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  • Giving – And Getting – An Education In Central Asia

    Posted by Michael Hiteshew on May 11th, 2004 (All posts by )

    There’s an interesting article by Elinor Burkett in The Chronicle Review about her experiences as a Fulbright Professor teaching a journalism class in Kyrgistan and the hostility and misinformation she was faced with overcoming.

    Over the past three years, I have often wondered how I would have explained such suspicion if I had arrived in Kyrgyzstan after September 11, 2001. Would I have simply assumed that the hostility was a result of the United States’ bombing of Afghanistan or its invasion of Iraq?

    Nathan, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan, comments on her experiences in The Argus.

    And you’d be asking the wrong question. There’s a very strong temptation to treat Central Asia as “like Afghanistan” or “like the Middle East.” Sure, it’s Muslim, but if you want to understand the structure of the society the Central Asians, especially urban ones, grow up in, look to the Soviet Union.


    8 Responses to “Giving – And Getting – An Education In Central Asia”

    1. infamouse Says:

      From her article, she seems to be well aware of the Soviet Union:

      “Still, flushed with excitement at the prospect of training young people who would forge a new journalism after decades of Pravda and other state-controlled rags, I refused to give in to despair.”

    2. infamouse Says:

      I forgot to add that Nathan should reread the article.

    3. Nathan Says:

      Knowing about Pravda and the impact of Soviet journalism is hardly being aware of how Soviet the cultures really are. She’s a journalist, sure she’ll know that. When I am talking about Soviet influence, I’m talking about how it structured society and the mind. I feel like she has a perfunctory awareness of it and makes some good comments about it, but… I feel like she’s missing a lot. She gives no indication that she speaks the languages or spent too much time with the locals. I met many an expat in Uzbekistan who were like this, including one fellow who bragged about being there for four years without having to learn the language. It’s really hard to appreciate some of the most amazing aspects of Central Asian culture (hospitality that puts our Southerners to shame, for example) as well as understand how the Soviet Union (and many current state structures that still function the same way) set people against each other.

      She really captures how I felt on my bad days. It was pretty common to hear me say nasty things about my host country, my colleagues, and my students. But that’s steam. They really weren’t that bad once I figured out what made them tick and realized that there are strategies to overcome the challenges I faced.

    4. Sandy P Says:

      This is off of EURSOC:

      A former US senior diplomat claims that anti-American hatemongering by the Irish media contributed indirectly to the 9/11 terror attacks.

      George Dempsey, who was the head of the US Embassy’s political section in Dublin from 1988-1992 writes in his memoirs that,

      “The Irish media, in general, bear their share of the responsibility for what happened in the United States. For far too long in this country there has been a prevailing view, which denigrates and condemns and even vilifies American foreign policy. Many of these venomous falsehoods – such as claims that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed in the Gulf war – have continued to spill out over Irish airwaves this last week. The hatred of America, which drove the suicidal terrorists, doesn’t flourish in a global vacuum.”

      According to Britain’s Observer (itself no stranger to anti-US hysteria), Dempsey singles out Dublin’s newspaper of record The Irish Times and the state-run broadcaster RTE for their “witless pandering to Arab irrationality and intransigence.”

      Dempsey goes on to say that the main problem with Ireland’s media is that it is run by “an invasion of the body snatchers from a planet peopled by time-warped 1960s radicals and Marxist revisionist historians.”

      We are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. People who’ve actually been paying attention for the last few decades aren’t surprised. 1st piece of anti-US propaganda I saw was 1982 in East Germany on a billboard – USSR dove of peace, Uncle Sam skull in hat. Managed to get a pic of it, too.

      We’re also not supposed to be here. This experiment was never supposed to work as magnificently as it has. Western Europe has had opportunities to follow, they’ve chosen not to. They’re miserable because of it and they know it.

    5. Angie Schultz Says:

      Nathan, you begin by saying that you disbelieve Burkett, but then you never actually say why. Your main points are that she, in her short article, does not give a sense that she has interacted deeply with the locals, and that you had it rougher than she did. Fine, but is there a point where you thought she was making it up, or had some very atypical experience? Otherwise, you sound like one of Den Beste’s correspondents, complaining that he got an aircraft’s horsepower wrong.

      But perhaps what you think of the article depends on what you think its most important point is. I found the beliefs of her students fascinating, because the very same beliefs are to be found among Americans. Americans are hated because they’re always meddling in other countries’ affairs (except of course when they’re defending your country from invasion). Americans are always picking on Muslims (except they’re not). Muslims never attack other Muslims (except when they do). Etc.

      I also was vaguely amused that Burkett seemed to take it for granted that there was a difference between Vietnam and Bosnia, which she could see but her students couldn’t. I guess it never occurred to her that some Vietnamese did not see our involvement as meddling, either.

      I have often wondered if the “tsunami” (as Burkett calls it) of anti-American opinion is due to Soviet propaganda — and I don’t mean in Central Asia, but in Europe and North America. The Soviets are gone but their propaganda continues to circle the globe. I figured that was tinfoil hat territory, but sometimes I wonder.

    6. Nathan Says:

      Angie, the whole thing I wrote was really just my visceral reactions. I felt a lot of the same things she feels, but I felt like I needed to offer the other side of my feelings. In a sense, I’m disputing a lot of what I my own feelings.

      My reactions and feelings changed a lot in the year that I taught in Central Asia. The change–going from defensive reactions and feeling the need to rebut what I knew to be wrong to finding effective ways of getting the students to correct their own ideas–came in great part from living and working very closely with my hosts. I don’t know about Burkett, but many people I knew in her role found it very easy to never have to immerse themselves in the culture.

      I think her article is important and illuminating. I highly reccomend that people read it, but it’s definitely indicative of what Peace Corps volunteers feel during their first forays into their host culture.

    7. lindenen Says:

      “My reactions and feelings changed a lot in the year that I taught in Central Asia. The change–going from defensive reactions and feeling the need to rebut what I knew to be wrong to finding effective ways of getting the students to correct their own ideas–came in great part from living and working very closely with my hosts. I don’t know about Burkett, but many people I knew in her role found it very easy to never have to immerse themselves in the culture.”

      So what methods proved effective in getting the students to correct their own ideas?

    8. Nathan Says:

      I did a lot of lessons where we discussed one page Newsweek articles, usually on some kind of issue they wouldn’t have feelings on or knowledge about. One that comes to mind is a story about a dance club being planned in Poland that would be about a half mile from Auschwitz. (I actually learned from that class that my students knew nothing about the Holocaust.) Because they didn’t have any preconceived notions about this issue, they actually argued about it, and I encouraged everyone to chime in.

      That alone really sharpened their critical thinking skills and made a huge impact. I built on this by doing lessons concerning issues closer to home, such as one on stereotypes. By keeping as the goals of these classes from the kids, they simply participated and went where I guided them. It was classic when they all got these big grins on their faces when they realized that the logic of their arguments pointed to the fact that, no, in fact, Tajiks are not hideous liars and thieves.

      When they threw ridiculous things I knew to be untrue at me (much like those Burkett mentions, but usually along the lines of: “Why are the Americans cloning Jesus?”), I made them back it up with something more than, “I saw it in the paper.”

      I don’t know if any of these tactics would be nearly as workable for someone in Burkett’s position because she taught in a University, and I’m assuming lecturer, position.