Tag Archives: #expat

An American Reading Arendt in Kyrgyzstan

I taught in the former Soviet Union for exactly three years. The first time that I, a baby boomer, sat foot in the Soviet Union proper was the day I arrived to teach, June 4, 2011. Sure, after 1990, the former Warsaw bloc opened. As curious backpackers or enthusiastic researchers, it became possible to visit wonders hidden by die Mauer. Some even made Russia itself a regular visit. But, I was teaching in the Kyrgyz Republic, most commonly known as Kyrgyzstan.

Nestled amongst neighbors as diverse and dangerous as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China, Kyrgyzstan is also comfortably close to Mongolia, Afghanistan (which explained the Manas Transit Center at the international airport), and, of course, Mother Russia. Kyrgyzstan is a tiny democracy, hopelessly corrupt, and teetering on the edges of full-on ethnic conflict (with its Uzbek neighbors) and a full-on charge to breakdown in infrastructure. The nation also happens to one of the most beautiful and wild places left on this planet. All in all, a heartbreaking place with which it is easy to fall in love. Teaching there, at the American University of Central Asia, was itself a unique experience because of the historical borderland that is the Silk Road.

Since graduating from Georgetown in 2002 with a Ph.D. in U.S. history, I have held positions in the U.S., Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, and now Kyrgyzstan. As a large part of my position at AUCA, I am a teacher trainer who conducts faculty workshops in methods of student-centered teaching and strategies to teach specific subject matter. I work with local faculty to encourage them to inspire students to think critically rather than memorizing the material and regurgitating a “correct” answer (as has been the technique in every country where I’ve taught). Instead, teachers are expected to help student understand the themes in any given piece of writing and propose questions for students to answer (in college-level English). Especially with those educated in the Soviet Union (anyone over 45), this is an especially difficult challenge. The other challenge is to help foreign faculty to adjust, not downgrade, their expectations for our students. Our students are an interesting mix of children from staunchly Soviet parents and of traditional families living in villages with basic amenities. In a sense, every student has special needs, depending on the provenance of his or her teacher. That I have been teaching overseas since 2002 and have faced a multitude of challenges, all of which has made me more flexible and a better teacher/colleague, has given me the perspective to stand astride this cultural confluence and help each help the other.

All of my international posts have had two things in common: a dominating patriarchy and at least a nominal Islamic majority. Neither of those circumstances have manifested too obviously in my teaching—after all, I take the position that I am teaching U.S. history; if a student wants to find a parallel in his or her own culture, well that’s not on me. In some of these places, one must be careful about criticizing the government or religion or give the hint of proselytizing (it is hard to teach Colonial America without teaching Puritanism). I’ve walked that line carefully and well. Kyrgyzstan is unique in one way, and it has to do with the influence of the U.S.

In addition to history, I was teaching and co-directing the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking sponsored First Year Seminar Program. Luckily, in 2014 I had the opportunity to teach Hannah Arendt’s “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship.” All of my students from the CIS countries (we also have student cohorts from South Korea and Afghanistan) have a clear history of the Great Patriotic War etched into their conscious minds, one even might call it an institutional memory. Many times overseas I must check to make sure university students have a basic familiarity with the ideas on display. For example, my students in the former Soviet Union know almost nothing about World War II in the Pacific. I say almost, because the atomic bomb is the only element of American or British participation in the war they are taught in high schools. So, when discussing Arendt, I did not have to explain who Adolph Eichmann was and what he represented, but I did have confront angry accusations of American atomic warfare on an innocent Japan. This is what we call a teaching moment.

Instead of focusing on the war itself, I focused on Arendt’s basic message: in times of moral reversal, failure to think, to conduct and internal dialogue with oneself, breeds personal responsibility. Interestingly, a later reading, the excerpt “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, claims that failing to think—experiencing great events as a member of a herd—exorcizes responsibility. Yet Arendt was correct; events such as the Holocaust require review of “automatic” morality. When all of life inverts, when that which was moral is then immoral, the illegal made legal, failing to think creates responsibility and therefore culpability. Her example is the moral upheaval that was National Socialism. Yet, another moment of moral reversal clung to edge of my consciousness, and I was almost afraid to bring it up, mostly because academic freedom is a fairy story we tell to graduate students to keep them from fearing the future. The very students had experienced a profound moral reversal, and they had failed to think the consequences through.

In 1991, Kyrgyzstan became an independent nation. At no time in history prior to 1991 was the territory now called Kyrgyzstan ever a nation state. The Soviets carved the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic from the rest of Central Asia out of subtle linguistic differences among other Turkic languages, such as Kazakh and Uzbek, and primarily Mongolian features that the Kyrgyz share with Kazakhs and Yakuts in Siberia. The nation that was never a nation is now finding itself with a rising and fervent nationalism, which is not the only lasting feature of a post-Soviet world. Kyrgyzstan is unique amongst its neighbors in that it attempts to be a democracy, and despite two revolutions in twenty years, the last president, Rosa Otembayava, did leave her position on schedule. That makes one peaceful change of power, something no other CIS nation can boast.

Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan is multiethnic. In addition to the sizable Uzbek minority in the south of the nation, the environs around Bishkek, the capital, were Stalin’s dumping grounds in the late 1930s: Tatars from the Crimea, Volga Germans, Jews, and Chechens (including the Dzharnaev family whose sons moved to Boston) were all relocated to the country so far from anywhere else. Perhaps this is why the U.S. decided to focus its aid and military cooperation on Kyrgyzstan, or perhaps it is the long Chinese border, but in any case, Kyrgyzstan’s blatantly corrupt economy is propped up by payment from the United States. The only other single industry in the nation is a gold mine operated by a Canadian firm that is under constant threat of nationalization by the government and attack on horseback by the local villagers. Kyrgyzstan is afloat because of American money. And, with American aid comes American ideology, and since World War II, American diplomacy demands adherence to the political idea of the free market economy. And there is where the moral reversal lies.

Ingrained in American foreign policy is the sanctity of the open market, the inviolability of contracts. In the spirit of Arendt, the “automatic” go-to philosophy taught in America is the so-called free market, the greatest mythological expression of which is the self-employed success. Only with careful thought that feel as though borders on the treasonous does the adult come to realize that this philosophy confused with mother’s milk is itself morally questionable. To counter, the “automatic” philosophy of citizens of the Soviet Union was the violence that was the free market and the superiority of communism. Adults also questioned (inwardly) the hegemony of the Comintern, but a freer market certainly did no mean the vacuum of social support that is the American ideal (and thankfully, not the entire American reality). In the CIS, one day communism was the rule; seemingly the next day, capitalism came hand-in-hand with American aid. Included in this ideological shift was a profound moral reversal.

America’s assumed inviolability of contracts is morally compromised in idea, and perhaps completely immoral in application. At the base of contract law lies the fiction that parties who are contracting are similarly situated enough to be considered equals. The contract provides for obligations for both parties as spelled out in the document. A contract is a legal promise. The problem with this fiction is rarely, if ever, are parties contracting truly equal. When the powerful contract with the weak, there is very rarely the change to bargain honestly, and if the stronger party doesn’t keep up its end, who will make them? Certainly not the weaker party. A contract is an opportunity for abuse.

In the Soviet Union, the situation was reversed. The State existed to protect the weaker party, banning “the freedom” of contract. While not perfect, the ruling idea was not to take advantage of the weak however one can. The ruling idea was to protect the weak, “Each according to his abilities.” The old had pensions, the ill had treatment, the artists had jobs, and the swindlers had jail. After 1991, the old, the ill, and the artists had the street and the swindlers ran the country and the black markets.The strong man, like Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, became the hero, and public utilities around the region crumbled.

The western democracies had so successfully branded communism as evil that its opposite must be good, so when what had been billed as the opposite arrived, the capitalists painted themselves as liberators. Unfortunately, some of America’s freedoms are freedom to starve, to freeze, to be discarded. In times of moral reversal (especially when the change is so dramatic), failure to think breeds personal responsibility. In Kyrgyzstan, at least, a new generation has accepted without question that communism was bad and capitalism is good just because America said it was. Moral reversal came to the CIS, and no one questioned it at all. Perhaps this helps to explain the popularity of Vladimir Putin. He questioned America, and in so doing became a dictator. The U.S. needs to divorce the free market from its foreign policy. Let people have their social welfare states; perhaps the world will end up with fewer dictators.

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Filed under #bishkek, Autobiography, Cultural differences, Foreign Policy, Former Soviet Union, Hannah Arendt, Higher Education, Ideas, Kyrgyzstan, Thinking

Freeing the Fixed Mind

I have just finished 6 months of teaching in the US at the community college level after twelve years of teaching at the undergraduate level overseas. Most of my students are actually still in high school and are attending community college as part of the Running Start Program that funds high school juniors and seniors to attend community and other public colleges for both high school and college credit. I expect the high school students to do exactly the same work with the same level of maturity as any college freshman. Obviously, some flexibility is necessary, and I am particularly aware of the need for faculty to provide what the British call “pastoral” care for undergraduates. High school students, no matter how advanced they might appear through testing, will need more of a helping hand than the usual undergraduate. After twenty years of teaching at the undergraduate level, including that twelve years spent in various locations throughout Asia, I was stunned by some of the issues I ran into. The most stunning was the absolute lack of preparation students had for independent and critical thought.

With few exceptions, these students, supposedly the most advanced, claimed that they were only taught to take the test. Some students just could not adapt. I was criticized by students on their formal evaluations and at an informal site (that allows students to rank a professor’s relative “hotness”) for two main issues: first, I was not sensitive to their Christian beliefs. This came about because I begin American history with the migration of peoples across the Bering Land Bridge at least 13 thousand years ago. This history conflicted with the students’ professed belief in the 6000 year-old age of the Earth. So, in their minds, I am anti-Christian. These complaints prompted some academic advisors to suggest students stay away from my classes because “there have been problems.” This is a public institution.

The second point of criticism was the amount of work I assigned. While this is not an unusual complaint (I’m a tough teacher), the form in which it was expressed was bewildering. Apparently, students were upset because I asked them to write a paper on a topic that we did not cover completely in class; in other words, I asked them to write a research paper for a freshman level college class. I did not give the students a grading rubric because I wanted them to have as much freedom as possible in selecting and researching a topic. I provided general guidelines and (despite being adjunct faculty without an office or being paid for hours spent outside class) willingness to meet with a student at any time to discuss their progress on the their papers. English Composition is a required prerequisite for the class. Yet, some students were unable to generate curiosity about a topic other than one discussed formally in class. Furthermore, some students were unable to complete an essay exam without being given the questions ahead of time. On evaluation complained that a take-home essay exam was in fact an unfair paper assignment because he or she had not known the questions before being handed the exam. To hand out the test questions is what many of my students call a “test review.”

Of course, the fault for this does not lie with the students or the high school teachers. Teaching for the test has become the dominant teaching philosophy in the American system. As a result, even the most advanced students are graduating expecting “fairness” to be having the questions and answers provided to them. Independent and critical thinking is not absent from my classroom. I teach my students how to think critically, to assume that all information is prepackaged by experts and that it is incumbent on the individual to assess the creditworthiness of a source and the spin intended by the seller, especially if that purveyor is an expert of some sort. When they leave high school, however, students are taught to rely exclusively on the authority of the test writers, givers, and graders. When faced with criticizing the question or the source, students react fearfully and offensively, projecting the insecurity of being cast into a cold universe of independent thought onto the one who asks them to have an informed opinion. In this case, that person is I.

There is no better job on this Earth than that of being called to teaching. Encountering the creativity, curiosity, challenge, optimism, and candor of a mind uncluttered with cynicism and unburdened by calcified opinions is a glorious job description. Those encounters are becoming less and less common. Instead of instilling a young mind with wonder at the possibilities of truly independent thought, I am suddenly faced with outrage by children when I dare to destabilize their force fed worldview. In what world does a 16 year-old child, no matter how bright, have all the answers boxed and tied up with a bow? In ours, apparently. Instead of arriving curious and ready to argue about the nature of everything, students are emerging from high schools with minds as fixed as bayonets on an infantry charge, education being a tool—a means to an end—rather than an opportunity to explore the universe in all its mysterious glory.

I am an expert in setting up American-style liberal arts higher education overseas. Having returned to the US after being founding faculty in three international schools, I have to emphasize that the kind of education I have been providing is extinct at all but the most exclusive schools in the U.S. I set up American-style education, as opposed to the current quality, because no one would want to intentionally implement American anti-intellectualism and shortsightedness guaranteed to produce a dependent and uni-dimensional class of non-thinkers. Unfortunately, when I did encounter genuinely open and curious minds, the rigid walls of administrative rules refused to bend to allow students to play with their ideas.

We have already reached the post-apocalypse, and it is conformist, narrow, and potentially civilization ending. Its name is corporatism and it strives for regimented sameness and the absence of creativity and spontaneity in everyday life.

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Filed under Higher Education, Irony