Philosophy Alum Helps Start First Philosophy Master’s Program in Cambodia

Thanks to the work of philosophy alumna, Maria Montello, and the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia now has its first-ever Philosophy Master of Arts program.

Montello pictured with one of her students named Navy.

Montello pictured with one of her students named Navy.

“People say that when you go into this line of work, you can be guaranteed that only one person will change as the result of it—you,” Montello said. “That is certainly true from my own experience. I have learned a great deal about the ‘idea landscape’ having lived within one that’s quite different.”

The Royal University of Phnom Penh’s philosophy master’s program is a two-year thesis track. The program is dedicated to developing philosophical knowledge, critical thinking skills and ethical values in its students through a host of ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, and English language courses.

“The goal is to give students a good background in Eastern and Western traditions,” said Montello. “Essentially we want our graduates to be able to think.”

A country that’s no stranger to conflict, Cambodia has undergone an alarming amount of loss due to what Montello calls “good ideas gone bad or bad ideas period.” The greatest of these was the country’s 1975 through 1979 civil war, which killed nearly a quarter of its population under the Khmer Rouge.

Today, the remnants of a command and control regime persist and leaders are threatened by the idea of an educated, vocal population. As a result, investments in education are not a high priority and Cambodia’s system of higher learning has suffered immensely.

“In working with Cambodian faculty, I have been struck by their mix of pride and disappointment in their country,” she said. “They feel stuck in a quagmire that is their current political and social environment; however, they have hopes to develop Cambodia, which was once a mighty civilization, something like the Roman Empire of the East.”

 Montello says the 12 students in the program’s cohort will be trained to think carefully and deeply. At the end of the program, the students will be equipped with tools to develop good ideas that they might become good people and sustain good communities.

“What is offered through Cambodia’s educational system is information, not tools; facts, not ideas; directives, not invitations,” said Montello. “The students in this first cohort are feeling this. They will get sore on this climb, but they remain positive and understand that the faculty and administration are walking with them.”

Through the Maryknoll Lay Missioner program, Montello works in Cambodia as a member of the master of art’s planning committee, developing its guiding principles, curriculum and policies. She is also one of the program’s professors.

“This program will develop in the students the ability to think critically, ask questions and to be reflective about themselves and others—an ability that is an essential tool for students to learn in order to be intentional about how they want to be in the world and what they want the world to be,” she said.

While Montello admits that the government’s commitment to human rights is superficial and many people’s anger rides just below the surface, she is certain that justice and peace can still live again in the country.

“My thesis at Georgia State was about moral judgment, moral motivation and psychopathy. I looked at the place of emotion and rationality in motivating people to act on their moral judgments,” she said. “The theoretical concepts I defended in my thesis have me believe that teaching critical thinking and ethics to the grandchildren of those traumatized might have some effect on those young people’s motivation to do the right thing. It just might matter.”