Reshmi Banerjee reviews Pia Jolliffe’s new book on the Karen and the gift of education.
“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”. This profound statement by Mark Twain stresses the importance of understanding education as a life-long process of learning and unlearning. It is the greatest resource that we can give to ourselves, nourishing our self-confidence and providing opportunities for meaningful choices in life. Yet education can be used as a powerful weapon to preserve power arrangements and thought processes driven by the dominant majority and a hegemonic culture. In addition, access to an education is often complicated with regular interruptions, with regions and communities (often ethnic and cultural minorities) that have witnessed conflict, violence and displacement routinely facing disruption to their educational journey. Political violence and an unstable socio-economic environment has affected the lives and identities of Karen refugees of Myanmar, yet they have continued to view ‘education as a gift’ and valued its role. Pia Jolliffe takes up the very relevant issue of learning amongst refugee communities by looking at the challenges that the Karen community faces. Through her extensive ethnographic fieldwork (conducted between 2007 and 2015) in the rural and urban areas of Thailand, the IDP village of Etuta in Burma and in the UK cities of Sheffield and Hull, she explores the interplay between learning, migration and inter-generational relationships.
Jolliffe makes three critical observations. Firstly, she stresses the relevance of education as a non-material gift that creates and sustains relations between teachers and students. Secondly, she notes the negative effect of social dissonance in education and schooling. This is especially true in the context of increasing migration between institutional and geographical locations, which affects ethnic-minority children. Thus, silencing of minority voices becomes easier with minority groups being denied the right to education in their mother tongue. Thirdly, schools can become spaces that support social inequality by reproducing stereotypes (political, socio-economic, gendered and religious ones). But education and learning can also develop intergenerational relations, with informal school clubs and other educational institutions emerging as tools for social inclusion.
Pia Jolliffe points out that amongst the Karen youth, traditional forms of learning are deeply embedded in the daily practices of everyday life. Traditionally, while the girls help with the household chores and learn weaving, the boys look after the family cattle. The Karen youth are happy to contribute to the economic needs of their families with diligence, with work understood as essential for goodness. Thus, the social morality of the economic activities of children becomes important. Various institutions in the country have played a critical role in facilitating the learning process, from Buddhist monasteries to Catholic missionaries. Thus the author mentions the arrival of the American Baptist missionaries and the instrumental role played by their educational activities in the formation of the Karen national identity and Christian led-Karen ethno-nationalism (Christian missionaries introduced western education to the Karen in Burma and Thailand from the 17th century.)
Beginning in the 1950s, the Karen started accessing primary and secondary education in the highlands of northern Thailand, with priests and monks helping to create a link between the highlands and the lowlands, and with the Catholic Mae Pon School and the Buddhist Wat Srisoda opening as the region’s first free schools. These missionary-led schools opened multiple educational paths forward, producing many Karen intellectuals and professionals. Schools in Thailand also taught children new standards of punctuality, hygiene and adult-child interactions. However, simultaneously, schools also became sites of conflict and contestation, with Thai school teachers criticizing Karen practices of body care and the lack of attention shown by parents. The Karen parents, on the other hand, complained of high school canteens which served inadequate and expensive food portions for teenage boys. Time-budgeting was another area of conflict. The time-discipline and economic efficiency promoted by the Thai schools was very different from the Karen local patterns based on seasonal changes. Finally, the Karens struggled with the Thai language and the codes of good social behaviour (maa-ra-yaat Thai), a fact that created mis-understanding between them and the Thai people, evident by the display of Karen shyness and awkwardness. Children were required to adopt ‘Thai’ names in schools, thus the temples of learning were becoming arenas of assimilation. The author’s interaction with the Karen youth made her feel that the Karen students did not always want to conform to the Thai school standards.
Jolliffe’s book also covers the importance of foster families and scholarship programmes. She observes that foster children worked more than their peers with no time left for socializing. Yet, foster children also helped each other to fulfill their educational aspirations. She describes the challenges which a young Karen woman would face – including gossip about friendships and romantic relations affecting her reputation and mobility. On one hand, a young Karen woman might enjoy more freedom to change her appearance and use different beauty products and styles, but, on the other hand, wearing traditional Karen clothing could make her vulnerable to discrimination. Embracing the yellow Thai T-shirts was an easier option when one visited the lowlands, thus the constant ethnic negotiation with the ‘other’. The birth of the younger generation in refugee camps, the Post-Ten Schools (offering post-secondary education to the refugee youth) in Thailand, efforts by Jesuit Arrupe Education Project and the Curriculam Project are all well documented.
Finally, Pia Jolliffe describes the experiences of the Karen community in the UK where educational qualifications obtained in their home country are frequently not recognized. Easier integration of primary school children, peer-pressures faced by secondary school children, inability to understand the teacher-pupil relations and difficulties in adapting to the age-graded system are analyzed. The UK schooling experience, however, has not been without its share of benefits, as it has provided academic independence, improved the ability to question, created education loans and grants for the Karen student community, while also creating a support system through the Student’s Union.
The pictography used in the book by the author to capture the life stories and endurance of the Karen youth is interesting. The book also reveals certain characteristics of the Karen community which are praiseworthy. Hardships have never stopped them from dreaming big and aspiring to work in professions like politics, medicine and education. They have also not forgotten their duty towards the next generation, with many aiming to pass on the gift of education by using their income to support education-cum-income projects in Burma and Thailand. Modern education has not made them de-value their traditional skills (rice-growing and weaving) even while they make daily adaptations in foreign lands.
The book also makes one think about certain pertinent questions for further debate: Should education be viewed as a gift or as a right? Should one chase personal ambitions or work with families to contribute towards household income? Should school-based education be used as a tool for societal and national integration? Can schools really be neutral zones? How to solve conflicts within schools between the ‘locals’ and the ‘outsiders’ who are seen socially and culturally as the ‘other’ is also an interesting dilemma. Pia Jolliffe’s book makes us realize that the process of learning is never-ending and the canvas of a good education is limitless. It also inculcates in us the desire for critical pedagogy, to create spaces for mutual engagement and politics of difference.