Naivedya Parakkal.

Naivedya Parakkal didn’t realize her passion for education until after she graduated from the Vellore Institute of Technology. She was working at a software firm in Bangalore when she decided to volunteer for an urban education NGO on the weekends.

Now a PhD student in the School of Education, Parakkal recently received Rackham’s Ma Scholarship, which will allow her to begin a year of immersive research in Kerala in 2020. There, she will continue to study the impact of legacies and ongoing manifestations of colonialism on education in the global south.

Enlivened and motivated by this summer’s research in Attappady, Kerala, Parakkal is excited to continue her multi-sited ethnography with the help of the scholarship.

“Studying just one school [in Kerala] would be great too, but it wouldn’t be the work of my dreams,” Parakkal said. “Without funding like this, I probably wouldn’t be able to include multiple sites in my research.”

In addition to the all-girls school in Attappady, Parakkal has also conducted research at a school in Kochi, her home city. Drawing from an intellectual genealogy of critical scholars and theorists, she thinks about research participants not as data sources, but as intellectual authorities who can generate our collective understanding of modern educational experiences.

“I’m specifically interested in young people’s discussions on the purpose of schooling, educational outcomes and access, aspirations, and notions of success,” she said.

Parakkal explained that school curriculums are converging on a global scale, prioritizing “core” subjects and excluding cultural teachings. This marginalization of critical, cultural knowledge in primary and secondary school syllabi might be most apparent at schools like the one in Attappady, where ninety-five percent of students belong to one of three adivasi [indigenous] tribes.

Malleswara peak and the Bhavani river in Attappady, Kerala, where Parakkal conducted much of her summer research. Photo credit: Naivedya Parakkal.

“I think the question here is, what forms of knowledge are left out of schools when we prioritize this set of globally converging practices and policies?” Parakkal said.

Lending an ear to students in pursuit of questions like this one, Parakkal was able to form close relationships with the young people she interviewed. She learned students were not easily trapped in binary thinking when it came to education policy—they didn’t actively denounce schools for favoritism of “economically sound” careers, nor did they complain about dissuasion from passions with lower income yields.

“Instead, they’re resisting and transforming these dominant discourses around modernity, meritocracy, and development,” she said. “They’re navigating those spaces really effectively.”

“Last year, at the school in Kochi, I realized students thought of schools and education as separate entities. They said schools provide a pathway to employment and economic mobility, but education as a whole should be something that fosters love.”

Still, Parakkal is realistic about the future of education policy. She doesn’t expect a departure from the current global trajectory, at least not in her lifetime.

“But there are two ways I think we can work towards a reversal,” she continued. “We can work in the realm of academic scholarship that talks about what education is for. Secondly, we must necessarily and unapologetically speak about issues of power, race, class, and caste when we talk about education policy and how specific practices are impacting historically marginalized  groups.”

As for the future of her own research, Parakkal is excited to take a closer look at the ways certain education policies might generate desires that drive the climate crisis. She was inspired to interrogate this question after reading The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh, which examines literary fiction’s role in reinforcing neglectful attitudes toward climate change.

“Since the climate crisis affects the historically marginalized first, I’ve been curious about its effects on the adivasi communities I work with. For them, it’s been a topic of conversation for decades. So that’s something I’m excited to learn about in the coming year.”