Kazakhstan’s government knew what it was getting when Yerlan Sagadiyev was appointed education minister in February 2016.
The US-educated 50 year old, an economist by training, has long been a crusader for the radical modernization of schools in Kazakhstan and, in particular, the need for all the nation’s children to learn English.
But anger is mounting, particularly among the self-described patriotic camp, over perceptions that his newfangled educational ideas are undermining the teaching of the Kazakh language, culture and history. Administrative bungling has not helped the minister’s cause either.
Sagadiyev set out his vision most explicitly in a 2013 talk at an Almaty edition of the TEDx franchise, when he spoke about what he sees as the importance of teasing apart the concepts of culture and education. “The task of modern education is to form a competitive person endowed with up-to-date theoretical knowledge and technical skills,” he said.
Sagadiyev said that while the Kazakh language and culture are important components of forming national identity, it is also important to acknowledge their limitations.
Elaborating on this point, he suggested that in the times of the 19th century poet and national hero Abai Qunanbaiuli, almost all of what was known by educated Kazakhs was acquired by means of the Kazakh language. “There were no other sources of information. All your knowledge was immediate and lay all around you,” he said.
But as society became more complex and economic demands required more technical know-how, Sagadiyev argued, so the need arose to master new languages — which, for Kazakhs, turned out to be English.
To illustrate his argument, Sagadiyev noted that while in 2011, 550,000 new books were published in English, the figure in Kazakh was just 2,300. In the medical field alone, 14,000 works were published in English, while only 147 medical textbooks were produced in Kazakh, he said.
Under Sagadiyev’s aegis, these ideas have translated into the adoption of new textbooks, and the increased use of high-tech resources. Since the fall, learning progress journals have gone online, so parents can, in theory, follow their kids’ academic performance in real time.
Most contentiously, Sagadiyev has energetically pushed through his agenda for trilingual education, which would eventually culminate in instruction of certain subjects, such as math and science, not just in Kazakh, but also in English and Russian.
Critics contend that changes have been implemented inefficiently and unevenly. As a result, the quality of teaching has declined, they say.
Particularly intense indignation has been aroused by the overhaul of dedicated lessons for teaching young children the alphabet. Opponents have especially complained about the replacement of the cherished Alippe (Alphabet) textbook with one titled Sauat Ashu (Enlightenment), which the Education Ministry says is more effective.
Weak coordination has also seemingly led to a mix-up in the creation of textbooks. Materials have been distributed to second-graders, for example, that are suited to much older children, according to media reports.
That mix-up was enough to send one MP known for markedly nationalist views, Bekbolat Tleuhan, into a rage. “We risk turning our descendants into invalids because there is no coordination,” Tleuhan said in mid-February during a parliamentary hearing in which he grilled Sagadiyev over the confusion.
“Answer my question right now! If you cannot, I will challenge you to a duel of words in the media,” Tleuhan thundered when asking Sagadiyev who was responsible for making the mistake.
Sagadiyev acknowledged the problem, but brushed off criticism by saying that the materials had been available for viewing online and that his detractors ought to have offered their input earlier.
Sagadiyev’s nationalist-minded opponents like to note disapprovingly that he obtained a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s, suggesting this might explain his lack of dedication to Kazakh culture.
The most toxic criticism of the modernizing minister has centered on the Kazakh language itself.
One Kazakh language news website, SkifNews.kz, has been particularly critical of Sagadiyev, accusing the minister of “mounting a campaign against the Kazakh people and language.” The website has reported that a group of scholars has appealed to Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev, calling for Sagadiyev’s resignation.
Unverified, sensationalized reports have circulated, warning darkly that the Education Ministry is plotting a shake-up of universities that would remove such syllabus items as Kazakh language, history and literature. Those claims, which bloggers and some websites have insisted were supported by documentary evidence, have prompted a heated denial from education officials.
“All these reports about the closure of certain departments are a deliberately planned campaign of disinformation,” deputy Education Minister Elmira Sukhanberdiyeva told reporters on March 5.
Even so, the multilingual approach has left some people unhappy. Nationalist activist Mukhtar Taizhan has described the multilingual approach as a violation of the constitution, which he maintains requires that children receive an education in their native language. “I consider these steps willfully harmful, and that Sagadiyev should be brought to justice for all this,” Taizhan wrote on his Facebook account.
Political analyst Aidos Sarym has called the minister’s initiatives ill-conceived.
“Why, when the Kazakhs are strengthening their independence and enriching their heritage, are they being required to avoid anything that is explicitly Kazakh? I do not understand why this minister has been so hostile to everything that is Kazakh,” said Sarym.
Political commentator Talgat Ismagambetov has argued that criticism from the nationalist camp is a natural reaction to a perceived lack of respect for Kazakh, which is best displayed in the frequent preference by officials to speak in Russian in public.
“These activists promote the idea of broadening the use of the state language,” Ismagambetov told EurasiaNet.org. “They are also skeptical about the idea of promoting trilingualism.”
Many education experts deny any process of downgrading the Kazakh language is taking place. And a scrutiny of comments left on the Education Ministry’s official Facebook page shows that while views are divided, a sizable section of the public — the online public at least — favors change. Critics of the minister, meanwhile, dwell on his presumed lack of mastery of the Kazakh language.
Saule Kalikova, an education consultant at the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan, told EurasiaNet.org that while ideas about trilingual education are no cause for concern in principle, implementation is going to be problematic. For starters, there are nowhere near enough teachers with a strong enough command of those languages to do the job, she said. And Kalikova conceded the approach could indeed erode people’s grip on their native language — what she termed the “fertile layer of soil” creating an understanding of the world.
“I am not surprised by the passions around this issue — this is a predictable reaction to a poorly explained policy,” Kalikova said.
Kalikova said more research was needed into the ideas underlying the reforms so as to present the public with evidence that can buttress support for reforms.
Experts say the ongoing furor over the education changes marks another failure by the government to engage in proper dialogue with the population, akin what happened when authorities sparked anger last year by pushing through little-understood land reforms.
“The case of Sagadiyev is another addition to the list of what are, in practice, sensible initiatives, but which have not found public support because of a lack of a clear communication strategy,” said public relations specialist Yerlan Askarbekov in a recent interview with IA-Center.ru.
Aktan Rysaliev is a pseudonym for a journalist working in Almaty, Kazakhstan.