To Send or Not to Send My Kids to a “Sikh” School?

punjabi_school.jpgHow would you answer this question?

At least for the first time in the US, parents will now have the option. Although billed as a “Punjabi” school, the Sikh sangat in Sacramento [The Sikh community of Sacramento seems to find itself in the limelight quite a bit recently] seems ecstatic that a long time dream in the community can now become a reality. The Sacramento Bee reports:

West Sacramento will be home to the first public Punjabi charter schoolin the country this fall.

Approved by the Washington Unified School District board this month, the Sacramento Valley Charter School will teach the language and culture of Punjab, a region in northern India and Pakistan.

The publicly funded school will be independently operated by a newly created Punjabi nonprofit. Serving kindergarten through sixth grades, the nonsectarian charter school will be located on a property owned by and next door to the Sikh Temple of Sacramento in West Sacramento. [link]

Although the organizers of the school will be quick (and correctly so) to state that it is NOT a Sikh school and is rather a “non-sectarian” Punjabi school, but with such an intimate relationship with the Gurdwara (at least geographically) and by judging from some of the names of the staff, it does seem clear that it is a “Sikh” (to use the term culturally) school and not what have been called “Khalsa Schools”. Ok enough of the semantics and on to my questions.

The building of such schools is NOT new in the diaspora. These type of schools exist in UK and in Canada. I think they are wonderful and much needed institutions within our community. Now having said all that, I must admit I have never attended one (as there was no such choice, when I was growing up) and am quite happy to have gone to a public school in the US.

So my questions are 1) to those that may have attended/are attending “Sikh” schools in Canada/UK, would you send your children to one of these schools? Why or why not? What advice would you give parents in the US? and 2) More generally, would you consider sending your children to one of these schools?

It is no doubt that many in the community are exuberant. In the article in the Sacramento Bee, one parent reported:

Bobbie Singh-Allen said she plans to enroll her two boys, ages 9 and 11, who are Indian American and white. Singh-Allen is a member of the Sikh Temple in West Sacramento and said her children are learning the Punjabi language on Sundays at the temple.

“I see this as an exciting opportunity to offer something unique,” she said. “The congregation has been raising a lot of money to provide the initial seed money. It’s something that has been a priority for the congregates for several years. This is a major accomplishment for our community. This is an immigrant success story.”[link]

I am excited by the new possibilities and the sangat of Sacramento should be commented. Still I am eager to hear the opinion of others in our community about their thoughts, especially those that have attended similar institutions.

Read more about the school and its district approval here.

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14 Responses to “To Send or Not to Send My Kids to a “Sikh” School?”

  1. DilpreetK says:

    Jodha's question is certainly valid. I would have to seriously consider the effects of sending my kids to a school where they'd be primarily surrounded by students of similar backgrounds (ethnically, linguistically, religiously, etc). Arguably, they'd flourish in such an environment and develop a strong sense of pride for their roots and culture. They may even be somewhat protected from bullying and not deal with many of the issues that cause some Sikh youth to give up their identity. On the other hand, I would want my child to be challenged and provoked. The Punjabi school provides a safe learning environment, but public schools teach you invaluable street sense – how to stand up for yourself, work and forge friendships with those of different backgrounds, and develop a strong sense of self. I wonder if kids at such charter schools are in a bubble – how well do they acclimate to the real world?

  2. I agree with you regarding the central problem with Punjabi language commitment. But this was a result of a very systematic divisive campaign starting even before 1947 where Hindu and Muslim Punjabis were brainwashed into abandoning their own language. This is how the State of Haryana was even formed.

    As to your question: the Sikhs have an extra claim with Punjabi because if our language dies, in a sense, so does our religion. But it is not our "responsibility" as Sikhs to convince other Punjabis that keeping our language alive is important. As Sikhs, it is our responsibility to make sure our religion and culture remain strong for future generations. As Punjabis, however, I think it is our added responsibility to make sure we are welcoming anyone who shares a cultural link to Punjab to be a part of the movement to preserver our language; not necessarily going out of our way to convince anyone though. And there are significant movements by non-Sikhs to that end on both sides of Punjab. And all of the Punjabi language programs have, in their mission statement, words that embrace anyone who wants to speak Punjabi, regardless of their religion. So, this is an encouraging step in the right direction both in Punjab and outside of it.

  3. Fakir says:

    The ability to jive with people of different cultural or economic backgrounds comes from a variety of experiences and activities at school, but also in the home, and beyond. Nature v./and nurture obvsly plays a tremendous role, as does a child's personality and disposition along with parental support and conditioning received.

    Enrolling your child in this type of Punjabi school for a few years (possibly until middle school), especially if you don't have the wherewithal to provide this instruction at home, will be nothing less than beneficial. That is, if this particular school (and others with similar goals) can get its act together and deliver as promised.

    For the parents of many 1st gen'ers, this wherewithal was not possible because they working 60+/wk at blue collar jobs to ensure that their children receive a proper American education and upbringing. For these 1st gen'ers, the only available punjabi instruction was in Khalsa schools. It is clear that Khalsa schools weren't and still aren't cutting it. Most of my peers can't even write their own name in Punjabi. As Navdeep mentions, Punjabi programs in colleges are undeveloped and insufficient. Many of my peers who have a few college punjabi courses on their transcripts have difficulty with basic grammer, less than average vocabularies, and speak beautiful Punginlish. And given what today's average and visible 1st gen'er is capable of in the Punjabi language department, where/how will our children learn? Barhu Sahib? Private tutors every summer?

    Jodha, you ask a good question, but it is one that is far too simple.

  4. Jodha says:

    @Fakir – haha, the question was meant to begin a conversation and up to now it hasn't really been answered by you or anybody. Much more interesting to me than the transmission of the Punjabi language (which has been the focus) is a comparative study of the Sikh diaspora in terms of the importance, purpose, and goals of these schools. Hopefully more people will weigh in….

    However, since the transmission of the Punjabi language has been the topic that interests people most, we can do that one too. Easiest way for me to weigh in is to go in a circle (or whatever shape).

    @Navdeep – a few more quibbles (haha, our word of choice) – you pose an interesting claim "I have yet to hear of anyone in a Punjabi language program at university analyzing stalwarts of Punjabi literature across both sides of the border." However, this HAS occurred. Proquest will give you access to PhD and MA theses. You will find the beginnings of such analysis. In terms of those studying in Punjabi University Patiala and GNDU in Amritsar, you will also find a number of dissertations looking at these subjects. Granted they are coming from a more recent impetus (largely a post-Khalistani phenomenon) and one must be fair in that it takes years to produce a dissertation. We are already seeing them in the US; they can be found in the two reading rooms of East Punjab's universities (and thus not easily accessible). More will follow!

    Another quick point on – "Since our Guru Granth Sahib is written in Punjabi, we obviously have a much more vested interest in keeping our language and culture alive, which accounts for why there is such an overlap of religious politics involved." In fact in the Guru's great wisdom, the Guru Granth Sahib is NOT written in Punjabi, but rather in the Gurmukhi script. Punjabi is just one of the myriad of languages we find in the Guru Granth Sahib. If Punjab's Sikhs find a special attachment to Punjabi, it is much more that we have developed over the past 2 centuries into the mode of an ethno-religious group.

    And finally – "the Sikhs have an extra claim with Punjabi because if our language dies, in a sense, so does our religion. " I don't think this is true. The vast majority of Muslims do not know Arabic and will never know it as a spoken language. Islam hardly is in danger of 'dying'. Christianity, as a doctrine, is not tied to any language. The Jewish "re-discovery" of Hebrew is a rather recent phenomenon. Understandably religion and language has a peculiar politics in South Asia, but one can go too far with this.

    Ok enough quibbling, as always, love your though-out and challenging responses!

    @DilpreetK – is the dilemma only one or the other? Are those the only 2 possibilities? Could 'bullying' happen in a 'Sikh' school too? Most American universities allow for a diversity of experiences, but yet many choose to congregate with their own 'ethnic' group. Why do the black kids sit together in the cafeteria?

    @Fakir – what are Khalsa schools not cutting? What are the resources that the community has invested in them? Have we not received, what we have invested?

    I think I, as well as our community of which I am a product, am extremely impatient. It is especially apparent in all of our comments. We have only begun investing resources into university instruction and those instructors are developing pedagogies. They are being compared to Spanish courses, etc., but given a minutia of the resources (or even the job security). In Khalsa/Punjabi schools, only now are curriculums being developed (SikhRI, San Jose Gurdwara, etc.). Implementation is willy-nilly, because they are staffed by well-meaning, devoted sevadars (often mothers), not trained professionals as is the case in schools.

    We should continue to be critical to push things forward and keep striving for better, but one must also have a 'macro'-understanding of how things develop and the time it takes to begin creating results.

    Change and development are what we take the time to do and are evaluated in decades and generations, not quarters and semesters.

  5. Jodha says:

    @Navdeep Bhaji – ok then we'll do few more 'quibbles', my brother.

    You state – I meant at colleges with Punjabi language program studies outside of India. And not at the scholarly level. As in courses with literary analysis components after taking Punjabi level 4 and 5.

    Ok, so leave aside colleges. We do have Punjabi Sahit Academies, even here in the states. I have attended some and some do engage in the activity you suggest. Granted it was a stern relative that dragged me, but still if we do not feel it is quite a right place, it may have to do with age-ism and our own feeling of not fitting in there, rather than suggesting that there is no space. Online, for instance, APNA has provided wonderful conferences and forums to do exactly what you are suggesting. I have had the wonderful opportunity to meet some of our West Punjabi brethren. Many are of self-described 'communist' or 'secular' bents, but by no means all. Visit their website at

    To discuss the linguistics of Gurbani, it becomes important to focus on the writer and the language of their message. For instance, Braj Bhasha is very common in the writings of Bhagat Kabir. Sant Bhasha in the writings of Bhagat Ravidas. Even many of the Gurus used this idiom. Guru Nanak wrote a few shabads in a hybrid Indo-Persian. Lahindi is the most common Punjabi dialect used. Again even the Punjabi language is not the most commonly used language in the Guru Granth Sahib.

    It is the script that is sacred to the Sikhs – Gurmukhi – not one particular language.

  6. When you read a folktale in translation, a lot of things are lost. The overall message is still there, but a lot of the nuances and cultural references that come about through the idioms are gone. I am not the voice of Sikhism, and am not making any blanket statements, but am expressing my opinion on this subject.

    I never made the claim that this criteria (or any criteria) is the basis to say that someone is "not really Sikh." I think it is a positive step to have translations available – I also never said there should be some kind of ban on them – and I am sure it will be helpful for those who cannot read or write or understand Gurmukhi. But keeping them supplemental can be a difficult task when people start getting more and more comfortable with having translations in languages they speak available. The overall meaning will be there, but a lot will be lost. The Bible has no original that people refer to, and I don't know what changes are made to the wording in the Quran between someone reading it in Urdu versus someone reading it in Arabic.

    You've offered some excellent insight into the language of the Guru Granth Sahib, and I'll have to try and find the books by some of the authors you've mentioned.

    Till next time.

  7. Navreet Kaur says:

    Very interesting discussion- as the mother of two children I am excited to see a ‘Punjabi immersion’ school now available. My initial feeling was that I would not hesitate to enroll both of them but on deeper thought I’m not so sure. I want my children to learn Punjabi and be proud of their identity but also want them to be good ‘global citizens’. Will this be possible in environment where everyone looks and speaks like them? Will I be limiting their coping skills when they get out into the ‘real world’? On the other hand giving them a solid handle on their heritage may be what they need to be successful later. No easy answers- I’m glad they are both under 3 we have a few more years to think about it!

  8. kantay says:

    great discussion. I agree with you navdeep on the value in understanding gurubani in the original. with a lot of the resources we have no days in terms of hearing pronunciations and given that many of us have familiarity with spoken punjabi it is not that hard to get to the point where we can understand, as you put well, at least one page of gurubani. That doesn't mean translations are not good in their own way. For example the King James Bible is considered by many to be a great work of literature in it's own right. Notwithstanding that the Greek version of the Bible must be amazing.

    Languages like species can preserve within themselves important diversities. Monoculture is generally a bad idea.

    One other example, the current debate within liberal philosophy on religion and science. In some ways that debate is addressable within the writing in gurubani. I would actually say it is imminently addressable. Similar to the way that the edge of neuroscience and buddhist thought share many congruities. Why simply ignore those insights while waiting for the debate in liberal philosophy in some ways to "catch up"? For example the conception of God or of the connectedness of all things (not just all people but all things in the world) that one finds described within gurubani.

  9. Pashaura Dhillon says:

    ". . . the King James Bible is considered by many to be a great work of literature in it's own right. Notwithstanding that the Greek version of the Bible must be amazing." Kantay hit the nail on the head if that was needed to conclude this impressive discussion. If the Sikhs of tomorrow couldn't read the Guru Granth Sahib in Gurmukhi as it is written. Likewise Muslims,Christians and Hindus not their Kuran, Bible and Vedas respectively themselves and understand it in its original form then it is only a question of time that the Bhai, Mullah,Priest and Pundit will be calling the shots (process already in the making) and try to hijack the world only God would know to where. Not a good prospectus for movinng the direction these great works of wisdom meant the humanity to evetually go!

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