Monday, 20 July 2015

The fine line between ethnocentrism and cultural change

Ethnocentrism - judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one's own culture. Is this always negative? 

Understanding how to embrace and respect cultural differences is a vital aspect of living, studying, working and travelling internationally. From one cultural position looking into another one might might be intrigued, interested, confused, annoyed and frustrated. It is all part of a global journey of discovery and understanding we are not all the same. Although those that assist in the development of universities must be respectful and observe some cultural norms, they must also speak truth and let academics and universities know of their weaknesses. If not done, only because if may cause offence, then the development of the university will be skewed and hindered.  

As a country like Myanmar continues to open up to development, tourism and educational progress, conflict is inevitably going to occur. With transient borders comes the introduction of new cultures, values and ways of doing business, education and journalism. Many will attempt to facilitate change within Myanmar by bringing in new ‘foreign’ ways of doing things, and some individuals will label this ethnocentric, by arguing it devalues local culture. 

There is a fine line between attempting to assist with areas that need developing, and attempting to change decades old cultural practices and traits. How does one encourage and promote change within institutions within Myanmar, without being ethnocentric? Or is a small amount of ethnocentrism acceptable for those involved in education development within Myanmar? Is it even ethnocentric? 

Some cultural traits and practices are simply unnecessary and need to be stopped, transformed or changed. Government interference into educational institutions and the hinderance they place on academics, the restricting of knowledge, and the control of students, is something that must be stopped. It is not ethnocentrism, placing foreign educational values on other country education system, and is similar to the acceptance most countries have of human rights standards and norms and how they are a global necessity and benchmark.

Perhaps the most important role of a university is to both create and practice knowledge whilst being critical and creative in all forms of thinking. If a university lacks this ability and is influenced by government or nongovernment bodies alike, then it lacks integrity, accountability, academic independence and legitimacy. A university influenced by external forces may also ‘create’ knowledge that backs up a certain political and business perspective. A university can not desire reform, to be internationalised, and welcomed into the the field of credible scholarship, if it continues to hold on to a legacy of uncritical thinking, rout learning, and carefully scripted research.

A university that still holds on to knowledge that became obsolete in the 1970’s, is making the process of internationalising the institution, basically impossible and impractical. Likewise a university that wants to protect itself from criticism, be it correct or questionable criticism, is lacking the ability to perform like an intended academic institution. A university that does not equip students to be critical and to question everything, including its own teaching staff and results, lacks an appropriate understanding of what a university should be.  

Although generalising, Thailand is a good example where there critical thinking skills are not as developed as they need to be in order to develop a flourishing and critical academic scene. This is even more problematic when some Thai universities attempt to influence universities in Myanmar. Although Thailand is years ahead of Myanmar in academic knowledge and development, there is still immense issues within Thai academia. However Myanmar can still learn from Thailand in both how to develop and what not to do in regards to teaching styles. There is a large activist movement within Thai academia, however there is also a large portion of academia who have little ability to be critical and question and debate their academic superiors.

Undergraduate students who take what their professors teach them as ‘gospel’, and professors who allow this to occur, are doing a great disservice to the future of both Thailand and academics in Thailand, Myanmar should take note. To attend a lecture, listen, write down some facts, and then use your notes to study for an exam, should not be the basis of university education. Learning knowledge to debate, challenge and argue with those, even with higher credentials than ones self, is vital and under appreciated partially in Thailand and significantly in Myanmar. Other ways that demonstrate a lack in critical ability is the enormous following some Professors have in Thailand. Numerous individuals have told me that if 'so and so said that', then there is no need to question it, it must be correct. Following academics is fine, however to follow academics to the point you will never question them is both dangerous and unhelpful to academic development. I know of senior and acclaimed academics in Thailand who plagiarise and have others write on their behalf. An almost criminal action within academia.    

After my last visit to Mandalay University I provided a critical assessment of some of the University practices and procedures however upon delivering my assessment was instantly shut down in Thailand in fear of causing offence. Although apologising for causing offence, it was my understanding that we were there as a team to help develop the Univesity, thus I was open and honest in my approach. Although I agree, change must be slow and delivered with respect, Mandalay University researched out in order to gain assistance in internationalising itself. However it was clear that they are not ready for this process, as gentle criticism was faced with offence and resistance, demonstrating the huge change that is needed in academia in Myanmar. Chiang Mai University’s defence of Mandalay University complaint that it was offensive to criticise certain practices also demonstrates that lack of rigour in certain aspects of Chiang Mai University. Politics still significantly influences both universities, meaning academic rigour, freedom and integrity is lacking. 

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