How Humanities Education In Vietnam Failed Me: An Anecdote

How Humanities Education In Vietnam Failed Me: An Anecdote
Photos from Kenh14 and Lao Dong Newspaper. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

Recently, The Economist featured an article commending Vietnam's education system, hailing it as one of the world's finest. The author highlighted the impressive performance of Vietnamese students in global assessments of reading, math, and science. While I acknowledge the strengths of their STEM education and the education system as a whole, my perspective focuses on my personal encounters with humanities and social sciences education in Vietnam.

Having recently graduated from a prestigious university in the United States with a degree in humanities and social sciences, I feel compelled to share my observations regarding the education I received in Vietnam. In doing so, I aim to shed light on its shortcomings, not only in imparting essential skills but also in nurturing innovative thinkers and influential policymakers in the long term.

In 2020, when I was still in college, the state-sanctioned Association of Vietnamese Philosophy (Hội Triết học Việt Nam) was founded under the endorsement of Vo Van Thuong - the current state president, who was then the head of the Central Propaganda Department. In his speech, Thuong expressed his regret that the country had yet to make notable achievements in the field of philosophy. “We have yet to have a philosophical foundation comparable to that of the giants of Greece and Rome, the profound thinkers in India and China, or the rational philosophers of Eastern Europe…,” he said.

As a Vietnamese humanities major in an American university, his comment struck me. He was right: there is no philosophical tradition that Vietnam could proudly claim to be ours. There are not a lot of Vietnamese individuals who could be called philosophers, not to mention notable ones. But this problem will not be solved by the state imposing a party-affiliated association, as this is already embedded in the humanities and social sciences education itself.

1. Persistent censorship of history and politics

Before studying abroad, I was a student in a Vietnamese public school for 12 years, from the day I learned the alphabet to the day I entered prestigious universities abroad. In high school, I was selected from a highly competitive examination process to study social sciences at the Hanoi-Amsterdam High School for the Gifted, the top public high school in the capital city.

Despite studying at one of the best public high schools in the nation, most of the historical and political topics were heavily censored. I remember hearing about the Nhan Van Giai Pham Affair, one of the most significant political and cultural protests in North Vietnam. I asked my teacher about it, only to receive one or two ambiguous responses. I remember my history teacher passionately talking about the glorious role of the Communist Party in establishing peace and reunification in Vietnam while completely ignoring the horrors of post-1975 domestic policies.

Without the privilege of studying abroad, I would have never been able to learn about my own country’s history in a classroom setting.

How should we expect students to be informed about the country’s history and politics if a Vietnamese student, born and raised in the capital city who attended one of the best schools, had to travel across the world just to be able to learn about significant historical events that still have an effect on modern Vietnam?

While I did not personally study at a university in Vietnam, I have gathered firsthand accounts from my peers regarding the persistence of censorship in Vietnamese history and politics. Surprisingly, even institutions like the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, which should foster political discourse, are said to encounter limitations. Although these anecdotes are not backed by formal research documenting the extent of censorship across higher education institutions, they highlight a concerning trend.

2. Lack of critical thinking and research skills

It is unsurprising that censorship is the number one problem in humanities education in Vietnam, considering the country is consistently low in the rankings in different democracy and free speech indexes. But this is especially dangerous in an era of heightened disinformation affected by the advance of artificial intelligence, in which the ability to evaluate information critically is crucial.

The topic of ChatGPT in education has been a recent concern among many Vietnamese educators. Teachers fear their students using ChatGPT to cheat in essays and exams. School administrators fear teachers’ reliance on ChatGPT which could lead to inaccurate information. Among the recommendations for surviving in the AI era is the need to “increase critical thinking and debate skills among students and teachers.”

Yet, in an educational system where there is little to no space for students to think critically, I wonder if it is at all possible to achieve “increased critical thinking and debate skills” under the current system.

After I graduated from university, I revisited my history textbooks in high school with both intrigue and horror. Intrigued because I could not believe that such poor-quality writing could pass as a textbook, horror because generations of Vietnamese students have been and will be studying the same content.

The authors of the state-mandated history textbooks did not treat them as a scientific project but rather as an opportunity to construct a historical fiction that glorifies the Communist Party.

For example, they still call the governments under the Republic of Vietnam “American puppets,” despite recent historical scholarship questioning this narrative. There were no proper citations and no guidance on how to view historical events from multiple perspectives, even in the textbook for high school seniors. There was minimal separation between historical facts and opinions.

The “citation” page for History 12 (the state-sanctioned history textbook for high school seniors). There is no academic citation for the information in the textbook. Occasionally, there are some footnotes that cite the Communist Party’s documents. Nevertheless, the majority of information and evaluations are presented as truth rather than asking students to think critically about different events.

This is dangerous, not only because students basically learn nothing from the humanities/social science education (other than the ability to memorize and recite loaded sentences) but also because it fails to equip them with the skills necessary to survive in the age of disinformation. How would students learn to fact-check information online if the education system basically teaches them to accept everything they read?

Additionally, if students decide to pursue higher education outside of the Vietnamese public school system, they would have to learn from scratch the ability to digest information from various sources and to cite academic sources properly. This puts them at a significant disadvantage as those skills are entirely foreign to the current public school system.

3. Little space for a diplomatic or political career, especially if you were not born into the “right” family  

It is no surprise that nepotism is a global issue in Vietnam and elsewhere. However, the current outcome for students pursuing a degree in the humanities or social sciences is severely limited if they do not come from the “right” family (i.e., one that has ties to the Communist Party). Nepotism, in addition to few opportunities to have high-quality social science education, poses a challenge to Vietnam’s ability to supply or retain its finest civil servants.

In university, I look at my Singaporean friends with much jealousy. Even though Singapore is considered an authoritarian country, studying abroad in the social sciences and humanities is still very encouraged by the state as the country is aware that they have to invest in social science education to create high-quality civil servants.

From scholarship schemes, many Singaporean students have to go back to serve for a certain number of years in the government, but they have already acquired critical thinking and the ability to think for themselves from years of studying in the West. Even universities in Singapore, including the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University, are both regarded highly for their social science education. Vietnamese universities are nowhere to be found in the ranking of social sciences in Asia.

One might argue that the quality of social science education in Singapore is due to its strong economy.  And it is indeed true that the state of the economy is important to a country’s ability to invest in education.

However, there has yet to be the same meritocratic approach to post-graduate careers in the Vietnamese government as the opportunity to pursue high-quality education in the humanities and social sciences is reserved for people who can privately afford to study abroad or in private universities and programs.

Even when they manage to graduate, the low salaries for civil servants in Vietnam pose additional challenges. Because of low salaries (rumored to be anywhere between around $130 to $170 a  month for entry-level officials), even individuals who want to contribute to the government face financial barriers if they are not already wealthy. As a result, it is no surprise that brain drain has been a consistent problem for Vietnamese education as well as the government and the country at large.

4. Concluding Thoughts

In a book event happened in New York City, someone in the audience asked Ted Osius, former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, whether Fulbright University Vietnam has free speech and freedom of thought. The question came after Ambassador Osius said that he believes education is the key to better U.S.-Vietnam relations, bringing up the example of Fulbright University, a brand new American-funded university in Saigon.

Thomas Vallely, who founded the Harvard Vietnam Program that would become Fulbright University, happened to be in the audience that day. Ambassador Osius asked Vallely to speak, and his answer was along this line: “It is not like universities in the United States, but it is much better than other universities in Vietnam. We try to be free within boundaries.”

I have never personally experienced education at Fulbright University, but I believe this is true based on my interactions with peers who are currently studying there. I personally know of individuals who are conducting humanities and social science research on topics that definitely would have been struck down at public universities in Vietnam, which is a sign of hope for the new generation. However, this is just one university.

In a globalized world where Vietnamese students are studying abroad and getting unlimited information from the internet, trying to subject them to rigid, outdated, and ideology-driven lessons will not work in the long run. If the social sciences and humanities education in Vietnamese public schools fails to transform itself to meet the challenges of the 21st Century, the country will not be able to handle the rampant disinformation found on social media or the consistent problem of brain drain.

Understandably, Vietnam wants to have renowned philosophers, policy-makers, and social scientists. But without the financial investment and a fundamental reform of the way the social sciences and humanities are being taught in the public school system, it is unlikely that the country will ever produce or retain great thinkers.


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