BY VICKEN SOSIKIAN
Azerbaijan has attacked Armenia and Turkey has joined them in carrying out major joint military drills as we speak. The country is still in a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, there is one other significant controversy brewing in Armenia that has gotten the attention and sharp criticism of rapidly growing circles in Armenia – a wildly ambiguous and highly criticized set of changes in the entire educational system, which many believe strip young Armenians of vital education that is necessary for the youth of a nation with such a rich culture, heritage and history; a country surrounded by enemies and country with a cause that has yet to be brought to its rightful and just conclusion.
Ever since coming into power Prime Minister Pashinyan and his Education Minister, Arayik Harutyunyan have talked about carrying out educational reforms. However, they have failed to review and address the educational strategic plan the previous government had prepared for review and adoption by the newly elected government in 2018. Contrary to the PR spin Pashinyan gives on things – not everything from the old is by default bad, as may be the case with the mentioned strategic plan. Nonetheless, the government has had more than enough time to review and (even) debunk the presented plan and create their own.
But the fact is they have done nothing regarding strategic planning. In addition to making one wonder what tangible work the Education Ministry has actually done in this regard (especially when lavish bonuses have been distributed quite generously to ministry employees), there is significant speculation that the absence of a strategic plan is not just another failure of the ministry, but done intentionally – leading to further mistrust of the already unpopular Harutyunyan.
Now, how can the Education Ministry plan to overhaul the entire education system without a plan? Perhaps, if we shed some light on the planned changes – it would help provide some clues:
Armenian men are required by law to serve in the military upon graduation from high school. The current educational system includes a dedicated preparatory course where all students are taught about military strategy, tactics, history, and even practical on-field lessons. The fate of this critical subject is uncertain and unclear in the planned changes. Consistent with its ambiguous nature, the plans discuss changes to this important course and subject without specifying what those changes are.
Currently students in Armenia must take a required course dedicated to the Armenian Church. The proposed changes remove the Armenian Church as a dedicated course and combine it with Armenian History – another currently dedicated course. The proposal aims to replace two vastly significant courses with one. Regardless of individual faith, the Armenian Church is a national treasure for Armenians. It makes up a vital component of our history and identity. In fact, the Armenian Church is not only significant to Armenian history but to world history, as well as Christian history. Additionally, most critics of this change argue that the course is a source of moral and spiritual education for the youth.
Furthermore, Article 18 of the Armenian Constitution states that the country recognizes the exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Holy Church (as a national church) in the spiritual life of the Armenian people, in the development of their national culture and preservation of their national identity. Various circles are concerned that the removal of the Armenian Church course is a precursor to a possible future attempt to remove Article 18 – something that will in fact be more easily accomplished given unconstitutional amendments made recently that is now resulting in the replacement of three Constitutional Court judges.
The course of Armenian History is also undergoing some changes, the most significant of which is the omission of the origins of the Armenian people. Our origins as native to the land that makes up a large swath of present-day Turkey is not only important because it is an undeniable fact, but it also serves as an important component of territorial claims made by Armenians.
Textbook and Faculty Changes
The proposed changes also require the publication of new textbooks and combining of classes. In addition to the concern of changing the country’s textbooks to remove (or reduce) the history of our origins, our church, our military and so on; there is concern about how (and who) will teach the new courses. For example, currently, the Armenian Church course is taught by religious experts who do not necessarily have expertise in Armenian history. By combining teachers to accommodate the proposed changes, the students may be left with inadequately prepared or insufficiently knowledgeable teachers – which in turn leads to another concern; combining classes will result in widespread layoffs of faculty members.
The Turkish Connection
However, the most concerning aspect of the textbook changes is the individual(s) who have been selected to develop the new textbooks. The lead on this project is Lilit Mkrtchyan. Although she is an associate professor at the Department of World History at Yerevan State University; Mkrtchyan’s involvement in various western backed projects that attempt to re-write Armenian history would have anyone with a slither of concern for the Armenian Cause up in arms. Mkrtchyan, now tasked with revising dozens of Armenian textbooks, is co-author of “History Education in Schools in Turkey and Armenia – A Critique and Alternatives.” If the title alone doesn’t cause alarm, you can go ahead and delve into the details of her work (https://bit.ly/319HE5i). The short of it (as titled by one of the projects she worked on) is an attempt to “challenge the image of the enemy as well as the current exclusivist narratives that the history education in Armenia and Turkey promotes.” I don’t know what Turkish schools teach (though I can take a guess), but in Armenia calling Turkey anything short of an enemy is unacceptable, for me at least – until the full resolution of the Armenian Cause.
Lack of Transparency and Accountability
The above noted points have justly caused an uproar among virtually every segment of the Armenian population – including many who otherwise have supported the Pashinyan administration. However, the Education Minister’s failure to engage in public discourse on such a major overhaul of the educational system and his unwillingness to listen to input from students, teachers, administrators and academic experts has turned into widespread calls for his resignation. However, Pashinyan has not (at least publicly) called on Harutyunyan for accounting on this matter – leading the public to insinuate that his silence means agreement.
Of significance is the fact that the plan to overhaul the educational system is not going to be presented to the National Assembly but can be adopted by the government during one of its weekly meetings. The Pashinyan camp maintains total control over both the parliament and the government, but if it were to go through the parliament, the changes would at least be given more attention by the public through their elected representatives.
Coincidental or By Design?
One would think that in addition to being led by a strategic plan, engaging a wide network of stakeholders for input, and being clear and transparent with its plans and intentions – the government would heed the recent Azeri attacks on Armenia and Armenians and Turkey’s call to combat the Armenian lobby (June 2020) as a sign to ante up on their efforts to enhance our education system, to teach more history to the youth, to provide more preparation for military service, and to instill a greater sense of love for our culture and heritage.
All this amid a state of emergency, which just happens to prevent the assembly of citizens in protest and just after illegally bull dozing through constitutional amendments, which shake the most basic principles of democracy in the country.
Coincidence or by design?