Cambodia ESL: A Culture of Insouciance

Posted on by Steve Schertzer


The Cambodian rubbish dump, and my not so final, final exam

I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.

Benjamin Franklin, “On Corn and Poverty”, the London Chronicle, November 29, 1766.

I have been spending a lot of time thinking about how to truly help people. Unfortunately, I work in a school that is filled with students from the middle and upper class of Phnom Penh society. Many of these students are spoiled, lazy, and are spoon-fed by their local teachers. Spoon-fed was the term used by the principal of my school when we recently spoke about this problem. That is a little too optimistic for my liking. I prefer to use the term ‘breast-fed.’

Far too often, I have seen local teachers play games with the students, both children and adolescents. I have seen them show too many movies simply for entertainment value. I have heard one of them play his guitar and sing to them. This is fine if done occasionally and as a reward for a job well-done. But in my first year in Phnom Penh, I have not been witness to many jobs well-done.

Now for my ‘not so final, final exam’ given on Monday December 25, 2011: I tested the students (level 11 advanced) for grammar and vocabulary throughout the term on three different ‘unit tests’, so I thought I would try something different. The final exam (worth 40 percent of the final grade) would be nothing more than reading, thinking, and writing. I spent the last two classes before the test, (a total of four hours) preparing them. I first elicited discussion topics from the students which had to do with “Problems in Cambodia.” I wrote them on the board: Traffic, poverty, graft, corruption, unemployment, violence, lack of educational opportunities, etc. Under another heading I wrote, “Solutions.”

Then, in pairs, I had the students discuss each problem and write their solutions in point form for an eventual discussion. After the discussion I told the students to choose one of the topics and write a detailed essay outlining the problem, its causes, and solutions. I told the class that I would choose one of the topics on the board for the final exam, so this would be a “practice run” for them.

As you can see from the story and questions below, I chose this article about “poverty in Cambodia” from this ABC news website.


1) What is your first impression after seeing these pictures and reading Omar Havana’s story? How do you feel about this? Explain. (5 marks)

2) Mr. Havana says that the children are “always smiling” and “they are happy because tomorrow they will see the sun.” Do you think this is an accurate depiction of poor children in your country, or is it ‘romanticizing’ peasant life? Why? Explain your answer. (5 marks)

3) Mr. Havana says that these poor Cambodian children are happy, yet he would like them to have a better life like people in his country where one child said they “never smile.” What is the paradox of this wish for Cambodian children? (5 marks)

4) Why do you think Mr. Havana calls Cambodia “The forgotten world?” Do you agree? Why or why not? (5 marks)

5) Cambodia has a huge problem with poverty. Write a one page essay about your solutions to this problem. State the problem, what you believe is the cause(s), and how you would go about offering solutions. What programs would you implement? Would you accept help from the International community, or do you think Cambodia should solve this problem on its own? Do you think poverty in Cambodia is a “Cambodian problem” requiring a “Cambodian solution?” Why? Give the essay a title. (20 marks)

It would be all too easy to dismiss Havana’s take on poverty in Cambodia as just another naïve foreigner trying to understand life in Southeast Asia. I have always had a deep suspicion of anyone who says of the poor, “Look at them! They have nothing, but they are so happy. They are always smiling and saying good morning. Even at 4:00 in the afternoon!” I want to yell at them, “If YOU lived in a rubbish dump with nothing to eat for breakfast but a bag of blood, would YOU be happy?”

I wonder if it has ever occurred to Havana (and others) that these kids may have been putting on a show; telling foreigners what they think they want to hear. Havana’s analysis of the lives of poor Cambodian children seems to fly in the face of logic, common sense, and human nature. It flies in the face of human nature because if we accept that a large part of human nature is a continual striving to ameliorate one’s present living conditions, then living in a garbage dump would most definitely qualify as a low point in one’s life.

But let’s, for argument sake, say that all of this is true; that these children are genuinely happy living in squalor, eating bags of blood for dinner, and waiting for the sun to shine the following morning. This raises some very interesting questions: Mainly, why bother helping them? Why expend so much time and energy trying to make them as unhappy as they think us foreigners to be? And where does that leave those foreigners who truly want to help? Where does it leave the international community, doctors without borders, NGOs, foreign investors, even us lowly EFL teachers?

My goal in giving such a final exam (and class assignments of this nature) is simple: To get the students to think; to see beyond their limited ‘weltanschauung’ (world-view); and, eventually, to act. While studying grammar rules and memorizing English vocabulary is important, I want my students to become problem solvers. Their country depends on that.

Of the 13 students who took the exam, nine passed and four failed. Those who failed did so because of poor writing skills, a lack of clear ideas, and a failure to develop their ideas. Ten students passed my level 11 class while three failed. Those who failed got to take a ‘make up’ exam before moving on to the final level.

Most of the students had similar answers, especially when it came to the causes of poverty and any solutions. They blamed the recent civil war and the genocidal regime of Pol Pot for causing so much of today’s problems in Cambodia. That is certainly true. The solutions were also similar to one another. The government should send children to school and give families more money: Nothing new there. The students were pretty much split as far as the international community getting involved. Mainly out of pride for their country, some students said that Cambodia should “solve this problem on its own, but if we can’t then we should take money from the international community.” Most of the students, however, did use words like “shocked”, “sad”, and “angry” to describe their feelings at Havana’s photographs. But they had no idea what to do with those feelings; no clue how to move beyond them into the realm of serious thought and introspection.

Overall, I was disappointed by their lack of problem solving skills. Outside of their cookie-cutter answers, very little was truly discussed and nothing was solved. Although poverty has never been an easy problem to solve anywhere, it is a huge failure on the part of their educational establishment, their society, and their local teachers that this kind of thinking has yet to take root in their schools.

It’s not only me who face this lack of critical thinking skills with Cambodian students. I met a foreign English teacher recently who spent two years teaching at a well-known Phnom Penh university. When he asked his students similar questions on how to solve the poverty issue in Cambodia, he basically received the same answers as I had with one student saying that “Cambodia can sell air to Thailand” to increase revenue. Now, if he could find a way to do that, great! He would become famous. Personally, I think we need more ‘down-to-earth’ solutions.

One of the many problems in this part of the world, specifically in Thailand and Cambodia— two countries where I have lived and taught— is what I call a ‘culture of insouciance’, an attitude of social light-heartedness, and a reluctance to take any worthwhile endeavor seriously, especially an endeavor like education. This kind of culture may be fine for attracting foreign sex-tourists and vagabonds, but it is hell on earth for those who deign to do any real work and make a positive difference.

The boys and girls in Havana’s photographs are not so much putting on a brave face for the foreigner with a camera, as much as practicing a kind of cultural insouciance resulting in a blissful inability to truly comprehend their own predicament. The same can be said about many Thai and Cambodian adults. Their cultural insouciance has left them intellectually impotent to the point where they are wholly incapable of conceptualizing any concrete strategies or solutions to life’s most pressing problems and challenges; problems that they themselves have created and continue to perpetuate. Give them a bottle of whiskey and a couple of free hours and they are as happy as the proverbial pigs in you know what.

While the children in Havana’s photographs are financially poor, the children in my classroom are educationally poor. While the children in Havana’s photographs spend their days and nights searching for food, the students in my classroom spend their days and nights on their laptops and I-pads searching for new Facebook ‘friends.’ While the children in Havana’s photographs know of no other life than suckling on the nipple of Cambodian poverty, many of the students in my class know of no other life than suckling on the nipple of their local teachers. In both cases, the children in this country are taught to be little more than dependent lemmings, with no mind of their own and little awareness of what it could mean to themselves and their society to possess creativity and critical thinking skills. This is why it is so extremely important to reassert an essential and universal truth about the proper care and education of children to those insecure teachers who just want their students to like them: Put your nipples back in your blouse, stop breast-feeding your students, and start properly educating them. The future of your country depends on it.

I have students who come into my writing class after years of studying English with local teachers and write sentences like
“My house are big.”
“I has learn English since six years.”
“I is dark hair and black eye.”

Fantastic! I get the students to write their sentences on the board and we correct them. This is what happens when teachers don’t teach properly. This is what happens when a teacher brings a banjo into class instead of a book. This is what happens when teachers turn their classroom into a cafeteria and have the students put their feet up and relax instead of having them roll up their sleeves and get to work. This is what happens when teachers waste precious teaching hours having their students watch Mr. Bean videos rather than teaching their students to read and write.

What many teachers today don’t seem to realize is that what students give us is a direct reflection of how they have been taught, or not been taught. I ask them, “What is a noun?” They shrug their shoulders. I ask them, “What is a verb?” They respond, “I don’t know.” I tell them to give me three adjectives to describe Cambodia. The silence is deafening as they look down at the floor. And these are students who have studied English grammar with Khmer teachers “since six years!” It’s the same with reading comprehension, pronunciation, and phonics. So they come into my class and I push them to study hard; many of them rebel. If lecture them about the evils of sloth and indolence; they roll their eyes and ignore me. I am strict with them; they complain that they want to go back to learning with a local teacher. And who can blame them? Who wouldn’t want games, movies, and songs? Such is life in a culture of insouciance.

There is a lot of truth to the platitude “change comes from within.” Many do not see a better life beyond mommy and daddy’s eight bedroom house with two BMWs. Then again, neither do I. What could be better than living in an eight bedroom house with two BMWs and maid service? What can I possible say to them? “Listen boys and girls, if you study English real hard, one day you will be able to move out of your daddy’s eight bedroom house with a swimming pool and two maids, and into your own 10 bedroom pad with two swimming pools, a tennis court, a butler named “Phipps”, and four Filipina maids!” I don’t think that’s going to fly. Many of these rich and lazy students will just have to grow up, and like everyone else, come to terms with their own eventual regrets.

So how do we help the financially poor? If I were to have taken my own final exam, what would I have written? Being a conservative, and very suspicious of bleeding heart liberals who simply throw billions of dollars at social problems thinking that wealth distribution solves everything, I would have quoted Benjamin Franklin. To paraphrase and interpret Franklin, if you want to help get people out of poverty, don’t make them comfortable in it. Make them so uncomfortable in the own poverty that they have no choice but to help themselves. The more you do for others, the less they do for themselves.

Here he is in his own words from a paragraph titled “On Corn and Poverty” from the London Chronicle, November 29, 1766.

For my own part, I am not so well satisfied of the goodness of this thing. I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. – I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.

In my youth I traveled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.

There is no country in the world where so many provisions are established for them; so many hospitals to receive them when they are sick or lame, founded and maintained by voluntary charities; so many alms-houses for the aged of both sexes, together with a solemn general law made by the rich to subject their estates to a heavy tax for the support of the poor. Under all these obligations, are our poor modest, humble, and thankful; and do they use their best endeavors to maintain themselves, and lighten our shoulders of this burthen? – On the contrary, I affirm that there is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken, and insolent.

The day you passed that act, you took away from before their eyes the greatest of all inducements to industry, frugality, and sobriety, by giving them a dependence on somewhat else than a careful accumulation during youth and health, for support in age or sickness. In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and you should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty. Repeal that law, and you will soon see a change in their manners.

St. Monday, and St. Tuesday, will cease to be holidays. SIX days shalt thou labour, though one of the old commandments long treated as out of date, will again be looked upon as a respectable precept; industry will increase, and with it plenty among the lower people; their circumstances will mend, and more will be done for their happiness by inuring them to provide for themselves, than could be done by dividing all your estates among them.

Interesting and wise words from Franklin: Words that should come as a warning to those interested in attempting to assist Cambodians in any way. With the billions of dollars being pumped into this corrupt and inscrutable country, just another cursory glance at the children in Havana’s photographs will clearly show how little has changed. Arguably, the situation has gotten worse.

A look at this website and the short documentary film “The Trap of Saving Cambodia: How Aid, Investment, and Globalization Are Killing a Country” certainly lends credence to Franklin’s argument. Cambodians have received so much help from the international community in the last 30 years that they have completely forgotten how to help themselves.

I called the exam my “not so final, final exam” because education is always a work in progress. It has a beginning with no end because we are always learning. I wanted so desperately to include some serious quotations, ideas, and solutions from the students who took my not so final, final exam, but I found so few that I could use. This is tragic. Even though there are some real good and clever students here in Phnom Penh, they are the exception. A culture of insouciance neither encourages nor lends itself to serious thought, introspection, and problem solving.

In the end, the children in Havana’s photographs will most probably never see the inside of a classroom; they will never experience learning from teachers, whether locals or foreigners. Many of the students in my class with their fancy clothes, laptops, I-phones, and I-pads, rarely experience an atmosphere where true learning takes place. Outside of the odd serious teacher they may have encountered along the way, they also live and learn in a rubbish dump, an educational one.

A school, indeed any organization, can only become as successful and efficient as the state that supports it. For any school to succeed the teachers must be more than educators; they must be nation builders. Students must also be more than learners; they must also be nation builders. A country like Cambodia, who spends roughly two percent of its GDP on education, (one of the lowest rates in the world), encouraging teachers and students to become nation builders, does not seem to be a priority here.

It must become a priority; otherwise the children in Havana’s photographs and the students in my Phnom Penh classroom will continue to exist in the same national rubbish dump with almost nothing having been learned and next-to-nothing having been accomplished.

Steve Schertzer

Steve currently teaches in Cambodia and writes a regular column for Ajarn

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14 Responses to Cambodia ESL: A Culture of Insouciance

  1. Omar Havana says:

    I would like to say that after 4 years living in Cambodia is not fair to say a “naive foreigner” or just they are making a show. I spend more than half year with them and I know Cambodia deeply and well, I can guarantee that all those words are the truth and not just the view of another naive tourist, I have cover the war in Libya, the uprising in Cairo and many similar issues, I’m a professional photojournalist and to doubt on this is to doubt about Cambodia and about those children….

  2. Jay says:

    How can an uneducated, self-aggrandizing, megalomaniac ‘elite’ teach their children that there are more than materialistic values out there?

  3. Gaye Miller says:

    I’ve tried to ‘help’ Cambodia for a long time. I used to think education was the key and the way out of the poverty trap. Nowadays, education comes right down the list. The top priority is safe drinking water followed by food, safe shelter, medical access, education and so on. A student can’t cope with school unless the first four on the list are addressed. This is proved by my kids that I pay university fees for. They all pass their exams but I know they could get better grades if they had a better diet with more meat.
    This country is going backwards and would fall apart if all the foreign aid was withdrawn.

  4. Norak says:

    This article is confused. On one hand it criticizes “bleeding heart liberals” for “simply throw[ing] billions of dollars at social problems” and on the other hand it blames Cambodia’s problems on lack of government funding of education. Do you want government to throw billions of dollars at the problem lack of education or not?

    How can this author be trusted when he goes on about how the best way to help other is to not help them, and then a few seconds later he demands that the Cambodian government help schools by funding them more.

  5. Willie says:

    Some say, “Give the person the fish.” You say, “Teach the person how to fish.” But, Where is the pond?

    In Cambodia, education teaches one how to float not to swim.

    Definitely one of the better articles in a long time.

  6. Omar Havana says:

    I have to agreel. this article is so confused, and I feel sorry that they use one of my articles in ABC News as main subject, specially when I read things that honestly goes totally against what Cambodia need nowadays, it will be great that someone use my work to teach others, but better if they use to give voice to those that they need one and not to criticise a country….as Willie said: show them how to fish and don’t give them the fish….”the only problem” for few people, not for me of course, is that one day they will be independent and then they will have not the excuse to use “help” as the way to make them rich….I remember than in Cambodia in 2010 600million dollars were missed from the 1b donated in international help…..what a shame, Khmer people need honest people to help and not people they believe that they are over Khmer….I can assure than Khmer people are hard workers, intelligent people, and honest….I have been in half of the world and Khmer are one of the best people I’ve live with….and honestly you can not even compare students with the kids in the dump that they can even afford to eat a proper meal a day…..and honestly to say that “Give them a bottle of whiskey and a couple of free hours and they are as happy as the proverbial pigs in you know what” is to fail to the respect of a whole country where many as I have seen in my 4 years living in Cambodia. Many Khmer are real life fighters and say that is shameful….

    • Steve Schertzer says:

      First of all, I was moved to see that you use my article for education, this is the goal of my job, thank you so much.
      I agree with most of your opinions, is great also that you mentioned about how international AID is killing Cambodia, this is the main part of my job, something that is clear for most foreigners living in Cambodia.
      Of course, none of the children are happy in the way that we supposed to be, but how many kinds of happiness we can find?
      People can be happy with a Ferrari, with a kiss, with a job, or just looking a beautiful sunrise. In the dump they are happy just knowing that tomorrow the sun will come out, they have not lives but they survive, is a happiness that we most don’t understand, and a lesson for most people trying to find a material kind of happiness far from our inside. I spend almost 4 years living in Cambodia, and is also true all that you said about children using faces in front of tourist cameras to get an extra dollar, is well organise…in the dump is the most honest place of all that I found in my time in Cambodia, there they don’t ask for a dollar or food, they don’t ask, they only smile, even when I was not there, they didn’t get nothing from me, but they taught me so much….

      Once again, I would like to thank you for using my article for the education of the kids, this is great, and I feel honoured, I hope when I will be in Thailand we can meet and maybe speak more about that, and even if you find appropriated even speak to the kids.

      All the best

      Omar Havana

      By Omar Havana, Spain on 2012-01-24″

      From the comment section of the same blog on
      I’m just wondering which one is the ‘real’ Omar Havana.

  7. Omar Havana says:

    Well, this one is the real Omar Havana, and even I didn’t read the ajarn one that you said. but thanks to let me know that someone is using my name, and I don’t agree at all with your words about Cambodia….I’m not resposible for other comments on my name, I don’t even know what is that web that you mention, but of course I know khmer440

  8. Omar Havana says:

    Please could you forward here the correct link to this “omar havana comment” in Ajarn, because I didn’t find them in the address above, thanks and for sure I will try to report that to copyright

  9. Norak says:

    The problem of apathetic and indifferent students is not unique to Cambodia. I don’t think that an increase in funding to education would fix the problem.

    Poverty in Cambodia is a major issue and it is easy for people to focus on specific issues like corruption and the indifference of children, but looking at the big picture there is no doubt that the country has made significant progress in economic development, from a per capita GDP of US$300 two decades ago to US$2000 today.

    As wages in China start to rise, garment factories will start to move towards countries like Cambodia. Exports are high and rising and a stock market will soon list its first company. The future looks bright for Cambodia.

  10. Ahmad says:

    Norak, I like your optimism. I suspect you’re one of those who work for HE government.

  11. Danny Whitehead says:

    Hi Steve, it’s great to see a conscientious EFL (it’s not really ESL in Cambodia is it, yet?) teacher looking to broach real issues in the classroom, but there’s always a danger – which I think you recognise, but there’s not enough information here about what you did in class – that the EFL classroom is used as a tool for cultural imperialism. I spent 9 years working in ELT in Cambodia (1999-2008), and since moving on have continued the research that was initially inspired by my work there. Here’s a link to one of the most relevant things I’ve had published – would love to hear your thoughts, as a fellow Cambodia ELT professional:

    After a 30 month sojourn in DRC, I’ve been back in SEAsia for the last couple of years in Indonesia. Email me to continue the discussion – I’m organising a big conference in Bandung in June with Robert Phillipson and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas as plenary speakers, which should be of great interest to you… and it would be fantastic to have participants from Cambodia! Conference info here:

    Cheers, Danny
    [email protected]

  12. Sok Leang says:

    Hi Stever,

    First of all, I agree that young Cambodian students in general–more so of the group of your students–may not be qualified to confidently answered your questions about poverty in Cambodia (root causes, solutions and so on).

    However, I don’t think your article is anyway a right approach for you to eventually made such an evaluation. Firstly, this is an English-language class (a foreign language). When students make grammatically incorrect sentences, you seem to trade blame on local teachers, but do you remember that you are one of their teachers, esp for the time being, who has the responsibility to correct their mistakes? Can you tell since what level did they have foreign teachers (as they are now in grade 11)? If you question your students’ ability and denounce them the way you did, then I need to question your school’s quality/integrity (do you say your school is one of the international schools in Phnom Penh, with you as an experienced foreign teachers?) to teach students up to level 11 (one short of final level), but with the quality you are critical of. Would you tell the name of your school (you won’t, right?). If it is a language class, you need to test their language skill ability–that is what was taught!

    Secondly, the article was misleading because, if your article is a part of research with those students as interviewees (I suppose so because your analysis was based on the students’ writing in the not so final, final exam!), it would deem completely unethical because your interviewees were put under tremendous pressure (as what they thought about during that time was the score and the given time of that exam). Moreover, to elicit answers from someone in a second language (the level that you said not even know Nouns, Verbs, … and produce only broken and incorrect sentences) which they are not yet able to communicate–let alone strive for the right vocabularies–would only reinforce what you self-perceived as their stupidity.

    Regarding videos, funs, songs, other activities in the classroom, if they are related to the lessons, or to build students’ interest, or to expose them to creative thing–which happen occasionally–why not. That said, I am defiant if those activities were misused!

    For your description on Omar Havana’s photos of the rubbish dump, I agree that they are facts, and lots of things need to get done to tackle the problems. I thank you for quoting inspirational quotes by Benjamin, and I completely agree with that–a need to leave the comfort zone. Of course, also, a lot of more things need to be done for education reform to realize a long-term benefit.

    By the way, thank you for being a teaching resource here in Cambodia.

    All the best,

    PS. I am a Cambodian and have taught English for some years in Phnom Penh. I also shared classes with foreign teachers, and I can maybe discuss about Cambodian students’ perception on Cambodian teachers and foreign teachers and vice-versa.

  13. Jeff McNeill says:

    Great article, though it reaches a muddled conclusion. Sounds like the students I taught at the University of Hawaii. Students are generally shabby, especially with shabby teachers as you well point out. Fixing education is going to have to start with fixing teachers and teaching.

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