September 8, 2005
When man does something unthinkable, such as try to exterminate his own kind, the aftermath is often equally unimaginable.Perhaps nowhere is that as literally true as in Cambodia. Under the nearly four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, between 1 million and 3 million Cambodians were killed, leaving a country as rich in death as it was in life.Upon taking the capital of Phnom Penh in 1975, “the Khmer Rouge implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted,” according to a Lonely Planet travel guide.Many in the generations after the Khmer Rouge have suffered perhaps as much as those whose bones rise to the surface from their shallow graves every time it rains. Many of the survivors’ minds have been severely depleted – they do not, cannot think for themselves.Brainwashed by the Khmer Rouge, parents have had no means to pass on critical-thinking skills to their children, and them to their children.
For a Westerner, it’s hard to imagine life without critical analysis. How can one not choose particular opinions and clothes, or not choose to read certain books and newspapers? In Cambodia, these decisions were all made by the state; and if you didn’t follow the state standard, you were executed.Three decades later, the nation and its people are still recovering. Three teachers from the Roaring Fork Valley and another from Boulder recently went to Cambodia with a simple goal: teach some of the nation’s teachers about critical thought and how to monitor students’ progress through testing and other means.The task turned out to be much more complicated than it first seemed.Learning and adjusting”I was unprepared,” Kathy Klug said of her first visit to Cambodia in late June. “You can’t pack for it.”In the high humidity that greets travelers just off the plane, one cannot strip fast enough, “yet you can’t take your clothes off. It’s a modest, sort of formal culture,” she said.Klug said the smell of the streets on the drive from the airport, which she had been warned about, “was overwhelming.” The routes were clogged with a combination of motorbikes, livestock and maniacal cabbies. But Klug, college advisor at Aspen High School, also noticed “elegant” palm trees growing out of garbage dumps.The Colorado teachers intended to train about 170 teacher supervisors from around Cambodia in administrative leadership, the subject of Klug’s doctoral thesis. Also on the trip were Heidi Roupp, who taught history for 35 years at Aspen High School before recently retiring; Dr. Marilynn Hitchens, a professor in the history department at the University of Colorado; and Dr. Joanne Ihrig, former assistant superintendent at the Aspen School District. Hitchens and Roupp are co-directors of Teachers Across Borders, a nonprofit group that provides support and instruction for teachers around the world.
In Cambodia, the group tried to explain the latest leadership models used in American education, Klug said. But “they had no idea what I was talking about.””It was a clarity moment” when Klug asked a group of Cambodian educators to complete an assignment.”It was like, OK, I get it now. They’ve lost their capacity [to learn],” Klug said. “Can we reinstill that? I don’t know that we can, but we can work toward it.”They quickly found a root problem with the Khmer Rouge education system – “It was about doing, it wasn’t about learning,” Klug said. “The leadership model wasn’t among the 50 you could pick in the United States.”The Cambodian model was styled, unsurprisingly, after a dictatorship. “Top-down, just get it done was the mantra, rather than what you were getting done or analyzing,” she said.Teachers in Cambodia make about $20 a month and are in charge of classrooms of about 60 students each. One professor they met had three or four jobs. Students usually have no books, maybe a few National Geographics, Roupp said, or “whatever people have been able to collect.”The group took an atlas on the trip, which Roupp donated to the national university library.
“You would have thought that I had given them a gold nugget,” she said.Cambodia is now enacting classroom standards, “which [are] the backbone of leadership,” Klug said. “If you understand what your [students] should be able to do and be able to know at the end of their time with you, that’s called standards. Leadership is making sure everybody understands how to do that and then analyze whether it’s being done.”Toward that end, the American instructors modified their education plan and concentrated on a couple of goals, including compare-and-contrast exercises and cooperative learning.Professor Hitchens said the goal, after realizing the epochal setbacks Cambodians have faced, became asking teachers, “What do you think?” For someone who has lived for years in an authoritarian society, such questions become “deeply personal,” Hitchens said. “What does it mean to you? That’s very individual, but it’s like freedom.”It was a balancing act for the Westerners as they accepted native ways of life but also realized the Cambodians “need to learn some of these other things to survive in the world,” Hitchens said.The Americans can’t tell yet whether they have improved the well-being of average Cambodians. But they hope they instilled some rudimentary teaching skills in Phnom Penh educators, Klug said, “so they can start passing it down the pipe.”On a positive note, the students were hungry for knowledge, and the power of curious youth is helping to supercede the old model.”The younger generation wants to be part of the functioning world,” said Hitchens.
Khmer Rouge effects still feltThe shadow of the Khmer Rouge still hangs over Cambodians. Many people helped the Americans and confided in them, but the teachers preferred not to name names, as many members of the Khmer Rouge remain today.The father of one Cambodian teacher was “killed in the most horrific way possible by the Khmer Rouge,” Hitchens said.One resident told Klug his opinion of the current land-mine situation: “Two million publicly [admitted], 10 million probably. And nobody told anybody where they all were.”The mines were the result of numerous wars, including the civil war during the Khmer Rouge regime and Cambodia’s war with Vietnam in the late 1970s that drove the Khmer from power.Thousands of people, many of them children, have been killed by land mines or had limbs blown off. Efforts to rid the countryside and cities of mines continue. The night before her departure, Klug’s children read to her instructions from a guide about land mines and the danger of going even slightly off-road.”They said, ‘Mom, if you have to pee … the book says it’s better to expose yourself than go off the path,'” she said.
For Roupp, the decision to go to Cambodia was easy. She and Hitchens have had long careers in instructing, among other subjects, world history. Instead of teaching a traditional style of history, Klug said that “Heidi’s mission in education was to change the way we looked at the world and its story.”A new method emerging in history education eschews “these separated, Eurocentric conversations about teaching history; it is now more integrated than it’s ever been,” Roupp said.She tried to instill a global perspective in her standard history classes because “it’s all interrelated.” Especially in Cambodia.The country “is so critical. It was the center of a lot of agricultural progress” around 1200 A.D., Roupp said. Present-day Cambodia was also a crossroads where Hinduism and Buddhism met.Helping a decimated country rediscover itself was immensely rewarding for the teachers, both professionally and personally.”It’s certain they want a better future,” Roupp said.Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org