A Community Approach to Education in the Luang Prabang Region of Laos
There is great debate on the relationship between education and development and what value education holds, both intrinsically and beyond the classroom. And yet, education remains often unchallenged at the forefront of development initiatives and as a keystone development indicator. This research builds on existing qualitative education knowledge, but as one of the first qualitative studies in Laos. With such a small percentage of the Lao population reaching higher education, which slowly rises every year, this exploratory research uncovered several patterns across student experiences that lead to wider discussion.
All participants spoke of a connection between education and community. Community came across as very important to the education process for participants, and at multiple stages. The positionality of the participant within his or her community appeared to change the relationship between education and community for the participant. This is consistent with Da Costa’s conclusions from fieldwork in India. She recognized the limits of education’s capabilities and that it affects each student differently: “Schooling does not have straightforward, timeless and consistent value and meaning” (2007:285). She identifies many factors that influence this process, such as the student’s role in the family and the employment opportunities in the region. This was also seen in this research. For example, Participant 10 was the youngest child and his older siblings were already financially successful and taking care of the family. This enhanced his education, as he was able to receive extensive financial support to study to be a paramedic and one of the few participants planning to pursue graduate school. However, Participant 6 had a very different family role: He was the eldest of two children, had to support his education and expenses, and was also sending money home to his parents, while being limited by the job opportunities available in the town. As in Da Costa’s research, the participants’ school lives were affected by many interrelated factors.
It is also possible that these same factors influenced which programs the participants pursued. The interviews indicated a divide between family wealth and chosen fields of study. The three participants identified as relatively well off were pursuing careers as paramedics and police to support their community. On the contrary, seven participants who were not as well off were trying to pursue a career in teaching to help their village. This may be indicative of a divide in the accessibility of different programs based on family wealth, or a divide between socioeconomic groups in what is seen as a priority for community and family development.
There was a strong pattern in how many participants actively mentioned wanting to pursue a career that would help their community–whether their village or a broader community in Laos–after completing their education. This was interpreted as a common feeling in Laos that the benefits of education should be shared with one’s community. This is in direct contrast to prior research in India, which indicated that education cultivates individualism (Morarji 2010). As the participants in this study were current students whereas participants had already graduated in Morarji’s research, this could indicate that there is a shift in perspectives on education and community after graduating in urban areas. However, as the participants were at such a variety of stages in their education, this would be a very dramatic shift to occur after graduation. More likely, these findings indicate a unique relationship between education and community in Laos. This could be a means by which Evans’ description of hierarchical interdependence in Laos manifests (2001). Education may be the preferred avenue for parents to support their children, and in return children to reciprocate to their parents. More in-depth qualitative studies should explore these connections between community, education and obligations to one another.
Education is widely viewed as inherently positive. There are countless benefits associated with education: Human and economic development, profitability, productivity, employment opportunities, human security, gender equality, among many others (Da Costa 2007; Nussbaum 2007; Nussbaum 2004; Sen 1999). The interviews indicated an underlying agreement with this philosophy. The participants were extremely dedicated to their education, with an unsaid assumption that education would better their lives. While some directly discussed the above benefits, such as employment opportunities and profitability, others went unmentioned. It was therefore unclear whether participants had actively thought about why education was inherently beneficial, or if it was merely assumed. This study illuminated that the value of education is multifaceted in regions like Luang Prabang. While the participants appeared to be in agreement that education is inherently beneficial, their experiences validated Stuart-Fox’s critique of the standards of education in the country (Stuart Fox 2009; Stuart Fox 2007). Earlier quotes illustrated examples of low quality of education, which is a reminder that education for development discourse needs to be more specific as to what type of education should be promoted.
While all participants were benefitting from their education in a variety of means, these benefits were not evenly distributed. In his theory on the different means of capital, Bourdieu (2007) argues that as a form of institutionalized cultural capital, education is inherently valuable to the educated and is profitable to society at large. However, his theory also explores the complexity of education and argues that its value is not equivalent for everyone. Extending education beyond mandatory schooling means that families are sacrificing the child’s labour power to pursue formal their education. We saw this division between the participants. Some participants were able to spend their free time socializing, studying, or in practical training. However, five of the participants were working at the time of the interview, most likely due to economic need. As Bourdieu suggests, these participants were gaining less cultural capital despite their formal education being the same. As Participant 1 stated, this applies to Laos: “Whoever has money gets to study.” We observed this distinction between participants, and with a larger study it is likely that there would be further differentiation between students who remained in their village, students who were from the town, and our participant pool. Therefore, while education holds intrinsic value as it provides the cultural capital Bourdieu argues, the lived reality is that this value is unevenly distributed between students.
Many theorists have questioned the assumed value placed on education. However, this is not discrediting education or rejecting its importance. As Nussbaum clarifies, “let us rid once and for all of the idea that literacy is a value that is peculiarly “Western” … by now there is an international consensus that education has the status of a fundamental human entitlement” (2004:332,343). Instead, they are challenging the assumptions made about education and the limits of its intrinsic value. Despite participant-identified limitations, there was a clear pattern of the importance placed on the value of formal education in Laos. This could explain why many of the participants were willing to make significant sacrifices for the purpose of education.
Several limitations to this study should be noted. First, the participant pool was small and there is no means of knowing if the results are representative of the Luang Prabang student population without further research. Therefore, the findings and emergent themes should be interpreted as an attempt to understand the experiences and perspectives of these 12 students. Second, the researchers had obvious positionality that may have affected participant responses, due to their integration in the community. It is impossible to know if and to what extent this impacted the results. Third, with such a small study, triangulation was minimal. There was triangulation between the two researchers and between interviews and participant observation, but a larger research team and further triangulation of methods would strengthen subsequent studies.
Conclusion and Suggestions for Further Studies
Leaving one’s hometown for an urban landscape at a school age is a significant transition in any context. For these participants, some were only able to make this move because of community support, while others continued to support their community in return and planned to dedicate their lives to their community after they graduated. According to the findings, Lao students have very strong opinions of the importance of education, and are willing to make notable sacrifices to pursue it.
This paper gave voice to 12 students in Laos. Their experiences helped to understand the lives of students from rural areas studying in the town and the educational experience in Laos beyond statistical information. While a small study, it identified many under-researched and contradictory themes related to education in Laos in hopes of encouraging further interest and studies. A country influenced by many others, this research demonstrated that Laos is unique, in particular the relationship between education and community for these participants. A dynamic country that has been changing drastically in the past few decades, Laos remains significantly under-researched.
Each of the themes drawn out from the interviews would be a useful starting point for future research in Laos. Due to the commonality of the community approach to education across the participants, it would be a logical starting point for subsequent studies. Examining this concept with an increased number of participants and in more depth would enhance the broader literature on this topic. For example, there is a spectrum of further interrelated considerations that were beyond the scope of this study, such as gender inequalities, average age of marriage, divorce rates, and agricultural displacement (Da Costa 2007). For Laos in particular, there is an absence of research considering ethnic groups and inequalities. To understand how these and other factors influence education and each other, further qualitative studies must be done on the lives of Lao people.
Further research could also be done to understand the dynamics of education in other areas of Laos, and in particular the lives of students in rural settings who do not move to urban areas to complete their education, and for what reasons. In an era of education at the forefront of development theory and practice, it is critical to understand the institution’s role in each setting and the lives of diverse student populations.
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1.) The participant referred to the lady he was living with as his stepmother. However, in Laos, common practice is to refer to close friends as family. Therefore it is possible that the lady is a relative of the participant, but it is also possible that she was a friend who he respected as a mother.