Andrew Wachtel on Education System of Kyrgyzstan

andrew wachtel
Photo credit: AUCA

Andrew Wachtel is the president of the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), one of the leading universities in Kyrgyzstan and the region. The university has established its reputation as an institution dedicated to democratic values, liberal arts principles and the spirit of innovation. It has become central to the education system of the country.

Mr. Wachtel has been heading the AUCA since 2010. Under his management, the university continued growing and contributing to the local development.  

Prior to his position in Central Asia, Mr. Wachtel worked as the dean of the Graduate School and the director of the Roberta Buffet Centre for International and Comparative Studies at the Northwestern University in the United States. His academic interests range from Russian literature and culture to East European and Balkan culture, history and politics to contemporary Central Asia.

As an experienced education professional working in Central Asia for long time, Andrew Wachtel has answered several questions about the education system of Kyrgyzstan, its drawbacks and potential for development.

PULS: How would you describe your experience of working in an education institution in Kyrgyzstan?

Mr. Wachtel: Exhilarating, rewarding, frustrating.  Exhilarating because we provide one of the only sources of truly high-quality university education in a very large region (about half the size of the continental US).  Rewarding for that reason and also because we do it on an extremely small budget, so that we have to be exceptionally creative to make it work.  Frustrating because we could do a much better job if we had more resources, if the host country and surrounding countries were a bit more accommodating, and if more students and more parents realized that higher cost, higher quality education is a better investment than free lower-quality education.

PULS: Is it difficult to work with the givens of the education system in the country?

Mr. Wachtel: At some level, of course it is because the local educational bureaucracy still tends to think in rigid Soviet formulations and to equate knowledge of stuff with education (which has now become the ability to find and use stuff rather than to know it by heart).  For Americans, who come from a totally decentralized system this is even harder to deal with than for Europeans.  At the same time, the system has definitely become a bit more flexible with time and now, for the most part, we are able to provide the education we want to provide within the confines of the system, though it does require some work-arounds.

PULS: What are the main issues in the system? 

Mr. Wachtel: It is inflexible, formalistic, unwilling and unable to measure the kinds of things that it should be measuring, bureaucratic, and suspicious of change.  Most of the local universities are cesspools of corruption and are totally unable to provide students with the skills they need for the 21st century.  There is still a belief that students should be prepared for a narrow set of jobs that increasingly do not exist, rather than be given the tools that can make them successful, whatever they choose to do.

PULS: Why do you think it is worth continuing your work?

Mr. Wachtel: Precisely because by showing that even within the existing system it is possible to produce excellent graduates who can compete internationally, we show that high-quality education is possible to create in Central Asia, though we are isolated, poor and understaffed.  And because the students do not take their education for granted (at least for the most part), it is easy to see that they need us and do not have a lot of options were we not here.

PULS: What are the positive trends in the country’s education system development, if any? 

Mr. Wachtel: The Ministry of Education appears to be aware of the basic problems and even has a desire to fix some of them, though it generally does not know what to do.

PULS: What are the negative trends, if any?

Mr. Wachtel: Continued lack of political will to tackle the biggest issues, particularly the fact that quantity is favored over quality.  As a result, the state tries to do too much with too little and in the end fails to do anything at all.  The primary school system is also falling apart and thus far the state does not seem to have a plan to arrest the slide.  The system is corrupt at many levels.

PULS: What are the main differences between the way school and university students are taught in Kyrgyzstan and in the US? 

Mr. Wachtel: Generally, US students learn less stuff and are encouraged to acquire more ability to work with what they know, to ask questions, develop the ability to think critically, present their opinions.  The negative side of this is that they frequently don’t know enough to justify their self-confidence.  Traditionally, Soviet schools and universities taught people the basics very well (particularly in math and science).  Students knew a lot but they were not encouraged to think much about what they learned and certainly not to disagree with authority figures.  Of course, the best students in the US eventually learned that they had to actually know something and the best Soviet/post Soviet students learned to be creative.  But at least in my view it is easier to teach people stuff than it is to teach them to think.  This is particularly true now when ubiquitous technology allows for easy information retrieval but does little to help anyone process, filter, and work with that information.

PULS: Do you think the Soviet education system had some advantages over the Western system? 

Mr. Wachtel: For teaching basic knowledge-based subjects such as mathematics the Soviet system was clearly superior.  It was also better at creating the concept of a shared national culture (every taxi driver could quote the same Pushkin poems that intellectuals knew), although one can see the same phenomenon in a number of Western countries (France, for example), but not in the US. It also officially valued education and those that provided it in ways that are completely unknown in the US.

PULS: How much do the Soviet values still exist in educational methods in Kyrgyzstan? Why do you think they persist/do not persist? What are these values? 

Mr. Wachtel: In general, Soviet values are still deeply ingrained in Kyrgyz society.  There is a reverence for authority (but a high degree of cynicism toward it), for factual knowledge, for abstraction, an unwillingness to stand out from the crowd, and a willingness for people to accept what they are told while simultaneously harboring elaborate conspiracy theories regarding how the world works.  Such tendencies persist because they are still modeled by parents and grandparents and by educational structures.  Now they are being actively promoted by Russian-led Soviet apologists as well.