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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Digging Education

Imagine closing school for two days on short notice so learners in 7th to 12th grade could assist in the harvest of the potato crop. That's what the learners of that age range were expected to do when the Governor of the Tov Aimag (state) in Mongolia declared a potato emergency approximately two weeks ago. Talk about community service!

The school where my son teaches English as a Peace Corps volunteer was empty of secondary level learners as a result of that decree. The climate of Mongolia provides a very short growing season and the potato is a staple of the Mongolian diet. Most of the crops are tubers or root vegetables like carrots and turnips. The threat of impending cold weather prompted the action. In retrospect, it proved to be a wise decision since it snowed four inches last night in Bayanchanmandi, the small village of 2,500 where my son lives as the only American in town.

His Facebook posts and emails serve to remind me how fortunate we are. There is a sharp contrast between his own educational experience as a young learner in America and that of the children he serves in Mongolia. There are so many opportunities and experiences we take for granted - and often whine about when things don't go exactly to our liking. There are no buses transporting children to school. Many of the 700 learners walk to and from school in distances measured in miles (the mercury dips well below zero there during a winter that far exceeds ours in length). That certainly reflects a desire to learn. The conditions at the school built by the Soviets a few decades ago, (outhouses, lack of equipment and technology) pale in comparison to typical public school in our country.

Yet attendance and commitment is high among the learners. The behavior of learners toward staff members is respectful and supportive. My son reports that the learners in his classes are eager and enthusiastic to study English. Their clothes and expressions reveal the influence of our culture stretching deep into rural Asia. The learners appear to clearly understand that education offers the potential for social and economic mobility and a brighter future. There does not seem to be a prevailing sense of entitlement and school is not viewed as something one must endure. Instead the learners perceive education as a privilege and opportunity.

They don't just dig potatoes, they dig education too.


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