Archive for September 20, 2008

Hard Pressed and Perplexed in Kazakhstan

For the past month I have had my Kazakhstani students write out their stories as told by their grandparents or their “grand” grandparents. Look back on all my blog entries since August. 20 and you will read some inspiring tales of how people from a generation or two ago, from many nationalities, survived the worst of trials in Kazakhstan.  I will continue after today with more stories but first a word from me after completing five weeks of teaching my young charges. I am enjoying getting to know all my students through their writing samples. Perhaps my students feel as hard pressed as I do, but after reading all of their stories, we are getting an eternal perspective about their grandparents’ despair and terrible tribulations during Soviet times.


I feel great compassion for my Kazakh teaching colleagues and administrators who must feel very threatened by all the changes that continue to happen at our institution of higher learning.  Our place of employment has been in existence for 15 years and has expanded to nearly 5,000 students, our campus is on a former communist training ground.  Our school motto is “Education to Change Society.” Perhaps the assumption is that western education does a better job of educating or maybe Kazakh “society” has been so damaged by the former Soviet style of education that as a whole it would be better off with a western brand of education in order to fit in with the fast changing, globalized world. “Education to Change Society” has a provocative edge to it no matter which way you slice it.  


We are supposedly a western style university in Almaty so that Kazakh parents don’t have to ship their kids off to the West to get a higher education.  Apparently it is cheaper if the Kazakhstan government helps support (in reality, I believe we are disdained by the Ministry of Education in Astana) and Kazakh parents pay tuition of over $20,000 for a four year degree for their children.  However, a homegrown hybrid of a “westernized” university has developed and is our present reality thanks to the the many struggles of earlier teachers who have since moved on.  In the end, I believe you get what you pay for, because there is a high turnover rate of western educators.  We only have a skeletal administrative and teaching crew of westerners who are truly western in their mindset. I mean, western born and bred and educated. Otherwise, there is a plethora of other nationalities involved in trying to change the Kazakh society to fit into a box of one size fits all. (a Soviet holdover) This is where we all feel crushed, perplexed, and even struck down.


In many ways, the Soviet mentality still exists in some of those people who have their Candidate of Science degree from the old Soviet system of education but they happen to be in positions of power because they know Kazakh, Russian AND English.  These “educators” are comfortable with rules and become very rigid with their interpretation of the rules even if it defies all logic.  I understand that if one fears for their own job security, as a middle manager commonly does, you have no thoughts for what is for the ultimate good of the teachers or the students. In many instances these middle managers become overly emotional and thus exploit their supposed authority over teachers and students who are burdened with much work.  I’ve been in healthy teaching environments where the administrators are there to support and back up the teachers not the other way around with antagonism against good pedagogy.


Seems there are people in our multiple layers of management at our university who don’t have enough work to do, they create work by attending meaningless meetings.  Time wasters that are not efficient if they were to run according to an authentic business plan where “time is money.”  Our university is supposed to produce businessmen and women with a clear knowledge of western economies instead of rehearsing the failed central planning of the Soviet days.  A heavy handed, top down approach exists in all departments of our university, not just mine.  Yet what is perplexing is that grace abounds toward those Kazakh teachers who refuse to learn more about computer literacy skills even with each teacher having a brand new flat screen monitor and computer at their desk.  Their young students resent it when they are required to take computer courses but some of the older Kazakhstani teachers are frightened by the prospect of having to learn more about computers.


Currently I’m reading Christopher Robbins book Apples are From Kazakhstan and thoroughly enjoying it.  I’ll share with my Kazakhstani students about what the Soviet system of (Trofim Denisovich) Lysenko lies did to annihilate the brilliant and hardworking academician Nikolai Vavilov.  At the time, Lysenko was politically correct because it was Stalin’s wish to push the Kazakhs out of their nomadic way of living on the steppes and create farmland with state-owned “collective” farms.  The communist leaders in Moscow did not understand the highly intricate and sophisticated nomadic lifestyle of the Central Asians.  The evils of Lysenko’s lies overruled what Vavilov knew to be true of Kazakhstan’s soil.  Vavilov unfortunately died a broken man in a prison hospital in 1943 but fortunately his story will live on with many people reading Robbins book. I highly recommend this 2008 publication which sheds light on what Kazakhstan is all about now based on its tragic past.


How will westerners know what happened here on Kazakhstan’s land without the Kazakhstani students writing in English the stories of their grandparents?  In the meantime, I am holding on to the promise of hope from II Cor. 4:7-9:  “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.  We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…”

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