Should Education Focus on Preparing Students for Employment or Broadening their Intellect?

By Pechet Men. Pechet graduated from Chulalongkorn University. He lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

“For those who are less fortunate, especially those who come from less-developed countries, the question of ‘why’ would not be important because their entire life almost exclusively focuses on the question of ‘how.'”

I first heard the above statement while watching an American movie. The premise surprised me, prompting me to reflect on how young people are raised in Cambodian society. The parents of my generation advised us to emulate successful individuals as role models. Instead of motivating us to create opportunities for ourselves, they urged us to study hard so that we could get a well-paying job as an adult. Our education has trained us to be followers or passive citizens rather than leaders. This kind of dynamic hinders potential opportunities for Cambodia’s economic development and democratization.

In order to understand this, we have to reflect upon Cambodian history. Since as far back as recorded history-thousands of years ago-Cambodia has been a kingdom, where loyalty, and obedience are the core values throughout the entire society. Cambodian people have regarded their king as living god. Thus, the king’s words are god’s words and should not be questioned. Until today, even though Cambodia is considered a democratic country, its leaders have thought that they have absolute power over their people. Such traits generally serve an indispensable function in preserving and passing on knowledge within this deep-rooted hierarchical society. Accordingly, to ensure this status quo is protected and facilitate political stability, the educational system in Cambodia has long followed teacher-centered education that is intended to create citizens who represent the hierarchical and patron-client society in which they will serve.

Over a thorough study of this teacher-centered educational system, it shows a prioritization for obtaining information over analysis, memorization over understanding, and a dependence upon the teacher as the sole source of learning. In this regard, Cambodia’s patron-client system is injected inside the classrooms all over the country, and frequently, students are not allowed to express any ideas or cultural values that fall outside of the teacher’s knowledge. As a result, this long practiced educational system has trained students to be passive citizens, who are easy to control.

On the contrary, critical thinking and query oppose the culture of passive acceptance. Students who question themselves and the world around them are generally more inclined to question authority. As equally important, a student who can deconstruct a political argument, objectively analyze a contentious topic, or appreciate a wide range of opinions, values, and cultures is less inclined to passively accept his/her circumstances or stand silent in the presence of injustice or oppression. Therefore, education can be designed to enable obedience or dissent, propaganda or information, and oppression or empowerment.

While education is recognized as a universal component of civilized society, ideally it should include aspects of critical thinking and creativity. Nyerere, who advocates education for self-reliance, sees “education as development.” Likewise, Kofi Annan views education as “a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.” Consequently, education is a precursor to freedom as human beings undergo social development.

In light of the above considerations, I am arguing that the focus of education should be to broaden one’s intellect rather than prepare for employment. Meeting the demands of working for others is relatively easy; it is a greater challenge to create opportunities for oneself. Education should be designed to support this kind of endeavor. In order for Cambodia to develop into a dynamic nation, its citizens should be able to think outside the box, to question authority, and to compete with others in a critical and creative manner on a regional, national and global scale.


Ayers, D.M. 2000, Anatomy of a Crisis: Education, Development, and the State in Cambodia 1953-1998, University of Hawai‘i Press.

Nyerere, J.K. 1979, “The Overall Educational Conception”, pp. 17-55, in Hinzen, H & Hundsdorfer, V.H (ed.), Education for Liberation and Development, UNESCO, Hamburg.

Sen, A. 2004, Development as Freedom, Knopf, New York.

UNICEF 1999, “The State of the World’s Children: Education”, United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, viewed 15 August 2017.

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