Erlan Sagadiyev @ TEDxAlmaty on language education: A deconstruction

Erlan Sagadiyev, the current Minister of Education and Science, is a highly controversial figure in Kazakhstan’s politics.  Most of the heat around him is generated by the Kazakh nationalists who accuse him of systematic efforts to kill the Kazakh language, one of these efforts being the trilingual education policy.  Long before he became a minister, in 2013, Mr. Sagadiyev gave a TEDx talk in Almaty on language in education.  In this talk, he attempted to justify the trilingual policy, whose great challenges would befall him only three years later.  While at first sight Sagadiyev’s argument seems logical and persuasive, a closer look at his main claims reveals several flaws.  These flaws, I believe, are at the heart of the nationalists’ discontent with the policy, and the Minister’s weakness in defending it.

Mr. Sagadiyev’s background in business comes through when he tries to substantiate his spiel with “facts and figures”, neatly presented through charts and infographics.  That in itself hints at his neoliberal itch to turn everything, including education, into a set economic indicators ready to be measured and optimised.  But language is not an easy subject for such treatment; it is tightly interwoven with culture, which is cannot be tabulated.  So, to go on with his accounting exercise, Sagadiyev does away with culture in one quick stroke: he proposes to separate education and cultural vospitaniye.

Although Youtube translates cultural vospitaniye as “cultural fostering”, there is no exact term for this in English and it probably best corresponds to the notions of parenting or child-rearing.  Unlike education, whose aim is to provide knowledge and skills necessary to function in the world and do a job, vospitaniye is related to things like social and cultural values, morality, convictions, and character.  It is clear that both of these go hand-in-hand: it is impossible to understand cultural values without learning history, and the study of science cannot be done without understanding its social value and ethical implications.  But Sagadiyev, for the sake of making his facts and figures about language more relevant, establishes this central dichotomy—education vs. vospitaniye—and build his whole argument on this.  Never mind that this dichotomy is fundamentally false: both education and vospitaniye largely happen at the same place (school) and facilitated by the same people (teachers).

For our business-exec-cum-minister, education is aimed at creating “a competitive person, equipped with […] knowledge and skills, […] who is able to earn money” (emphasis added), while the goals of vospitaniye include building a national identity, teaching a native language, and teaching about the national culture and history.  With education delineated solely by economic imperative, it is easy for him to justify the importance of universal English fluency as the only way to access the immense and ever-increasing volume of knowledge.  To emphasise the urgency of learning English, he uses words like “race” and “competitive advantage”, and alerts his listeners with news from Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia about their expedient reforms in language education.

But what about vospitaniye?  Are there any recommendations about language policy in this regard?  Nothing direct, yet from some of his rhetorical juxtapositions we can guess what the Minister thinks about this subject.  For example, when talking about the discussions on language education in the media, he states: “There are so many glimpses into the past, to who we used to be.  And so little about who we want to be or who we will become in 20 or 30 years.”  It seems that to him culture is looking back, while education (or his competitive version of it) is looking forward.  Towards the end of the talk, he says: “Each nation is a carrier of a unique culture, but none of them is unique in following the path of social modernisation.”  This reminds me of the opening sentence of Anna Karenina, about happy families being the same and unhappy ones different.  Implicitly, this hints at cultural uniqueness being a hindrance to modernity.  At the end, he even suggests that eventually culture should turn into knowledge: “You know your culture, but you do not practice it”.

No wonder Sagadiyev outrages the nationalists.  He seems quite open about his globalist inclinations in terms of culture, whose future he sees as a school subject rather than a lived experience.  His separation between education and vospitaniye is false, as the introduction of a new language in education and reducing the role of others will inevitably affect culture, precisely because it is a living dynamic thing.  In the end, his argument boils down to “culture should be sacrificed to economic competitiveness”, which to me does not sound very persuasive, but extremely divisive.  There are many good things about the trilingualism besides competitive advantage, and the Ministry of Education should probably work more on studying and promoting those rather than concentrating on the race for the money.


One thought on “Erlan Sagadiyev @ TEDxAlmaty on language education: A deconstruction

  1. Expertly and eloquently expressed. (5/5) A pleasure to read your mix of frank, personal opinion and thoughtful elaboration of critical thought.


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