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Method madness

"Method madness" Continued...

Issue: "California's wall of fire," Nov. 8, 2003

Those UN agencies have not been advocates of fundamental content reform in Iraqi education. For UNICEF's Iraq representative, Carel de Rooy, pro-democracy education amounted to exchanging one "indoctrination framework" for another. Under the Oil-for-Food program of the 1990s, both UNICEF and UNESCO worked on education in the three Kurdish governorates. While UNESCO helped alter the national curriculum for the autonomous region, it did not amount to debaathification, according to Dr. Mir Asghar Husain of UNESCO. After all, "it was necessary to pass through Baghdad to get to the north," says Dr. Husain, referring to Saddam's influence over the Oil-for-Food bargain.

As for higher education, USAID announced a first round of contracts in September. Like the K-12 contracts to date, the $20 million to $30 million being awarded to American universities partnering with Iraqi institutions of higher learning is intended to fund infrastructure and capacity. Meanwhile, others are wrestling with the role of liberal arts higher education in democratic transition.

"Whenever I talk about the necessity of future leaders knowing something about history or philosophy I get looked at oddly," says John Agresto, the senior American adviser in Iraq for higher education. Mr. Agresto is the former president of St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M., a school that specializes in classical education using a Great Books curriculum.

"I'd like to see the Iraqis learn from their recent sad history and gain an appreciation for the nature of free government, rights, constitutionalism, private enterprise, and the rule of law," he says. In Iraq, "to be modern is to be technological," Mr. Agresto observes of the Iraqi disposition toward the fields of science, technology, and engineering. "These are the prized subjects."

The bias toward science and technical fields is characteristic of totalitarian regimes, contends Walid Phares, a Lebanese Christian and expert in Middle Eastern affairs who teaches politics at Florida Atlantic University. The sciences need "a new cultural direction," he says.

The Western education reformers put high hopes in the restoration of private education in Iraq. "My guess is that, as private schools and colleges re-enter Iraq, the situation will improve," says Mr. Agresto. A fledgling effort at private education in northern Iraq is proving his point. The Classical School of the Medes, which provides classical education from a Christian worldview, last year ran schools in the Kurdish towns of Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, serving 200 Muslim students.

Demand increased when knowledge spread of the educational quality and the positive school environment. In mid-September a third campus opened in Arbil, bringing total enrollment to nearly 450. A fourth campus is anticipated for January 2004.

But the public sector is not advancing as quickly. Reformers generally agree that policy decision making and long-term curriculum reform will take time-at least two years, according to Education Minister Alwan.

Those who define the process now will have considerable influence over policy later, and pro-democracy reformers are concerned that content reforms not end with the cursory debaathification to date. "We have to be extremely careful that we don't just view Saddam Hussein as the problem. It's also the interpretation of what is Iraq, and of the regional history," says Mr. Phares. He warns that if a void remains, Wahhabi and Baathist influences will fill it.

A new Iraq must be a multiethnic, multireligious society, and curriculum should be recreated accordingly, says Mr. Phares. That will not happen overnight, he recognizes, but a curriculum supplement should be added immediately with two major lessons. The first would explain the war in Iraq: that an evil regime was deposed by an international coalition led by the United States, with the intention of restoring self-government to the Iraqi people. The second lesson would begin to define Iraq's identity as a pluralist society with democratic ideals.

With that, concludes Mr. Phares, "we would win the Mother of All Battles, the battle of defining what Iraq is." That is the battle for civil society, and education is its primary front.

Jennifer Marshall
Jennifer Marshall

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