The picture above illustrates the results of a survey my fellow students at NUGSE and I have conducted as part of our Linguistics class. We asked the participants to give their free associations to a particular word in Russian, and then, a few days later, to the same word, but in Kazakh. The word clouds show the associations given to the word education: the left one in Kazakh and the right in Russian. Have you spotted the difference? Clearly, the Russian associations are much more varied. But, what is more interesting, if you look at the actual words, you will see that they reveal completely different views on the concept of education. The one on the left focus on the institutional aspects: teacher and school, while the other one favours a personal development orientation expressed through more abstract terms: knowledge and learn. The purpose of the exercise was to identify a Whorfian effect in Kazakh-Russian bilinguals. It is unlikely that we have done that, but I think we have still found something interesting here.
In an article I have recently read in Esquire Kazakhstan, Gulzhan Bazhkenova, the author, strongly criticises the educational methods in Kazakh-language schools: “Requirements to behaviour are extremely strict: no objections to the teacher, not even a hint on self-expression in clothes or thoughts.” This somewhat explains the findings of our survey; the associative fields that we gathered reflect the educational cultures in which the two languages are dominant: cultivation of discipline and obedience in the Kazakh-medium environment, and a more liberal approach to education in the Russian-medium one.
I must say the article, whose title, by the way, is “Too obedient to succeed”, paints such a dire picture of the Kazakh-medium education that it makes you suspicious of its sweeping claims, the central of which is that Kazakh schools, which emphasise traditionalism, discipline, and conformity, produce graduates who are not competitive in the modern job market because they lack initiative and creativity. But all the same characteristics are typical of education in most Asian countries. Nobody, however, would argue that graduates of Singapore’s schools are not fit for jobs at Singapore’s highly successful corporations, or that Japanese education stifles creativity in a country leading the world in technological innovation.
So, is the traditionalist approach of Kazakh schools really that bad? Or is it just another Western value assumption misapplied in a culture that is essentially different? I went to school in the mid-90s, when authority was not a very popular concept, and am quite grateful for that. But what do the younger generation think? To discipline or not to discipline?