Getting the Kids Ready for the Competition: Lessons from the School Kumchubchumbe and Sir Edmund Hillary "Chartered"

Hillary School Nepal

Kumchubchumbe spoke but one word of English during our visit – “Chicago!” His eyes sparkled from the flickering flames of his cook fire, as his fingers danced over the tall buildings in the tattered black and white photo he shared with us. Joanie and I were his guests.

Kumchubchumbe, a Sherpa dancer and village hero, learned his bit of English on his travels with Sir Edmund Hillary, raising money for what, in 1961, became the “Hillary School” in Khumjung, Nepal.

Following Hillary’s 1953 conquest of Mount Everest, the New Zealand mountaineer devoted his energies to improving the lives of Nepal’s Sherpas. He organized the Himalayan Trust, sponsor of the Kunde Hospital and the Khumjung School, among its other accomplishments. He also became Director of the American Himalayan Foundation, which partnered with the Himalayan Trust, assisting the people of Nepal with their needs for healthcare, education, water and bridges. Before Hillary was done, 30 schools, teacher training programs, adult literacy classes, scholarships, two hospitals and 11 village medical clinics had been established.

How was it that Joanie and I were the guests of Kumchubchumbe? Perhaps there are more efficient ways to enjoy our planet. But in the 1980’s Joanie and I philosophized that we would rather trek 50 miles through a country than fly 500 miles over it. Our 1986 treks included the Himalayas, from Lukla (9,200 feet) to Tengboche (12,667 feet), a few miles from and about 5,000 feet below the Everest Base Camp. The mountain villages of Nepal are without roads and vehicles. The backs of humans and oxen are the beasts of burden. There was no electricity and no water systems or other utilities. But we found a proud and gentle people with spirit and humor. (When we returned to Lukla, we were present when its people got their first light bulb; Khumjung was scheduled to have electricity two weeks later.)

Joanie - Approaching Khumjung

Our Sherpa guide, Passang, was from Khumjung (13,000 feet elevation), where we arrived on the third day of our trek to Tengboche. He arranged for us to “bunk” with Kumchubchumbe. Kumchubchumbe’s family slept on the second floor. The cattle and oxen occupied the first floor, their rising body heat the only thermos for us. We bedded down in his storage room, off the main room where he and his family ate and slept. We were cooled by a breeze filtered through a broken window, but cozy in sleeping bags, tested to minus 40 degrees. At 3 a.m., we climbed down the ladder to the first floor, made our way through the cattle to reach the outhouse hanging over a cliff, bathed that night by a full moon that found its way through a gentle snow.

Had we not trekked to Khumjung, we would not have learned of the philanthropy of Hillary and the school at Khumjung. Today the school provides education for 300 students, from grades 1 through 10. Students walk long distances over the narrow mountain trails to attend classes. Teachers come from other villages as well and stay at the school during the school year.

The work started by Hillary continues. Jeffrey Dow, a New York teacher works and researches in “Radical Education Transformation and Educational Development Activities and Organizations in the Developing World.” His “Schools Project” website is worthy for those of us interested in improving education, as is the Open Learning Exchange, founded by Richard Rowe. It’s goal? Empowering teachers. Using technology as the “enabler of education evolution, not a bludgeon to force change.” Take 7 minutes and watch the video, “How Open Learning Exchange Nepal is Changing Lives.” Note the tie in between education success and the work to remove poverty. Education is the key to solving the problem of hunger and poverty.

And don’t overlook the Hillary Collegiate Foundation, Hillary’s legacy to New Zealand. Note the absence of political influence in regard to course selection and the results of the program.

Is there a lesson or two from these approaches to education in America? And from the educational success being experienced in places like Finland?

I think so.

Today, there is clear recognition that our system of education is not working as it should. But the search is for a silver bullet – a “Waiting for Superman.” Like an escape for some students to charter schools, run by for-profit or nonprofit companies instead of school districts.

Is education handicapped by teachers’ unions? – or by the demise of the middle class and the widdening gap between the wealthy and the rest of America? – or by the growing of anti-intellectualism in America? Or by all of the above?

How will we deal with demoralized and underpaid teachers? Like the teacher in California who committed suicide in September 2010 following a bad review? We pay a baseball player $5 million a year, the salary of 100 teachers, for hitting a baseball about a 100 times in a season. How will we reshape our – and our children’s – values and priorities about the value of education and the profession of teaching? How can we recruit good teachers, and keep them teaching?

Can any group of teachers by themselves, with standardized text targets, no matter how dedicated, turn the education system around? Or, does the success of any educational effort require more? The United States has the highest poverty rate among children in the developed world (over 20%, with blacks and Hispanics over 35%) and Finland has one of the lowest (under 4%). Is reducing poverty a key?

Does reducing poverty require a narrowing of the economic gap that has so far widened between the wealthy and the rest of America? Will that require taxes we are unwilling to impose?

Mahatma Gandhi – “Poverty is the worst form of violence. … If we are to reach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we should begin with the children.”

George Santayana, the late Harvard Professor, wrote a series of texts on “Reason.” His most famous is “Reason in Religion,” where he reminds us that our religion is a result of the historical accident of our place of birth. The same can be said for success of today’s education, within and without our country.

Like the legislators of Florida who watched the movie Waiting for Superman as they fashion legislation for Florida’s movement to charter shools, I too watched the movie. The most telling, and disturbing element of the movie, was the story of the young black, Anthony, who wanted to escape from his public middle school, the John Phillip Sousa, in Washington, D.C, an “academic sinkhole,” to a charter school. Anthony wanted a “better chance in life.” A laudable dream for all of our children. Anthony signed up for the lottery, the only way to get in the Sead Public Charter School. There were 61 applicants for 24 spaces. Anthony’s number was three. Did Anthony win? Michelle Rhee’s Student First website will play your heartstrings with Anthony’s Story, from Waiting for Superman. But do we want the quality of education for any of our children to be determined by a bouncing ball?

It is ironic that the only word in English Kumchubchumbe could remember was the name of an American city,”Chicago,” where he and Hillary reached out to some passionate Americans willing to help them educate the children of Khumjung. If American passion and concern works for Khumjung, without a lottery and political posturing, why can’t it be put to work here?

Are “Students First” when scarce tax resources are diverted from troubled schools to charter schools, which determine the fate of students by a lottery’s bouncing ball?

In today’s hostile, take no prisoners, make no compromises, unyielding political environment of the far right and left, it is worthwhile remembering what Hillary said:

As long as you don’t believe all that rubbish about yourself, you won’t come to much harm.

Hillary’s hero?

Explorer Ernest Shackleton, a man he viewed as one who never mistook an idea for an ideology, a man who sought alternatives, who listened to the suggestions of others. A lesson for the learnin’.

The Himalayas from Khumjung

Leave a Reply

8 Comments on "Getting the Kids Ready for the Competition: Lessons from the School Kumchubchumbe and Sir Edmund Hillary "Chartered""

Notify of

thank you thank you ..


Yo Chicago!

You and Joanie have taken some real impressive trips. The one above Nepal reminds of the incredable work that Greg Mortensen (three cups of tea) has done in Pakistan and Afghanastan in an effort to promote literacy.
Great blog,

Very interesting, Dick. I had no idea of Sir Edmund Hillory’s schooling efforts! Education is one of my hot buttons. Thanks for sharing!


I enjoyed this very much. Reminds me so much of our work with the orphan homes in Haiti, where it is such a huge priority to educate the children, knowing that’s their best hope for chipping away at the widespread poverty. Their approach to education, rudimentary as it is, has an attitude superior to the attitude of many American schools and politicians.

Thanks for sharing.

Thanks for another well written and insightful piece. There is always a clear message in your articles!

An excellent piece. Thanks very much.


Thanks for another thoughtful article…you have included some excellent role models in your writing whose own life stories are amazing…and as always, inspirational photography that can express that which is beyond words.

Excellent piece and one we should all read twice.