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Saturday, June 03, 2006


Education is crucial

Recently I had my first bout of diarrhoea since coming to stay in Cambodia. Considering the standard of hygiene in this country, I think I did well to stay healthy for two months. Of course I am careful. And I will be more careful now by doing more of my own cooking.

What I found interesting was the attitude of my Cambodian friends. Each one said to me, 'I think you should take some medicine.' It seems to be the prevailing collective wisdom that when you are sick you must take medicine. The idea of the body healing itself did not seem to be a part of their repertoire of health care. Considering that they are generally much closer to nature than we in the West, I wondered where the attitude had come from.

Generally, Cambodian people are very poorly educated. Universal free education still does not exist in Cambodia. If a parent needs a child to look after cattle, perhaps that will take precedence over sending them to school. There is also a daily levy made on each student by the teacher in public schools. Teachers being government employees are very poorly paid and find it necessary to charge each child a fee to attend class. Children are often seen in the streets selling goods of some sort in order to get the money to attend school the next day. No money, no school.

My observation of my students—and they are ones who value education—is that their general knowledge is quite poor. I doubt that there are many books in their homes. So far I have not visited any public schools here but I have my doubts about the standard of libraries if they exist at all. Will report on that after the opportunity presents itself.

When families here find themselves gaining a small amount of affluence, the first thing they buy is a TV set. And I believe that is where they are getting most of their education.

The ads here are much the same as we have. An ad might show someone sneezing or coughing. Next scene they take some medicine. And before the ad has ended, there they are again, happy and healthy. The same happens with a stomach upset.

In Western countries we have the benefit of consumer information that enables us to balance the education from the advertisers with facts. We know we have other choices. But of course most of us are literate. The information is available and we have the ability to read it.

Not so here in Cambodia. The illiteracy rate (in Khmer language) for males over 15 is around 40%. For females it is around 80%. Even if the information was readily available the average Cambodian would have trouble reading it. And so they are educated by the advertisers.

I like to think I am a small part of the solution. I have come to realize that teaching English is only a part of what I can offer my students. In fact English is simply a medium that I can use to help them acquire a broader general knowledge. We can learn English from a text book and learn subjects the publishers feel make the learning interesting. Or we can prepare our own materials and study, for example, water purification.

But I am only one person. I have a total of around fifty students. How much impact can that make? I'm sure it makes a difference to those fifty people but it is a drop in the ocean.

My dream is that I might inspire others to do something similar. Every year there must be thousands of Australian teachers who retire. If even 100 of them came and spent two months in Cambodia teaching English, that's 5,000 people who are directly affected. Of course these people will spread their knowledge and many more will be indirectly affected.

Cambodia is not the easiest place to live. I'm sure it's not everyone's cup of tea. But for volunteers who are prepared to put up with a little hardship I'm sure they will have a rewarding time that will give them many fond memories.

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