Among teachers, liberal values are often juxtaposed to national ones as incompatible. “I accept liberalism to the extent that it corresponds to national values — traditional family, normal marriage,” says Menua, who claims he’s not against different gender identities as long as Armenian values are preserved. According to him, Armenian values have been overshadowed by liberalism. Moreover, he is convinced propagating liberal values is a strategic ploy by the West. Referring to the U.S. Peace Corps volunteers, he expresses that “they have a clear agenda and unfortunately mostly succeed because most of the society is not aware and not ready.” His viewpoint might imply that there are specific norms that Armenians must uphold to shield themselves from any adverse effects of liberalism. It is worth noting that some dialogue participants consistently correlated liberalism, some sense of Westernization, and globalization.
In contrast to most of her colleagues, Anna, a teacher from Gavar, doesn’t find liberalism and national identity as mutually exclusive; instead, she sees one as a basis for the other. “When we get to know ourselves — our rituals and traditions — then maybe we will be more ready to adopt liberal values, to be more moderate,” she says. Nevertheless, once again, the preference for 'moderate' liberal values is emphasized without clearly defining what they are and how they manifest. The views shared by teachers suggest that in their mind, they have certain preconceptions of what Armenian identity or values are, regardless of whether they think those are compatible with liberalism or not.
When it came to the role of liberalism in shaping a democratic society, teachers had different views. First, many of them believed that NGOs specifically should not have an active role in shaping society (NGOs are generally seen as integral to upholding and promoting liberal democratic values). Menua, who mainly expresses contradictory views on liberal democracy, thinks that NGOs are way too engaged and “it’s teachers who should educate”. In contrast, Anahit, a teacher from the Aragatsotn region, who associates democracy with equality and tolerance, believes NGOs can help propagate democratic ideas. According to her, schools are not enough; students should be in a liberal environment to become one. However, the mismatch between these two views is not just about the role of the teacher but rather about civic education generally: what should students be taught? What should they have the opportunity to learn about and explore? By viewing teachers as the only ones who have the right or responsibility to teach about various ideologies, it could be argued that student agency is taken away.
Hrag, a student at the American University of Armenia (AUA), notes that he can see the direct effect of liberalism in his day-to-day life through education, where he enjoys the liberty to select his areas of study. Armine, a teacher, advocates for granting students the right to choose their subjects, believing that it would streamline the educational process. She poses the question, "Shouldn't children have the right to choose?" and highlights the practicality of this approach. “There are groups of boys who always sneak out of math classes. I think they should have freedom of choice; otherwise, why should the teacher have to forcefully bring the kid back to class in the twelfth grade?” she suggests. While Armine’s view gives preference to the freedom of choice and its advantages, she also addresses the potential for reducing teachers' frustrations in the classroom. Interestingly, from a liberal education perspective, granting students the right to abstain from mathematics classes would probably not be encouraged, as mathematics, like many other subjects, is considered a separate form of knowledge, the understanding of which liberates the learner’s mind and allows to have more independent thought.
Generally, it seems that participants in the dialogue exhibit a limited understanding of liberalism and democracy, primarily associating these concepts with individual freedoms, such as the right to vote or make personal choices. However, they mostly refrain from talking about fundamental aspects such as the role and structure of government, the market or foreign affairs. Throughout the conversation, the only distinction among types of liberalism is drawn through the ‘moderate vs extreme’ lens. This approach overlooks the distinctions that exist between different strands of liberalism, like classical liberalism and neoliberalism. Further discussions among students and teachers — perhaps in dialogue with political scientists as well — could potentially foster a more holistic and critical understanding of these concepts.
This article is based on dialogue between history teachers and students within the scope of the “Intergenerational Dialogue” project led by Paradigma Educational Foundation in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. The real names of dialogue participants have been changed to protect their privacy.