I realize for those who are IN THE KNOW about Kazakhstan, they have probably already read this article and don’t think much of it. However, I think it is a window into what are potential problems that could crop up in Kazakhstan…soon. This new university in Astana is an experiment, a noble one to be sure. Keeping in mind that there were many “sound” theories the former Soviet Union promoted.
Freedom is the key and if you teach students to think outside the box, they need freedom to express that and not fear what they say or think will be used against them. I just wanted to document on this blog what is good and what might possibly go wrong. This is the third and final part of the article written by Joseph Kucera titled “Can a homegrown university in authoritarian Kazakhstan incubate reform?”
For the time being, Nazarbayev University is in little danger of creating radicals. While some students’ eyes are opened by reading critical materials, that’s not always the case. One professor who taught the History of Kazakhstan course says that in class, students presented Nazarbayev’s statements today as evidence of what happened in the 1980s. “I asked them afterward, on the class forum, about the reliability of Nazarbayev’s recollections as a historical source, and they were quite offended. ‘We have to trust the president,’ was the answer they gave me. I tried to push them to think about inherent biases, et cetera, but they were unwilling to engage,” says the professor, who asked not to be identified.
One student interviewed on condition of anonymity says that there isn’t a lot of discussion in the student body about how the country should be run. “Students are less concerned about politics than on their studies,” the student says. The country’s political system has an unfair reputation. “We discussed this with our professors, and they said that the fact that we can talk about this means that human rights are respected here,” adding that at a university-organized meeting with a human rights officer from the U.S. embassy, the diplomat told students that the reports by international human rights organizations are “often exaggerated” and that “the situation isn’t as bad as they describe.”
Most N.U. students are “acquiescent but not apathetic,” says Sam Hirst, a history professor who left N.U. in 2013, in an email interview. “A great number of the students are reliant on the stipends and the support that they receive from what they understand as either the university or the government. Many are thus scared to jeopardize what they have already earned.” And while few are blind to Kazakhstan’s problems, most “turn their eyes in other directions, usually toward their textbooks, to earn the money necessary either to secure themselves a place in the system they are dependent upon or to leave it.”
Hirst, who also taught the History of Kazakhstan course, notes that it can be difficult for students to navigate attending a school where critical thinking is encouraged while living in a country where it’s not. “When I talked to the students about their reticence, I found that many of them were struggling to code-switch as fast as we were asking them to,” he says.
School officials say they’re confident that students will be able to manage this balancing act. “I’m sure that, along the way, our students will have different views on societal organization and so on. And I do hope that they aren’t just buying propaganda, that they are thinking for themselves,” says Katsu. “But one thing that stands out to me at the same time is that our students are very patriotic. They are proud of this country.”
Katsu calls President Nazarbayev’s decision to set up the school “a calculated risk.” “If you were afraid,” he says, “you wouldn’t create Nazarbayev University.”