Challenges in Education

May 28, 2016, 06:00

Challenges in Education 

Roza Otunbayeva

Founder of the The Roza Otunbayeva Initiative(1), former president of Kyrgyzstan.  

In 2015 we grew as a Foundation, we became stronger; important, sensitive projects linked to our development, especially in the area of education, came a step closer to fruition. We’re not changing the basic premise of our work at the Foundation: that the molding of an individual begins at birth, and that we must invest in our children early on; after 3 to 5 years old is too late!

Seventeen individuals were Montessori certified, and have raised the level of education in private preschools. In the summer of 2015, we held 87 Jailoo(2)   preschools in remote high­mountain pastures which were truly unforgettable ‒ not only for each child, parent and mountain community, but for all of us who contributed: educators, students, foundation members and volunteers from abroad. The annual city Education Festival, the monthly lectures on innovations in education given on the Arabaev University campus, the regular book readings at Raritet,(3)  aimed at instilling a love for reading in children ‒ the key here is to press on, patiently continuing this routine work. Bringing up children is not a one­time transaction; we’re raising up the next generation, to whom we’ll pass on life’s baton.

A highlight of the year was the National Women’s Forum held in March of 2015, where we celebrated 90 years of the women’s movement in Kyrgyzstan. In the face of an aggressive ideological onslaught of violent extremism and religious radicalism, and the active recruiting of young Kyrgyz men and women ‒ even those with small children ‒ to send to Syria, our society, like the rest of the world, has seemingly lost its way; bewildered by these events, we are feverishly searching for the key to curb these attacks.

I am convinced that education and the arts are the only “sledgehammers” that can crush these forces of evil. In the overfed West, where the standard of living permits the luxury of not worrying about one’s livelihood or the availability of entertainment for youth, society is aghast at the flood of young people resolutely setting out to fight in foreign wars. But that aside, human history has passed through the darkest of times: poverty, wars, plagues, epidemics that have subjugated entire countries and societies. Only through unity, through education, have men risen from their knees, from the ashes, to rebuild their lives. As a community we must, therefore, fight tirelessly for better, higher­quality education for all ‒ for every child, every parent. The minister of education can’t do this alone, just as the minister of health can’t be solely responsible for keeping us all healthy. This task falls chiefly to each one of us as individuals.

And this must be a countrywide endeavor: the work and effort put forth by all of society ‒ by each city, by each village ‒ will bring results. Yes, up to a quarter of the current budget is devoted to education, but the efficacy of this spending remains low. In order to accelerate educational reforms, streamline the work of institutions of higher education, drastically reduce the number of quasi­educational institutions, ensure the rapid implementation of important programs in universities and schools, and introduce a system for ranking the best institutions of higher education, the support and participation of all of society is an absolute necessity. The Ministry of Defense’s Public Monitoring Committee, which includes many members of the general public, is either itself poorly qualified for the job or is simply not providing the Ministry with the appropriate, necessary aid. For now, we watch from the sidelines as the Ministry of Defense attempts to talk with these institutions of higher education about their blatant incompetence. They’re addicted to profit, and are feeding on the naivete of rural students. Reforms have long since been announced, over half an academic year has gone by, elections have even been held, but the wasteful, destructive, budget­draining overlap in training programs at our institutions of higher learning has run amok! Within just a few hundred yards of each other several Bishkek universities offer programs in international relations, legal studies, economics, diplomacy, and various types of management. But not a word on the government’s clearly­articulated position on starting programs for engineering or technical training.

Introducing religious training in schools and universities, an effort widely supported by society, has been an especially drawn out process, which is raising legitimate concerns in our community. It’s understandable that these courses are still under development, but there’s no visible effort on the part of educators in schools and universities to enthusiastically and creatively discuss the content and teaching of this new subject in school. A community­wide discussion on problems in our education system is simply not taking place in Kyrgyzstan. Where are the smart, cultured, well­read teachers? Where are the degreed, learned men from the universities, raising pressing issues of societal development? I’m not referring here to those dozen or so who are regularly published on the websites of political opinion leaders.

In the Soviet era, the Teacher’s Gazette was not narrowly focused on just the education field; its influence and opinions, the questions and discussions it raised, spread to every corner of the country. It was truly national! But Kyrgyzstan lacks subject­specific journals of the type which circulate in other ‒ even quite small ‒ countries for universities, schools, kindergartens.

Topical educational journals on subjects such as the environment, music and art, physical education and sports, geography, etc., etc., etc., simply don’t exist here. In light of this, why is the quality and circulation of the little­known industry periodical Kut bilim (4)  not growing?

Perhaps in the name of education one of the numerous Kyrgyz political web sites could instead take on a task so needed by our people: improving the design and efficiency of our education system!

Only the generosity of international donors, coming through the UN’s Peacebuilding Fund, is underwriting the introduction of multilingualism in pilot schools and of civics in educational programs, building on the multi­ethnic fabric of our society, intercultural dialogue, and the nurturing of tolerance, peace and unity.

The misguided conversations about “foreign agents” that cropped up following the president’s statement about the 4 billion dollars in grants and foreign aid that he has brought into the country over the past 4 years simply must stop! The turbulent discussion and then approval of the 2016 budget by ZhK (5) demonstrated that we cannot get by without foreign aid, whether next year or in the next several years. As a developing country we need international support. Before mimicking the laws of other countries, we must compare purse sizes: the per­capita GDP of those countries is dozens of times higher than ours; they fall in the donor category!

In 2015 we are aiming to consolidate support behind the Women in the Arts project, especially as in 2016 Kyrgyzstan will observe the 90th anniversary of the birth of the timeless Bibisara Beishenalieva. Every young girl in our country should grow up with the dream of becoming the next Bibisara of the arts. It would be wonderful to open a children’s orchestra in our State Philharmonic Theater. Scroll through the sites of philharmonic societies in Russia, and see what they are teaching their children; do we love our children any less? It’s hard enough to find a decent website for the dozens of cultural institutions in our capital city, much less for those in other cities, the vast majority of which have not a single museum, theater, or concert hall. At the same time, the illegitimate ISIL so professionally, flauntingly, exploits its online presence, hunting for the restless, luring our youth to the battlefield from tens of thousands of miles away! In Bishkek alone there are 300­400,000 college students, not to mention all the unemployed youth, all with some sort of access to the internet.

Why do our educational and cultural centers not reach out to these young people, romantics, rebels, with nourishment for their minds and souls? How long will we put up with the lethargic, decaying fiefdoms in the pretentious government buildings in our city squares, all the while warding off the attacks of religious radicals who are openly preaching violence in an atmosphere of ignorance and illiteracy? They go door­to­door, even in the most remote villages, while our artistic community is living the high life, regularly drawing a salary from the theater whether the concert halls are full or empty. They make no effort to attract an audience of any kind, whether children or adults. It seems they are incapable of setting up even one general informational site about their all­too­rare performances. It’s high time for society to dust itself off, open its eyes, and see this debacle for itself. We cannot leave our children bogged down in this viscous mire, in the apathy, indifference and mindless pursuit of money and fortune which now consumes us. We cannot rely solely on the Defense Council, our White House, our Parliament; society as a whole must be mobilized in this war for the hearts and minds of our youth, marshaled against the escalating violence toward women and children that kills faith in our government, and in the future of our country. It crushes, paralyzes, and demeans us! The ideological might of our government must be purged, strengthened, and fortified. We have no right to step aside and give our children over to radicals and abusers! We must have individuals specifically responsible for these tasks.

Under the leadership of the UN World Food Programme, our Foundation’s primary focus for 2015 was on introducing hot meals in elementary schools. If Russia continues its financial aid, this program will carry on in 2016. There’s no question about the importance of this program; we visited schools around the country, both pilot and non­pilot, and spoke with local communities about the importance and necessity of parents and schools putting in the effort to provide children with hot meals. Our children’s health is at stake, as well as the quality of our children’s education: the mind works better on a full stomach. These efforts are stimulating food production in villages, and the delivery of food items to school cafeterias. We’re talking about providing food for 400,000 children, no small number. Finally, this means local jobs. We’re also discussing the possibility of parents contributing to school food supplies from their own gardens, and are even turning to school grounds; some schools are raising rabbits, others have greenhouses. Half a century ago this was common practice in our schools, and had excellent results.

The current financial crisis has forced us into a corner, but at the same time it allows us to recognize new opportunities ‒ it’s a curse and a blessing at the same time.

Our national diet has definitively evolved, despite the fact that eating habits are the last thing to change for most people. It’s not particularly difficult to change the mind or ideology of a person. It’s quite simple to dress him in different clothes; but he will always be inexplicably drawn back to what he was accustomed to eating as a child. The saying, “you are what you eat” couldn’t be more fitting.

The narrative coming from certain highly­placed officials in recent days has sent the whole country into a dither: the president doesn’t like beans! Our chief executive, who just the other day was saying that beans are healthy, changed his mind and announced that we need to grow what sells. This was all too clearly directed at the Talas farmers, who accused the government of inaction in helping them set reasonable prices. But there’s more than one way to look at these things.

The evolution of our national diet, encouraged by the variety of cafes and restaurants cropping up around the country ‒ from Russian to Chinese, Korean, Italian, Indian, Turkish, Japanese, and Mexican ‒ shows that our diet is growing healthier, greener, more sensible, and more varied, and this progress will only continue. It’s also clear that a country’s competitiveness in the 21st century depends to a large extent on its diet, on its sustainable food security.

The UN FAO declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses.(6)  2015 was the year of grains. (7) Around the world pulses are being actively introduced into national diets owing both to their nutritional value, and the need to provide food security, eradicate malnutrition, and reduce poverty in rural areas.

In January 2016, legume festivals will be held in Japan, Singapore, and Canada, and in July a scientific conference on pulse genetics and genomes will be held in China.

October 13th is traditionally celebrated as Pulse Day in Japan, and May marks the annual London Falafel Festival, where restaurants offer a legume­rich menu. Dozens of countries hold national competitions for the best dish prepared from legumes, contests for best school chef, and classes for children and parents which include a component for growing legumes in pots.

This can’t help but bring the past to mind, when fish was similarly ushered into our diet ‒ every Thursday we ate fish. But over the last 50 years we haven’t actually started eating less meat, fish has just assumed its rightful place in our national diet! This problem can’t just be brushed away like an annoying fly, we’re talking about properly feeding our country, about our health, food security, and even about stability in our society.

Why does the government, despite ongoing discussions in our society, not put definitive, diligent effort into increasing domestic consumption of legumes? Why not train chefs in boarding schools, the army, border control, hospitals, and prisons to prepare appetizing dishes from beans that can be adapted to our taste? We can easily add in dishes made from mung beans, chickpeas, peas ‒ all of these were once a part of our diet. Various ethnic groups living in our country today prepare delicious dishes from beans, while we continue to compete with wolves for meat. The outcome is clear: the Japanese, cultivating and consuming legumes and similar food items, live 87 years on average, while life expectancy in Kyrgyzstan is just 68 years.


1 Official name is International Public Foundation The Roza Otunbayeva Initiative

2 A jailoo is summer pasture where Kyrgyz nomads traditionally grazed their sheep and cattle; shepherds carry on this tradition today

3 A book store in Bishkek

4 A periodical on education published in Bishkek

5 Zhogorku Kenesh, the Kyrgyz parliament, known as the Supreme Council

6 Pulses are the edible seeds of various leguminous plants, for example chickpeas, lentils, and beans.

7 According to the UN FAO, 2015 was the Year of Soils.