Background: Father Ashley Evans, a mathematics and philosophy professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and member of the Jesuit Service Cambodia (JSC), has taught for many years in various settings in Cambodia. In this interview, he highlights challenges facing Cambodia’s higher education system and younger generations. These include the lack of critical thinking skills, tendency towards undue acceptance of authority, poor understanding of the nation’s Buddhist traditions and faith, and wide disparities in the quality of education between rural and urban areas. He also reflects on his teaching experiences with Cambodians in refugee camps, where ideological battles shaped education but high quality education helped Cambodians to cope with the brutality and turmoil of that period. Drawing from his work with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) from refugee camps to urban parishes, Father Evans offers a comprehensive outline of the development of the JSC and its hopes for the future in supporting much needed education reforms. This discussion is based on two conversations between Father Evans and WFDD research fellow Laura Hodges in Phnom Penh, first on November 18, 2011 and then again on March 30, 2013. It is part of a WFDD initiative that explores the role of faith actors in education in Cambodia.
How and why did you come to Cambodia?
I grew up in Ireland to a Protestant father and Catholic mother, which made me aware of different perspectives on the same social reality from an early age. The teachers at Belvedere College, the Jesuit school that I attended in Dublin, opened up the “globalizing” world to us through literature, art, and sciences. After I joined the Jesuits in 1980 and completed my novitiate training, I was sent to France to study philosophy. During that time, I became involved with a missionary movement there called the “worker mission.” Those men and women chose to live in poverty close to the working-class communities in France and were especially sensitive to the suffering of the various immigrant populations. Their life and work resonated with my hopes and aspirations for a more authentic commitment to social justice.
My Jesuit superiors would not allow me to work yet at the lowest level of society in England, so I was sent to train as a teacher in Galway on the west coast of Ireland. I had a tough but wonderful two years teaching in Colaiste Iognaid, the Irish-speaking Jesuit school there, but all the time I was continually asking my superiors for a chance to work and live with really poor people, at least for a short time. In the end, I learned about the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which mirrored the worker mission by prioritizing accompaniment and service. I volunteered for two years of service and was sent to Thailand in 1986 to the refugee camps for Cambodians who had fled to the Thai border to escape the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese invasion. On arrival at the Site II camp on the border with Cambodia, I was told that they had 80,000 children in the camp, but only 40,000 in school. They had no teacher trainer in mathematics.
I had not planned to learn Khmer immediately, but because I picked up the language quickly (primarily through my teaching), I could communicate with the teachers and young people in the camp quite easily. It became clear during those years (1986-1988) that peace was coming to Cambodia. The shadow of the Khmer Rouge regime was still oppressively present in the camps, but the prospect of peace gave hope for the future. I returned to Europe to complete my theological studies and was ordained a priest in St. Francis Xavier’s Church in Dublin in 1992. In order to practice my priesthood immediately, I was sent to work as assistant hospital Catholic chaplain for a short time in various hospitals of Belfast. Belfast was a crazy city at that time, but I loved the people there. JRS started in Cambodia in 1990, and I joined the new team in Phnom Penh in 1993.
What was the education system like in the refugee camps?
The schools in the camps were far better than the education being provided in the Cambodian public schools, which were being supported at that time by the Vietnamese. In the camps, we had better teachers and resources. Some schools even had music and art! This quality education was mostly the result of the overseas development aid, but it was also because the teachers in the camps were very committed, and it was a system run on a manageable scale by the Cambodian administrators themselves.
The quality of the education in the refugee camps concerned the Thai military because they feared that the education of Cambodians within the camps would surpass that of the Thai schools near the camps. As a result, high schools were not permitted within the camps, and therefore students were blocked in any effort to reach a higher level of knowledge. Education was a key battleground. We had to negotiate everything with the Thai military authorities.
We found that education was a way of sustaining hope during the 12 years of the camps and contributed greatly to the preservation of Khmer culture and identity during that time of turmoil. Education was a key area to help people to orient themselves in understanding what had happened, changed, and been destroyed.
What did you do when the camps closed?
The camps closed in 1992, and a special United Nations structure helped to administer Cambodia until the first free elections in 1993. I began working at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), which was a teacher training college back then, before it became a university in the mid-1990s. Because of my Khmer language skills, I was able to help teachers prepare lessons and translate texts in advanced mathematics into Khmer. However, I found working with the students much more interesting. I began teaching mathematics, and JRS was able to negotiate a separate Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. This MoU covered not only my work at the university, but also the other education activities which were beginning to grow with the JRS. But the JRS didn't prioritize work in education immediately after the camps were dissolved; instead, we began working directly with those who were handicapped and disabled because their needs were greater and more immediate. Our technical/vocational school for the disabled, Banteay Prieb, has become well-known and much respected by all. This kind of work was also easier because there was a visible focus for overseas support, and the project appealed to the Cambodian government, who perhaps preferred work for the disabled rather than work in formal education, which was still a complicated and tightly controlled area.
The JRS built a good reputation from their work with the handicapped and disabled community before attempting to embark on other more education-focused projects. The Jesuit Refugee Service metamorphosed into Jesuit Service Cambodia (JSC) in 1994. However, it took a long time for the discussion on education projects within Jesuit Service to bear any real fruit.
I felt that I could be doing more in terms of educational support, so in 1997 I moved out of the Jesuit Service house in order to live at the old Catholic parish in Phnom Penh that intended to open a student hostel for young rural people who desperately wanted to study in the city. This hostel, accommodating both Buddhists and Christians, opened in 1999 with an equal representation of males and females. In 2001, the Catholic Church Student Centre became a separate entity from the parish, and so I moved with the students to stay in the new building at Boeung Trabek, whilst also teaching mathematics at the RUPP. The formation program of the Catholic Church Student Centre (CCSC) integrates study and action on behalf of poor people with more reflection on the causes of poverty and injustice in society. The new building was formally opened by His Excellency Mr. Im Sethy, the present minister of education, youth and sport, in 2002. The CCSC graduates form strong bonds of friendship among their “generation.” We never imagined happy marriages as an outcome from this project, but we have to include them now as 14 couples have already tied the knot!
In 2007, one foreign philosophy lecturer at the RUPP left Cambodia and asked if I could take over teaching two history of philosophy courses with the agreement of the department head and the rector of the university.
What is your experience from teaching philosophy at RUPP?
I find that the course is difficult to prepare because the curriculum of studies is very fragmented. But I enjoy teaching the students because they are more inquisitive and have open minds. I teach the second-year students, so they are not very advanced but are still searching for an understanding of what it means to be a human being in this world and asking important questions. That is a curiosity that is unfortunately sorely lacking among the general body of students in Cambodia.
Teaching at RUPP provides me with a unique insight into understanding why many students are so passive to knowledge. Factory workers are often more engaged than the students here. That is because students are taught not to criticize or evaluate what is “true.” Critical thinking skills are not encouraged or explored.
For example, one lesson in the Khmer high school text book is about Mother Teresa. The book outlines her biographical history and interesting information about her work, but none of that is integrated into the curriculum. It is a cut-and-paste job which has no context or perceived relevance other than that she is a hero figure.
It is not only the responsibility of curriculum developers to address this problem. Teachers and students need to fill in the gaps within the education curriculum. If students study hard and ask their own questions, and if the teachers understand and like their subject and their students, then there will emerge a drive to find the truth, and together they will ultimately fill in the educational gaps.
Ultimately, it is very interesting to see for myself what the youth of Cambodia really need in their education and lives from working with them in these philosophy classes. I feel that they need to be listened to, and that requires a safe place for their thoughts to be expressed and reflected upon. In this way they can reorient themselves in a good direction.
Have there been any improvements in the national curriculum since you started teaching?
Yes, if we are comparing the situation now to how it was before, then there have been significant improvements. Though corruption is still rife, especially in the Grade 12 exams, the values of the scores are beginning to better reflect students’ ability and intelligence.
Also, students are coming from secondary schools with more knowledge. I used to see students in the fourth year at university who couldn't even add or subtract! Now I am getting fewer of those types of students.
However, there is still no teaching of critical thinking, art, beauty, or music. I can understand why these subjects might not be priorities: as the country remains focused on economic development, art and music are not obviously relevant to making money and thus not part of the national agenda. As for critical thinking, students might think critically in mathematics, but I do not see them thinking critically about issues in society.
When there is no critical thinking, there is an easier assimilation of attitudes of obedience. Students currently follow the advice of others in a top-down approach, and at the top of this line of authority is the king or the ruler. There is an understanding innate within the education system of service and obedience and that permission must be obtained, as popularized by the traditional story of "Tum Tiv."
Do the students have a good understanding of Buddhist philosophical thought in your classes?
Throughout high school, students receive a distilled and mild teaching about Buddhism. The information is not deep or consistent. It follows a particularly socialist frame, with an emphasis on the virtues of solidarity, obedience, and hard work.
Buddhism is very prevalent and important in Cambodia, but it is mixed with traditional belief in the spirits—the neak ta, the areak, the pret, etc. With such an attachment to belief in spirits, fear prevents people from developing a deeper Buddhism within themselves. Take the festival of Pchum Ben: the ceremonies and rituals of that holiday are all accepted without thought or hesitation. Many monks teach about the spirits even though some of these beliefs are not consistent with Buddhist teaching. The fear attributed to the spirit world emphasizes the negative impacts that would result if the rituals were in any way adapted or challenged. This tension between orthodox Buddhism and traditional belief in spirits has a long history and is well document by Ian Harris in his Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice. The Khmer didactic poems of Kram Ngoy advise tolerance towards both approaches.
From my own studies and experience of this dialogue between religions and with secular humanism, it seems that there is an agreed sense that authentic or true spirituality promotes human flourishing both individually and collectively, while inauthentic or false spirituality hinders human flourishing both individually and collectively. Furthermore, it is the process of dialogue itself rather than the academic study of it that reveals a surplus of meaning that cannot be explained or understood within our present categories of thought.
I can see the positive power of the Buddha’s teachings about a freedom that comes from a deep personal reflection and a search to understand and acquire true knowledge. This can happen especially through learning about and experiencing other religions to then feel fully informed to make choices with a person’s whole heart. Buddhist students should be encouraged to deepen their trust in the power of authentic Buddhism and learn about its teachings in order to remove the spiritual fears which can often blind or lead people astray.
The older generations have a much better understanding of Buddhism, but the younger generations are not learning about it properly. Young people are all mixed up, particularly when discussing faith and religion. In my experience of young Cambodians who have converted to Christianity, one of the main things that I am told is that by converting they are able to free themselves from the fear of the spirits. They feel liberated in following a path of love rather than one of fear.
Do you teach from the Christian perspective within your lessons?
No, I would only introduce Christian philosophical thought in the lessons if it was useful in clarifying an argument, but I would never go into the explanation of the Christian doctrine because it is not necessary or appropriate in this context. Some students push me to talk about Christianity in class, but I don’t. It has been a wonderful privilege to be allowed to teach at the Royal University of Phnom Penh for 20 years. I do not remember ever having a Catholic student in one of my classes in either mathematics or philosophy. I understand the rules of the game, and I respect them. The authorities trust me not to speak about Christianity to my students, and these are the rules that I must abide by in order to continue teaching at the RUPP.
How can JSC help address your concerns for formal education in Cambodia?
JSC has moved from the margins of society to the center in terms of its concern for education reform in Cambodia. It was important for JSC to initially start working in disability and victim support because the government was able to see our work as concrete and of good quality. Now with this foundation and long history, we can begin to offer more in terms of education. This gradual process does not alarm the government authorities. Still, building more relationships and profiles is important at this time.
Currently, education is featured quite prominently in JSC discussions about what is needed in Cambodia. At a meeting in 2011, many members from the JSC Cambodia team shared significant stories about the handicaps facing students who receive a poor education and how this then impacts their quality of life. We would hope for schools which would follow the government curriculum while also addressing current gaps in that education. The curriculum could be expanded to fill in these gaps which make it fragmented in order to make it more whole and integrated. We are not suggesting that we fill the space with Christian thought and doctrine, but instead with the formation of critical thinking, moral values of service to others, fair procedures, and justice in society.
Would you choose to have that sort of school in Phnom Penh?
We feel that currently the better schools are in the city, and they are swamped by rich people. We want to provide a better education for those in the more rural or rural-urban locations.
In a rural-urban location, we could eventually run a school from the contributions of Khmer families. For example, if we charged $15 for a student for each month, then we would not need outside support and it would be self-sustaining. A group of Khmer teachers have set up a private school of this type in Battambang. The formal costs are equivalent to what parents pay in informal fees within the public schools. However, in the rural areas, families would not be able to afford even that contribution, and so we would be dependent on outside funding support. This would mean that the very foundations of the school in the rural location would be based on receiving and not co-creating. If families have to pay something, there would be multiple stakeholders, and people would have more say because of the money that they are contributing. If the school was self-sufficient and self-sustaining, then the stakeholders become the teachers, the students, and the parents. This gives them a role in the management and monitoring of the school’s progress.
The Jesuits have promoted social justice and alleviation of poverty since the 1980s, and that is partially why we feel the school should be further from the city, in order to impact more directly on the poor in society. Part of our inspiration, as Jesuits or the Society of Jesus, is the desire to fulfill the work offered in Luke 4. Jesus returns to Nazareth and tells the people that the spirit of the Lord anointed him with good news for the poor: liberty from captivity.