Wisdom Over Intelligence

by | Dec 22, 2015

Ladakh Before 1970

The story of education in Ladakh is intimately tied to the story of its people’s introduction to western concepts of progress and to the global marketplace. Prior to the 1970s, education in Ladakh largely took place in the village, in the fields, and by the family hearth. The work of the farm was traditionally shared by the entire family and by the village as a whole, with intricate customs of labor-sharing designed to lighten everyone’s work on a rotating basis. Children learned, by watching and working alongside their parents and neighbors, when and how to plough, sow, irrigate, and harvest the food that sustained them, and when to lead their yaks and other animals to pasture in the summer.

The songs and stories of Ladakh’s past tales about life in the mountains—would often be passed down orally while this work was being done. Each child would grow to become competent enough to build and maintain his or her own house, manage the farm or herd, and meet the family’s needs.

More specialized education took place as well: amchis, practitioners of traditional Tibetan medicine, would undergo rigorous training for years under an older teacher in the complex techniques of diagnosis and preparation of herbal medicines. Many Buddhist families would send at least one son to the local gonpa, or Tibetan Buddhist monastery, where he would receive extensive instruction in the Mahayana tradition’s scriptures, and practice debate in topics ranging from metaphysics to meditation to medicine. But for most children, experience and community were their greatest teachers, and the purpose of education—though it was not formally labeled as such—was the preparation of youth for lives of meaningful work and the transmission of Ladakh’s unique cultural values. This education allowed stable, prosperous communities to continue meeting their own needs.

Opening Up For Tourism

In 1974 Ladakh was officially opened to tourism, and western-style development initiatives were implemented in earnest. Taken together, the steadily increasing numbers of foreign visitors, the ubiquitous military presence, and the conventional development policies enthusiastically pushed by administrators of the region have contributed to a number of rapid changes in the social and economic fabric of the region. The burgeoning cash economy, with its epicenter in Leh, the region’s capital, has fostered the growth of a new class of Ladakhis dependent on salaries, living in urban housing or barracks, and divorced from their land to an extent that would have been inconceivable 40 years ago.

For the past 5 decades now, the average pass percentage in the all-important matriculation exam in the 300-odd schools has oscillated between 0 and 5 percent. This didn’t matter before as standardised education was seen as irrelevant. Today, however, with the lure of tourist dollars and government money being poured into the sensitive border region, these scores determine the chances of the youth to avail jobs as trekking guides and drivers, labourers, soldiers, or, for a select and highly educated few, civil servants.

Sonam Wangchuk witnessed this first hand when he was conducting coaching classes at Leh for the Ladakhi school students. Being himself homeschooled until the age of 8, he was pained to see native ladakhi wasn’t part of the curriculum at all. Moreover, there was an abrupt change in the medium of instruction from one non-Ladakhi language (Urdu), till class eight, to another (English), in class ninth. The “enviro-culturally” irrelevant curriculum was the next stumbling block. How was a child—with a life spent entirely in 11,000-foot high arid mountains, among apricots and yaks—to conceive of rain-drenched forests and coconut groves? The alienation was made worse by improperly trained teachers, mostly non-Ladakhis, who only added to the children’s woes by castigating them for their inability—being a part of a ‘primitive tribe’—to comprehend the teachings of an ‘advanced society’.


SECMOL grew out of the need to involve local communities in educating their children according to their own language and way of life. True to its spirit, the movement kicked off through funds garnered through a series of cultural Ladakhi performances. Sonam and his friends organised citizens across the region to monitor and participate in school activities. His approach to educational reform was gradual and non-confrontational. Rather than beginning with an assertion of cultural rights, which can create a deep divide between local people and the authorities, SECMOL mobilised citizens to monitor schools, train teachers, and develop an educational system appropriate to their own language and culture.

In 1991, it started a training program for teachers at the Government High School in Saspol, a tiny village on the Leh-Srinagar highway. The program was kept under wraps and it was only when the results started coming in that the authorities took notice. By then volunteers had succeeded in organising a sizeable number of villages to take over their respective schools through Village Education Committees.

A Silent Pedagogic Revolution

In creating Village Education Committees, providing teacher training, and introducing language and cultural reforms, SECMOL built an educational model called Operation New Hope (ONH) to improve schools in Ladakh. ONH became so popular that it was adopted by the Ladakh Hill Council as its official policy in 1996. SECMOL’s ONH, for all its success still was operating within the bounds of a system which brands students as failures. Apart from drugs and alcohol even suicides are on the rise among the failures this system ejects. If ONH was an attempt to prevent the system from drowning the students, SECMOL Alternative School was the lifeboat on which they reached the shores.

We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.

George Bernard Shaw

Wisdom Over Intelligence

The question ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ has lead to so many awkward conversations. Never have I been able to answer that question to even my own satisfaction. My past studies in mathematics didn’t help either. People seemed unable to comprehend why we as mathematicians were even paid when all we did was think about problems whose solutions are unlikely to benefit anyone else. Math after all was used to be something a handful of people did part-time not so long ago. Me being a mathematician has got a lot to do with society’s obsession with intelligence.

Though intelligent means something, we’re asking for trouble if we insist on looking for a single thing called intelligence. And whatever its components, they’re not all innate. We use the word intelligent as an indication of ability: a smart person can grasp things few others could. It does seem likely there’s some inborn predisposition to intelligence, but this predisposition is not itself intelligence.

Once Sonam Wangchuk asked me to estimate the length of pipe that lay before us. My estimate was double its actual length. He remarked “You are intelligent but not wise”. Wise and intelligent are both ways of saying someone knows what to do. The difference is that wise means one has a high average outcome across all situations, and intelligent means one does spectacularly well in a few.

Fellow author Surya (sitting atop) with his team at SECMOL, Sonam Wangchuk can be spotted here (fourth in bottom row)

When people come to you with a problem and you have to figure out the right thing to do, you don’t (usually) have to invent anything. You just weigh the alternatives and try to judge which is the prudent choice. Someone like a judge or a military officer can in much of his work be guided by duty, but duty is no guide in making things. Makers depend on something more precarious: inspiration. And like most people who lead a precarious existence, they tend to be worried, not contented.

It’s like a runner asking “If I’m such a good athlete, why do I feel so tired?” Good runners still get tired; they just get tired at higher speeds. People whose work is to invent or discover things are in the same position as the runner. There’s no way for them to do the best they can, because there’s no limit to what they could do. The closest you can come is to compare yourself to other people. But the better you do, the less this matters. An undergrad who gets something published feels like a star. But for someone at the top of the field, what’s the test of doing well? Runners can at least compare themselves to others doing exactly the same thing; if you win an Olympic gold medal, you can be fairly content, even if you think you could have run a bit faster. But what is a novelist to do?

Whereas if you’re doing the kind of work in which problems are presented to you and you have to choose between several alternatives, there’s an upper bound on your performance: choosing the best every time. In ancient societies, nearly all work seems to have been of this type. The peasant had to decide whether a garment was worth mending, and the king whether or not to invade his neighbor, but neither was expected to invent anything. In principle they could have; the king could have invented firearms, then invaded his neighbor.

But in practice innovations were so rare that they weren’t expected of you. In this world, wisdom seemed paramount. Even now, most people do work in which problems are put before them and they have to choose the best alternative. But as knowledge has grown more specialized, there are more and more types of work in which people have to make up new things, and in which performance is therefore unbounded. Intelligence has become increasingly important relative to wisdom because there is more room for spikes. We no longer admire the sage—not the way people did two thousand years ago. Now we admire the genius. Because in fact the distinction we began with has a rather brutal converse: just as you can be smart without being very wise, you can be wise without being very smart.

SAS (SECMOL Alternative School)

That doesn’t sound especially admirable. Schools and colleges thus were by design made to screen students to find the few who excelled at select things. SAS (SECMOL Alternative School) on the other hand recognised the importance of wisdom over intelligence. Construction of SAS began in the summer of 1994, when Sonam and 14 other SECMOL volunteers moved to Phey at the then barren site and pitched tents with a resolve to build a campus where people would not only live to learn but also learn to live. SAS is an epitome to Ladakhi wisdom.

Housed at Phey, in a south facing slope, it completely utilizes solar energy for all its power, food and water needs. Its building is made up of rammed earth walls filled in with small wood pieces for insulation. This keeps the temperature inside the building low in summer and high in winter. These solar heated structures are the warmest in all of Ladakh with temperatures staying above 12 C even in the fiercest of winters (-30 C). The campus has grown over the years and has residential space for students and campers, large rooms for training, smaller work spaces, a library, kitchen and dining area. The campus also has over a 1,000 trees that have been planted, vegetable gardens and green houses and cows. The required vegetables are grown in greenhouses. SAS doesn’t even require any kind of funding.

SAS students completely manage the campus on their own – tending the garden, milking the cows, maintaining the solar panels, helping with any construction work, kitchen duties, and so on. Each student is assigned a responsibility every 3 months. So by the end of a year these students have “earned” lakhs of rupees for SECMOL and also learnt the skills of an electrician, gardener, sweeper, cook… Whats more, the entire campus was constructed by students.

Imagine how empowering it would be for a school reject to present his savings worth lakhs of rupees milking cows to volunteers from all across the world and showing how his innovations helped to earn more than previously possible.

SAS has inspired a lot of innovation in the fields of solar passive architecture, solar water heating, tourism, winter sports, just to name a few. Most of these innovations pertain to climate adaptation due to the queer weather in Ladakh where the temperatures go to -30 C in the winters even though the sun shines bright.

Surya with his mentor Sonam sharing about their work with the Monastery

Reference:  SECMOL – A School Students Would FAIL to Attend!Is it worth being wise?

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