Eastern Approaches … to Higher Education? A Trip to Gharm, Tajikistan, and Thoughts on International Higher Education, Part I

I had the most interesting opportunity this past weekend. IREX, the organization sponsoring my research here in Tajikistan, occasionally puts on talks by their visiting fellows to keep their Tajik alumni feeling plugged in (IREX’s primary responsibility here in Dushanbe is to administer international education programs for Tajik students), and I happened to be sitting around the office about a month ago when I learned that there’d be a speaker that evening. Always one for Tajikistani imitation KFC fried chicken and Russian-style mayonnaise with a dash of salad, I stuck around and was delighted to hear a talk by Janice Setser, the former in-country director of Mercy Corps in Tajikistan who now works as an independent NGO consultant in Gharm, in eastern Tajikistan. Setser spoke about her work in the community there, introduced the audience to some of the unique challenges that Gharm faces, and added at the end of the presentation that she was always looking for specialists to come up for a few days at a time.

Thinking that I might have something to offer the students of Gharm, I wrote to Janice shortly after the meeting: would it be possible to run a workshop on American higher education, applying to universities abroad, and scholarships for young people in Gharm? The answer was yes, and so after figuring out the dates and getting up very early one morning to make the four-hour drive on bumpy and windy roads to Gharm, I found myself standing up to speak last Friday morning before an audience of about thirty keen and eager Tajik teenagers.

There’s a good chance that most readers won’t have heard of Gharm or the Rasht Valley (also called Karategin), but it’s interesting and important both historically and now for a couple of reasons. Consider the geography of Tajikistan, which itself was carved out of the remnants of the Emirate of Bukhara and Russian Turkestan in the 1920s. Crudely, you might divide Tajikistan into three regions: a small northern portion dominated by the city of Khujand (also known as Leninabad) and some of the über-productive agricultural fields of the Ferghana Valley; the hot lowlands of southwestern and southern Tajikistan, along the Vaskh and other rivers, where cotton production remains king and people tend to speak a more Uzbek-laced Persian; and (here I emphasize my past use of ‘crudely’) the east of the country – once you get east of Faizobod, about forty-five minutes east of Dushanbe, the roads get rough and the terrain ever more mountainous. Follow the road to the east, though, without falling into the massive Vaksh River, and you’re eventually faced with a choice: continue east into the enormous mountains of the Pamirs, or go north towards Kyrgyz pasturelands and, eventually, the Kyrgyz portions of the Ferghana Valley? Take the latter route and you’ll drive through Gharm and the Rasht Valley.

Borders, borders everywhere, but no logic to be found

At least from the point of view of a centralizing modernizing state like the USSR, this kind of territory – isolated, with poor communications, and dominated by villagers pursuing subsistence agriculture – looked like a problem waiting to be solved. Particularly so in the conjuncture of the 1920s and 1930s: Gharm and its environs constituted one of the last holdouts of a huge anti-Soviet rebellion in the late 1920s. More than that, at the time, many people who had been subjects of the Emirate of Bukhara who lived in the aforementioned southern lowlands of what is now Tajikistan were so freaked by the revolutionary events in Central Asia in 1920 that they simply crossed the Amu-Darya River into comparatively calm northern Afghanistan. From the point of view of modernizing elites in Moscow and Stalinabad, as Dushanbe was then called, this was pretty scary: there were still real fears, following the Russian Civil War, that the British Empire was out to dismantle the fledgling Soviet Union. One way of doing so would be to encourage revisionist claims in Kabul (what was the USSR-Afghan border was only established in the 1870s). And even without any meddling on London’s part, unpopulated territory so close to a sensitive international border – and with so many anti-Soviet escapees right across the border – was especially threatening.

Now if I draw *this* line *here* … as this map of Central Asian borders (circa 1922) shows, this part of the world is a cartographer’s dream and nightmare at once

These concerns (which Botakoz Kassymbekova details more here in a fine paper) led the Soviet regime in Moscow and Dushanbe to pursue a policy agenda over the next half-century that still shapes domestic events in Tajikistan today. The regime began to ‘resettle’ tens of thousands of villagers from ‘unproductive regions’ of the country, like the Rasht Valley and the Pamirs, to cotton plantations (actually collective farms) along the Vaksh River in the south of the country. Thousands also came from Uzbekistan (hence the ethnic Uzbek population thereabouts today), as well as some European Russian Soviet citizens. Within Soviet ideology, moving ‘nomadic’ or ‘mountain’ people into ‘settled’ collective farms was seen as historically progressive, in the Marxist-Leninist sense of the word. And moving so many people defined as ‘Tajiks’ (as opposed to ‘Gharmis’ or ‘Pamiris’) to the lowlands was justified as another act of historical justice: according to Soviet historiography and ethnography at the time, Turkic peoples had forced the Persian Tajiks up into the less desirable mountain neighborhoods. Now that the latter had their own ethnic republic (as opposed to those evil colonialists, Moscow would say, who continue to oppress Punjabis, Gujaratis, and Bengalis without giving them national units), it was their time to dominate.

The results were … mixed. Many, many people died in the process of the resettlements, and because many of these populations from mountain areas had little to no in-bred resistance to malaria or tropical diseases, many died when working on cotton farms near riparian wetlands. To oversimplify a story that scholars like Christian Bleuer and Artemy Kalinovsky are researching in more detail as I write, the process of resettlement – and the exclusion of groups like Gharmis and Pamiris from the Tajik SSR’s political institutions – helped create the conditions that made a devastating civil war possible from 1992 to 1995

Your humble narrator contemplating the borders for his own Emirate in the hills of Gharm

Still, setting aside any historical or scholarly interest, I was just excited to get out of town. More than that, I’d long had an interest in international education and college counseling. As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, I had the pleasure to organize a discussion group with some sharp people in Oxford on the future of (American) higher education. As with so many of our own domestic debates, I think that traveling internationally and understanding America’s strengths and weaknesses compared to other countries is crucial to advance a constructive agenda for university reform. I had run a college counseling business in Los Angeles in the past, and I was genuinely interested in helping the Tajik students in any way I could.

More than that: at the risk of sounding terribly naïve or idealistic, I think it’s important for American educators, professors, and diplomats to team up to help expose foreigners to what I think is one of America’s best exports – our higher education system. That’s particularly important in a region of the world like Central Asia, where we can have a tendency to view everything through the lens of short-term security crises – 2014 in Afghanistan, an Iranian nuclear crisis, a Pakistani nuclear bomb. These are all really important issues, but I fear that without society-to-society exchanges with ordinary (for example) Tajiks, Pakistanis, Afghans, or Iranians, we may find ourselves dealing with even lousier security dilemmas by 2030 or 2040. Education isn’t a complete magic wand, but it’s one of the most important tools the Americans have to make robust and lasting contacts with other countries outside our own national comfort zone.

Without going into too much detail on what yours truly blabbered on about, I would say that I was genuinely impressed and surprised by many of the students’ zeal – but also by some of the assumptions about their own background and qualifications that they took to our conversation. During the presentation, for example, I paused to take some time to focus on what, exactly, American college administrators and admissions officers mean by that oh-so-elusive term ‘leadership.’ Most American readers are familiar with the usual rigamarole: if you want to be seen as a good ‘leader’ for getting into, say, Princeton, you need to volunteer in Ghana for a summer. You need to be the captain of your football team. You need to edit the school newspaper and so on. Often, it seems, the concept of leadership that our universities encourage is entirely institutionally bound. This has consequences in terms of organizational creep, too: I often find myself wondering at Oxford why, exactly, it is, that organizations with relatively modest aims have to have eight steering committees. People inculcated in such a title-driven culture of ‘leadership’ seem uncomfortable if there’s not an org chart around to guide them.

I’ll show you ‘leadership’ when you’re Sunday’s lamb chops

Nothing could be further from the situation in Gharm. Beyond the issue of the school system in Tajikistan not being very good, generally speaking, there exist few of the organizational or extracurricular opportunities that are around at most American high schools: sports teams, the yearbook, etc. And even if there were, the heavily community-focused nature of local culture, and the fact of household economies, requires that many students spend time learning how to manage large tracts of crops, raise and check the health of livestock, slaughter, clean, and dress their stock, know how to take it to market, sell it all, negotiate prices with local bazaar bosses — and that’s to say nothing of the huge emotional intelligence that navigating the web of relationships and obligations in a culture of extended families like Gharm requires. (This was all the more apparent as my visit coincided with Eid, when the town was a ruckus with people making purchases and visits to friends’ homes to commemorate relatives who had died in the course of the prior lunar year.)

All of these activities may not require ‘leadership’ (in the administrative – bureaucratic sense that Americans increasingly take for granted), but they sure take leadership in the actual sense of the word. While I spent several hours with the students going over more mundane topics – how to apply for financial aid, how to select colleges to apply to, tips for the TOEFL – for me the most meaningful part of the discussion was trying to impress upon them that their life experiences had value as ‘leadership’ experiences.

I’ve written much more about my trip to Gharm and my ensuing reflections on international education, but for the sake of brevity I’ll divide these thoughts into two postings. Check back soon for Part Two.


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