What Arts Education Could Offer to Cambodia 42 Years After the Khmer Rouge Regime

04/17/2017 10:14 pm ET Updated Apr 18, 2017

Co-authored by Laura Dean

April 17th 2017 is Cambodia’s 42nd anniversary of the occupation of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia - a regime that killed almost two million people through execution, starvation, and disease. While the country has made strides in attempting to rebuild all that it lost, it has yet to achieve real progress. In particular, the government is still working toward developing a new and more effective educational system and reigniting the values and traditions of its Khmer culture in its youth.

Given how globalized the world is becoming, however, Cambodia has to not only restore its schools and culture but also keep up with the ever-increasingly competitive global economy and workforce. The problem facing the government and its people is that it barely has enough energy, resources and opportunity to do so. It seems as though it needs an innovative answer to address the very real issues the country faces in building back up to its once famous name, the “Pearl of Asia.”

Currently, Cambodia appears to be replicating educational standards and structures from other Westernized countries. It should, however, shift its attention away from attempting to mirror global educational standards and focus on creating its own practices that are relevant to the needs of its people, specifically in terms of healing and building trust to connect parents and communities with Cambodia’s current educational system. Arts education should therefore be an essential piece to the core curriculum of the national educational system in Cambodia.

Students playing music during student award ceremony at the Caring for Cambodia (CFC) Aranh Sakor High School in Siem Reap
Sothy Eng
Students playing music during student award ceremony at the Caring for Cambodia (CFC) Aranh Sakor High School in Siem Reap

Arts education broadly speaking, encompasses any subject that teaches the visual and tangible arts, such as art, theater, dance, music and so on. Arts education provides a perfect vessel to pass on traditional Khmer culture and customs onto its youth. It encourages a space in curriculum where students can connect with their parents and grandparents generation, guaranteeing the culture’s preservation in the future. It also establishes stronger relationships between the youth and Cambodia’s older generations, where lived experiences and knowledge have the opportunity to be transferred and transformed.

Parents listening to music performed by students in their village community during student award ceremony at Aranh Sakor High
Sothy Eng
Parents listening to music performed by students in their village community during student award ceremony at Aranh Sakor High School in Siem Reap.

Most importantly, arts education promotes a chance for the community and its future generations to heal from the trauma it still relives to this day. By empowering its youth to work towards a collective mindset in improving and supporting their given communities, arts education offers a space for the youth to connect and engage with older generations through a common cultural identity and understanding. In his article on the social, moral and economic impact of arts education in Cambodia, Sam-Ang Sam argues that that contextually specific arts education provides a platform that engages this knowledge and identity. It is the key to fostering a sense of openness, where individuals can express themselves in a more authentic way and heal through the deeper connections they make within their community. If arts education were tailored to speak to the needs of the Cambodian context and community, it may prove effective to healing the internal struggles that individuals and families still face from the genocide.

Arts education has historically been undermined or neglected within many countries’ national curricula. It is argued to play a minor, if not insignificant, role in the academic development of a student and is, therefore, deemed inferior to more scientific, rational subjects.

The current global trend is moving away from arts education, relying on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to steer youth to become competitive within the global economy. While STEM education is important, it is equally so to recognize that without honoring the social and emotional side of a student, they do not grow up to be well-rounded, productive, caring members of society. Arts education bridges the gap of learning between a student’s sense of the world and themselves. It connects them deeply to issues that their parents and community face, opens up opportunity for critical dialogue and supports a multitude of perspectives that give students a more inclusive and empathetic mindset.

Even global educational standards are wrought with issues that Cambodia should look to avoid repeating within their own system. For example, current global education systems are attempting to transform how students learn so as to support them beyond the academic realm. One commonly used framework that many schools are attempting to live up to are the 21st century learning skills. These skills specifically target a student’s ability to think creatively and collaboratively, to problem solve and work well within a team.

If the Cambodian government wishes to integrate itself as a worthy competitor to the global educational system and eventual workforce, it needs to start with an innovative response not imitative one.

However, it seems as though countries are focusing more on teaching these methods within the STEM field all the while undermining the role that arts education should play. There is a missed opportunity for countries to see how all of these skills are naturally learned through arts education, where other subjects may prove to be harder to teach. This opens up a chance, however, for Cambodia to shift the way in which the world understands and implements these 21st century skills. If the Cambodian government wishes to integrate itself as a worthy competitor to the global educational system and eventual workforce, it needs to start with an innovative response not imitative one.

The tragic circumstances of Cambodia’s past have opened up a rare opportunity for the country. An opportunity that allows it to establish and develop arts education as a core feature in Cambodia’s national curriculum. Not only does it support students learning in a more exhaustive way but it also encourages positive relationships among students, parents, communities and schools.

When used with the right intentions, arts education can open up community engagement and discussion, providing a space for Cambodia to heal from its past and explore the possibilities of its future. It is crucial, however, that the country remain steadfast to its own needs and context, establishing innovative ways to rebuilding its education system and traditional culture. Arts education could play an innovative role in ensuring that Cambodia’s education system and traditional culture are not merely in survival mode, but are thriving to their full potential.

Laura Dean is currently studying at Lehigh University in the Comparative and International Education Master's program. Much of her research interest focuses on the impact and importance of arts education around the world. She can be reached at lmd315@lehigh.edu

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