A Closed Mind is a Beautiful Thing to Lose It is good and fitting that we pause to
reflect on the beauty and special needs of the young in Cambodia this June 1 for
International Children's Day. Children possess hope and potential, energy and vigor,
dreams and unlimited possibilities. We - parents, teachers, policymakers, society
generally - bear a sacred responsibility to foster and expand these dreams and possibilities
for our children through quality education.
Quality education means more than the four walls of a classroom and the memorization
of certain facts in order to obtain a certificate or an acronym to attach to one's
name. Education must be holistic, seeking to educate the "whole person"
whereby the "classroom" is the community of the school, situated within
the larger community of the village, of the town, of the city, and by extension,
within the larger community of humanity.
Quality education emphasizes creativity and imagination.
Current State of Education
The Cambodian educational system, as with many other systems, had to be resurrected
from the ashes since Pol Pot had his say. Great improvements have been made, particularly
within the last several years. However, when we Khmers stop using the Year Zero as
a standard and begin to live in the 21st century world of emails, Skype and space
travel, we are then awakened to the crisis of our educational system and practices.
The educational system can improve statistically. In 2005, only 749 of the 1621 communes
have lower secondary schools. Forty-five of 185 districts have no upper secondary
schools. Only 58.9% of students reach grade 5, and 20% of children have access to
pre-schools. The literacy rate of those 15 years and older stands at 67.3%. There
is overcrowding whereby students learn in double or triple shifts. The ratio of students
to a teacher in the primary level stands at 53 and secondary level at 25.
Although public education is supposed to be free, students bear the financial burden
of unofficial fees which must be paid to supplement the US$30 monthly salary of teachers
and administrators. In Phnom Penh, approximately 10-20,000 children living on the
streets and in dumpsites do not attend school.
Rote learning and blind obedience
Our history and culture place disproportionate, unhealthy importance on tradition
and the past, with little or no focus on imagination and creativity for balance.
This is reflected in the education in our schools and at home. I am the first to
agree, yes, 'do not move an ancient boundary stone' (Proverbs 23:10), for we need
this compass of the past to guide us into the future. In this regard, I am like C.S.
Lewis in preferring old classics, which have been tested by the passage of time,
over new books.
However, rote memorization and "stand and deliver" instruction whereby
children only repeat and chant data produce limited educational values and do nothing
to expand the hope and potential, dreams and possibilities of our children. This
method narrows the mind in that it reinforces blind obedience of authority. And we
have witnessed and experienced what blind obedience to authority has done to destroy
our culture throughout our ancient, recent and present history.
Pol Pot made blind obedience a hallmark of his reign of terror, but he was of a society
that was already conditioned to accept authority without much questioning.
To this day, blind obedience is consciously and unconsciously encouraged. I grew
up in a loving family but was constantly told 'no' by the older relatives: 'Why can't
I visit friends?' 'Because I said so'. 'Why can't I play basketball?' 'Because you're
a girl.' The conversation ends with status and not reason.
More invidiously, the reflexive negative response - where the answer is "no"
until you can convince others that it should be a "yes" - creates a society
of naysayers, and again impedes creativity, imagination and pioneering.
There is space for rote learning in the building of the mind, but the goals of education
must include the whole person. A holistic way of thinking tries to encompass and
integrate multiple layers of meaning and experience rather than defining human possibilities
Rather than seeing education as a process of transmission and transaction, transformative
learning involves changing one's frame of reference. This change may include points
of view, habits of mind, and worldviews. Holistic education understands knowledge
as something that is constructed by the context in which a person lives. Therefore,
teaching students to reflect critically on how we come to know or understand information
is essential. As a result, students are asked to develop critical and reflective
thinking skills and encouraged to care about the world around them. Through this
contemplative process, they may decide that some degree of personal or social transformation
As Khmers, we must incorporate these concepts for the further development of our
Goals of Holistic Education
Holistic education is important for its focus on self-actualization, relationships,
resilience and aesthetics.
Self-actualization seeks to engage students in the learning and teaching processes
and foster personal and collective responsibility. We can instill more of this sense
of responsibility in our Khmer society. It also aims to develop self-respect and
self-esteem. It fosters individuality and differences in thought processes.
Another goal of holistic education is social and emotional literacy, which aims to
encourage a love of learning and attention to experiential learning and the importance
of these qualities in developing personal relationships. It places significance on
human value systems, as well as spiritual values such as compassion and peace.
Resilience is the ability to overcome difficulties and face challenges for long-term
success. The next step in strengthening Khmer resilience is for us to focus on quality
Aesthetics is teaching children to see the beauty in what is around them and to have
awe and respect for life. This requires imagination and creativity.
Why is imagination important? According to Albert Einstein, it is more important
than knowledge: knowledge is limited whereas 'imagination encircles the world'. Swiss
psychologist Jean Piaget noted the importance of imagination in education in order
to create 'men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what
other generations have done.'
Imagination is important because every genius throughout the ages and across cultures
possessed it and every philosopher and thinker espoused it. Imagination works to
break the bondage of poverty of the mind, body and spirit. It creates opportunities
leading to societal betterment. According to Tuli Kupferberg, 'when patterns are
broken, new worlds emerge;' and 'through imagination, we can visualize the uncreated
worlds of potential that lie within us (Stephen Covey).'
Never Stop Questioning
Related to imagination is the idea of 'thinking outside the box', where 'the important
thing is never to stop questioning (Einstein).' When we give a student an answer,
they will accept it as a truth. If instead we teach a student to question, they will
find many truths. We Khmer should take to heart the words of Naguib Mahfouz. 'You
can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise
by his questions.' Or that of Decouvertes: 'It is not the answer that enlightens,
but the question.'
Read. Read. Read.
A critical component of the development of the imagination is reading. We Khmers
need to read, read, read and read some more. When we read, we prepare ourselves for
any and all opportunities which otherwise would pass us by. The Chinese have it right
in defining 'success' by combining the character for preparation (internal, individually
determined) with the character for opportunity (externally determined).
The majority of Khmer live in a harsh reality of abject poverty, crimes and abuse.
More than ever we need to keep in mind that reality can be 'beaten with enough imagination'.
Imagination, then, is the gateway to wisdom and change, and ultimately to personal
and social development.
Theary C. SENG
The Voice of Justice column is a regular feature of the Phnom Penh Post. Both
the column and the logo are expressions of the Center for Social Development (CSD)
which bears full responsibility for the opinions expressed.