I was cleaning up some things today when I came across a photocopy of an issue of the journal Vietnamese Studies. I don’t see a date on it but the title of the issue is “American Neo-Colonialism in South Vietnam (1954-1975): Socio-Cultural Aspects.” It therefore looks like it was published in the late 1970s, and it was written by Nguyễn Khắc Viện and Phong Hien (I don’t know what the diacritical marks for this name are).
As the title indicates, this issue of the journal deals with issues pertaining to American neo-colonial influence on the society and culture of South Vietnam. One topic that I found interesting is a chapter on the “educational apparatus.”
I’ve attached a pdf file of that chapter below. This chapter does a good job of documenting which American universities were involved in South Vietnam, and what kinds of projects they engaged in. This chapter also discusses the various private universities that were set up at the time as well.
There is no question but that to some degree some American universities were complicit in supporting the war effort. And as this chapter indicates, this is a fact that contributed to the anti-war movement in the US.
There is also no question but that one goal of education in the South was to indoctrinate people into thinking that their way of life was better than that promoted in the North.
At the same time, however, given the number of people involved and the scale of the changes that were implemented, the actual experience of students must have been diverse and complex.
Several decades later, Vietnam, and much of the rest of Asia, is experiencing another intense period of engagement with other “educational apparatuses.”
Whether it be the thousands of Vietnamese who are studying overseas to fulfill the Vietnamese government’s wish to see 20,000 PhDs by 2020, or the many foreign universities that have set up campuses in Malaysia in response to the Malaysian government’s dream of transforming Malaysia into an educational hub for all of Asia, or the “marriage” of the National University of Singapore with Yale to create a liberal arts college in the heart of Southeast Asia, the engagement with the “educational apparatuses” of foreign (“Western”) countries is probably at its most intense level ever.
Where, one wonders though, will all of this lead? One element of the “educational apparatuses” in the West that is idealized is the idea of “academic freedom.” The grand plans for educational reform in Asia are all being implemented in societies that place limits on the ability of scholars to question and challenge received norms. Does that make a difference? Is academic freedom a myth?
The table above (from here) provides one way of looking at this issue. It is a list of Han Chinese Nobel laureates. Here the “residence or affiliation at the time of the award” column is revealing. All of the “Chinese” scientists who have won Nobel prizes have done so when they were NOT working in China. Why is that the case? Is it going to change in time?
To improve one’s educational system of course does not require that one produce a Nobel laureate. However, the problem I see is that these countries that are investing so much in education don’t seem to have a clear idea of what it is that they do want to see emerge.
A university cannot be the Yale of the East if it is located in a society that does not offer the same space as scholars at Yale have to criticize and challenge. So what is the goal? And how do we know if the university has achieved it?
Similarly, people who hold PhDs are not of equal value or use in all societies. If two equally intelligent and hard-working PhD holders are placed in two separate societies – one that places restrictions on what scholars can do and one that doesn’t (to take two extremes) – then their careers will follow different paths, and their contributions to society will likewise be different. So what should we expect of 20,000 PhD holders in a given society?
Reading the critique about the American neo-colonial project in the 1950s-1970s made me think about the idea of “academic freedom.” Is academic freedom merely a neo-colonial tool? Or does the fact that no Chinese scientist working in China has ever won a Nobel prize indicate that it is real and important?
If I was investing millions in education, these are questions that I would definitely want to know the answers to.
[The photographs above are from the Douglas Pike Photograph Collection at the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University.]