[A few days ago I posted this piece, but then I deleted it because I thought people might see it as too negative. My intent in writing this piece, however, was to be constructive. Ultimately, I would like to see the academic world in Vietnam change in a positive direction. For that to happen, I think the “culture” of academia in Vietnam will have to change. At the moment the Vietnamese government is investing a lot of money in higher education, and thousands of Vietnamese are in PhD programs around the world. That’s great, but it will not amount to much if the culture of academia in Vietnam does not change. I wrote this piece in order to point that out. I always have hope in the future. If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t write this blog.]
150 years ago, scholars in Korea and Vietnam viewed each other’s Kingdoms as very similar. These days, Korea and Vietnam are different in various ways,
I just spent two wonderful days in Korea at Sogang University listening to young Korean scholars present (in impeccable English) papers about their research on Southeast Asia. These young scholars all have PhDs from foreign countries (France, the US, etc.) and all have the capability to use a Southeast Asian language (Indonesian, Vietnamese, etc.) in their research.
There are many Asian nations that are striving to achieve this level of excellence, but with all due respect to the rest of Asia, I think the Koreans are currently number one.
Why might this be the case? I think that there are two main reasons for this. The first one, of course, is money. Apparently the Korean government started to invest money in the 1990s-2000s in order to produce experts on area studies, and the young scholars who I met over the past two days are the result of that investment. Needless to say, that was a good investment.
That said, many policy makers in nations in Asian think that if they spent money to send people overseas to get PhDs that this will automatically improve the educational environment at home. However, that is not the case, as there are cultural/social factors that affect what these “returning scholars” can do in their home country.
This is the second reason why I think that Korea is leading Asia in Area Studies. At this conference, there were various senior scholars who commented on the work of junior scholars. All of those senior scholars were critical, but they were also very supportive as well.
I have been to conferences in Vietnam, and have found that many Vietnamese senior scholars are very critical of anyone else, particularly junior scholars. If a junior scholar employs a theoretical approach that a senior scholar does not know about (and there are many theories that senior scholars in Vietnam do not know about) then that junior scholar will be “destroyed” by that senior scholar.
And if a foreign scholar does the same, s/he will also be treated that way by senior scholars.
In contrast to that, I just presented a paper to Korean scholars that contained theoretical ideas that they were not familiar with, and when they asked questions, the questions they asked were very direct in saying “We are not familiar with this theory. Please tell us more about this.”
I can’t possibly imagine a similar situation taking place at a conference in Vietnam. To the contrary, I can easily picture (and have seen on numerous occasions) people in the audience directly rejecting ideas that they don’t understand.
So something is different between the academic environments in these two countries. And while money is essential in producing a new generation of scholars, there are cultural/social conditions that are important too. In terms of those cultural/social conditions, Korea is currently much better positioned to succeed in the realm of scholarly research than Vietnam is.
In the past, these two countries prided themselves as being similar when they were tributary states of the Middle Kingdom, but times have now changed. They are no longer equal. Hopefully, however, someday soon they will be.