By: Justin Shelby

Unpacking Vietnamese Educational Psychology  (or: Confucian Philistinism in Vietnam)

Unpacking Vietnamese Educational Psychology

(or: Confucian Philistinism in Vietnam)

One of the funnier and more insistent claims that I get from both Vietnamese parents and students is how much the Vietnamese value education, teachers, and knowledge. This is either a blatant, self-conscious lie or something is lost in translation. In my five years in Vietnam, I can count on one, maybe two hands, the number of students I’ve met who actually care about “knowledge”, in the Western sense, the sense that they claimed. What Vietnamese students (and parents) care about more than anything else is status and material success. 


So why do Vietnamese people talk so much about the importance of “education”? Because for almost a thousand years, from 1000 to 1920 or so, Vietnam administered an Imperial exam system modeled on that of China. Success on these exams was predicated on saying the right things about the Confucian classics, and was one of the only ways to gain status and material success in an otherwise static society. Once a student had gained a certain degree, they could access positions within the bureaucracy, from which position they could do what bureaucrats have always done: extract rents with the threat of violence in the form of taxes. This explains another somewhat baffling detail of a system that seems to care so little about actual knowing and so much about credentialing: you don’t actually have to be good at anything (other than conforming to the will of your superiors) to extract rents from a state sinecure, and acquiring such a sinecure was, historically, what exams were all about. Ironically, education in Vietnam, perhaps throughout Confucian Asia, has never really been about “knowledge” or “the life of the mind”. It has almost always been about competitive conformity to a set body of doctrine. This a complex and difficult task, so it selects for high IQ, which is why the system itself doesn’t just collapse. Unfortunately, it also selects for what Westerners would call low character and punishes what we would call independence and bigness of spirit (needless to say, the moral calculus is different in situ).
Once you understand this, a lot of things fall into place.


If Vietnamese students cared about “history”, or “literature”, or “philosophy” – that is, if they cared about education and/or knowledge as we commonly understand those words – when I and others offered classes on identity, art history, research, poetry, Greek, creative writing and Latin, they would attend these classes. They do not. If they respected their teachers, they would suspend their own judgements about what they believe is worth learning, and somewhat on faith, take action based on the superior knowledge of their elders. The fact that they almost never do this, except where it is to their obvious and immediate secular advantage, demonstrates that there is, in general, no love of knowledge or respect for teachers in Vietnam. There is only a desire to gain status through “education” and the flattery of those who can help them gain that status.


This also explains why there is so much cheating among the best students. If you are a Vietnamese reader, this point might confuse you: when I was growing up, the best students didn’t cheat, they didn’t allow people to cheat off of them, and they were proud of it. In fact, we were told, said, and believed that cheating would only hurt us and those around us. It’s a cliche, but since education and knowledge were good for their own sake, cheating was only “cheating ourselves” because it robbed the teacher of the ability to give us real and meaningful feedback. This prevented us from actually improving. The worst students cheated, or tried to, because they were the only one who didn’t care about that feedback and improvement. In Vietnam, it is, if anything, the opposite. This is because, under these conditions, “to be the best student” has substantial overlap with “he or she who mostly keenly and intensely seeks status.” Status is rarely conferred by the possession of knowledge – it is conferred by the possession of the degree. True – our presumption is that if someone has a degree in something they have attained the knowledge and had the experience signified by the degree. Our presumptions are not relevant here. We are working under a foreign and non-western civilizational calculus.
The drive for status explains some of the inner workings of the “better” Vietnamese public schools. For example, if a student participates in some sort of National competition team, they receive the same grade as the best student in a given subject for their other classes. It’s almost communistically comical. So, if I study 100% of the time for math, get on the math National competition team, and my friend Jane gets an A+ in English, then I get an A+ in English, regardless of my performance. It was mysterious to me, for many years, why I would meet students with nearly perfect grades that were terrible at every subject but one – and now I know. Naturally, this system exists because success on National exams confers status to schools and teachers.


This is also why, in a perversion of justice (in the Western sense), the best students (in the Western sense) have lower GPAs than those who have played the system and allowed themselves to be extruded into narrowness by it. Resistance is punished by a diminishment of the GPA, and since Western admissions officers are either naive, or blind, a cruel diminishment of fortunes follows for those students who are naturally resistant to this sort of influence.


It explains why teachers are almost universally complicit in the generation of fraudulent letters of recommendation. One, they aren’t paid very much, so why are would they set aside time to write dozens, perhaps hundreds of letters every year (as if this is the reason Western teachers do it). Two, what matters is that their students are viewed favorably, that they attain status. If your students attain status, then you attain status. Thus the system naturally evolves towards a conspiracy that seeks to hyperbolically represent students  to any and all outsiders who have the power to grant them high status. So who cares who writes the letters? The point is not a sober evaluation of the student in view of the truth about them – the point is to help them attain status.
When I’ve spoken to admissions officers, they have seemed woefully unaware of the extent to which students from Asia simply do not share Western values and operate with different assumptions and a different civilizational calculus.


To understand what a Vietnamese student will do, generally, you just have to ask what will give them the likeliest access to the highest status, i.e., the best perception of others. Once you understand this, and that there is very little guilt here, but only social shame, you can weaponize it (assuming you have enough status to do so). This principle has the greatest predictive power of any principle I’ve been able to enunciate. Will a student cheat? Will doing so enhance their status? Will a student lie? Will doing so enhance their status? Conversely, will they tell the truth? Will doing so enhance their status? We can use this principle to explain why some students seem to make such progress and grow so enthusiastic and interested when they are working with Bedrock, but then, when they don’t receive just the results they hoped for, regress back to a transparent obsession with status. They had never made progress: an apparent sincere fascination with the life of the mind was simply the mode of being most productive for their work with us. Or, said another way, the sincerity itself was purely instrumental in the quest for status! When the status-quest fails, the love of ideas, of poetry, of reflection vanishes as so much eraser-dust, to quote one of my students.  


Obviously, one of Bedrock’s most important tasks is to move students away from this relative status based form of self-appraisal towards one that is rooted in a more truth or knowledge based form. Part of that is, as mentioned before, exploiting our superior status to shame certain behaviors and therefore award status within a hierarchy we control. Ultimately, however, this is counterproductive, since it relies on the very circuitry we’re trying to eradicate. What we really aim at is an internal transformation of values. One might even say, “A transvaluation of values.” It’s hard going. 
Lastly, I just want to say to my students that it’s not your fault. But it is your responsibility. 


From the Gay Science, by Friedrich Nietzsche:


The Intellectual Conscience:


“I have always the same experience over and over again, and always make a new effort against it; for although it is evident to me, I do not want to believe it: in the greater number of men, the intellectual conscience is lacking; indeed it would often seem to me that in demanding such a thing, one is as solitary in the largest cities as in the desert. Everyone looks at you with strange eyes, and continues to make use of his scales, calling this good and bad; and no one blushes for shame when remark that these weights are not the full amount, – there is also no indignation against you; perhaps they laugh at your doubt. I mean to say that the greater number of people do not find it contemptible to believe this or that, and live according to it, without having been previously aware of the ultimate and surest reasons for and against it, and without even giving themselves any trouble about such reasons afterwards, – the most gifted men and the noblest women still belong to this ‘greater number’…”




“To ignoble natures all noble, magnanimous sentiments appear inexpedient, and on that account, first and foremost, as incredible; they blink with their eyes when they hear of such matters, and seem inclined to say, 
‘there will, no doubt, be some advantage from that, one cannot see through all walls;’ they are jealous of the noble person, as if he sought advantage by backstair methods. When they are all too plainly convinced of the absence of selfish intention and emoluments, the noble person is regarded by them as a sort of fool; they despise him in his gladness, and laugh at the lustre of his eye. ‘How can a person rejoice at being at a disadvantage, how can a person with open eyes wish to meet with disadvantage! It must be a disease of the reason with which the noble affection is associated’; so they think, and they look depreciatingly thereon; just as they depreciate the joy which the lunatic derives from his fixed idea. The ignoble nature is distinguished by the fact that it keeps its advantage steadily in view and that this thought of the end and advantage is stronger even than its strongest impulse: not to be tempted to inexpedient activity by its impulses – that is its wisdom and inspiration.”


I can’t say it better, so I won’t try.

Justin Shelby