Democracy of the mind
An interview with South Vietnam’s Minister of Education
Dr. Nguyễn Lưu Viên
Reprinted from Horizons. Vol XIX. No. 9, 1971, p. 10-15.
Nguyen Luu Vien is South Vietnam’s Minister of Education. Schools have introduced the «community school» concept, which emphasizes interaction between community and students, making classroom learning relevant to daily life.
South Vietnam’s Minister of Education is creating schools and universities relevant to the life of the people.
His Goal: A Democracy of the Mind.
South Vietnam’s school teachers have long been harassed and threatened with death by Viet Cong terrorists, if they dared teach allegiance to the Government. Schools have been mortared and burned. Youngsters have been torn from their studies as the war forced their families to temporarily flee ancestral homes.
Such was the effect of war on education in South Vietnam during much of the 1960’s. Yet, despite the turmoil. Education flourished as never before. In 1954, when South Vietnam became an independent nation, only half a million children (20 per cent of those in the eligible age group) within its territory attended elementary schools. By the 1969-70 academic year, more than two million children-82 percent of the youngsters aged six to 11--were enrolled in school. Secondary-school enrollment, which involved only three percent of the eligible age group in 1954, during the same period grew to over 620,000, or 25 percent of the high-school age group. Facilities for higher education in Vietnam multiplied from one university enrolling 2,000 students in the year 1954 to five universities enrolling 45,000 students in 1969-70.
Without herculean efforts by the Vietnamese Government and people, those accomplishments would have been impossible. Nguyen Luu Vien, Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Education, is one of the country’s leaders whose dedication to education made those advances possible. Dr. Vien, 50, a physician, has served in the classroom himself, as lecturer at Saigon University’s Faculty of Medicine. In this interview with HORIZONS correspondent Carl Howard, Dr Vien says South Vietnam is modernizing its entire education system. The main goal of the “new education” in Vietnam will be practicality and relevancy-relevancy to the country’s postwar needs and to Vietnam’s relationship with its neighbors in Asia .
Q- People say Vietnam is carrying out major educational reforms. What form are they taking?
A- .To answer that, I must first give you a little background about our educational system, which basically we inherited from the French. It has a built up problem-too many gaps. Children go to the primary school, and when they complete that there is an exam, a gap. At the end of the 11th year there is what we call Baccalaureate I exam, another gap. Then the next year another exam for Baccalaureate II, Without a Bac II, nobody can go to university. Every time there is a gap, we loose too many students. Look here [ Dr. Vien draws a chart on a yellow, lined note pad. He sketches and labels several blocks to represent each segment of the education system.] Here is the beginning, we have 100 students, let us say. At the end of the primary school only 50 remain. Only seven take and pass the Bac II exam at the end of 12 years of schooling. Only three go to university and –of every hundred youngsters- only an average of 1.7 graduates from university.
Q- I understand that in a recent television appearance you called the whole system “wasteful’.
A- . That’s right. Wasteful of talent and abilities. The children who reach Bac I or Bac II level get some knowledge, but no skills. Those 97 per cent who have been leaving school before and after the Bac II to go into life, they must learn a vocation. Life in this country can be very different from what they learn in the classroom. Ability to adapt to real life is what matters. So, for one thing, we are trying to fill all those gaps between the separated segments in the traditional Vietnamese school system. We will have a continuous 12-grade program. That is what happened in many of our neighboring countries- Thailand, the Republic of China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia.
Q- A continuous system? No breaks at all?
A- Well, there will be the primary school with five grades and the secondary school with seven grades, but with no hard-to-bridge gaps. And, in the primary school, we have already introduced the “community school” concept which emphasizes interaction between the community and the student. It is now a nationwide system in our first five grades. The idea is to help the young child understand what happens around him in his environment. What he learns in school must be useful and applied to life in the community where he lives. If he lives in the countryside, for instance, he must know how to produce rice. If he lives near the seashore, he must understand about life in the sea, about fishing. A child in the mountains must know about the forest and how to manage it. This will be useful when the pupil becomes an adult. Until now, what the children learned in their classrooms and textbooks had no relation to life in their environment.
Q- Are the results good?
A- So far. As community-oriented education takes hold, the people will know better how to improve their way of life, I believe. Until now, our secondary schools have been strong only on academics. A child’s diploma meant knowledge but no skill. Now we are introducing what we call the “comprehensive” or multipurpose high school that also offers courses in agriculture, home economics, business, and industrial arts.
Q- This sounds like a major switch over.
A- It is. However, we began to introduce the course in 11 pilot schools and will extend them to more and more high schools each year. We have too few shops, laboratories, and other facilities to change over all at once. It is expensive, but we have a worthy purpose- to restructure society to meet postwar requirements for labor.
You see, our society is like a pyramid. At the broadest portion of the base are masses of farmers and workers with no particular specialty. Then we have workers with some facility for technical tasks. These are technicians and supervisors. And finally there are engineers and other highly-trained individuals from our universities and from universities abroad. But the greatest shortage is in specialized men, workers at the technical level. The pyramid needs reinforcing at that point, and I hope such studies as industrial arts at the secondary school level will help strengthen our talent pool. After high school, some youths also can go to technical school for a year or two.
Q- Do plans and purposes for reform extend to the university level?
A- Yes. Our European heritage in the university system also has led to some wasteful practices. The main waste occurs in the operation of separate faculties. Saigon University, for example, has eight faculties: architecture, dentistry, law, letters, medicine, pedagogy, pharmacy, sciences. If a student enters one faculty and fails after two or three years, he has utterly wasted his time. To get a degree in a different faculty, he must start all over again. There’s no possibility for a certificate for his two years’ work and he’s little better off than a holder of a Bacc II, a high school graduate.
Q- You’re to remedy this somehow?
A-We think there is no reason for every faculty to teach separately basic subjects such as chemistry. You get minimum usage of expensive laboratories, for instance. So we will put students from faculties together in these basic courses. With interlinking plans of study, a student can switch from one major field to another without losing all of his credits. And the university can operate more efficiently and cheaply. Its quality of instruction can improve too, because one large laboratory can be better equipped than four or eight smaller ones. In essence, then, we’re switching from the European mold to a Vietnamese adaptation of the American mold of university organization. We will have colleges rather than faculties, and we also build up a two-year certificate system for universities that do not offer four-year curriculums.
Q- How soon will that happen?
A-.We will be taking some steps in the 1970 -71 academic’s year. One Vietnamese university rector and one dean have been studying university organization in the Republic of Korea, the Philippines and Japan. The ideas they bring back will help us restructure our four-year colleges. Moreover, as I said previously, within a few years we will probably be operating institutes that give two-year vocation-oriented courses—something like American junior colleges.
Q- Will these changes take place within existing universities or as part of newly created institutions?
A- I don’t know yet. The main thing is that the rectors at Saigon and Hue universities, and other educators to agree that the college system must be established. That is important in Vietnam. Our basic system must conform with the one used around Southeast Asia. And most of our Asian neighbors already have adopted the college system, as well as a program of bachelor’s and master’s degrees that are comparable. With our French-based system, we are out of step. As we approach the 21st century, we do not want to stay alone. So we must adjust our standards to those of our neighbors. Another far-reaching change we are working on is university autonomy. Up to now, according to the French system, the university is ruled by a rector appointed by the Minister of Education. The rector is a servant of the republic. But in a draft law we are presenting to the National Assembly, we will introduce the concept of a board of trustees to govern the university- trustees to be recruited from personalities in industry, banking, labor, and other fields.
Q- One governing board for each university?
A- Yes. And, also, each board will have a representative from the Lower House, the Senate, the Educational Council, the Economic and Social Council, and the City Council. We want a very broad base. There also will be a National Coordinating Council to assure comparability of degrees between institutions and curricula. But the power will be held by the governing board of each university.
Q- Do you propose to name student members in the governing board?
A- Not yet. However, it will be up to the National Assembly to decide about that.
Q-. Dr. Vien, we’ve talked about reforms and how they affect institutions and the pupils directly. May we touch a bit more on changes that affect parents and the community as a whole ?
A- Certainly. There’s financing of secondary schools. Under the French system, there were no
fees or tuition except, of course, in private schools. This limits our expansion of secondary schools, because the war taxes our economy very strongly and education receives only 4.4% percent of the national budget. Therefore, the Senate has recommended that the Executive initiate tuition charges in high schools. However if we developed a national plan and sought to impose tuition from above with payment to the Education Ministry, it wouldn’t work. Therefore I have developed a plan for local autonomy on this matter. A directorate composed of local authorities, leaders of the Parents’Association, the principal, and teachers would be formed at each high school. This committee would set the tuition, collect it, and decide how to use the money.
Q-. What reception do you get to this plan ?
A- The Student-Parent Associations around the country favor the idea, especially in the provinces. They know how terribly long it takes to get a little money to repair a school roof, or something like that. Sometimes a request may take weeks, and then the reply often is, “Sorry, but the Ministry has no money”. Vietnamese families, especially in the rural areas, are ready to sacrifice for the education of their children. They know it will take good schools and good teachers. For that reason, I think the average farm family would be happy to give perhaps 10 gia
[about 200 kilos] of paddy rice as tuition to make a better school for their child’s education.
Q- Talking about parents’ contribution, I have heard that the Ministry of Education has made an urgent request for classroom furnishings for the 1970 -71 school- year?
A-The ministry explained to parents that it had no more money for that program. The Student-Parent Association has taken up the challenge and is helping furnish new classrooms to increase enrollments, especially at the sixth-grade level. Next year we will have 400 new classrooms for the six-year group in the provinces and nearly 100 in Saigon. This will permit us to enroll from 40 to 50 percent of the children who should continue from the fifth grade to the sixth grade in 1970-71.We ere able to take only 32 or 33 percent of that group in 1969-70.
Q- Taking a look at all the changes occurring in Vietnamese education, which do you feel is the most far reaching?
A-The continuous 12-year school cycle, which President Thieu put into effect by decree several months ago. With that, it is not possible to turn back. Also there is something else we are working toward that is very important . I call it the regionalization of our education.
Q- Which is?
A- Decentralization. I’ve told you about our plan to form directorates of community and school leaders to oversee local financing of high schools. Equally as important, we would like to encourage regional initiative in education policy-making. Representatives of each school’s directorate could meet a coordinating council on a province level, for instance. Such province council could be authorized to decide a variety of matters, including limited curriculum policies.
Q- On the subject of regionalization, I understand that Vietnam now has teachers colleges in all the geographic areas of the country?
A-Yes, but preparation of teachers is still a key problem. Nothing can be accomplished without good teachers and enough of them. That’s why our slogan these days is “All for Teacher Training”. Thus we emphasize our new normal schools and a strong effort toward in-service training for teachers during the summer vacation period. Teachers get special courses on thee new mathematics, the new chemistry, new science advances, and so on.
Q- If you continue to graduate new teachers and to implement reforms, what will be some of the direct results in the coming year?
A-. We should be able to enroll all children in the primary schools, the first five grades, by 1975. That’s our goal. I wish we could do the same for secondary schools by then, but it would take more new teachers and school-buildings than we can possibly create in that period. In a few more years perhaps.
Q- Let’s take a broader look. Say, in the 21th century, what should education in Vietnam contribute?
A-. There are two key areas to demand the attention of us Vietnamese educators. First it becomes more clear all the time that at this point in history no one country can live alone; so we must introduce, even to the young children, the idea of international cooperation and interdependence. I have told my teachers that we must tell youngsters about how Southeast Asians must accept to live with their neighbors- that are Vietnamese with Cambodians, with Thais and so on. Second perhaps the fate of humanity will be decided in the Pacific area. So we must change to have our
eyes more and more turned to the Pacific. This is quite different from my generation, whose eyes were fixed on Europe.
Q-. And that is why you are turning away from the less- relevant forms of European education?
A-.This is part of it. Until now our students have gone to school to hear what the teacher says and to accept that as the truth, without question. This is due to the Confucian system we inherited, as well as to European traditions. In today’s world, though, we need discussion-especially at the university level-between professor and student. That is the first step to a real democracy, a democracy of the mind. The professor should say to the student: “We have come here- you and I together- and together we will find the truth. We will find it in many books, and by experience, and by our own devotion to study. We will have lectures and seminars and, above all, we will discuss”. Perhaps adoption of this approach to education, even in the lower levels, will be the most important thing education can do for furthering the practice of democracy in our Vietnamese society. Students don’t learn how to think by repeating facts they have memorized.
They must learn to question as well as to accept. They will be better citizens for it./.
His Goal: A Democracy of the Mind.