Promoting the Arts in Cambodia

27 03 2012

In the last post, I highlighted some of the projects that other Peace Corps Volunteers are currently working on. You may have noticed that several of them had to do with the fine arts. To many people, arts-based projects might not seem like a priority for a country where only 29 percent of the population has access to improved sanitation facilities, where the life expectancy is nearly 20 years shorter than in the US, or where 40 percent of children suffer from stunting due to malnutrition. And while it is certainly true that there is still a need for more traditional development efforts, arts education has an important place in the country’s future for a few reasons.

First of all, during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, people who appeared to be well-educated or artistic were targeted. We see this phenomenon during many genocides because regimes tend to feel threatened by creative, outspoken or forward-thinking types, for obvious reasons. In Cambodia, 90 percent of those who had knowledge and skills related to Cambodia’s long tradition of artistry were killed, leaving behind a wave of youth with no recollection of trades such as weaving, stone carving or  silversmithing that were mastered throughout the generations before them. Physical evidence of these art forms was destroyed, as were many meticulously designed wats, which were pieces of art themselves. Musicians, dancers and songwriters were killed. Writers were murdered. Filmmakers were executed. The result is that contemporary Cambodia has little collective memory of its own rich art-based traditions and culture and, unfortunately, that this part of its history could disappear forever.

Khmer pidan (silk weaving)

Preserving culture and tradition is one highly important reason for arts education, but it’s not the most compelling reason for me. Rather, I find it important because of the way that it expands a person’s– and a country’s– ability to think, imagine, innovate and question. We hear the arguments often in the US, as arts programs routinely face cuts in public high schools. Arts education encourages critical thinking, problem-solving and cognitive development. It promotes craftsmanship and discipline. Arts education appeals to a variety of intelligences and learning styles that traditional schooling excludes.  It facilitates the development of personal opinions and visions. And, of course, the arts are linked to improved performance in language development and certain areas of mathematics, such as spatial reasoning.

These benefits are critical for students all over the world, but this is especially true in Cambodia. The reason, in my opinion, is two-fold. First, the education system has been rebuilt in a way that does not promote formal critical thinking skills. Students spend six hours a day copying notes from a blackboard and mindlessly memorizing facts with little understanding of their context or importance. Textbooks are not written in such a way to encourage students to delve deeper, nor are teachers trained to engage their students in these discussions. Activities that we take for granted in the US school system, such as group work, mock debates or science experiments, are virtually nonexistent in most public schools here. Without these kinds of activities, students are left to passively sit on the receiving end of education, without developing the skills mentioned above, which are critical for the personal and collective success of the students. And without these skills, people cannot truly have agency in their lives or make informed decisions about their wellbeing.

Stonework on the Banteay Srey temple

Second, it seems that Cambodians are very often afraid to voice their own opinions, even on topics that we might consider to be mundane or without consequence. This stems not only from a long tradition of saving face, but also a recent history of violence toward those who spoke out. While this might, at times, help them preserve their reputations in the community and ensure their safety, I believe there is much to be gained from encouraging free expression, both when looking at short-term and long-term effects. In fact, I cannot imagine a positive future for Cambodia without opening up the public realm for more personal expression, political and otherwise.

Traditional development efforts are important in Cambodia, and Peace Corps Volunteers spend a significant amount of time providing health education, equipping libraries, and installing wells and hand washing stations. However, because Peace Corps Volunteers typically live in more rural environments and are able to develop strong personal relationships with Cambodians, they are uniquely positioned to influence people on an individual level, empowering them to dream, to wonder and to strive for more. And I believe arts education can do just that.

Painting by famed Khmer artist and Tuol Sleng survivor, Vann Nath

If this strikes a chord with you, you can check the previous blog entry for links to donate or to learn more about the arts-based projects currently going on in Peace Corps Cambodia.