Category Archives: education

What’s the Matter with Cambodia?

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 258-289:

Ask any Cambodian leader why the nation remains so stagnant while most of its neighbors prosper, and he will blame the Khmer Rouge years. “We are a war-torn country just now standing up from the ashes,” Nam Tum, chairman of the provincial council in Kampong Thom Province, said in 2009, echoing similar remarks by dozens of officials, thirty years after the Khmer Rouge fell from power. In Phnom Penh at that time, the United Nations and Cambodia were putting several Khmer Rouge leaders on trial. But so much time had passed that the leaders were old and frail. Some of them were likely to pass away before they could stand trial. Pol Pot was already long dead.

At the same time, though, Vietnam’s experience over the same period complicates Nam Tum’s argument. Vietnam suffered a devastating war with the United States in the 1960s and ’70s that killed 3 million Vietnamese and destroyed most of the nation’s infrastructure, just as the Khmer Rouge (and the American bombing of eastern provinces) did in Cambodia.

The war in Vietnam ended just four years before the Khmer Rouge defeat in 1979. Yet today Vietnam’s gross domestic product per capita is almost ten times higher than Cambodia’s. Only 19 percent of the economy is based on agriculture, compared to more than one-third for Cambodia. Vietnam manufactures pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and high-tensile steel. Cambodia manufactures T-shirts, rubber, and cement. Life expectancy in Vietnam stands at seventy-four years. In Cambodia it is sixty-one, one of the lowest in the world. (In the United States it is seventy-eight years.) [But see Note 1 below.]

Most Vietnamese students stay in school until at least the tenth grade. By the tenth grade in Cambodia, all but 13 percent of the students have dropped out. Vietnam’s national literacy rate is above 90 percent. UN agencies say that Cambodia’s hovers around 70 percent, though available evidence suggests that may be far too generous. Most Cambodians over thirty-five or forty years of age have had little if any schooling at all. The explanations behind these and many other cultural and economic disparities lie in part in the nations’ origins. Vietnamese are ancestors of the Chinese, while Cambodians emigrated from the Indian subcontinent. [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 2 below.] From China, the Vietnamese inherited a hunger for education, a drive to succeed—attitudes that Cambodian culture discourages.

Author David Ayres wrote in his book on Cambodian education, Anatomy of a Crisis, that in Vietnam, “traditional education provided an avenue for social mobility through the arduous series of mandarin examinations.” In contrast, “Cambodia’s traditional education system had always reinforced the concept of helplessness, the idea that a person was unable to determine their position in society.” Village monks taught children that, after they left the pagoda school when they were seven or eight years old, their only course was to make their life in the rice paddies, as everyone in their family had done for generations.

The two nations have fought wars from their earliest days, when the Vietnamese were known as the Champa [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 3 below.] and lived only in the North of the country. The rich, fertile Mekong Delta in the South was part of Cambodia for centuries—until June 4, 1949, in fact, when France, which was occupying both nations, simply awarded the territory to Vietnam. And North Vietnam, where most Vietnamese lived, early in the nation’s history, was not blessed with the same fertile abundance as Cambodia. As a result, the Vietnamese never acquired a dependence on “living by nature.”

Even with Vietnam’s fertile South, an accident of nature has always given Cambodia an advantage. The Tonle Sap lake sits at the center of the nation, and a river flowing from it merges with the Mekong River, just north of Phnom Penh. Each spring, when the Mekong swells, its current is so strong that it forces the Tonle Sap River to reverse course, carrying tons of rich and fertile mud, as well as millions of young fish, back up to the lake. When the lake floods, it deposits new, rich soil on thousands upon thousands of acres around its perimeter. The fish provide meals for millions of people through the year. Cambodian civilization was born on the shores of the Tonle Sap. The wonder and reliability of this natural phenomenon still encourage many Cambodians to “live by nature.” Even now, many Cambodians say they have no need for society’s modern inducements.

Notes: Brinkley’s book does a good job of assembling evidence of thoroughgoing corruption throughout Cambodian society, based on his own personal interviews and on reading what government officials and fellow journalists have written. This is how most journalists seem to work. They don’t appear to read much history, and thus have little frame of reference for anything that happened before their lifetimes. (They don’t even check Wikipedia!) The introductory passage quoted above contains the worst examples of garbled history that I have encountered so far in this book.

1. The Khmer Rouge specifically targeted and killed most of their urban, educated, and entrepreneurial population, forcing everyone into autarchic, agrarian, rural communes, committing excesses even by the standards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. North Vietnam, by comparison, may have imprisoned, killed, or driven into exile large numbers of urban, educated, entrepreneurial southerners, but they had from early on adopted Russian-style industrial models of building socialism, which depended on cadres of educated technicians. Furthermore, within its decade of economic chaos and stagnation after absorbing the south (1975-1986), Vietnam began reforming its Stalinist centrally planned economy and moving toward a Deng Xiaoping-style socialist-oriented market economy (called Doi Moi). These reform efforts began in the south, which had had a free-wheeling colonial- and military-oriented market economy until 1975. In Vietnam: Rising Dragon (Yale, 2010), Bill Hayton argues that unified Vietnam owes its economic dynamism primarily to the former South Vietnam.

2. The Cambodian (Khmer) and Vietnamese languages are both classified as Austro-Asiatic (also known as Mon-Khmer), thought to be indigenous to mainland Southeast Asia (roughly centered on the Mekong River Valley), with scattered outposts in northeastern India. “Cambodians” never migrated from India, nor were Vietnamese the ancestors of the Chinese. All of Southeast Asia was heavily influenced by South Asian culture for many, many centuries, but only northern Vietnam was ever conquered and ruled by China for a thousand years (111 BC to AD 938). Like Korea and Japan, Vietnam long ago adopted Chinese as its language of scholarship and all three languages retain thousands of words borrowed from Chinese. All three countries belong to the Confucian-influenced East Asian cultural sphere.

3. Cham peoples occupied most of the central coast of present-day Vietnam for at least a thousand years before they were finally conquered by the Vietnamese between 1471 and 1832. They were maritime peoples who spoke Malayo-Polynesian languages and had wide trading ties across the Malay world and beyond. During the 12th century, the Kingdom of Champa sacked Angkor Wat, but it was gradually diminished and its people dispersed by constant warfare with Khmer and Vietnamese kingdoms. Like most of the Malay world, the Cham absorbed much Hindu religion and culture during early times, and much Islamic religion and culture in later centuries.

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Dreaming of Salina in Sarajevo

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 766-804:

Television stations in Japan, Britain, Italy, Germany, and the United States broadcast the film of Berin at the brewery [mortar attack]—without the more gruesome scenes—and footage from the funeral. A retired couple in Salina, Kansas, were watching and arranged to evacuate the boy so he could live with them. It all happened so quickly Berin barely had time to say good-bye. Victor Jackovich, the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia at the time, accompanied Berin on a UN flight. An ABC crew filmed the hurried good-bye in the courtyard on Logavina Street. Berin wrote Delila a letter the day he was airlifted out of Sarajevo. “I have just taken a hot shower. I ate five bananas. I watched television,” Berin said in the letter written from the Frankfurt airport while he was en route to the United States.

Delila talked about Kansas incessantly. Her English grammar book and dictionary were always on the kitchen table. She would curl up on a rug-covered divan in the kitchen studying as her grandmother read the Koran. She kept an atlas open on the kitchen table with a circle drawn around Salina, Kansas.

When I first met Delila in January 1994, the kitchen was the only room in the house warm enough to sit in. It was an old house to begin with—slanty floors with bright Oriental rugs, hand-printed wallpaper curling at the edges. Plastic sheeting was taped over the broken panes of a window. A tiny aluminum stove was jerry-rigged on a stack of bricks. Berin’s cat curled up to it for warmth. Delila wore a baggy maroon sweater over three layers of T-shirts. Everything hung loosely on her tall, underweight frame.

“Physically, I am in Sarajevo, but in my mind, I am in America,” Delila said. “Everything that comes from America, I am interested in. I saw a television program about Bill Clinton that was great.”

The retired couple in Kansas did not realize initially that Berin had a sister still alive. After Berin’s arrival, they tried to bring Delila out as well. “They know how close we are. My brother is very attached to me. He used to take my cigarettes, hide them, and say, ‘I’ll give you one back when you give me a kiss,’” she said.

Delila’s recklessness completely vanished with the promise of emigrating to the United States. Suddenly, she was always frightened. She worried she would die before she could leave Sarajevo. She was afraid to take flowers to her parents’ graves across the street. She would only go on days when fog obscured the cemetery from sniper fire. The brewery shelling had left Delila with four pieces of shrapnel in her body, and she worried that if she slipped and fell on the ice, the shrapnel would shift and hurt her.

Outside the Lačevićs’ front gate, small children from the apartment next door used to sit on the stoop and play with dolls. Delila would yell at them to go back inside. “The kids hate me, but I don’t care what the neighbors say. I chase them away, and tell them, ‘Look, you can see Trebević like it is the palm of your hand.’”

Delila no longer disregarded the mortar shells that came crashing down from the mountain. When the shelling started, she said she could feel her shrapnel itching and she would run, not walk, to the bomb shelter, usually carrying the cat.

“I can run fast, when I’m scared. I’ll tell you, Carl Lewis is nothing compared to me,” she said. “When I get to America, I’m going to start running professionally.”

Delila planned out her future. She wanted to eat at McDonald’s and study medicine. She promised to give up her two-pack-a-day cigarette habit as soon as she got to America. (“I won’t be nervous anymore, so I won’t need it.”)

Once she left Sarajevo, Delila declared adamantly, she would probably never come back. Her brother had written her that his English tutor had asked if he missed Sarajevo. “He said no. If he ever came back, it would be as a tourist—and maybe not even then. I feel that way, too. I have to go somewhere where I can relax, physically, mentally. I don’t know that I would ever return.”

Delila’s sixty-nine-year-old grandmother had been listening to Delila speak, quietly weeping. I asked if she was afraid she might never see her granddaughter again. “No,” she replied, without hesitation. “I am looking forward to it. I will be happy when Delila leaves.”

Delila couldn’t count the days. For security reasons, people being evacuated usually had only a day or two’s advance notice. So she kept her bags packed and her documents folded neatly in an envelope in the bedroom with her few precious possessions. Her grandmother had given her a farewell present, a gold four-leaf clover that she always wore around her neck.

Delila practiced her good-byes to family members. She didn’t bother with her friends. “I told them that one day if I’m not around, I’ve either been killed or I’ve gone to America.”

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Burma’s Student Nationalists, 1940s

From Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, by Thant Myint-U (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1280-1290:

When the British left Burma in 1948, they left the country in the hands of the men who had been on the extreme fringes of the student nationalist movement just a decade before. They were almost all Buddhists (by background if not practice) and ethnic Burmans. Before the Japanese invasion, they were not particularly important, but the war had radicalized society and they had seized the opportunity, first to collaborate with the Japanese and then to turn against them, in March 1945, just in time to avoid being arrested and hanged as Quislings. They included men like Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi. They were immensely popular and even though they were still in their late twenties and early thirties stood head and shoulders above the older politicians, who were tarred as not having been daring enough. Aung San and many of his colleagues were then gunned down in 1947 in a still puzzling assassination plot, but others from the pool of ex-student radicals formed the first independent government. They would take Burma out of the British Commonwealth and launch the country down what was to be a not very happy path through the rest of the twentieth century.

Some on the British side had been worried about the fate of the Shan and other ethnic minorities in an independent Burma and suggested detaching the upland areas and keeping them as a British crown colony. British frontier officials were particularly fond of the hill peoples, such as the Karen along the Thai border, who had fought consistently and often very courageously against the Japanese.

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Doshisha University’s Debt to Hakodate

From Hokkaido, A History of Ethnic Transition and Development on Japan’s Northern Island, by Ann B. Irish (McFarland, 2009), pp. 93-94:

Hakodate played a small part in the life and adventures of Niijima Jo (westerners have anglicized his name in several ways and have referred to him as Joseph Hardy Neesima). He became a prominent Christian in nineteenth century Japan and is honored today as the founder of a distinguished private university in Kyoto, Doshisha. Niijima grew up in Edo. When he was a youth, a friend who knew of his interest in boats and seamanship told him of a vessel soon to sail to Hakodate. Niijima, who had a secret desire to visit a foreign land, thought he might be able to do so form Hakodate. He knew an influential man who obtained permission for the young man to take a trip north. After arrival in Hakodate in 1864, Niijima’s goal was to meet foreigners who could help him travel abroad. He soon met Father Nikolai, who engaged him as a Japanese language tutor. Meanwhile, an English trader agreed to teach the young Japanese man English.

Niijima desperately wanted to travel outside Japan, despite the government prohibition of this. After several months in Hakodate, his dream took shape. He made arrangements to slip out of the city and secretly board an American ship. Arriving in the United States via China, he studied for some ten years and adopted Christianity. After being baptized, he chose his western name to honor Alpheus Hardy, owner of the ship that had taken him to America. Niijima graduated from Amherst College, the first Japanese student ever to obtain a college degree in the United States. Returning to Japan, he founded the school in 1875 which grew into Doshisha University.

As Niijima’s story shows, because foreigners from several important nations lived in Hakodate, Japanese found the city a good place to study foreign languages and foreign ways, and a number of men who later served as interpreters learned languages there.

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Marxism in Tsarist Russia

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 345-371:

Marx’s Capital had been published in Russia as early as 1872. It was the book’s first foreign publication, just five years after the original German edition and fifteen years before its appearance in English. The tsarist censors had passed it by mistake, assuming that ‘very few people in Russia’ would read the heavy tome of political economy, and ‘even fewer understand it’. Contrary to expectations, Marx’s critique of the capitalist system would lead to revolution earlier in Russia than in any of the Western societies to which it had been addressed.

The intelligentsia were drawn to Marxism by its ‘scientific’ nature—it was seen as a ‘path of reason’, in the words of Lydia Dan, offering ‘objective solutions’ to the misery of poverty and backwardness—and by its promise that Russia would become more like the capitalist West. ‘We were attracted by its European nature,’ recalled a veteran of the movement in Russia. ‘Marxism came from Europe. It did not smell and taste of home-grown mould and provincialism, but was new, fresh, and exciting. Marxism held out a promise that we would not stay a semi-Asiatic country, but would become part of the West with its culture, institutions and attributes of a free political system. The West was our guiding light.’

Here perhaps was the root of Marxism’s attraction to the Jews, who played such a conspicuous role in the Social Democratic movement, providing many of its leaders (Trotsky, Martov, Axelrod, Kamenev and Zinoviev, to name just a few). Where Populism had proposed to build on peasant Russia—a land of pogroms and discrimination against the Jews—Marxism offered a modern Western vision of Russia. It promised to assimilate the Jews into a movement of universal human liberation—not just the liberation of the peasantry—based on principles of internationalism.

Even the young Lenin only became fully converted to the Marxist mainstream in the wake of the famine crisis. Contrary to the Soviet myth, in which Lenin appeared as a fully fledged Marxist theorist in his infancy, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution came late to politics. In his last school year he was commended by his headmaster (by an irony of fate the father of Kerensky, his arch-rival in 1917) as a model student, ‘moral and religious in his upbringing’, and never giving ‘cause for dissatisfaction, by word or deed, to the school authorities’.

Lenin’s father was a typical gentleman-liberal of the type his son would come to despise. His noble background was a source of embarrassment to Lenin’s Soviet hagiographers. But it was a key to his domineering personality. It can be seen in his intolerance of criticism from subordinates, and his tendency to look upon the masses as no more than human material needed for his revolutionary plans (during the famine he argued that the peasants should be denied aid because it would make a revolution more likely). As Maxim Gorky wrote in 1917, ‘Lenin is a “leader” and a Russian nobleman, not without certain psychological traits of this extinct class, and therefore he considers himself justified in performing with the Russian people a cruel experiment which is doomed to failure beforehand.’

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Nexus of War, Bureaucracy, Totalitarianism

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1860-1883:

The totalitarian state had its origins in War Communism, which attempted to control every aspect of the economy and society. For this reason the Soviet bureaucracy ballooned spectacularly during the Civil War. The old problem of the tsarist state—its inability to impose itself on the majority of the country—was not shared by the Soviet regime. By 1920, 5.4 million people worked for the government. There were twice as many officials as there were workers in Soviet Russia, and these officials were the main social base of the new regime. This was not a Dictatorship of the Proletariat but a Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy.

Joining the Party was the surest way to gain promotion through the ranks of the bureaucracy. From 1917 to 1920, 1.4 million people joined the Party, nearly all from lower-class and peasant backgrounds, and many through the Red Army, which taught millions of conscripts how to think and act like ‘Bolsheviks’, the foot-soldiers of a disciplined revolutionary vanguard. The leadership was worried that this mass influx would reduce the Party’s quality. Levels of literacy were very low (in 1920 only 8 per cent of Party members had more than four years of primary schooling). As for the political literacy of the rank and file, it was rudimentary: at a Party school for journalists none of the students could say who the British or French leaders were, and some believed that imperialism was a republic somewhere in England. But in other ways this lack of education was an advantage for the Party leaders, for it underpinned their followers’ political obedience. The poorly educated rank and file mouthed the Party’s slogans but left all critical thinking to the Politburo and the Central Committee.

As the Party grew it also came to dominate the local Soviets. This involved a transformation of the Soviets—from local revolutionary bodies controlled by an assembly to bureaucratic organs of the Party-state where all real power was exercised by the Bolsheviks, who dominated the executives. In many of the higher-level Soviets, especially in areas deemed important in the Civil War, the executives were not elected: the Central Committee in Moscow simply sent in commissars to run the Soviets. In the rural (volost’) Soviets the executives were elected. Here the Bolsheviks’ success was partly due to the open system of voting and intimidation of voters. But it was also due to the support of the younger and more literate peasants who had left the village in the First World War and returned in the Civil War. Newly skilled in military techniques and organization, and well versed in socialist ideas, these were the peasants who would join the Bolsheviks, and dominate the rural Soviets by the end of the Civil War. In the Volga region, for example, where this has been studied in detail, two thirds of the volost’ Soviet executive members were literate peasant males under the age of thirty-five and registered as Bolsheviks in the autumn of 1919, compared with just one third the previous spring. In this sense the dictatorship depended on a cultural revolution in the countryside. Throughout the peasant world Communist regimes have been built on the ambition of literate peasant sons to join the official class.

One-party-dominated democracies always fighting a War on This and a War on That against their internal enemies display the same tendencies.

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Literacy Spreads Nationalism

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 242-270:

Until the development of rural schools and networks of communication, nationalism remained an élite urban movement for native language rights in schools and universities, literary publications and official life. Outside the towns its influence was limited. The peasants were barely conscious of their nationality. ‘I myself did not know that I was a Pole till I began to read books and papers,’ recalled a farmer after 1917. In many areas, such as Ukraine, Belorussia and the Caucasus, there was so much ethnic intermingling that it was difficult for anything more than a localized form of identity to take root in the popular consciousness. ‘Were one to ask the average peasant in the Ukraine his nationality,’ observed a British diplomat, ‘he would answer that he is Greek Orthodox; if pressed to say whether he is a Great Russian, a Pole or an Ukrainian, he would probably reply that he is a peasant; and if one insisted on knowing what language he spoke, he would say that he talked “the local tongue”.’

The growth of mass-based nationalist movements was contingent on the spread of rural schools and institutions, such as peasant unions and cooperatives, as well as on the opening up of remote country areas by roads and railways, postal services and telegraphs—all of which was happening very rapidly in the decades before 1917. The most successful movements combined the peasants’ struggle for the land (where it was owned by foreign landlords, officials and merchants) with the demand for native language rights, enabling the peasants to gain full access to schools, the courts and government.

This combination was the key to the success of the Ukrainian nationalist movement. In the Constituent Assembly elections of November 1917, the first democratic elections in the country’s history, 71 per cent of the Ukrainian peasants would vote for the nationalists—an astonishing shift in political awareness in only a generation. The movement organized the peasants in their struggle against foreign (mainly Russian and Polish) landowners and against the ‘foreign influence’ of the towns (dominated by the Russians, Jews and Poles). It is no coincidence that peasant uprisings erupted first, in 1902, in those regions around Poltava province where the Ukrainian nationalist movement was also most advanced.

Throughout Russia the impact of modernization—of towns and mass communications, the money economy and above all rural schools—gave rise to a generation of younger and more literate peasants who sought to overturn the patriarchal village world. Literacy rose from 21 per cent of the empire’s population in 1897 to 40 per cent on the eve of the First World War. The highest rural rates were among young men in those regions closest to the towns (nine out of ten peasant recruits into the Imperial army from the two provinces of Petersburg and Moscow were considered literate even by 1904). The link between literacy and revolution is a well-known historical phenomenon. The three great revolutions of modern European history—the English, the French and the Russian—all took place in societies where the rate of literacy was approaching 50 per cent. Literacy promotes the spread of new ideas and enables the peasant to master new technologies and bureaucratic skills. The local activists of the Russian Revolution were drawn mainly from this newly literate generation—the beneficiaries of the boom in rural schooling during the last decades of the old regime, now in large enough numbers to pass on the new ideas to those still illiterate. In its belated efforts to educate the common people, the tsarist regime was helping to dig its own grave.

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