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Armenia: Education Minister Challenged By Post-Soviet Transition

Sergo Eritsian at RFE/RL in Prague on April 25 (RFE/RL) Fifteen years after independence, education remains a key issue in all the post-Soviet states as they struggle to redefine the sort of societies they wish to become. RFE/RL correspondent Rob Parsons talked with Armenian Education Minister Sergo Eritsian, who visited RFE/RL on April 25, about the progress of educational reform and the importance of diversity in the new education system.

RFE/RL: In the post-Soviet period the education system in Armenia has suffered badly, as everywhere in the former Soviet Union. Where would you say you are today on the path to recovery?

Sergo Eritsian: Today we're in the stabilization phase. One can say that after the collapse of the Soviet Union the education system was destroyed -- in Armenia as elsewhere. Stabilization means more than just the restoration of what existed before. We're reviving the system and carrying through reforms at the same time. Revival means that reforms are under way on the basis of the national educational system. Its parameters are closer to the international system.

RFE/RL: I want to speak precisely about that. What are your aims in the reform of the education system? What values do you wish to inculcate in your students and how, in your opinion, should these values reflect the sort of society you are trying to create in Armenia?

Eritsian: First of all, the quality of education. Meaning that when students have received their education they are able to compete on the market. Naturally, when a student becomes a specialist when he has received a higher education -- and if, let's say, an economist or a lawyer is unable to compete in any European country that means the profession he has acquired in Armenia is not up to scratch. It's very important that we prepare international-standard specialists. But the most important thing is for our specialists to be able to be specialists in our country, because the process of reviving the economy in different spheres of life requires a particular approach on the part of the specialists we are preparing. That is to say, he needs to be not just a specialist who measures up to the highest international standards but also someone who is thinking about how to revive [the country]. What is his philosophical approach, what is his professional approach, and how does he think about his country? As I said, our national system of education is based on national criteria but it is at the same time international.

RFE/RL: Corruption is a big problem everywhere in the former Soviet Union. How are you coping with this problem in Armenia -- in your ministry and in the education system as a whole? And I mean not just the problem of how to deal with corrupt officials but also corruption as a moral issue in society.

Eritsian: Corruption is a moral question, of course, and we have to find the mechanism that will allow us to fight against it. Take the case of entrance exams, perhaps we should introduce a unified examination system -- which is what we are doing -- introduce the unified exam system, which is already well-tested in Western countries and is even being tested now in Russia and other CIS countries, notably, our neighbor, Georgia. Of course, this is a moral problem for every country and secondly, we have to create the necessary mechanism to prevent dishonest officials from using the opportunities presented by their positions. But the main struggle is at the level of society so that society should say "no" to corruption and we -- officials, ministers, and specialists working in education -- must also say "no."

RFE/RL: To what extent in Armenia -- and I refer of course to the education system -- are you encouraging diversity of views among the new generation?

Eritsian: You know, I think we have more freedom of opinion than is necessary for a system in a transitional period. Our institutes of higher education are independent as are all kinds of student organizations. So, honestly speaking, I can say there is no problem in this area. Problems sometimes occur when we have to conduct dialogue with the students every day about various problems of education and the colleges. But we have to be frank with the student body and we have to resolve all problems -- however difficult they might be -- through dialogue. Sometimes this creates problems. Last year, for instance, the students were against the introduction of the system of credits in education. But then we organized seminars and meetings to explain things and they understood that it was in their interests. Of course, people had become used to working in the old way. For them it was very easy to work in the old way and receive higher pay, but when the system is being reformed the following picture emerges: people don't want to do anything, they don't want to undergo retraining, they don't want to use the Internet, they don't want to make use of virtual laboratories, and don't want to use electronic books. But to them we say: "Dear teacher, it's time to work in a different way."

But this doesn't happen very often because they know there are plenty of other people who are ready to take their jobs. The development of any country demands reform of the education system otherwise you can't move forward. This is particularly true of small countries like Armenia. Armenia was is and will be a country where education and educated people will be valued.

RFE/RL: It's one thing to introduce a new system of education but quite another to find the staff to make it work. Where do you find them?

Eritsian: This is the most difficult issue. It's really difficult to find the personnel for the ministry to put together a team of reformers. There are people of course and we're training new staff at the Institute of Education. You've raised a really critical issue. Yes, sometimes reforms don't go as well as they should or they're ineffective because we don't have the people to carry them out. This year alone, one-third of our teachers will undergo retraining but sometimes reforms in many areas don't go as we would like. Sometimes we don't have enough staff in schools who can work with new technology. In remote villages it's difficult to find teachers who can use a computer and the Internet, never mind use them to teach chemistry or biology or other subjects. But the desire is there.

RFE/RL: The teaching of history is a very sensitive issue in a region where national stereotyping has often been an obstacle to reconciliation and mutual understanding. What can you do to encourage Armenian students to develop a less one-dimensional view of their neighbors?

Eritsian: As you know, there is an attempt to create a textbook on the history of the Caucasian peoples, with the help of the Council of Europe. This book exists [in unpublished form]. But there are of course fine points of history that sometimes make it impossible for different sides to understand one another. Take the case of the Armenian genocide. The problem, as regards our neighbors, is that they don't want to use the word "genocide" in the book. Or they want to qualify it by saying it reflects the Armenian position. You know, we have to be loyal to history. If in a neighboring country they haven't yet accepted the fact of the genocide in 1915, that's another matter.

RFE/RL: We're not talking just about genocide here.

Eritsian: You understand, in our country now...incidentally, the reason the book is not going ahead is only because of this one issue on which we haven't yet been able to agree. On all other matters, we've reached agreement. Nevertheless, this is very important for the Armenian people and the peoples of the South Caucasus. They need to know about it. For this reason, from the Armenian point of view, there is great insistence on the resolution of such matters. Of course, our neighbors don't always respond in an adequate fashion. But I think that through various dialogues we can find the sort of book that will be acceptable for all the South Caucasus states. That's the first thing. But, as far as I understood it, your question also implies the following. I think every people writes its own history.

RFE/RL: That's an interesting formulation: "Every people writes its own history." In fact it's not really like that. There exist various different ways of approaching the problems of history. For instance, there exists many different versions of the history of Scotland.

Eritsian: But, you understand, even if just from the point of view of information, there must be a history [textbook] that tells things as they were. We don't want our textbooks to tell something different. We want the basic information for our young generation about what happened. About what happened, let's say, in 1915, or in the 1920s, or in the Soviet period, or 500 years ago. We want information without commentary. Let each child supply his or her own commentary. After school it's another matter but children must know some facts. In this respect, I think our approach is very constructive and we will continue consultations and meetings [with our colleagues from the other Caucasus states] until we find common language [on the history textbook]. We're neighbors, you understand, we have to live together. The situation demands that we understand each other from the point of view of historical truth. Then we'll have textbooks with faithful approaches, perhaps most of all with civilized approaches.

RFE/RL: One could say that "faithful histories" in the context of the South Caucasus are at the heart of the region's problems.

Eritsian: I'm talking about just histories. But sometimes in transitional periods you need "faithful approaches to history," you know, when some sentence or other could hinder mutual understanding. Maybe it's better to formulate that sentence in such a context that I can understand it and my neighbor can understand it and my other neighbor too. But the main thing is that all our approaches be historically fair. It's difficult to live without truth, although for many, many centuries people have been distorting the truth or telling only part of the truth. The main thing for us is historical truth and today's reality. First of all, we must trust each other.

RFE/RL: If we could be specific: Do there exist any official Armenian textbooks that discuss the historical or cultural achievements of Turkey, or Azerbaijan, or Georgia? That's to say, in a positive light.

Eritsian: Well, there's the Council of Europe textbook, which includes contributions from representatives of three countries, if I am not mistaken: Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. They have worked on it for a long time and I think the book searches for historical truth. If all sides can agree on it this will be something historically positive. Those historical facts that reflect some sort of crossroads or interconnections and which the sides did not want covered in this book are not there. They've been left for the future. Future specialists can include these facts in a more convincing way in the textbook. For the moment, we've only included what is acceptable to all.

RFE/RL: If I can put the question slightly differently. Do you regard such textbooks as necessary?

Eritsian: I think they are. I want dialogue. I don't want a situation in which in Armenian schools in Georgia they don't study Armenian history or geography. I don't want them just to study the Armenian language. I want that in those schools where there are Armenians -- like all of Javakheti [in southern Georgia] -- that they study Armenian history and geography. We don't have that yet but dialogue will help us to understand each other better in these schools. Georgians should know more about the history of Armenia, Armenians should know about the history of Azerbaijan and Georgia so that we know each other better. Then there will be more trust and mutual enrichment, we'll develop more horizontal links and so on. As minister of education and science, I support full cooperation between the three states of the South Caucasus. Two years ago in Strasbourg [at the Council of Europe,] I said I was ready to participate in any program in which our neighboring country is participating. It would be good if we neighbors quickly find common language with each other, but the situation being what it is, I think we should thank the Council of Europe for creating the conditions in which we can perhaps write books and other things for the sake of development and good-neighborly relations and for a region in which we hope there will always be peace.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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