CyberChaikhana Sample Chapter


CyberChaikhana will highlight the best posts across the neweurasia network in 8-10 themed chapters, in Russian and English.

CyberChaikhana will highlight the best posts across the neweurasia network in 8-10 themed chapters, in Russian and English.

CyberChaikhana: Digital Conversations from Central Asia, a book compiling the best posts from the neweurasia network, has released a sample chapter on education in Central Asia, “Got Spellcheck, Will Work for Food.”

It is reproduced below, with permission:

“Got Spellcheck, Will Work For Food”

Central Asia’s republics are often allured by grand projects, especially in higher education. But do their ambitious dreams help or hinder the real goal of improving the quality of their citizens’ lives?

A telltale case is Kazakhstan. Here we have a strongman leader with a passion for great-leaps-forward:

We need Nobel Laureates says Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Inviting the Kazakh Diaspora to come back home, Nazarbayev promises: “We will create conditions for you on par with what you have abroad. Your education, energy and knowledge are needed at home.”

Kazakhstan recently carried out a comprehensive assessment of the areas in which the republic can compete internationally. The assessment was done with the help of American experts, and it found that the most promising sectors for research and development make an impressive list: nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, technologies for the hydrocarbon and mining sectors, nuclear and renewable energy technologies, as well as information and space technologies. Phew!

The government has evinced a desire to move beyond the Soviet-inherited entitlement mentality among research institutions toward project-based financing. Meanwhile, it has begun a new international university in Astana, replete with a world-class research center and faculties in the arts, social sciences, and applied sciences. Let’s not forget the capital’s new biotechnology center, led by Erlan Ramankulov, a U.S.-trained Kazakh microbiologist, or the five national and ten university-based laboratories scheduled to be built over the next five years across the country.

Many observers are calling this the dawn of Kazakhstan’s great leap forward, and they expect that one day soon a Kazakh may be stepping onto the stage of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

—Ben Paarmann, neweurasia 06.04.2007

…but what about new textbooks? Kazakhstan’s children have entered the new school year with ambitious novelties: more Internet access and 1,000 “interactive blackboards”—all the equipment they need for a 21st Century education… except that they don’t have any textbooks.

Kazakhstan has been suffering a chronic textbook drought so severe that schools must ration available supplies, typically no more than two or three books per classroom. Parents don’t know what to do. Municipal education departments offer them no intelligible explanation for the shortage. In fact, the line given is that there is no problem at all.

The reality is disconcerting. According to governmental decree the few textbooks in circulation outside classrooms are allotted to “socially vulnerable” families with many children. Everyone else must purchase the textbooks. However, since each book costs 400-500 tenge, a single syllabus can cripple a family’s budget. Not only this, but often the required books aren’t for sale at bookstores.

How does the government intend to counteract the shortage and price explosion? Not by subsidizing textbook purchases; in fact, it has no plan to speak of. Instead it recommends that parents instil in their children a careful respect for textbooks—as though awe for the idea of reading could make up for its absence in actuality.

—Ksenia (with Adam Kesher), neweurasia 16.09.2007

The disconnect between Kazakhstan’s aims and means is stunning, if not embarrassing. In a sense, the Nazarbayev administration’s policies demonstrate a desire to take shortcuts to prosperity—much like how many Kazakhstani students try to take shortcuts to academic excellence.

Cheating is a fine business—Walking by bus stops in Astana, particularly those near universities, you might see ads that read like this one: “Will write research papers and dissertations (in Russian or Kazakh). Selection of texts and translations. Written to schedule, high-quality, CHEAP!” Other ads highlight paper-writing services in Kazakh, a big help to those students whose grasp of the language isn’t up to par.

In the United States, professors struggle with similar problems. Fraternities are notorious for keeping file cabinets freshly stocked with cut-and-paste essays from Wikipedia, and Craigslist brims with advertisements for paper-writing services. The situation is no different in Kazakhstan. A friend of mine recently brought to my attention a hard copy version of one such ad posted near my old university.

It’s sad that something like this can be advertised so freely on bus stops. The question that arises isn’t so much who or how many are buying, but why? After conducting an informal interview with some students I discovered that those likely to cheat view term papers and dissertations as nothing more than bureaucratic obstacles. Overall, they are happy to use paper-writing services as a way of hastening the process of earning credentials necessary to attain lucrative jobs.

Of my interviewees, some even expressed admiration for the people who run the paper-writing services as savvy and successful businessmen. One even argued that it was an honourable profession because the illicit paper-writer must be using his brain, a kind of chicanery-as-knowledge-work.

—KZBlog, 23.01.2008

Were it that cheating the only form of corruption in academia. Alas, Kazakhstan also has problems with extortion of an extracurricular variety…

Nookie in the Ivory Tower—Karaganda State University is hooting! A lecturer from the Department of Mathematics has just been fired. The reasons? For soliciting a student for a monetary bribe and sex in return for a good grade.

And now the most interesting fact about the story: the lecturer is a 49-year old woman, an associate professor and doctoral candidate. The student is in his third year studying at the “Department of Mathimatics” (this is the way the poor fellow spelled his alma mater’s name).

As far as I can recall, this is the first case of a public row over academic corruption. But all the uproar should not be taken to signify that extortion in the academy hardly ever occurs. On the contrary, ask almost any student how much it costs “to start” this or that exam and you will easily get a full low-down of rates and prices.

What makes this case so intriguing is that the lecturer was actually dismissed. Kazakhstan’s “corporation laws” mitigate any governmental legislation intended to curb academic graft. Thus, corrupt professors caught red-handed hardly ever suffer anything worse than a slap on the wrist and instructions to hide their dirty laundry better. This can only mean that the real reason for the Karaganda lecturer’s dismissal wasn’t the money, it was the sex.

—Irene, neweurasia 05.02.2007

In many ways, Kazakhstan is a special case in Central Asia. Similar problems exist throughout the region, but the other republics do not have the economic well-being at Kazakhstan’s disposal to buttress their crumbling educational systems.

Take for example the 2008 energy crisis which struck the region. Tajikistan was particularly devastated by the sudden electrical shortfall. How does an education system brittle from civil war and economic underdevelopment cope with creeping, murderous chill? The answer lies in the hardiness of the students and educators themselves.

The two posts that follow illustrate Tajikistani citizens’ famous irrepressibility applied to studies. The first post comes from the 2008 energy crisis, and the other from the previous winter.

An F for hypothermia… On January 11th school administrators realized it is impossible to conduct classes in freezing rooms. They extended the winter holiday to keep students at home with their families and thus closer to the hearth fires.

But there’s a problem: the Ministry of Education did not authorize the extension, meaning that the schools had no legal right to cancel classes. Today the Ministry announced that they have no intention of cancelling classes during the cold period and requested that schools keep classrooms warm by any means.

This puts teachers into a dilemma. On the one hand, if they continue working in the cold classrooms, they will have very low attendance, and those few who attend risk getting sick and making the situation worse. The teachers risk their own health as well, and of course one has to wonder about the quality of a course taught with shivers and chattering teeth. On the other hand, if the teachers don’t follow the recommendations from the Ministry they will have problems with their employer.

What should the teachers do? I think they will choose the first option and continue working. For all the problems that will result by persisting with class in the cold, sickness will probably happen at the students’ homes, too. Heaters and electricity are failing throughout the whole country. The cold is everywhere. It is unimaginable.

—Vadim, neweurasia 15.01.2008

…but A+ for resilience. Very few Kyrgyz in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains speak official Tajik. However, a group from the Murgab region of Gorno-Badakhshan are striving to acquire the language at the University of Central Asia’s School of Professional and Continuing Education. Pamir Media reports that more than 30 program participants have moved to the second level of the Tajik language course, which is said to be more interactive.

The duration of the language courses constitutes 250 total hours of lessons. The program is not free of charge: the attendees are required to pay 30% of the total amount, which comes to 250 USD, the rest of which is covered by the UCA. The local government provides those attending with dormitory rooms.

The Kyrgyz of Pamir live in harsh environmental conditions. Their home territory’s altitude reaches 3,600 meters, and summers are short while winters are freezing. Residents herd cattle, a time-consuming occupation. Nevertheless, time is found to do many other things that people from lower elevations would have a hard time doing. They play football, volleyball and other games like buzkashi which all require strenuous activity.

Brazilian football players, famous for their resilience in harsh conditions, would certainly not agree to play at that altitude.

—Vadim, neweurasia 16.06.2007

The last post reminds us that not all of Central Asia’s grand educational projects are delusional. The University of Central Asia (UCA) was founded in 2000 by the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, in conjunction with the estate of the Aga Khan. According to the school’s official website it is “the world’s first internationally chartered institution of higher education” and is “geared towards addressing key social and economic issues facing the region, particularly mountain communities.” Only an incorrigible cynic could not see the merit in this project.

Yet, the UCA is one school, and it is in a region whose primary and secondary educational systems are cracking at the seams. To paraphrase the Bible, the UCA is a shining city atop a hill (three hills, to be precise) trying to cast light into the darkness around it. But will its light dispel the encroaching darkness of infrastructural decay?

Moving on from the topic of grand educational projects, we come to the complexities of teaching itself. What is actually taught in Central Asian classrooms, and in what manners?

Curricula are a critical concern for any country. Governments can, do, and many would say should take an active role in shaping the content of primary and secondary studies. Yet, where does one draw the line between pedagogy and propaganda?

We strongly suggest you read this… “We are not forced, we are ‘asked politely,’ explains Vladimir, a young teacher of English in a local gymnasium. “But I tell them I am not going to play this game anymore.” The “game” Vladimir is referring to is the policy of Kazakhstan’s national and municipal governments to require public school teachers to purchase government-approved newspapers.

Ostensibly, this policy is intended to keep teachers well-informed and provide information useful for their lessons. “We have a problem,” says a local school director, “Adults and children do not read enough. But with these papers, teachers can write their own articles about teaching methodology […] and find information about the whole republic.”

There are at least two kinds of newspapers teachers are “asked” to buy: the first is a local paper, with news, events, and the declarations of the akimat (city hall). The second is a national paper, often containing news on economics, culture, and of course, the constant flow of rhetoric and pronouncements from Astana. Both of these papers are either published by the government, or by companies that have connections strong enough to make it on the lists. “Of course, these particular papers are never critical of the government,” states Vladimir.

“I do not think it is political,” defends the director, “except that some of the articles are meant to make children more patriotic. Many children want the news of our republic.”

The director may be right, in that the papers are not aggressively denouncing the opposition (what little exists). However, neither are they drawing attention to problems within Kazakhstan’s own government, or digging deeper into the nepotism, corruption, and inefficiency that continues to plague the country. Certainly, those are topics teachers and students deserve to read about too.

—Arthur, neweurasia 22.12.2006

Out with the new, in with the old—May 25th is the traditional last day of school in Turkmenistan, during which graduation ceremonies are conducted in secondary schools around the country. But not during 2007. This year, there will be no graduating class.

The first decree of our new president, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, concerned major reforms of Turkmenistan’s educational system. With language echoing his predecessor, Turkmenbashy, Berdymuhamedov declared the start of reforms intended to “enable the national system of education to reach new world levels”

Among the changes: the reinstatement of “physical culture” classes, i.e., gymnasium, which were cancelled in the mid-Nineties; the introduction of new courses in the social sciences, civics, and arts; and more vocational training as part of the compulsory curriculum.

In immediate practical terms this means that students currently in their ninth and last year of school will be attending an unexpected tenth year.

The Ministry of Education, with only half an academic year to manoeuvre, successfully implemented the reforms. Remarkably, textbooks revised and expanded to meet the standards of the new 10-year curriculum quickly rolled out hot off the presses.

The speed with which this was all carried out suggests that the reform program had been well in development, perhaps even before Berdymuhamedov’s ascension to the presidency—only to be dropped like a bombshell upon the graduating class of 2007.

How innovative and new is the reform? Not much. Essentially it is just bringing back what was taken away by Turkmenbashy’s reforms in 1993 and 1999.

I remember when the 9-year system was introduced. The new class schedule was so overwhelming and busy. Curriculum developers were trying to fit everything that they had planned for 18 months into nine. We skipped hard sciences, yet were “advanced” to the next grade.

What is going to happen to Ruhnama classes? How does the current leadership conceive of itself with regard to the previous “sacred” regime? The answers to these questions are a matter of life and death for Turkmenistan’s citizens.

It’s often said that the past is the best teacher. The lesson of Soviet history is that “reforms” such as this one are likely to mean that a purge is in the offing. Everyone should get morally strong and ready: something terrible may be coming…

—Merdjen, neweurasia 07.09.2007

In the intensely globalised world of the 21st Century, freedom of movement is critical to a successful higher education. Yet, travel is severely constrained in several of the Central Asian republics. Take for example Uzbekistan after the Andijon crisis:

Chainlink fences around Ivory Towers—University students throughout the country now have to seek permission from university administrations before participating in international conferences or getting involved in projects/initiatives funded by foreign NGOs. Given that there are only a handful of those remaining in the country, the Tashkent offices of OSCE, UNDP, and ABA are at the very top of the blacklist.

For example, ABA was set to conduct a student moot court competition this past August. The first day of training went just fine, but then on the second day the rector of Tashkent State Institute of Law showed up and commanded that his students withdraw their teams from the competition. The students naturally obeyed for fear of being expelled. The rector then wrote an internal memo spelling out orders to impose “serious disciplinary measures” on any students who attempt to participate in similar events without first informing the administration.

There are some universities who do permit their students to attend such events. However, they have to closely watch their words and actions, and under no circumstances are they ever to criticize the government. Instead they are expected to emphasize the positive aspects of the government’s economic, social, and political policies, as well as give favourable answers when asked about their personal opinion of the post-Andijon situation.

It seems to me that the government will eventually succeed in compelling public accord with the official line about what happened in Andijon. Now that it has become equally problematic to get in or out of the country or access foreign media the majority of Uzbekistanis are likely to give in to the mounting government pressure exerted through propaganda and pathetic patriotic slogans like “Uzbekistan is a country with a great future” or “The Uzbek people shall not depend on anyone.” I have noticed quite a few people already showing approval of government actions by blaming some external forces for all our problems, including Andijon.

—Olesya, neweurasia/Thinking-East, 05.10.2005

Finally, can education thrive when open discussion is stifled and students refrain from speaking their minds for fear of violent retaliation? What follows is a post and a conversation it inspired in its comments section about the nature of freedom in the classroom.

The world is your classroom—or your prison. The Voice of Freedom’s analytical bulletin for January 18th contained an interesting article about Turkmenistani students studying in Kyrgyzstan being afraid of tell the truth about the political situation in their homeland.

Khalyk Dustyyev (which is not the true name of the author), a Turkmenistani student and a journalist based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, reports that students who speak out are victimized by their government in several ways:

  • They may be blacklisted by the border service agency and not allowed to leave their home country once they return home.
  • The secret police intimidates or exerts pressure on their relatives.
  • Male dissident students are called up for obligatory military service.

Young Turkmenistanis who study abroad are also often compelled into collaboration with “National Security Committees.” They gather intelligence on the country of their expatriation. They are also forced to spy on each other: in this way their collective conformity is ensured.

—Maciula, neweurasia 01.02.2008

Otto Pohl, 01.02.2008: I have a lot of Turkmenistani students in my classes at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) and I have not found them afraid to speak about conditions in Turkmenistan. In general students from Turkmenistan have been some of my most outspoken class participants. Granted my sample size is limited, but the thrust of this article does not match my personal experience.

CXW, 01.02.2008: Otto, there’s a big difference between speaking about issues in a class at AUCA, which is a private and “safe” environment (as well as predominantly English-language), and speaking about issues in a location that is less insulated from the influence of Central Asian officialdom. Added to which I would suggest that AUCA students generally tend to be bolder, more politically outspoken, and arguably more liberal than average—all factors that encourage greater freedom of expression, particularly given the environment and community AUCA provides.

My personal experience of talking to students outside Bishkek is that they would rather avoid talk related to politics in Turkmenistan, though there may be an element of disinterest rather than/as well as fear.

Tahir, 02.02.2008: I completely agree that Turkmenistani students are afraid of speaking about the situation back home. It’s not only the case with those in the former Soviet bloc, but I found those in Turkey and the Czech Republic are the same. They hesitate to say anything about political issues, human rights and social problems, and prefer celebrity gossip, about which they effusive.

A little while ago I heard about a Turkmenistani student here in Czech Republic. I requested a meeting with him, and even invited him to my home for dinner or lunch. Shortly afterwards, a mutual friend called me up saying that the Turkmenistani student had turned down my invitation, as well as refused to speak with the friend ever again. I heard of a similar incident at Stanford University from colleagues there.


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