The Teacher in old Vietnam
By Do Thi Nga

On April 16, 1985, Therese K. Dozier, in a solemn ceremony at the White House, received her Teacher of the Year award from the President of the United States. It happened that this outstanding teacher was a half-blooded Vietnamese. The Vietnamese community took pride of the distinctive honor and most Vietnamese magazines in the area have run the news on their front page.

It was no surprise to those people who were aware of the long tradition in Vietnam where the Teacher was only second to the King in the social hierarchy, and thus, placed above the Father. This hierarchy, like many other aspects of the social organization, has been inherited from the Chinese, as a result of a lengthy domination. In our old society, that is before French colonization, Vietnamese culture was deeply influenced by the Chinese culture, to the point that we did not have our own writing characters. Students learned from books written by Chinese philosophers. Their mind and behavior were shaped after the teachings of these masters.

The Teacher in old Vietnam exerted a large authority upon his students, who usually lived in his house. Because of this way of life, the student was good at everything to the teacher's family; he was a housekeeper, a messenger, a servant, ... a baby sitter before became a true and trustful disciple. this system of education, somewhat similar to the tutorial method of our present time, was widely used, due to lack of public schools.


The Teacher demanded that the students put blind faith in his teachings. He did not bear that they refute his words, if someone tried to think for himself, he would be severely punished, having to wear light clothes in the winter or to eat coarse vegetable soup or meals. It was not unusual that corporal sanctions were inflicted on recalcitrant students.

But, not all teachers reined such strict discipline. The wise ones won respect by mystification. They did not want to make them into phonograph records. Instead, they recognized their errors and frankly praised their students when they were right.

However, formal or informal, authoritative or not, our teachers of the old time, known as "Thay Co", did not aim at forming a generation of researchers, scientists. Their objective was to make their students into government officials, mandarins, or even rulers. To this end, the student should become a morally complete man, possessing wisdom, bravery, well versed in courtesy and poise, able to govern himself, his family, before getting to govern others (tu tha^n, te^` gia, tri. quo^'c, bi`nh thie^n ha.). He had to behave like a "qua^n tu+?", a gentleman, if we can say so, with all qualities such as: humanity, good relationship, ritual, knowledge and loyalty (nha^n, nghia~, le^~, tri', ti'n).

With the coming of the French colonialists, the Teacher in Vietnam had lost much of his authority and prestige. Still, he was well respected by his students. The impact of Western civilization opened large horizons to his knowledge. He was no more a passive slave of the archaic Chinese concepts about education. Trained in foreign countries, mainly in France, he became the new guide on the "learning journey", assuming new responsibilities in setting the goal, establishing the limits of the trip and determining the way to be taken.



To perform his duties, the Teacher was allowed to practice corporal sanctions, to the extent that they would not cause serious injuries to the students. Unruly students could be subject to a variety of bodily punishments ranging from battling with rattan stick to kneeling on the floor, through more lenient penalties like pinching the ear-lobes until they nearly bleed or hitting the joined finger-tips with a ruler.

Such treatment is completely banned in western countries, especially in the United States where students are well protected in every point of view. At his first contact with the American students, the oriental teacher might have been shocked and offended by their apparently impolite attitude: no salute at all when they come across their teacher, or if there is a salutation, it is with a single, shot "Hey", instead of the traditional hand-clasping with a bow and respectful greeting words, and with hat off.

We must admit that although corporal punishments may seem cruel in some cases, they brought good results in bringing the disturbers into discipline. And few were the teachers who were to resort to these extreme measures.

On the contrary, students who were successful in life, were deeply grateful to their teachers who have devoted their time and efforts to contributing to their success.

Teaching is a hard and extremely complex mission, so complex that one cannot see it in complete fullness. Whatever its true nature, teaching remains a noble career, and the teacher, a respectable instructor, at the same time, a counselor, a model, a confidant and a friend.