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Houses of Wisdom: A New, Old Model for Community Education

Dec 26, 2023 | Education, Guest Author

Shannon Gramse

Earlier this year, my family and I had the honor of piloting an educational and cultural exchange between UAA and ten Houses of Wisdom (Ngôi Nhà Trí Tuệ) in rural Ngheệ Nghe An and Hà Tĩnh provinces in north-central Vietnam. Based in schools, community centers, churches, apartment buildings, and private homes, Houses of Wisdom promote lifelong learning in disadvantaged communities and provide spaces for local people to share knowledge and wisdom across generations.

Houses of Wisdom do so through libraries and classes on a range of subjects including traditional music and dance, agricultural methods, electrical safety, sewing, swimming, cooking, personal finance, and anger management. Many also include small museums about the history of their village, traditional knowledge such as medicinal plants, and local points of pride. English language clubs are especially popular.

Everything is free for everyone of all ages. There are no tests or grades. No one gets paid. The sole motivation is a passion for learning and sharing. More than 120 Houses of Wisdom operate in thirteen provinces across Vietnam, yet its decentralized nonprofit parent organization has an annual budget of just $5,000.

Why can’t we do something like this in Alaska?

A Fishing Pole

The House of Wisdom is the brainchild of Nguyễn Anh Tuấn, a successful Saigon businessman who grew up in Nghệ An province as the eldest son of a disabled war veteran and an elementary teacher. At that time, the province’s per capita annual income was about $130; today it is $1,913, approximately 6 percent of what the average Alaskan earns each year.

Nguyễn worked in the fields as a gleaner, collecting leftover rice and peanuts to supplement his family’s monthly food rations: 1 kilogram of spoiled meat and 15 kilograms of wormy rice his father would procure by standing in line at 3 a.m. in the nearest village, which was five kilometers away and seemed to Nguyễn like a distant city.

Nguyễn still remembers the day his father brought home a book along with their food rations, the first book he ever had. The Tortoise and the Hare became his most prized possession and changed his life. Soon Nguyễn was collecting firewood to sell to earn money for more books. Today, he has investments in five growing companies but spends most of his time promoting the House of Wisdom.

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Nguyễn spoke to me over iced coffee in an elegant open-air restaurant overlooking the Saigon River. Before founding the first House of Wisdom in 2016, in his boyhood home, he donated money to needy families in his home province. “But nothing seemed to change,” he said. “It even got worse. The people didn’t want to learn; they only asked, ‘Where is the money?’”

Nguyễn then told me a Vietnamese version of the old “if you give a person a fish” proverb that is a bit more layered than ours: if you give someone a fish, they eat for a day. Better to give the person a fishing pole, but only if you show them how to use it. Even then, a fishing pole and the necessary knowledge are worthless if the person doesn’t want to fish, so you must encourage them. Finally, successful fishers should “pay it forward,” giving fishing poles, instruction, and inspiration to others so the effect expands and multiplies across the community. This is the philosophy behind the House of Wisdom.

Commitment to Learning

Houses of Wisdom do not replace conventional schools, but they complement them. “We teach everything that is not taught, or not taught enough, in school,” said Nguyễn, “and we do so in an environment that is comfortable and welcoming for everyone.” Schools in Vietnam tend to be strict, teacher-centered, and focused on rote learning, but people can relax in a House of Wisdom, joke around, play the radio and play games, put their feet up on the table.

The House of Wisdom promotes not just the joy of learning but a commitment to learning. A new franchise often begins with a donation of a few hundred books to start the library, but then local people are asked to build bookcases, add to the library themselves, and volunteer to organize and teach classes—classes that the House of Wisdom supports through regular teacher-training opportunities. Nguyễn envisions Houses of Wisdom in all of Vietnam’s poorest communities and, eventually, everywhere, including Alaska. “Lifelong learning is for everyone,” he said.

When my family and I visited, we spoke to packed houses about Alaska, UAA, tips for learning English, and strategies for overcoming our shared colonial past. Audiences ranged from small children to the elderly. It seemed the whole village showed up; people who couldn’t get seats crowded in the back, kids on parents’ shoulders, or peered through windows and doors. Facilities were modest but bristling with positive energy. We were often welcomed with a traditional dance or song and always many, many questions.

Before the French arrived in the 19th century to exploit the people and their resources, education in Vietnam, as in Alaska, was primarily informal, place-based, and experiential. Learning did not depend on grants, technology, exams, or bureaucrats. Villages took care of themselves and their own. For more formal education, most featured a house where boys and men could sit on the floor and learn from local scholars, perhaps similar to the Yup’ik qasgiq or Iñupiaq qargi. In these ways, the House of Wisdom offers a new idea with ancient roots. It is an idea we should reconsider.

Shannon Gramse is an associate professor of writing at UAA.

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