In The News

In Vietnam, What Good is History?

August 24, 2011

Vietnam has just finished its university entrance exam season, with nearly 2 million applicants vying for a coveted spot in some 400 universities and colleges. The competition is fierce; only about one-third of them will be successful. Given the country’s strong traditional dedication to learning, the intense desire by Vietnamese parents to ensure that their children will have more opportunities than they had and will be able to compete in a more globalized world is driving the educational pressure even higher.

Vietnamese University student studies at National Library

Increasingly, more and more Vietnamese university students are majoring in business and economics. Meanwhile, test scores in the social sciences and humanities are steadily dropping. Photo by Karl Grobl.

The legacy of a socialist, polytechnic education system in Vietnam means that students are channeled early into specialized academic areas, although the state no longer plays the controlling role of assigning careers to young people. It is now up to students and their parents to determine their future career direction. It’s no surprise, then, that given the needs of a market economy, in recent years more than 50 percent of Vietnamese university students have opted to major in business and economics.

The consequent decline of the social sciences and humanities is now being felt profoundly. When university entrance exam results were released in late July, the dramatically low scores in history caught everyone by surprise. Ninety percent of university students who took the history exam received only an average grade of less than five points out of 10 possible points, with thousands receiving zero points. One lone student in the entire country received the highest mark of 9.5. This sobering news has been the focus of much debate in Vietnam: how has this sorry state of affairs come to pass in a country that has long placed such pride in its own history? Views and analysis from all sectors of society fill the pages of Vietnamese newspapers, with thoughtful assessments on a wide range of topics, from the demands of modern society and the role of history in development, to the problems in the education system itself. Clearly, the unexpectedly low history scores of a younger generation are touching a raw nerve in the broader society.

There is of course the inescapable fact that today’s students are interested in economic and business-related subjects because of the available opportunities in a market economy. Teachers point out that parents themselves often discourage their children from focusing on subjects like history or literature to concentrate more on math, chemistry, or physics, deemed as more applied and therefore more valuable subjects. The lack of students opting for history, and the low scores of even those who do, is the natural result of their economic calculation, some would argue. As the historian Duong Trung Quoc cleverly put it in a recent newspaper interview: “Students do calculate their investment. If there is a company that commits to paying the student gaining top marks in the history exam, $3,000 USD a month, for example, I believe that many will take up the history subject.”

Clearly the exigencies of modern times are an unsatisfactory explanation for many Vietnamese to accept the hard evidence that historical knowledge among youth is on the decline. By making history a minor subject rather than a compulsory one for the majority of students who pursue the hard sciences, the education system itself deserves some blame for marginalizing history. With so little time given to history in a school year, students cannot properly absorb the depth of historical issues. Moreover, few strong students now pursue teaching in history, given the low pay, and low teaching quality further compounds the problem. Others point to static text books and outmoded teaching methodology plaguing the education sector, rendering it impossible to make a challenging subject like history inspiring to anyone, much less the younger generation immersed in the immediacy of the internet era.

Many commentators express concerns that poor historical knowledge signifies low levels of engagement with national history, distancing young people from their own heritage. But for others, the issue goes much deeper than that. According to writer Nguyen Ngoc and historian Dinh Xuan Lam, the core reason that students shy away from history is because this is one of the subjects that has been most politicized. Rather than an academic subject worthy of scientific exploration in its own right, history has become viewed simply as a political vehicle through which to inculcate state-sanctioned nationalism. This has long been a sensitive subject to raise, but for these respected intellectuals whose long careers are marked by their fundamental contributions to the development of literature and the education system of the socialist state since its founding, this reality must be confronted for a much-needed revolution in education to take place; one in which the teaching and learning of history is a critical part of individual development.

In the views of historian Pham Quoc Su, “it is time to throw away the old way of thinking about history as simply about galvanizing national pride.” He elaborates that “because history also contains the history of the world, because it must speak of the bitter truths that should not be studied but from which lessons must be drawn for future generations, or truths that have been buried which now must be recovered.” As Vietnam’s integration process continues apace, this summer’s low history exam results have become a sharp reminder for many that success requires more than economic achievement. The vibrant but also chaotic transformation that society is undergoing will require even more attention to the humanistic qualities embedded in history and literature – not only of Vietnam, but also of the world – to ensure a balanced outcome. This is what the Vietnamese would refer to as van minh, or civilized.

Kim N. B. Ninh is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Vietnam. She can be reached at kninh@asiafound.org.  The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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