An open letter to my donors: One scholarship recipient shares what she has learned at St Andrews

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Illustration: Nicole Slyusareva
Illustration: Nicole Slyusareva
Illustration: Nicole Slyusareva

Dear contributors to the R&A Ransome Trust:

Last year I received a very generous postgraduate scholarship from you, which enabled me to live and study in the beautiful coastal town of St Andrews. What do I have to say for myself now that the year has passed? This is a fair question, although a difficult one. It is difficult on the one hand because writing about oneself, especially in the early stages of one’s career, can feel like and indeed be a pompous, self-aggrandizing task. On the other hand, while I could easily record the events of my year in St Andrews because they were many, it is a greater task to reflect meaningfully on them, an attempt of which is something you deserve.

At the risk of sounding promotional, I will begin by reaffirming what you already know: the University of St Andrews is a superb academic institution. It is a fine place to live, and with the generosity of the scholarship, I have had no excuse but to immerse myself in the rigorous academic and vivacious social environment that is available to me. With your help, I studied in the School of International Relations, the highest-ranked IR department in the UK, took golf lessons at the Royal & Ancient Golf Club (I knew you would be proud) and developed a group of friends from all over the world, including Emma, a fellow Ransome scholar. Together we participated in as many events as our studies afforded. From academic conferences to dinner parties, chaotic Scottish ceilidhs amidst the castle remains to solemn Bach performances in regal cathedrals, from fancy balls with bumper cars to underground bars in Edinburgh and from a talk at which we met Nobel prize-winning activist Leymah Gbowee to a whisky tasting/creative writing event – we did it all. I would like to begin by saying how deeply grateful I am for these unique experiences. Expounding on them would take a short, muddled novel, but writing about what I have accomplished this year is a more complex question because indeed, it gets to the heart of the matter: Am I a deserving scholarship recipient?

In my application statement, I wrote that “education is freedom, and I desire to discover the best way to share this freedom with the world” and further that the school in which I was teaching was “a multifaceted social experiment worth exploring and perhaps replicating.” Both of these statements were true, but not completely. The truth is when I applied for this scholarship, I was growing deeply critical of the institution for which I was working. And, because of how much hope I had when I began the job, I was also discouraged. During my interview when I told you it was a pleasure to speak with people who also see education as an essential tool for individuals and act on it, I cannot tell you how sincere I was. What I did not tell you is that the cultural conflicts I was witnessing in India were casting over the optimism I gained in college a looming shadow of doubt about the limits or even dangers of education without good leaders.

My intention in pursuing further studies was to build on the perplexing educational conflicts I encountered in India and try to understand them with an in-depth conceptual analysis of cross-cultural dialogue. Do I feel like I understand India any better with a Master’s degree on this topic? No. If I have learned anything about India it is that India is a disjointed, massive place with both beautiful and tragic parts that become more mysterious the more one visits. Do I feel better equipped to approach intercultural discussions after spending a year with my nose in books? Maybe, but “the proof is in the pudding,” as my professor, Nicholas Rengger, often said during meetings about my dissertation.

What I studied:

My courses began with the large variety of academic approaches – including the realism of Henry Kissinger, the feminism of Simone de Beauvoir and the post-colonialism of Edward Said, among several others. In the end, I focused my dissertation on hermeneutics, which was put forward by German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer and, in my view, offers an approach rooted in classical Greek philosophy that draws from the strengths of all these approaches. Hermeneutics says understanding takes place in dialogues. In a genuine dialogue, one uncovers the “prejudices” or “horizons” of oneself and others as, together, they reflect on the topic at hand. He does not think all prejudices are bad, but rather that they are telling about those ideas and questions that have most shaped us. In this way, prejudices are important tools for understanding.

Where I went: 

For my spring break, instead of going home as my mom would have liked, I used part of my travel stipend to visit my friend, Allison, in Tanzania. She is working with the Peace Corps teaching in a  remote village in Singida, only a 12-hour bus ride from civilization, as we call it. When I arrived, the Tanzanian teacher’s polite but direct questions- “What brings you here to this school?” and “What are your preconceptions of Tanzania?” – initiated further reflection on the meaning of teaching “non-Western” students “Western” prejudices.

Alongside the adventures we had, lazing on the beaches of Zanzibar, hiking the many peaks (and many paths) of Tanzania’s fourth highest mountain, Mount Hanang, and embarking on day-long bus rides, we had much time for genuine conversations. Allison, like me and probably like many non-profit volunteers, was having doubts on what sort of impact we were truly able to make. Our conversations did not produce real understanding of Tanzania or Western “prejudices” as we might have liked, but they did produce a new understanding, if only between us, on our mutually experienced misgivings and misunderstandings when teaching people from cultures not our own. This inter-subjective understanding is precisely an example of what Gadamer’s hermeneutics calls the “fusion of horizons.”

The timing for revisiting my old doubts and fusing my horizon to Allison’s could not have been better. At her school, I was able to converse with the principal and the teachers, greet students at a school assembly with last-minute Swahili lessons from Allison, ask them students questions my former Indian students had sent me, celebrate Allison’s birthday, and, for the most “hermeneutic” experience, I watched as she facilitated a student-led debate under a baobab tree on “whether money brings happiness.” To my surprise, the students overcame the shyness they often have in the classroom, and they debated, argued and really spoke their minds. Watching this debate reminded me that, regardless of the challenges students face or even whether the head honchos of their schools have their best interests in mind, children are resilient and, indeed, small interventions from good teachers (and dedicated donors) can make a lasting difference.

What I did:

I returned to St Andrews encouraged and, with the connections I saw between hermeneutics and education, I wrote a paper envisioning how education systems within the EU might adopt Gadamer’s structure for cross-cultural dialogues aimed at political stability. I submitted it to the London School of Economics (LSE) for a conference of policy experts and young people seeking dialogues on political engagement in the EU, and it was accepted. I took the train down to London and spent a full day debating politics, which included going head to head with former MP Neil Kinnock, who informed me brusquely that “it’s not educational initiatives that matter so much as strengthening political parties.” Needless to say, I experienced serious doubt about my ideas. When a young delegate replied to him that youth in the EU are statistically less interested in traditional European party systems, he cut him off and almost shouted, “Well they bloody well better get interested!”

I backed down for the rest of the discussion but, to my surprise, was nominated to be the group’s representative, albeit with Neil Kinnock, and was even complimented (I think) by former French President Valéry Giscard despite my “being American.” The representatives from the participating groups of young delegates and policy experts have drafted together eight preliminary proposals for EU reform (including one of mine!) to be presented in Brussels this year.

Upon returning to St Andrews, I included excerpts of the discussion in my dissertation and reflected on whether they represented Gadamer’s hermeneutic structure for understanding. I concluded that the nature of politics necessitates that its dialectical form rarely be hermeneutic, or aimed towards genuine conversation. This again, for someone who studies politics and visualizes education reform through politics, is a very grim conclusion. In November I graduated and just this week, I received an offer to complete a PhD degree (at St Andrews!) In short, this past year, like the one before, included highs but also low lows.

When I first met you on Skype, I did not tell you that I was deep inside one of those low lows. The tropical environment of Bangalore and my students’ beautiful songs, faces and testimonials did not reveal my encroaching doubts during our interview: Am I actually making any difference? Does education really set people free? My biggest fear had come true. I was doubting the very optimism that drove me into the field of education.

Of course, I was not required to disclose my darkest feelings in my interview, so why tell you now? Accounting for the self-doubt I faced in India is quite similar to answering the question of whether I am a deserving scholarship recipient. The truth is, I do not know the answer to these questions. I do know, however, that it is a privilege to get to ask them. Questioning is the basis of education. As Gadamer says (and Plato before him), it is the questions that matter most, not the answers, and the ability to go on questioning. Because of the R&A Ransome scholarship, I was able to keep on asking questions. For that, I am deeply grateful.

With this letter, I wish to tell you that the greatest strength of your scholarship is not the money, the prestige or even the (wonderfully) fancy welcome dinner at the President’s home. It is the hope that you revive for students, just when they need it the most.

Thank you. Sincerely,

Mary Shiraef

P.S. Applications for the R&A Ransome scholarship (for postgraduates studying in the 2016-17) are currently upon until 29 February. To learn more, check out the University’s website.

 

 

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