Deel 1 – Scholing in Cambodja.

We willen de komende weken een drietal berichten op ons BLOG delen over de situatie aangaande scholing in Cambodja. Deze BLOG’s geven een beeld van de ontwikkeling van de situatie hier en nu, maar ook van de geschiedenis.

We hebben deze BLOG’s kunnen gebruiken van een vriendin van ons ( We zijn blij dat we ze over mogen nemen. De BLOG’s zijn in het Engels geschreven. Geniet ervan!


Cambodian education, part 1: beginnings through 1979

I’ve been reading up this semester on Cambodian education, trying to get a handle on what it’s like and how it got this way.  Often the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970’s is blamed for the downfall and current disrepair of all kinds of Cambodian institutions.  My conclusion so far: the Khmer Rouge were terrible, all right.  But education in Cambodia has been a mess for ages, and a remarkably stagnant mess at that.

*I’ll try to summarize what’s stood out to me – I can’t promise it’s 100% accurate.*

The first book I read on the subject, David Ayres’ Anatomy of a Crisis, details the history of education in Cambodia.  You know the system is in less-than-stellar shape when “crisis” in the title refers not to gender inequality, or to the dropout rate, or to corruption, or to graduates’ academic abilities, but to EVERYTHING.  In fact, Ayres doesn’t even bother to argue that Cambodian education is in crisis, but focuses on arguing why.  In a nutshell, the answer is that Cambodia’s leaders have never once had their citizens’ best interests at heart.  Their capricious, ill-thought-through policies have reflected their true goals: to make themselves look good, to protect their status, and to divert the budget for themselves and their cronies.

Ayres begins with education prior to French colonization.  Cambodian kings never saw fit to educate their citizens.  For hundreds of years, Buddhist pagodas hosted the only education available: informal oral instruction in proverbs, folk tales, and didactic poems for young boys in training to become monks.  A lot of the activities weren’t focused on learning, and monks could come and go whenever they wanted, making the schools inefficient.  Many boys spent a couple years learning from the monks, and then most were encouraged to return to the rice fields, while remained monks for years to come.  A few monks learned to read older languages like Pali in order to read Buddhist texts.  The pagodas encouraged children to accept their lot in life and not to question their status or their way of living; this fatalism is consistent with a Buddhist worldview.  For centuries during and after the Khmer Empire period, which began in 802 AD, there were almost no changes in rural Cambodian customs, work habits, or society.


In 1863 Cambodia became a French protectorate (similar to a colony), but the French did little with its education.  They established a few schools to train administrative personnel, mostly from among the Cambodian elite and those of Chinese or Vietnamese heritage.  The schools were conducted in French after primary school, and their content was similar to curricula in France: very academic, and unrelated to Cambodia.  The French were not impressed by the monks’ temple schools, and often reformed them – using the temple facilities with different teachers and their new curriculum for students.  By 1938 almost 60,000 students (mostly boys) were enrolled in primary school, but few stayed longer than three years, and fewer than 300 had completed primary school.  The first secondary school was accredited in 1935.  Ayres argues that while the French had little effect on the life of the average Cambodian peasant, their overtaking the temple schools served to undermine the traditional form of education without offering a solid alternative to replace it.  When they pulled out, the monks’ schooling never regained its former ubiquity.

Sihanouk and French

After Cambodia attained independence in 1953, “Cambodianization” was supposed to happen as Cambodian leaders assumed control of the educational system.  However, no one ever implemented a thoughtful policy addressing Cambodia’s needs and resources.  Ayres writes, “Particularly culpable was Norodom Sihanouk, who had slavishly pursued the expansion of educational provision to promote and ensure his uncontested legitimacy” (32).  Sihanouk, a shrewd politician who bounced between prince, king, and Socialist to maximize his political gains, saw education as a ticket to national popularity and international recognition.

The problem is that Sihanouk tried to “modernize” education while protecting the traditional hierarchy (and thus his power) and he implemented policies haphazardly.  Schools were built too quickly, without bothering to train teachers or fund resources, and their quality rapidly declined.  He ignored his ministers’ five-year plan to slow expansion and improve quality, instead deciding to allow many new universities to open without establishing standards to which they must adhere.  He never reformed the French curriculum, based on the assumption that students would attend secondary school and beyond.  While enrollment skyrocketed, most students still dropped out after a few years, having learned no vocational skills and little that was relevant to daily life.  Schools certainly didn’t prepare students for the Cambodian economy, where subsistence rice farming remained the main industry and where innovation was badly needed.  Students who completed secondary school still had the old goal in mind: to become civil servants with a lifetime of high status, powerful connections, and lucrative bribes.  Trying to curry favors, for years Sihanouk guaranteed government positions to all university graduates in certain majors…even when the supply of graduates far outpaced the demand.

His successor, Lon Nol, pooh-poohed Sihanouk’s policies without substantially changing them.  During Lon Nol’s regime, insurgents were gaining control of more and more regions in Cambodia, and schools were often interrupted by military conflicts and bombings.  Many teachers, influenced by the Communist ideas popular in France at the time, invited students to secret meetings and urged students to rally and protest both Sihanouk and Lon Nol.  A few teachers went on to become leaders of the Khmer Rouge from ’75 to ’79.  Seeking an agrarian revolution, Khmer Rouge leaders targeted the educated (themselves excluded, of course) among others doomed to violent deaths.  khmer rouge membersTheir “schooling” involved separating children from their families to indoctrinate them with propaganda and occupy them in grueling farm labor.  By 1979, Cambodian education’s tentative and uneven progress had indeed regressed to Year Zero.

Auteur: 2followus

Passie voor zending I Leeft in Cambodja I Focus op: Kerk, Discipelschap, BAM (business as mission)

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