The other day I started an article that was written by Joseph Kucera titled “Can a homegrown university in authoritarian Kazakhstan incubate reform?” Only time will tell but it is something to watch and I believe the rest of the world SHOULD be watching Kazakhstan. Here is the second part of the article:
The government’s original vision for the school aimed to create a new technocratic elite by focusing on science and engineering. But pressure from the foreign partners convinced Nazarbayev to include the school of humanities and social sciences, which is where things get difficult for a country that insists on controlling the public narrative.
Students are required to take a course called the History of Kazakhstan. It uses primary source documents to teach from a critical perspective rather than the government-approved version of history designed to promote patriotism more than stimulate thought. For example, one of the seminal events of the founding of modern Kazakhstan was a wave of protests in 1986, when Kazakhs opposed the Kremlin’s appointment of an ethnic Russian as first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. The event is now portrayed as the awakening of a Kazakh political identity. But at the time, Nazarbayev, then the second-ranking official in Kazakhstan, publicly condemned the protests, a fact that is glossed over in official hagiographies.
Zbigniew Wojnowski, a Polish-born, British-educated professor who teaches the course, wrote about one student’s reaction to this revelation in an academic association newsletter, “She did not altogether reject what she had believed before, and she refrained from drawing binary distinctions into ‘Western’ and ‘Kazakh’ views on the past. Still, she was visibly excited to learn something new. ‘You know, I have never worked with primary sources before, and I assumed it had all been very simple: People strove for independence, and then they won. That’s what we were taught at school, but now I’m just not sure what to think.’”
By hiring professors accustomed to academic freedom, the authorities have begun a process they can’t control, says Alima Bissenova, an anthropology professor who grew up in Kazakhstan and earned a Ph.D. at Cornell. “You can’t control people, and if you try to control them, they’ll leave. If they started to tell me what to teach, I’ll leave,” she says. While the university does not use the tenure system, the law regulating the university guarantees academic freedom, and so far, “the authorities have fully respected that,” Katsu says.
Bissenova compared Nazarbayev University to the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum, the Russian imperial high school, which in the 19th century brought in French and German teachers to educate the children of the elite and ended up producing liberal rebels like Alexander Pushkin. “So academics are sowing the seeds of liberal education on foreign soil without knowing what will grow out of it,” she says. “And nobody completely controls this process — not academics themselves, not the administration of N.U., not Nazarbayev. Nobody knows what will grow and how these seeds will adapt and what kind of hybrids will emerge. Some people, from all sides, might not like what will grow.”
But this, at least in part, is the idea. “We decided to bring some Western values and see how they can work and if our population and our intellectual circles are ready to accept them,” says Yerbol Orynbayev, an assistant to President Nazarbayev who has been closely involved in the development of the university.
The government has not shown much interest in adopting liberal values, however, at least in the short term. The parliament contains no opposition members, and the country has systematically closed down independent newspapers and jailed opposition activists on spurious charges. Even small protests are quickly shut down and their participants arrested. Kazakhstan’s ratings on political and civic freedom are lower than when it gained independence, according to Washington-based human rights organization Freedom House, which labels the country “not free.”
At the same time, always mindful of its image abroad, Kazakhstan has paid millions to lobbyists, PR companies and think tanks in Washington and European capitals to promote an image of a progressive, modernizing country. Nazarbayev University — whether or not it turns out to be a truly liberalizing force — neatly dovetails with those efforts. And some critics, when the university was set up, noted that a side benefit of educating the country’s youth at home rather than overseas was that it would limit their exposure to possibly dangerously liberal ideas from abroad.
(to be continued)