Here in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the curriculum of the American University of Central Asia provides and interesting lens through which to engage the wider higher-ed battles between liberal arts and STEM. AUCA is a liberal arts education that awards a Bachelor of Arts degree accredited through Bard College in New York, one of the most expansive of America’s liberal arts institution. Despite challenges from the Ministry of Education, which is dominated by bureaucrats educated in the Soviet system, AUCA is beginning to carve out an identity of its own in the liberal-arts-o-sphere. When even the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s institution designed to educate the yeoman farmer in the arts and sciences, tries to turns its back on the humanities, educators loyal to their non-technological disciplines begin to question what exactly it means to be educated in the American system of higher ed. As many of my colleagues lament, colleges and universities are more akin to corporately governed vocational schools rather than Petri dishes for the growth of ideas that might or might not earn a patent or land a 22-year old a six-figure salary the day after graduation. Should we educate or should we train?
Kyrgyzstan is an appallingly impoverished nation. Much of its poverty is directly linked to the corruption that suffuses nearly every social transaction. Professors are paid so meagerly that students must pay a fee to his or her teacher to be allowed to use a government provided and woefully outdated textbook. Except for AUCA, every university in this nation sells its degrees. Literally. Student do not earn grades, they buy them. AUCA has its own problems with academic standards—some faculty members give grades based on the fact that an assignment was completed without checking for plagiarism or even whether the student answered the question—but no one buys or sells a grade here. We hope that producing educated and able graduates (as opposed to corrupt degree holders) will help undermine the culture of corruption in government, which might, eventually, help stem the systemic cash quid pro quo. But, like any institution, freshmen enter the university and major in disciplines that will help them get jobs. The rotting social infrastructure of Kyrgyzstan controls what courses are offered because the number of students opting for a specific course dictates whether the course will be staffed. The humanities are low on the list, but surprisingly, the social sciences are quite popular.
Despite its flaws, AUCA is easily the best university in Central Asia. We have a computer science department but no school of engineering. AUCA gives degrees in psychology but none in the physical sciences or mathematics. Because Kyrgyzstan’s main source of income derives from international aid, sociology is a very attractive discipline. Scholars who wish to do research here—be it medical, military, agricultural, or demographic—need people who can find their way through complicated grant applications and who can support field reports with statistics in order to ask for more money. This is perhaps the most extreme and ironic example of what happens when a university trains without truly educating. In the short term, the best jobs are outside Kyrgyzstan or in a frenzied NGO market that lacks oversight and often shows very few or no lasting results.
The international aid community determines AUCA’s curriculum; we are training for an economy that is driven by external forces, forces that might lose interest when the war in Afghanistan ends and the U.S. closes the Manas Transport Center in 2014 or if the Peace Corps is replaced with UN blue helmets in the case of more and bloodier ethnic conflict. Because of ethnic conflict, anthropology is a big draw. Since indigenous populations are of interest to folks like the UN and WHO, trained local anthropologists are in demand. Because the IMF and World Bank are prominent players, economics and international law are bigger draws than business administration. Money for state building in an region Balkanized by ethnic conflict flows like kummuz, so the political science department is titled International and Comparative Politics, basically IR instead of traditional poli sci, and is the most popular major. Journalism is disproportionately well funded because Kyrgyzstan is a (albeit corrupt) democracy and supports more free speech than any other former Soviet Republic. However, most of the journalism majors go into advertising or marketing. In a country with a GDP of just under $1000, marketing probably does not have the longevity as a career that a graduate might desire.
We ivory tower types who believe in the practical and esoteric virtues of a true liberal arts education fight an uphill battle. The Bard diploma is a carrot that steers the ministry of education to allow required humanities and arts classes, but AUCA has no departments of literature or historical sciences. Archaeology and history lodge in the anthropology department. Museum studies is simply not taught. The American studies department (at the American University!) is taking no more students and is being dissolved. This year, AUCA instituted a department of general education to provide what most U.S. institutions call basic liberal arts courses. History and art history will have squatters’ right there.
Until this semester, I held the only Ph.D. in American history in Kyrgyzstan and the only history Ph.D. in the nation that did not come from Soviet Moscow. Now, I am trying to build a history department in a country that desperately needs historians, museum professionals, archaeologists, cultural conservationists, and art historians. But, since foreign money is not coming in from organizations like UNESCO, this nation that straddles the Silk Road is quickly losing its historical identity. No one is being trained in historical research or conservation. When the babushka griots and veterans of the Great Patriotic War disappear, so will the memories of a Soviet Kyrgyzstan.
Pre-Soviet Kyrgyzstan has already passed into oblivion, except as recorded by the invaders: Tsars, Mongols, Americans. With an exclusive focus on the problems of today, the context of why there is ethnic conflict will be lost. Soon, Kyrgyz resentment of Russian minorities could devolve into a skin-color-based hatred mirroring the United States’ own contribution to racial othering. “Why are there white people here? They invaded and so must be the enemy.” Relocation in a multiethnic Soviet Union will not hold water as an explanation, especially since in these very hard economic times many are waxing nostalgic about the stability offered by the USSR. Kruschev is almost a folk hero because everyone had a job and enough to eat, and his regime, unlike Stalin’s, did not march people into the forest and shoot them.
If one peruses the help wanted posts for holders of humanities or social science Ph.D.s anywhere in the world, the pickings are slim. In this nation, which is flush with do-gooder NGO money but in which very little actually gets done, there is a true need for the arts, humanities, and social sciences. If culture and cultural history matters at all beyond worshipping the god of capitalism, we must train historians, anthropologists, art historians, and artists. All things beyond a superficial comfort that make life worth living will wither and die, much as the Soviet state prophetically did.
But, as goes American money, so goes the world.