History & Background
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the creation of the Republic of Kazakhstan, one of the world's largest countries (2.7 million square kilometers), located in the heart of the Eurasian continent. Administratively, the country is divided into 14 oblasti (states), with 160 raiony (districts), and the major cities of Astana, Almaty, Ekibastuz, Karagandy, Kustanai, Pavlodar, Semipalatinsk, Shymkent, and Ust'-Kamenogorsk. In 1997, the capital of the country was moved from Almaty to Astana.
Kazakhstan is a multi-ethnic state. Various periods of Kazakhstani history reflected noteworthy shifts in the demographic situation. In the course of peasants' migration in the pre-1917 period, more than 1 million people came to Kazakhstan from Russia, the Ukraine, and Byelorussia. After the 1917 Revolution, about 1 million people were subjected to migration to Kazakhstan for the purposes of constructing industrial facilities; even greater numbers were victims of Stalin's policy of farm collectivization. They came mostly from the European part of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). During World War II, 150,000 people were evacuated from the territories occupied by Nazi Germany to work at the military facilities. Kazakhstan became a place of exile for several ethnic groups who were suspected of being potential collaborators with Hitler. These groups included nearly 800,000 Germans, 78,500 Koreans, 102,000 Poles, and 507,000 people from the North Caucasus. In the 1950s, the reclamation of virgin soils in Kazakhstan brought yet another 1,500,000 people from various USSR republics.
According to the 1999 estimate of the Agency of the Republic of Kazakhstan on Statistics, almost 15 million people representing 120 ethnic groups lived in the country. Among them were nearly 8 million Kazakhs, more than 4 million Slavic and non-Slavic Russians, 547,000 Ukrainians, 353,000 Germans, and 249,000 Tatars, and 1 million people belonging to other ethnic minorities. The population of the country has a high percentage of people with bi-ethnic and multi-ethnic backgrounds. Since the last census taken in 1989, there was over a 1 million decrease in population due to emigration because of the country becoming a separate nation-state, economic hardships, and growing nationalism. Most of the emigrants were from Russian and German communities. Another factor relates to the birth reduction. For example, the 1995 child birth rate was approximately 17 children per 1,000 of the population. In 1999, the rate fell to 14.
Most of the population lives in urban areas that have better economies in comparison with the rural areas. This has a great impact on the educational system and educational opportunities of people. The urban areas, mostly located in the northern part of the country, have highly developed industries, and a high number of educational institutions. They are heavily populated with ethnic Russian or Russian-speaking people, while the countryside has a larger proportion of ethnic Kazakhs and other Central Asian minorities.
Major religions are Islam, which makes up a little more than half of the population, and Russian Orthodox Christianity, which comprises just a little less than half of the population. Kazakhs were converted to Islam only in the early nineteenth century. A predominantly atheistic republic by the end of the twentieth century, Kazakhstan experienced a genuine religious renaissance after the days of its independence.
Kazakhstan possesses rich oil and natural gas reserves (mainly in the Tenghiz region in Western Kazakhstan) and substantial amounts of iron ore, chrome, coal, copper, titanium, and other mineral resources. These are viewed by the leadership of the country as a significant factor in helping the country to emerge from its difficult berthing. Major farm products include wheat, barley, meat, and wool.
Since most ethnic Kazakh nomads moved with their cattle from one place to another, there were few attempts made to develop formal schooling. A rudimentary education was provided in the mektebah schools (four-year elementary schools) for a small number of young boys who studied the Koran. This studying was done in Arabic under the guidance of mullas (priests), most of whom were foreign. A small number of advanced three to four year medrece schools were held at mosques and trained religious ministers and teachers of mektebah schools. Overall, the level of illiteracy among the people was high. According to the 1897 census, a very small part of the population was literate, and most of them lived in the northern parts of Kazakhstan where the mixture of Kazakhs and Russians was the highest. Only one child out of ten attended a school.
The first formal schools providing general education for the indigenous population were sponsored by the Russian mercenaries and settlers. They migrated to this region in search of new lands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The first secular vocational schools were also opened to prepare clerks, translators, teachers, and medical workers for the Russian Protectorate administration. The Russian-Kazakh and Russian-Kyrgyz municipal schools, financed by the government, laid the foundation for the creation of the system of public education. To promote the education of girls, the government opened several Russian-Kazakh women's schools and community colleges. By 1896, the number of girls in these schools reached only 211; however, it was a break from a centuries-old Islamic tradition of keeping Kazakhi girls away from getting an academic education. To pursue higher education, most ethnic Kazakhs usually went to Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, or other Russian cities, since Kazakhstan did not have any colleges or universities.
Although not a separate, national state in the past, Kazakhstan began the construction of its national identity after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The Communist ideological foundations that shaped the USSR were a significant factor in molding the educational, political, social, and economic scene of the republic and the culture of its people.
Kazakhstan inherited many educational legacies from the former Soviet Union. One such legacy was a system of universal compulsory general school education. The Communist ideology of the Soviet Union was driven by the social reconstructionist theory that placed a great importance on education as a means of economic, political, and social transformation. The government set the eradication of illiteracy among both adults and children as its prime goal. In the 1920s, supported by the Soviet government, the Communist Party leadership, filled with the revolutionary enthusiasm of the young people, launched the campaign "Down with illiteracy!" Though the material and the human resources were scarce, by the end of the 1930s Kazakhstan managed to teach most of the population, about 84 percent, the basic literacy skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic at the elementary school level. Education became an important value and an issue for personal and social development for the Kazakhstani people.
Another legacy was the development of a system of higher education and scientific research institutions. Having not a single establishment of higher education in the pre-1917 years, the words "university" and "institute" did not even exist in local languages, Kazakhstan entered its new stage of development in 1991 with the Academy of Sciences. This included several dozen institutions conducting research in a wide range of disciplines such as astronomy, agriculture, biology, ethnography, linguistics, among other areas.
The ideological and moral fabric of education in the Soviet Kazakhstan was yet another inherited legacy. It was deeply rooted in the ideas of collectivism, which is the supremacy of the social good and social prosperity over individualism and personal good. The ideology of the Socialist state broke away from the capitalist values of the pre-1917 Tsarist Russia, and emphasized sameness and uniformity, which suppressed individuality. For more than 70 years the educational system of Kazakhstan, like education in any other Union republic, tried to instill in students the ideas of the collective serving the good of the country and the good of other people, rather than competing with others for wealth and benefits through personal efforts, talents, and ambitions. In a state where everybody was supposed to be like others, school curriculum did not promote pluralism and diversity, and there was no choice for educational institutions.
In its attempts to educate a new, Socialist type of a person, one who was free from exploitation, greed, religion, and ethnic nationalism, the Communist ideology gave priority to educating individuals who rose above, or abandoned, their ethnic values and traditions. Even some ethnic Kazakh Communist leaders sacrificed their ethnic identities, considering them inferior to the identity of a modern socialist person. Neither Kazakh, nor Russian cultures of pre-1917, were represented in their full glory within their national curricula. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Kazakhstani society was still in search of answers as to which historic traditions and values needed to be restored, which Communist ideas to abandon, and which new world values to adopt.
Another inherited legacy was that of a strong emphasis on free high school education for all. For 75 years, the state-owned and government-planned economy excluded any private initiative in education. It accustomed parents and their children to the ideas of free textbooks, to a monthly allowance given to the university students with good grades, to the reduced cost of public transportation to all students, to free access to university facilities, and to many other benefits and privileges. The idea of free education, so deeply embedded in the mentality of Kazakhstani people, was challenged by the new capitalistic developments such as the introduction of private education.
A final legacy was that of a tough military and economic competition with the world's capitalist countries in the twentieth century. The Soviet system of education placed a great emphasis on preparing engineers, scientists, and researchers. As a result, the school curriculum included many subjects related to mathematics and science, and neglected the role of social studies and humanities. Teaching stressed indoctrination and rote memorization of the content materials, rather than the development of critical thinking abilities.
In 1991, Kazakhstan obtained sovereignty. The process of the dissolution of the Soviet Union was abrupt. It happened at an unexpectedly high speed for many people throughout the USSR, especially in multiethnic republics, like Kazakhstan. For the people of Kazakhstan, independence did not come as a result of long struggle. On the contrary, the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, was one of the few leaders of the former Soviet republics who fought for the preservation of some type of a union for the territories of the USSR. However, it did not happen, and Kazakhstan was left completely unprepared for the new role of a nation-state. Kazakhstan faced many adjustments, such as the transitional period from a "command and planned" economy to free-market one; from Communism to Democracy; from the dependence on the decisions made by the central Union government; and the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to independent decision making as a sovereign state. The destruction of the well-established economic ties between all republics of the USSR brought the country many economic, social, educational, political, and ethnic conflicts and challenges. The legal and governmental authorities of the Republic of Kazakhstan faced a problem of establishing a national system of education and a governance that would facilitate the process of nation and state building. The efforts of the Kazakh society have been directed toward reassessing the legacy of the socialist education system and introducing market economy, promoting democracy, developing new types of cooperation with the former Soviet republics within the Commonwealth of Independent States, and searching for new cultural identities. The search for national identity increased the number of educational institutions at which all subjects were taught in Kazakh and other languages.
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