Education Reform Hits a Snag in Armenia

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Every revolution has consequences, sometimes positive and at other times, utterly destructive.

The revolution which took place in Armenia was very unusual, beginning with its name (Velvet) and ending with its goals and achievements.

Armenia’s citizenry joined the movement as one, to get rid of the self-centered, corrupt regime and to see improvements in their daily lives through reforms that the revolution had promised.

We also need to be mindful that the revolution did not have any ideological bent nor veneer, for the simple reason that people were already sick of those ideologies which had not translated into bread and butter on the family table.

It has been more than a year and a half since the revolution, which is consolidating its bases in Armenia, and now people are getting impatient with the impact on their daily lives.

Many people assumed that the revolution would bring brisk and sweeping changes and they are disappointed with the pace because Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is paying deliberate attention to modalities and legal ramifications of his government’s actions. That is winning kudos overseas but not necessarily at home.

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For example, it is hard for the majority of the people to understand how the government cannot get rid of the president of the Constitutional Court, Hrayr Tovmasyan, if there was a revolution.

Similar questions are raised in other quarters. People seem to enjoy court cases when they become circuses, where their former tormentors are now being tormented. One such case is the trial of Robert Kocharyan.

Recently a huge controversy erupted when Education Minister Arayik Harutyunyan came up with a draft proposal which entails freedom for universities to relax the requirements for  Armenian language, literature and history for students studying the sciences. Harutyunyan’s proposal was politicized by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, Dashnaktsutyun) and the organization’s youth movement resorted to strikes, asking the minister to resign. Although the confrontation is between the minister and the ARF, one of the leaders of the student movement is Gevorg Gyulumyan, a regular contributor to Azg weekly, the sister paper of the Mirror-Spectator.

He stated, “This is simply a warning. Let the minister consider this as a warning. I advise the minister to consult with experts before making such a decision.”

However, the controversy is raging between the minister and the ARF youth, whose members have staged a protest in front of the government building in Yerevan to repeat their calls for his resignation. The minister seems undaunted, saying, “I am ready to resign only when I feel I am not doing enough. This is not the case.”

In his turn, further escalating the confrontation, the minister tried to drive a wedge between the ARF branches in Armenia and the diaspora by stating that he would appreciated if the ARF leaders in the diaspora “take care of their party, because the undisciplined behavior by Armenia’s Dashnaktsutyun is not a credit to one of our oldest political parties.”

There seems to be a merit to the protests, especially when we consider the primitive level of language proficiency of university graduates who specialize in sciences.

But the issue is presented in a lopsided manner. The point, which is not properly explained by the government, is that the place where the students have to master the language arts, literature and history is the public schools, which are failing in their mission.

The ministry maintains that “when the proposal is approved, the academic board of each university can decide whether these subjects should become mandatory in all departments.”

Arayik Harutyunyan wears more than one hat as Pashinyan’s government consolidated several ministries under one roof. Therefore, he is the minister of education, science, culture and sports.

Another controversy which is brewing is the removal of religious or Armenian Church history from the curriculum of all public schools.

This stipulation seems to be mandated by the European Union, whose standards Armenia is trying to emulate or adopt.

One recommendation is to incorporate the subject in the Armenian history unit, since the Armenian Church is so intertwined with the nation’s history, but the church authorities refuse to settle with this arrangement.

Mr. Harutyunyan’s conduct has been ruffling some feathers. Once, upon seeing a priest on the premises of a high school, he asked, “What the hell are you doing in this school?” And the priest answered, “I am teaching religion.”

Armenia may look to Europe as a role model in civilization, but when it comes to religion, it deserves some dispensation. Indeed, throughout the Middle Ages, Europe was engaged in religious wars until the remedy was discovered by the separation of church and state.

On the other hand, Armenia has suffered under the Soviet atheistic rule; its churches were destroyed, the members of the clergy were murdered and religion was banned.

In the face of invading alien sects, which are destroying society’s fabric, citizens of Armenia deserve to develop a defense mechanism. The history of the Armenian Church has to become part of the history curriculum. Indoctrination is not a cure, but students need to acquire a basic knowledge of the Armenian Church and its tenets. A fair share of the curriculum must be devoted to the Armenian Evangelical movement and the Armenian Catholics, which have contributed meaningfully to Armenian education.

Religious indoctrination is not healthy as it contains the seeds of future violence and sectarian wars. Indoctrination and religious fanaticism have been weaponized by some countries, such as Turkey, which has used Islam to mobilize the masses to destroy or loot other civilizations.

The weaponization of religion has catapulted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the top. His academics are in jail, while his religious masses are at the ballot box perpetuating his authoritarian rule and his occupation armies in Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Somalia and elsewhere.

An education pundit, Artak Galstyan, maintains that religion is a narrow subject. Anyone interested in specializing in religion can attend the Gevorgyan Seminary in Echmiadzin and does not need to learn it in public schools. This is an exaggerated view; every citizen of Armenia must be well versed in a basic knowledge of Armenian Church history to withstand the onslaught of religious sects and to round up his education.

Mr. Harutyunyan cannot claim to be well versed in all areas which his ministry controls. That is why controversies have been arising.

Recently, the ministry allocated 2.7 million drams for a public performance of an abstract play called “Hue and Call,” which took place in Republic Square subway station. That performance triggered a lot of controversy, with some demonstrators calling it Satanic or pro-LGBT propaganda. After the ministry’s scandal involving the dismissal of conductor Constantine Orbelian at the opera, one can understand the ire of the artistic community when the ministry has to take months or a year to approve a shoestring budget for a classical performance on a stage in Yerevan.

Mr. Harutyunyan has a hard path to hoe. Initially Pashinyan was quick in assigning ministerial portfolios to young activists who had walked with him from Gyumri to Yerevan. To his credit, it should be mentioned that the premier was alert to review their performances and act immediately to replace ministers who cannot perform and carry out the proposed reforms of his Velvet Revolution.

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