September, School, And The Politics Of Memory

Dan Nguyen
Dan Nguyen

September is when the school year starts in Vietnam. However, this academic cycle is like no other, as the country is struggling with a deadly virus that claimed more than 10,000 lives last month. [1] How will this pandemic be remembered by those who survive? How will it be taught in schools in the years to come? Who will remember the missteps of the government, and will they demand justice for those whose deaths should have been avoided? We must not forget that a large part of Vietnam’s political landscape is the politics of memory, because as George Orwell once said in 1984, ‘he who controls the past controls the future; he who controls the present controls the past.’ My journey through schools, first in Vietnam and then overseas, illustrates why education and the politics of memory are intimately connected.

‘Under the roof of the socialist school’

I am a researcher, and most of the people I interview for my research are activists and supporters of various social and political movements in contemporary Vietnam. These people are also around my age and come from Vietnam’s post-war generation. Every time I ask about their school experience, they almost always jokingly start with “under the roof of the socialist school”; they then tell me about a time when they were completely unaware of, or even lied to, about many historical events, including the 1968 Hue massacre, the fall of Saigon, the existence of re-education camps, the boat people exodus, or the border war with China. If the truth of these events was widely known, it would raise serious questions about the crimes North Vietnam’s government committed against central and southern Vietnamese and the legitimacy of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP).

For us who come from the post-war generation [2], our education has been entirely engineered by the government under the leadership of the VCP. Thus, there is little surprise that some people and events were glorified while others were vilified or completely erased from public consciousness [3]. After all, one cannot secure one’s rule without being seen as legitimate, and in the case of the VCP, the spectre of the past is a constant threat to its contested legitimacy. The singular narrative in which the VCP is portrayed as the brave and glorious liberator of the Vietnamese people was told and repeated throughout the 12 years of our education through textbooks, symbols, rituals, and an elaborate system of rewards and punishments to reinforce these ideas.

Needless to say, I grew-up to become a VCP-nationalist – someone who equates loving Vietnam with believing blindly in the VCP. Likewise, I also ended up believing that modern-day Vietnam was the culmination of the VCP’s countless victories, especially during the ‘War Against America to Save the Country’ (Kháng chiến chống Mỹ cứu nước); I was made to believe that the VCP was “on the right side of history.” This singular narrative is easy to digest for children and teenagers because of its simple dichotomy of hero and villain, supported by a complex system of other institutions – especially the media – that echoes the same story.

Looking back, I can still vividly recall how proud I was when I became a member of the Communist Youth League at the age of 15. I remember humming one of the Party’s hymns as I walked home after attending the membership ceremony. It was not easy for me to escape the preconceptions of my childhood and the sad reality is that many Vietnamese people cannot.

Pedagogy of the oppressed [4]

When I left Vietnam to pursue my bachelor’s degree, my sociology and history classes challenged this singular narrative from my childhood and managed to deconstruct the VCP’s simplified and skewed perspective of the world. Yet, my most eye-opening experience did not happen in the classroom.

I remember stumbling upon a stack of books in the university library. They were a collection of stories about the Vietnamese Boat People who survived their exodus. These pages held more than just tales of tragedy and of sinking ships. They held the sorrow of husbands and wives separated by circumstance with little to no hope of ever seeing each other again. They carried the rage and despair of fathers watching their daughters being raped and killed right in front of their eyes. They contained the hopelessness and ennui of throwing corpses into the sea and of the countless lives left broken even after rescue. These stories stood in stark contrast to the image of Vietnam peddled by the VCP. Yet, I could not deny them; the pain and suffering of my countrymen were too raw and too real. The Vietnam I once knew, a Vietnam built on a shoddy foundation of strategically crafted lies and upfront deception, slowly began to crumble.

It was this evening in the library that changed me forever. Since then, I have become my own educator, gradually undoing what had been done to me “under the roof of the socialist school.” After getting my bachelor’s degree, I continued my education and had the opportunity to study the history of the Vietnam War (instead of the “War Against America”). I also write about contemporary events in Vietnam with the knowledge of how the past helps shape the present. This path I have chosen, albeit not easy, is nonetheless deeply rewarding. Its reward is both personal, as it gives me an avenue to re-build and express my authentic self and collective because I can speak for those whose stories have been erased from history.

Having said all this, education is not confined within formal institutions; I just happen to follow an academic path. Most of my research interviewees have learned through their own means. While I found my first moment of truth in the library, they may have found theirs as they participated in the street protests of the early 2010s in Vietnam, read blogs and websites that have become widely accessible thanks to the rise of the internet in the country, talked to their church members, or met with people of the Vietnamese diaspora. Regardless of the different routes we took, what we share in common is the self-awareness we gain as members of disenfranchised groups: Catholics, “the losing side,” southern Vietnamese, northerners who did not side with the victors, or protesters who were beaten up simply because they peacefully exercised their rights. We also share our role as keepers of the stories the powerful would rather erase.

Free schools and revolutionary journalism

I do not foresee the education system in Vietnam undergoing any radical change. I anticipate that the pictures of the long line of vans waiting in front of the crematorium in Saigon, the thousands of faces behind the death statistics, the grief of their loved ones, the indignation of those who have been pushed further into poverty because of the collapsed welfare system, and countless others whose lives have been overturned in the past weeks with endless confusing and incoherent decisions made by the government, will once again be at risk of being written off of history. It is likely that students will not be told about the year 2021 the way it has happened. Thus, no difficult questions will be raised about the (lack of) competency, accountability, and morality of those in power [5].

However, if history – the history of the oppressed – has anything to teach us, it is the power of Free Schools and revolutionary journalism. We must not forget that Phan Chu Trinh established Free Schools across Vietnam to teach what the French did not allow us – their subjugated people – to learn. We must not also forget that Phan Boi Chau spent his entire life conducting revolutionary journalism, not only to educate and inform but also to cultivate a sense of authentic identity for the Vietnamese people, without which we would not have had the basis to organize ourselves and achieve national independence [6]. I trust that if we could revive the spirit and practices of the days of the two Phans, with Free Schools and revolutionary journalism being once again a vibrant part of civic life in Vietnam, we will not only do justice to the past and to those whose stories would otherwise not be told, but also to our future generations and to the prospects of a better Vietnam we all deserve.

References:

  1. Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. “New deaths” for August was 10,067. Available at: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/region/vietnam. Retrieved on 3 September 2021.
  2. Vietnam’s post-war generation is defined as people born between the end of Vietnam War in 1975 and the years of Đổi Mới 1986-1989.
  3. See Vu, T. (2014). Triumphs or tragedies: A new perspective on the Vietnamese revolution. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 45(2), pp 236–257. Reviewing the contents of textbooks used in the cultural revolution led by the VCP, Vu concludes that such education “sought to indoctrinate people, not to enlighten them in the normal sense of the word”, and one of the consequences could be “enslav[ing] people by limiting their information to one particular way of thinking in order to create obedient subjects of the state” (p. 252).
  4. We borrow the name of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s famous work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first written in 1968, for this section.
  5. We suggest readers to also read Bia Dua’s article Chúng ta còn lại gì nếu ngày mai hết dịch?, published on Luat Khoa on 1 September 2021, to get a more detailed picture of the devastation in Vietnam, and the author’s thoughts and sentiments as a resident of Saigon in these sad and difficult days. Available at: https://www.luatkhoa.org/2021/09/chung-ta-con-lai-gi-neu-ngay-mai-het-dich/?fbclid=IwAR1FtFrxrw3aHp_Pii1D3S2mOMh2muTbjThwIZ4VeLLDGi_JOZcEJN_-Zdk
  6. See Duiker, W. (1976). The rise of nationalism in Vietnam, 1900-1941. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press. An elaborate discussion of Phan Chu Trinh’s Free Schools, Phan Boi Chau’s journalism, and the significance of these works in creating the identity of the Vietnamese people, can be found in Part 1 Scholar-Patriots (pp. 21-101) of the book.
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Dan Nguyen

Dan is currently a researcher based in Scotland and supported by European Commission's Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions grant. Dan's academic and activism interests are centred on civil soc