Being Ladakhi and Becoming Educated: Childhoods at School in the Western Himalayas
Young Ladakhis experience markedly different childhoods from those of their parents and previous generations. In this rural region of the western Himalayas, a transition has occurred since the 1990s wherein education is now widely supported among Ladakhis as a priority for children, and economic provisions from the government and NGOs make school accessible. While financial returns on education are not guaranteed due to slow job growth, being educated has become a valued social marker that is important for full personhood. This dissertation explores what is at stake for Ladakh young people in light of significant socioeconomic transformations. Data derive from ethnographic research with pre-teens, teenagers, and parents of school-age children, carried out over ten months between 2011 and 2014 in villages and towns of Leh District, Jammu and Kashmir state, India. Because many Ladakhi parents received only primary schooling or none at all, the responsibility for learning and academic achievement falls on children, with parents perceiving that they have very limited agency in educational processed. Preteens and teenagers aspire to achievements that their parents support—to earn a higher education credential and then a professional career. But also, Ladakhi children must balance aspirations for modern lifestyles with popular narratives that lament the purported loss of traditional practices. Thus, they are actively engaged in developing contemporary Ladakhi identities that incorporate valued attributes of both the modern and the traditional. The persistence of the family as the central economic and social organizing unit in Ladakhi culture means children grow up learning to prioritize obligations to family. Therefore, the end result of education is not just about individual betterment; teenagers also hope to be able to support their families and improve their communities. However, family obligations can lead to friction with teenage students’ individual hopes and dreams. Children from poor families are more likely to struggle to complete enough education to compete for good jobs that will move them out of poverty due to their cultural obligations to assist their families, suggesting the persistent reproduction of economic class despite widespread access to education and consistent belief in its transformational value.