought of it as ‘the Newar school’ and assumed that all one studied there was Newari. Some of them had never had any contact with their Japanese sponsors, some had received occasional letters (as they had written them, when at school), and others had been visited in their homes. None had particularly close relations, however.

Five sets of stakeholders in JSB

1. (Male) activists

As noted above, Rajbhai Jahkami allowed the school to use the ground floor of his house, rent-free, in its early days. He is a Newar activist, both a poet and an organizer, famous for having been the main instigator behind the formation of the Jyapu Mahaguthi, an organization which unites in one caste association all the peasant-caste people of Kathmandu city and the west of the Kathmandu Valley. He has close links to leftist parties, including the Maoists, but claims never to have joined or supported any particular one. For him, as for the other five men on the board of the school, who registered the school with the government, JSB is a flagship in the struggle to get the government to accept, permit, and ultimately to fund schools for the ‘languages of the nation’ as they were designated in the 1990 constitution, i.e. for Nepalese languages other than Nepali. As far as they are concerned the history of the twentieth century in Nepal is a history of language death; and they are convinced that the government has encouraged minority languages to die out, occasionally explicitly and overtly, but always covertly through rigging the rules against them, and by deliberately neglecting them. Press reports in the Newari-language press (there are now at least three daily newspapers and various others appearing weekly) reflect the views of these cultural nationalists.[7]

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Activists from the Kathmandu Jyapu Mahaguthi hold a meeting in the JSB hall

2. Female activists and teachers

The Nepal Bhasa Misa Khala is a cultural nationalist organization: it is, according to its name, the Newar cultural nationalist organization for women. It is the women of this group – all educated high-caste women from Kathmandu – who actually founded the school. Their leader is undoubtedly Chunda Vajracharya, historian, college lecturer, and activist, who is very articulate and frequently involved. In 1997 she told me:

What the activists want is just for Nepal Bhasha to be taught. Everything in Nepal Bhasha, even science and maths. That’s not good for the children, they have to be able to compete with others….We were the ones who went out, cleaned the noses of the Dyahla and Khadgi children [i.e. the Dalits or Untouchables], brought them in and taught them [at the start of the school]. We did this, not the Board…What’s important to the Japanese is the fact that it was women running it for free and that the children were poor… The other day they sent a letter saying that we should teach in English and Nepali too.

Without being an activist or a scholar like Chunda Vajracharya, the women teachers (there was only one male in 2007 and none in 1996) shared her pragmatic and gender-inflected cultural nationalism: they were working for salaries well under the market rate because they believed in an education that prioritized Newari. But their first duty was to the children. In the way they describe the situation there is a not-so-hidden critique of the male activists for being all talk and no action, hogging the limelight and the glory, but not actually getting things done, and not putting the interests of the children themselves first.

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JSB Nepali teacher Ramita Malakar taking class III

3. Japanese sponsors

The main leader of HIKIVA is, as noted above, Takashi Khajita, a retired engineer; his official position is vice-president. He started a local NGO in Osaka to support third-world development. At first his idea was to concentrate on water, but his support base was Osaka housewives, and their priority was education, so that is what the charity ended up concentrating on. As far as he is concerned, what is important about JSB is the ethos: the fact that the teachers work as volunteers, taking lower than average salaries and putting more in; and the fact that the targeted children are from deprived backgrounds.

It is clear from Khajita’s contribution to the memorial booklet (smarika) produced in 2003 for the ten-year anniversary of the school’s establishment, that HIKIVA expected the school to become ‘self-sustaining’ within the next ten years. He reiterated the point to me in an interview in Osaka on 8th March 2004. He told me that he had argued to the teachers and to the School Board that by providing more instruction in English and Nepali the school could make itself attractive to the middle class who could afford the fees. Mr Khajita stressed that, because of the selflessness of the teachers and the moral education provided, he regarded JSB as a model school. In other words, for the Japanese donors, the key issue was education for all, and supporting the poor; they were not interested in the cultural nationalist considerations that motivated the teachers and (even more) the governors of the school.

In 2007 it was clear that the arguments of the Japanese donors had won out. The school had expanded to 9th class, and was about to add class 10, so that they would be able to offer the School Leaving Certificate. Everyone was keen to impress on me that the JSB students could compete with the best. The only subject now taught in Newari was Newari itself. Nepali was used for teaching Nepali. Everything else was now taught in English. Effectively the school had become an English-medium private school, but with Japanese and other sponsors. Apparently in every class there were two or three non-Newars present; and the caste profile of the school was beginning to change, as Khajita had hoped, with more high castes entering the school.

There are two young Japanese-speaking Nepalis, one the son of Rajbhai Jahkami, as noted above, who act as HIKIVA’s local representatives. Some Japanese sponsors have visited the school and met their sponsored children; a very few come more than once; quite a few have never visited or communicated with ‘their’ children. The vast majority of the Japanese sponsors are just supporting poor children and families in a developing country and are certainly not aware of the cultural nationalist issue.

4. Parents

It was clear that, for the vast majority of the parents I was able to meet, the connection with Newar cultural activism was of no significance. For Maharjans in the early days, the very idea of being educated was a new thing and, but for the school, it was likely that the female Maharjans would barely have been educated at all. Two of the Maharjan girls in my cohort of 13 did not pass the SLC, married young, and had their first child already in 2007. For those of lower castes, education was evidently new in the same way. It was not possible to track down those of the very lowest castes, except in one case, and he declined to be interviewed. It would seem that, at least for those in the original sample, the school was not a means of upward mobility. In my original article, I quoted a girl who had written how pleased her father was that there were no fees to pay, thanks to the Japanese sponsorship.

For the parents, then, the school offered either an education, or a private-style education, that they could not otherwise have afforded. The Newarist agenda was simply not of interest to them. Interestingly, no Newar cultural nationalist has ever, to my knowledge, put their own children in JSB.

5. The children

Last, but not least, one should include the children’s point of view. On the basis of very brief and casual observation in 1996, it appeared to me that the JSB playground was a completely bilingual sphere in which Nepali and Nepal Bhasha were used more or less equally by the children, even though the teachers were careful always to use Nepal Bhasha. We have seen that the graduates of the school did not turn into, and most in 2007 did not look likely to turn into, Newar cultural nationalists. Newar cultural nationalists tend to come from a different class entirely – and, as I and others have pointed out, their own children often do not speak Newari, or do so only badly.[8]

Despite these very different points of view, it is indisputable that JSB does indeed provide poor children with a good education – better than they would otherwise get – and does indeed send them on to other schools with an ability to write in Nepal Bhasha, which is for the vast majority of them their mother tongue. This is no mean achievement given the dominance of Nepali among the younger generation.

The children much appreciated the love and concern of the teachers at JSB, and the sense of community it generated. That, they almost unanimously felt, set it apart from the larger schools they moved on to. They had to face some curious, occasionally slighting, views of the ‘Newar’ school they had been to (alternatively people just had no idea about it, never having heard of it). They were keen to combat the idea that the preparation they had had for later life was in any way inferior. The one thing they did not feel was that they were foot soldiers in any great battle of ideas. Or that Newar culture was a glorious heritage they should preserve. Despite the fact that these nationalist ideas were and are very much in the air, and that they had most certainly been exposed to them on many occasions, being taken by the school on demonstrations for example, they were extremely resistant to ‘catching’ them. For those educated to higher levels, at college and university, by contrast, nationalist ideas are highly intuitive and plausible, even if they themselves do not become active nationalists.

Different viewpoints on difference

We can see therefore that there are rather different expectations and understandings on the part of the parents, children, Newar activists, teachers, and Japanese donors involved in Jagat Sundar Bwone Kuthi. The parents are mainly concerned to get a good education for their children, and the children are happy that they have a scholarship which means that their parents don’t have to pay fees. The governors of the school wish to preserve Newar culture and Nepal Bhasha as a medium of thought, writing, and cultural production; this is also the aim of the teachers, though they also have the more immediate concerns of the children at heart. The Japanese donors are primarily concerned with the uplift of poor and deprived communities in Nepal and the propagation of education.

In terms of the production of difference, the founders of the school and the teachers both wish to protect and produce cultural difference. With rare exceptions, the children and their parents are not interested in this and some are positively against it. The funders also have no interest in this issue, and indeed, as Japanese, usually have a strong, common-sense presumption that the production of cultural homogeneity is a good thing in every nation-state; they are even sometimes puzzled by the very idea of multiculturalism.

Similar disconnects between the pupils’ parents and the founders and funders of the school exist in most mission schools. A good example would be the mission schools routinely taken advantage of by the Indian elite for the education of their children. Another example is provided by Anthony Simpson’s Half London in Zambia: Contested Identities in a Catholic Mission School. The teachers who ran the school were not able to control their charges, even though it was a boarding school. They resisted the controls, both with formal strikes and by means of religion. Many of them were or became Seventh Day Adventists or Born Again fundamentalists, and openly rejected Catholicism, while also carrying on secret meetings late at night in their dormitories. They believed in salvation by faith, and rejected the social doctrine the missionaries had come to adopt. Simpson writes:

[S]tudents from the earliest days, demonstrated that they were quite able to retain a sense of agency in the face of official Catholic authority… they retained a space for themselves, in which to fashion their own desire, namely the identity of mission-educated, Christian gentlemen, of future leaders, of an elite in the making… Technologies of discipline met with counter-technologies of resistance, at times openly, at times covertly. (Simpson 2003: 190).

The students were the ones with certainty, their teachers troubled by doubt, no longer sure, as they had been decades earlier, that they should be trying to convert Africans.[9]

Although his focus is on just one group of boys, Willis’s much-cited study, Learning to Labour (1977), also provides evidence in the same direction, namely that there are systematic subcultures within schools that do not share the aims or the values of the teachers. This is, then, an uncontroversial conclusion shared by many studies.


Organizations are the defining feature of the modern world. We are born in one – even that minority who give birth at home, only do so by warrant of them; we become full persons or citizens by spending twelve years in one, known as a school; most of us work for one; and it is only when we die that – nowadays – there is some expression of individuality, so that at least in my country, there is an attempt to craft a brief ritual out of bits and pieces that reflect the personality of the dead person.

It may seem self-evidently true that the participants in an organization or institution must share some common understandings for that institution to operate at all. But careful ethnography reveals ‘hidden transcripts’, backstage backbiting, and very divergent views of what is actually going on. On the basis of this case study, we can perhaps go further and say that it is possible for the aims of the different participants to be wholly distinct and incommensurate, and yet the whole can function and flourish. Of course, there must be some overlap: the Japanese donors had an interest in providing a good education, the children and their parents wanted to receive it, and the teachers were interested in providing it. From that point of view, it may appear that the nationalist motivations of the school board were an irrelevance. But that is not actually the case: nationalist motivations were central to the founding of the school, to the local support the school received, to acquisition of the land for the school, to the work that was done in getting it registered and getting permission for it to expand, and to the teachers in continuing to work for the school at much lower salaries than they could command elsewhere.

A similar point to the one I am trying to argue for has been made about intergenerational families by Frederik Barth. Using the example of a Pakistani family in Norway, he points out that the husband, who has come to the country first, his wife, who comes after, and the children who are born there will all have very different experiences.

The elementary point is that each such family unit, though it is the key node of ethnic recruitment, will also be a crucible of cultural difference and contention. Its members are deeply divided in the culture that each commands, parts of which they will share with different circles of others, both inside and outside the ethnic group… In this situation we need to ask just what is the culture difference that ethnicity organizes… (Barth 1996: 15)

If this is correct, it does not make sense – or is, at the least, highly misleading – to treat a school as if it were an isolated culture. Just as there are no isolated cultures, even more so there cannot be isolated organizations. And yet, are we really going to throw out the baby of anthropological holism with the bathwater of an outdated structural functionalism? In other words, can this observation – radical difference within organizations like schools or institutions like families – be reconciled with the thoroughgoing Durkheimianism of Mary Douglas? Douglas writes:

Any institution that is going to keep its shape needs to gain legitimacy by distinctive grounding in nature and in reason. Any institution… starts to control the memory of its members… It provides the categories of their thought, sets the terms for self-knowledge, and fixes identities. All of this is not enough. It must secure the social edifice by sacralizing the principles of justice. (Douglas 1986: 112)

The solution, I believe, lies in looking at the wider society and at the general value given to education within modern societies. If the shared values are not there within the school, they are present, at some deep level, in the wider society. The point is that the form of the school, the division into classes, the advancing year on year (or not, if deemed to have failed the year) – what Douglas calls the system of justice – is more important that the content of either the learning or the ideology of the school. The ideals of a school’s founders are then less foundational than the concept of schooling as such and the training that schooling implies. The only exception here might be those anti-schools which allow children to choose whether or not to attend lessons and whether or not to go a classroom in order to study (e.g. Summerhill in the UK) – that really does strike at the heart of what a school is and does. An ethnographic study of such schools, if it were possible to do it, would present an interesting contrast to the kinds of cases I have considered.

In conclusion, although I have argued for plurality of voices, and in a very un-Durkheimian way for a lack of value consensus in the case I have described, I am not keen on throwing out what Louis Dumont called ‘the sociological apperception’ altogether (Yan 2011). I would not like it to be replaced by shifting networks, whether those of evolutionary psychology, game theory and economics, actor network theory, or any other of the fashionable trends in social science that privilege the individual above society. In so far as the new anthropology of morality focuses exclusively on individuals, it too shares this weakness of ignoring collective ethics. As a parenthesis, it seems to me surprising that the new ethical literature in anthropology does not link up with the enormous literature on schooling. Surely, if there is a ‘self-’ and ‘other-making’ project par excellence, it is the emergence of mass schooling.

In so far as lessons for the study of schools are concerned, it should be clear that I am advocating an awareness of different points of view, of different interests, including those points of view that tended to be ignored in the past (‘muted’ or ‘hidden’ voices). This much is conventional in contemporary anthropology – a rejection of the oversocialized and rigid models of the past. What I am less keen on is a complete rejection of Durkheim’s and Douglas’s insight that we are social beings and are shaped by the social organizations in which we find ourselves. There is a an inescapable Kantian antinomy, a necessary contradiction if you will, between seeing humans as constrained and embodying social forces that pre-exist them and as agents, able to shape and contest their future to some degree. The best anthropological approaches will keep both these in mind and in play in their descriptions and analyses.


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  1. [1]This paper is the result of an invitation to address the conference ‘Ethnography and Difference in Educational Fields: International Developments of Educational Research’, 17-19 November 2011 in Erlangen, for which I thank Professor Michael Göhlich and his team. It was first published in A. Tervooren, N. Engel, M. Göhlich, I. Miethe, & S. Reh (eds), Ethnographie und Differenz in pädagogischen Feldern: Internationale Entwicklung erziehungswissenschaftlicher Forschung, 2014, pp. 205-23, Bielefeld: transcript Verlag. It is reproduced here by kind permission of transcript Verlag. The original invitation to speak was due, I believe, to an edited collection on doing ethnographic research in organizational contexts (Gellner/Hirsch 2001). An earlier version was tried out in a seminar at Brunel University in March 2008 and was given again in Oxford in February 2013. I have modified the original spoken presentation considerably, and deleted the autobiographical and exculpatory opening passages, but it none the less retains the form of a lecture.
  2. [2]For an introduction to the political history of recent years, see Hachhethu/Gellner (2010). On the ethnic issue in Nepal, there is a huge and sometimes partisan literature. For introductions, see Gellner (2007), Gellner/Pfaff-Czarnecka/Whelpton (2008), and Hangen (2010). Lawoti (2005) makes the case for ethnic federalism.
  3. [3]Two superb ethnographies of education and literacy under the Panchayat regime are by Ragsdale (1989) and Ahearn (2003). It is no coincidence that both authors were Peace Corps volunteers teaching in Nepali schools before undertaking anthropological research. For more recent educational research on Nepal, see the special issue of Globalisation, Societies and Education 9(1) (2011).
  4. [4]These differences are analysed in Lawoti (2005), Onta (2006), and Gellner (2007).
  5. [5]On the Newars, see Toffin (1984, 2007), Gellner/Quigley (1995), Levy (1990), Gellner (1986, 2003).
  6. [6]Interview with Chunda Vajracharya, one of the school governors (8/1/97).
  7. [7]It is worth noting that Jahkami’s wife is one of the teachers at JSB. His son, through the contacts with HIKIVA, has learnt Japanese, spent time in Japan, and is now employed to maintain links with HIKIVA and works from an office inside the school.
  8. [8]I can think of exceptions here, but the generalization remains broadly true in my experience.
  9. [9]“The Brothers, officially the managers, the agency, of the school, did not hold the centre ground in the competition for souls; indeed, theirs was a profound sense of displacement.” (ibid.)

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