Thoughts on Old Books and Kazakhstan’s Future

I love old books.  Their archaic language and non-politically correct rhetoric contrasts with where digital thinking has taken us into the twenty-first century.  I particularly love the books with yellowed pages which are heavily underlined or highlighted.  They are marked up in the margins because earlier readers have diligently pored over their contents and absorbed their most salient thoughts.  Perhaps digital thinking has too much of the special effects and mumbling going on, just like Hollywood’s contemporary movies.  Where are the movies that spit out good and snappy lines that zing?  Where are the books?

I know I am getting into dangerous territory when I start to define “old” because a book I picked up to read the other day (which I carried in my 50 pound limited suitcase from the U.S.) was younger than me.  The first edition came out in 1962 titled “Thinking and Speaking: A Guide to Intelligent Oral Communication.”  The authors: Otis M. Walter and Robert L. Scott, the latter from my alma mater of University of Minnesota, had many nuggets of wisdom to grasp.  I especially liked the chapter dealing with “thoughts on problems.”  We have plenty of problems at our university.

I particularly liked Scott’s quoting John Dewey, the much revered educational philosopher who believed  “a problem is necessary to start thought.”  Dewey also claimed, “No man, even begins to think until he first notes a perplexity, a need, or a ‘felt difficulty.’”  Oh, yes, we have plenty of “felt difficulties” in our Kazakh run department at our “western-style” university.  *I* feel the difficulties. Professor Scott also wrote that when we are absorbed in petty problems, our thoughts are correspondingly petty.  So true, so true.

For example, last year I recall when our faculty were all gathered together to express concerns to those high up in administration.  It seemed not many had anything to say about what bothered them.  Though under the surface I knew there were MANY problems in our department.  People were afraid to speak out because of potential reprisals against them later.  Repression against my fellow teachers takes on many forms.  Such was the stilted atmosphere in this mandatory gathering where one bravely ventured to talk about how bad the food was at our student canteen.  I begged to differ because I recall when I was on this same campus in 1993, the canteen had watered down gruel or porridge for breakfast and carrot slop every day for lunch and supper.  They also had forks with only 2 tines instead of the standard four.  Don’t pick on the food people. Let’s look at the “food for thought” and what passes for education at our institution of higher learning.  Not our finest moment when educators collectively look to an easy target, such as the student canteen, instead of the “elephant in the room” problems that continue to exist.

According to this old book, when we look at civilization, problems bring out man’s best.  Arnold Toynbee showed that “each civilization of the past arose, not because the living was easy and man had time to think, but because the living was extremely difficult and to survive, man was jolted into the necessity of thought.”  Henri Bergson was added in his quote, “Those societies that have remained primitive, are those that the living was too easy and which never required stretching minds to solve demanding problems.”  I think Kazakhstan have very fine minds because they were stretched in solving problems on how to survive the rugged steppes for 1,000s of years.

The motivation to survive as a culture or society presents problems no matter what age we live in.  Kazakhstan wants to be considered one of the top 50 nations amongst other developed nations by 2030.  I witnessed when I taught in China in 1986-88 that my Chinese students wanted to help their “Motherland.” Back then I kept hearing that it was all about reform, reform, reform.  Look where China is today as an economic powerhouse? (never mind the human rights issues)  There can be the energizing forces that stimulate activity and drives man on to greater achievements. Or so this old book went on to posit.  I asked my listening students for examples of what cultures have thrived and survived because of difficulties and which ones have had it easy and are still primitive.  We had a lively discussion concerning Eskimos compared to those who live in the tropics and those who live in other developed cultures.

I next talked about creativity and my Kazakh students were very aware of the saying: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”  But there needs to be a perceived need for a change.  Some of the older Kazakh teachers are fine with the status quo, some are still living in the twentieth century and not wanting to engage their students in this century’s digital age.  I could write much more about this topic, at a later date when I gather more information from my students about their being “digital natives.”  I focused on creativity in art is an artist’s wish to express something in a different way from the current style.  For many of my teaching colleagues who were trained in the Soviet way of thinking, they tend not to “think outside the box.”  They still believe that “initiative is punitive.”  If they are creative with solving problems, they think they will be punished.  Perhaps that is true, so petty problems continue to produce petty thoughts.

My final point that I brought up with my listening students was about democracy.  The authors of the book claimed that only a democratic state has institutionalized the possibility of locating and solving problems.  In our institution, and particularly in my department, I think there is too much top down direction and no chance to address concerns or problems in a democratic way.  Another way to put it according to Professor Scott, “only a democratic state is persistently responsive to problems of the people and thus offering a possibility of continued growth through perpetual problem solving.”  I wish it might be true about our middle management in our department, but sadly they are caught up in their own petty manipulations.

Therefore, the reason I am still here in Kazakhstan after two years as a western teacher is that I can be a change agent for good.  I agree with the authors when they write, “Problems are the great dynamos behind the development of man and his society.”  Our institution should be more intentional with its motto, “Education to change society.”  I think that when working with the future of Kazakhstan, there can be dynamic changes for the good of the whole country.  As a listening and writing teacher, I look into one hundred faces of these future “change agents” every week in my five different classrooms.  They are Kazakhstan’s hope.  However, unsolved problems within our own department “is the cancer that weakens and destroys an institution or a civilization.”  Let that not be so.

(Thoughts to be continued)

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