The flow of information

TPP seminar

Setting up for the TPP Seminar on January 14; Kent Wong’s delegation on the right

I feel as if I am in a country that is like a box that is changing shape all the time. The walls are not at right angles to each other. Also, first something is a wall, then I walk through it and it wasn’t a wall. At first something was a rule, then it’s not a rule. A lot of the problem comes from not speaking Vietnamese, of course, but people who speak English with us also talk about rules and freedom, particularly in education. First there are a lot of rules, then there aren’t. Or there are rules here but not over there.

Of course, the rules really are changing. The 2012 Labor Code replaced the 2004 Code which replaced the 1996 Code, and the 2012 Code is still being worked on, as is the Law of Trade Unions. Ton Duc Thang “aspires” to be among the Top 100, or at least emulate them, so the curriculum is undergoing a complete revision. Over beyond Building C the new library is rising; it was a hole in the ground when we got here, and now it is a tower. Across the canal the land reclamation that I thought was going to be apartment buildings is now surrounded by a fine brick fence which will enclose a new private university.

First we thought that our presentation on teaching methods had been rejected because it talked about the necessary conditions for good teaching that do not exist at TDTU (small classes, academic freedom, etc). It was also critical of “elite” education in the US, the sky-high priced universities that are skimming off the top of the market for prestigious degrees.  To the extent that the “Top 100” program attempts to be an ASEAN version of this, we implied criticisms of it. When our presentation was rescheduled Dean Hoa told us to write a second version, just focusing on teaching, not on elite universities. Upon Vinh’s advice, I think, he then asked for a third version about the Student Research Projects. Over the weekend I worked on that while Joe finished up the minimum wage report project and sent it off. The women in the Accounting Faculty, where we have been going on Thursdays to speak English, said I should wear my ao dai so I did.

In the elevator going up to the room (A-401) this morning we agreed that we figured there was a 25% change that our presentation would be cancelled. But it wasn’t. We were first. They let us take more than the 15 minutes we were first given, and then there was a whole lot of comment afterwards and some very free and interesting discussion following the presentations of the other two lecturers, one from IT and one from math.

From rear of room

I wrote the presentation out in short sentences to put up as a Powerpoint on the screen, to make it more accessible to people for whom my English was going to be a barrier. We were asked to list our degrees on the first slide, as part of establishing our credibility as people familiar with “top” US educational practices. But from then on, it was pretty loose, in the sense of just saying what we thought was the case. During the discussion I even pointed out that they have a union and could conceivably bargain working conditions, such as class size, workload and private offices for confidential discussions with students. I’m not sure that was actually heard by anyone.

Lecturers at Jn26

Afterwards, the lecturers who had not already left grouped together for a photo.

In other words, that was a box that changed shape while I as in it. Here are some other things that look and feel like walls, or veils, and sometimes turn out to be something different.

The Moral Philosophy Curriculum

When Joe was preparing our students their Student Workplace Research Projects he realized that he had hit a bare spot. No one seemed to have any sense of what “social science research” meant. We wrote some handouts, but at the same time we decided to try to find out what prior exposure to social sciences they might have had. History? Philosophy? Psychology? Sociology? Political-economy?

We were assured that they studied all of these, all the way through high school and during the first years of college. Twelve percent of the curriculum was devoted to these. This was a requirement, a government requirement from the Ministry of Education and Training. We asked what subjects they studied. Overall, in college it’s called “moral philosophy,” which means Marxism-Leninism, Ho Chi Minh Thought, and Viet Nam history. It has different titles in high school, but it’s basically the same material from the same perspective and same methods.

We asked various colleagues and friends if they remembered studying social sciences in high school and college. Without a single exception, their response was a laugh. Sometimes a big loud laugh, sometimes just an embarrassed snort. “I slept through it!” “It was so boring!” “The teachers are old.” The classes are “school-headed,” meaning your head gets stuffed with the teacher’s words. “It was worthless.” Even the VGCL staffer sitting next to me at a dinner up in Hanoi responded with an involuntary smirk.

Joe pursued the question of “moral philosophy” so thoroughly that as a present at a going-away party for Leanna and Hollis, Vinh gave him a copy of the book, Ho Chi Minh Thought on the Military. It’s all mottos and slogans, and stuff like this:

Just after the foundation of the regular armed forces, Ho Chi Minh gave orders to engage in the first battle. Executing his instructions, the Vietnamese Brigade for Propaganda and Liberation won the battle of Phay Khat and Na Ngan, thus affirming the fair tradition of our army, “The first battle must be won.” (p 125)

The direct quotes from Uncle Ho are the best thing, even if often out of any useful context, but they are short and infrequent. Is this intentional? Would someone intentionally try to make Marxism boring?

One faculty member from another university told us that in graduate school, students writing a dissertation have to have a first chapter in which they acknowledge Marxism as the complete theory that covers everything. They show how their own work derives from Marxism. Then they can get on with their writing. This is true in every subject. Another colleague who teaches at a private foreign for-profit university says that one reason students enroll at her university is so that they can escape this requirement. I remember with amusement that I was told, at Berkeley, that I could reference Marx only once, no more, in my dissertation.

The reason this matters to me is because without a living Marxism, these kids are not going to be able to understand the capitalism which is rolling down on them like a truck. For US leftists, Marx and the whole broad tradition of Marxist scholarship, from Harry Braverman to Monthly Review, is what enables us to figure out what is going on around us. It’s the screwdriver that gets the locked door off its hinges. Many of us had to fight to get schooled in a bit a Marxism, or we learing it in the context of the various movements, not in classes, where it was mostly verboten. Here, Marxism has been turned into a glorious corpse. Actually Ho Chi Minh himself, who asked that his body be cremated and put in a simple urn, got embalmed instead and lies in state in a giant mausoleum in Hanoi.

We asked one senior colleague (at a different university and with a Western PhD) whether there is any discussion going on to develop a new curriculum to replace the Moral Philosophy curriculum that seems to have such a deadly effect. She replied that to do that, the Communist Party Central Committee – which she called the equivalent of Parliament or Congress — would have to pass a new law. New laws are popping up all the time, however. How about within the Party Central Committee – is there any discussion? What are people saying? Who is saying what?

Her answer went beyond “No, no discussion.” The question itself seemed incomprehensible. The idea of a discussion as a necessary step on the way to making an informed collective leadership decision seemed unfamiliar. I will come back to this. Also, she seemed to think it incomprehensible that an academic specialist in education, like herself, could be part of, or even aware of, such a discussion going on.

We heard about a 2009 seminar that took place in Hanoi, organized by Monthly Review, the leftist US journal of independent socialist thought. Some of their best contributors and editors were there:  John Bellamy Foster, Samir Amin, John Mage, Marta Harnecker, Michael Lebowitz, Jayati Ghosh, Bill Fletcher and Biju Mathew and others. They presented papers in English and Vietnamese and some papers were supposed to be published, but that didn’t happen. The person we heard about this from said that most of the Vietnamese academics did not agree with the Monthly Review perspective. Some of the participants from the military agreed, as did some of the civilian participants. We were told by the person who attended that there is a discussion — at least, disagreement –   within the party on “whether the emergent capitalist social relations are to be resisted and restrained, or are transitional and necessary and to be for the time encouraged, or are a necessary and inevitable part of a permanent model.”

Why this is relevant to labor education in Viet Nam

A more immediate concern, and this is related to the Student Research Project, is that if the VGCL is going to train a whole new generation of organizers, they will need to have a foundation in Vietnamese history. They will need to be able to go into a workplace, a village, an enterprise zone or fast food outlet and do some social science research, also known as figuring out what they’re looking at. They will need to know what questions to ask, how to discern the tensions and the direction things are moving or could move, and where the contradictions lie that can shake the whole arrangement. Dogma will paralyze them. They really need the dialectic and historical materialism and Marxist analysis to know where to start to look at things and what questions to ask.

The Ministry of Education and Training — a socialist urban legend? 

A colleague who taught in Canada, said of teaching at another, private, for-profit university “We do not have academic freedom here.” This is true of the for-profits in the US too, as Joe can attest, but the image of “real” higher education in the US is that faculty have academic freedom. Even contingents, who can be fired easily, believe that they have it and will defend it passionately.

Enforcing the rules that fence in academic freedom appears to be the job of the  Ministry of Education and Training.  We have been told that it also oversees the production of everything that gets written, published and of course taught in Viet Nam in public institutions. Some people we talked with are convinced that someone is sitting in an office somewhere, reading and marking up every sentence that gets published in the whole country, anywyere. Of course, they would read a new Moral Philosophy textbook. There are, actually, some really huge government offices. In Da Lat there are some fat white towers on a hillside that must have thousands of offices in them. In Hanoi, the same except these are old gray buildings.

Is this actually true? Or is this an urban legend of socialist countries? If a legend is sufficiently credible, it has the same level of impact as a reality, in the sense that people will self-police in the belief that they are being surveilled and that certain behaviors are risky.

We are told that MET has a presence at TDTU. Here, it is called the Department of Evaluation. Some people refer to it as “Department of Control.” Apparently the people who occupy the Department of Evaluation are not actually employed by the University. They are not academics but they have a lot to do. They are the ones who critique and edit your exams, sign off on them, grade them (or at least spot check them) and then archive the grades (but don’t tell the teachers the results).

They also supervise. This is the term used by our friend who speaks very good English who says it is the correct term. They sit at desks in the hallway, wearing purple shirts, and observe people walking along. They have stacks of blue notebooks, one for each class. After each class, the teacher or the class monitor records the attendance, which always comes out “right”, or at least not too bad, on paper. There is also a box where the teacher writes what was taught (in our case, in English) and then another where we sign our initials.

“We are under control,” one of our colleagues said.

The supervisors patrol the corridors and look through the glass windows to see what is going on. Apparently they can tell by looking if you are using the right methodology. If a girl is not wearing her ao dai on a Monday or a Thursday, or a boy is not wearing a white shirt and black pants, they will pull the kid out of class. However, in fact, girls wear all kinds of overshirts and hoodies on ao dai day, and boys bleach their hair red (and a few actually wear make-up, which is startling but attractive), and so far, I have not seen anyone pulled out of class.

Are there undercover police around? 

Some people also talk about the police. Since we have seen many relaxed young men wearing different colored uniforms, walking around in parks or guarding embassies, but no one with a gun, we asked how you could tell.  Do they wear uniforms? “They wear ordinary clothes,” we were told.

In the US, we also talk about gangsters, provocateurs, spies, etc. They are real, too. At a demonstration, the person urging violence or vandalism is likely to be an undercover cop of some sort.

A journalist for the English language press here in Viet Nam asserted, in an article on labor, that a labor activist went to jail. We emailed her and asked her for her source. The source she provided was as vague as her own article. We then asked if she knew anyone we would talk to. She wrote, “You mean labor activists?” Yes. She said she didn’t know any labor activists, only corporate lawyers. Corporate lawyers would not have a problem with labor activists going to  jail, but that doesn’t mean it happened — at least not that particular time. Maybe other times, who knows?

Discussion at the TPP SEminar on January 14

The TPP paper that I wrote and that Joe, Hollis and Leanna amended and signed onto apparently travelled far enough to prompt a seminar at TDTU on January 14. The idea was to engage the Cornell students, our students, Kent Wong’s delegation, our faculty and other persons who might have something to say in a discussion about the impact of TPP on labor and trade unions. Invitations were sent out. It was set for the day after we came back from Hanoi. Dean Hoa wanted papers; I argued that what was needed was a free discussion. What would happen with TPP was as yet up in the air, no one knew what the impact would be, let’s get some people with different perspectives in the room together and have a discussion and see if we can figure out what’s going on.

A fine seminar room with an oblong table and ranks of soft chairs and desks in Building A was reserved. Food was laid out on the terrace. The Cornell students, our TDTU students in full ao dai and white shirts, Kent’s full delegation and a few others came, including the Dean, Dr Ut from the Research Group, a University VP, a man from the VGCL who had accompanied us up in Hanoi, Vinh and Yen, from the ILO. Kent Wong, Richard Barrera from LA, Joe and I all made presentations. We took too long but that wasn’t the point. A worse mistake was that we failed to stop and make sure there was translation throughout, so our students were pretty much in the dark (later they told me they got some of it.) But that isn’t my point either.  When it was time for discussion, the US people had all talked plenty. Then we turned to the Vietnamese people to speak. Dean Hoa asked some questions about organizing, but no one spoke about TPP. Discussion simply did not happen.

Afterwards, I asked two of the Vietnamese – separately – why they didn’t say anything. They both told, me, “I was there as an observer. I was not authorized to speak.”

I was angry enough to say, “We did not invite any observers. We invited participants.”

So Dean Hoa was right to be puzzled by my insistence on discussion.

TPP Emil 1

Emil Guzman took this. Dean Hoa on my left, speaking. 

By late that afternoon, Joe and I had the flu so we missed joining Kent’s delegation when they had their last dinner together, Friday night. However, Vinh went. She said that the end of the meal, Kent called everyone together and had them each tell what they had learned on this trip. Everyone went around the circle and talked. When it came to the VGCL guy, he said he had never seen anything like this. At the end of their dinners, he said, they don’t talk; everyone just gets drunk.

Nonetheless, this morning, January 26, when we gave our report on all the teaching methods we used to generate the student reports (there are a couple of blog posts on that, back in December), there were plenty of questions and comments and the room, which had at least 100 lecturers in it, seemed full of energy, both about our topic and about the two topics that followed. To hear a math teacher and an IT teacher accuse each other of being boring or scary, and then see them defend themselves in a lively, spirited way, was exciting. People seemed happy about the whole experience.  In fact, it seemed like  a very normal interaction among teachers, talking about how they do what they do, but with even a certain stronger tone of cheery critique.

We are told that they plan to do a seminar like this every month. Teachers will share how they teach their subjects. Seems like a great idea to me!




Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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