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The educational system and development in Tibet

The use of new technologies is obviously a question of education; other economic activities also require a certain level of education. Then why should there be a conflict between education and economic development?

Traditionally, formal education in the Tibetan civilization was not designed primarily to promote economic development. This was also true for the Han Chinese and Western civilization and probably all other civilizations in the world: all of them were essentially focused on culture and religion. In some regions on earth, natural forces like rivers had to be harnessed in order to make life possible for the population. This was the case for example in the Nile valley and Mesopotamia, where desertification led to the emergence of the first empires: only the rational use of ever scarcer water resources could allow the survival of these human societies. In Han Chinese areas, there was no such dramatic change of the environment, but flood prevention and irrigation were part of the responsibilities of the Chinese state for thousands of years. These tasks and the resulting need for management skills have obviously favored the emergence of a more pragmatic educational system.

In the Tibetan areas, until a few decades ago, infrastructure works organized by the state could not improve the living conditions of the people: due to the mountainous terrain and the low population density, the cost for building roads or railways was out of proportion with the potential benefit. Irrigation was organized only locally. Therefore, the state apparatus remained small and highly decentralized; engineering and management did not become part of the curriculum in the educational system.

Increasing militarization has also contributed to inflating the state apparatus and directing formal education towards more pragmatic goals. In many regions of the globe, this process took place in the 19th and 20th centuries, but not in the Tibetan areas. The high plateau was protected by the Himalaya range in the south, extremely rugged terrain in the east and a huge desert high plain in the north; it did not need much military protection.

Since 1950, the new combination of monastic and state education has led to a fast spread of literacy among the population. State schools and universities have joined the monasteries in their role as centers of cultural and religious learning, research and teaching. The traditional activities in Tibetan monasteries do not only consist in prayers and meditation; Buddhist philosophy and science are also integral part of the curriculum. In recent times, they have started to teach not only monks, but also lay people.

Tibet monastic school: The richly sculpted entrance to a monastic elementary school for lay children.

The richly sculpted entrance to a monastic elementary school for lay children.

The Chinese public educational system has also made huge efforts to preserve and develop the Tibetan culture, language and religion. All the students of the national Minority Universities with whom I have talked told me that these institutions play an important role in this field; their evaluation was very positive. Many students actually get their education both from formal courses in public universities and colleges and from informal courses organized in the monasteries.

China: The Central Minority University in Beijing.

The Central Minority University in Beijing.

However, neither the monasteries nor the public educational system teach them much which could be useful in assisting the economic development of the Tibetan areas. Obviously, some monks have got a lot of experience in managing the economic activities of their monastery, but I have never heard about management courses organized by a monastery.

The Chinese public educational system has trained many excellent engineers and researchers in natural sciences and technology; their massive presence in Western universities and the achievements of Chinese companies in the high-tech sector show it. However, the ability of this system to teach concrete skills is much less impressive. In most Western educational systems, the lower the entrance requirements of schools and colleges, the more concrete and immediately applicable the curriculum is. In China, the lower the requirements, the less the students will actually learn.

Among Western countries, Germany, Switzerland and some other countries are widely known for their apprenticeship systems. Students who do not perform well with purely formal curricula can still get degrees which are widely recognized and well appreciated on the labor market. After middle school, they will start working in a private company or in the public sector for three or four days a week; during one or two days a week, they will get theoretical courses. This combination of on-the-job training with the related formal education has been a key factor contributing to the efficiency of the economies using this system.

In China, practical knowledge is transmitted mostly through informal on-the-job training. The recent performance of the Chinese economy shows that this has worked well for the Han Chinese areas which had a longstanding tradition in most business sectors. However, building up concrete skills in regions like the Tibetan areas where such traditions do not exist will take a very long time with such a system.

The absence of organized training possibilities where Tibetans could acquire concrete skills leading to decently paid jobs demotivates many of them. Others will work hard to enter university; most choose Tibetan language and culture as a major. After graduating, they will have good job opportunities, but not many where they can apply the competence acquired during their study.

Culture and religion are certainly a major asset of the Tibetan areas, which can contribute to a considerable extent to the development of the region. However, even in the best Chinese Minorities Universities, cultural management is not part of the curriculum: the students learn a lot about the Tibetan heritage, but they don't learn how to use this treasure to lift their region out of poverty.

This is not just a question of making money; it is also about sharing their knowledge with people from other cultures. Exile Tibetans have become specialists in promoting and spreading their culture and religion, especially in Western countries. In the Chinese Tibetan areas, such activities are limited to a few places like Lhasa and a few major monasteries. How to explain the Tibetan culture to Han Chinese tourists and to foreigners and courses about cultural and tourism management should become part of the curriculum in all Chinese Minorities Universities.

The monasteries have played an important role in the emergence of Tibetan businessmen, and they play an important role in the field of education. However, there have been no attempts yet to combine these two activities in order to set up courses which could help local people to learn the practical skills they need to set up successful businesses in trade and tourism. The monasteries have got most of the competence which such activities require: they have got a longstanding pedagogical tradition and this educational role could be combined with the funding and supervision role outlined above.

An educational system focusing on practical skills is key to the development of trade and tourism. Historically, this field was included neither in the Han nor in the Tibetan educational system. However, once a solid system is in place with a longstanding tradition of teaching complex and abstract topics, it can easily cope with teaching basic courses in concrete shop keeping or hospitality skills.

The absence of such courses has certainly contributed to the widespread opinion in Tibetan society that in order to do business, you need a good level of formal education. Many examples from all around the world show that the contrary is true. In most cultures, people with very little formal education have opened small shops, even though some of them could barely count to ten.

Bolivia La Paz food store: The owner of this shop in La Paz, Bolivia, started very young to trade items of daily necessity between a small town in an Andean valley and the surrounding indigenous communities; most transactions were done through barter.

The owner of this shop in La Paz, Bolivia, started very young to trade items of daily necessity between a small town in an Andean valley and the surrounding indigenous communities; most transactions were done through barter.

With a little initial support, Tibetans can easily become successful retail traders even in the modern high-tech world. Owning a small shop has always been an efficient entry-level activity which will lead to more demanding forms of business later on or in the next generation.


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