An educational revolution is taking place in Iraq

Feb 17, 2004 by

Christina Asquith

Christina Asquith

Special Middle-East Correspondent

Dohuk , Iraq -The U.S.’s senior advisor to Iraq ‘s Higher Education Ministry was having dinner with several Iraqi academics the other night when he was interrupted. Not by an explosion or gunfire; but by an increasingly louder sound these days: a political argument.

‘In this country, when you ask someone ‘why?’ they tell you, ‘this is what I believe’,” said Dr. John Agresto, the senior advisor. “You rarely hear a reasoned argument with many points. I think this is going to change.”

From the primary classrooms to the lecture halls, an educational revolution is taking place in Iraq . For the last 30 years, Iraqi students have been intellectually suffocated through “lecture-listen” style of teaching in which students were not allowed to question, discuss and debate. Teachers were not allowed to teach analytical skills because they Baath Party wanted minds that didn’t analyze, but followed-the kind of minds that makes democracy difficult, but torture and terrorism possible.

“We made students sit in the classroom and we told them to write everything down. If they repeated it back to us, we gave them an A,” said President of Dohuk University, Dr. Asmat Kalid, who was also at the dinner party. “This is the most corrupt way to educate. We in the university now are going to change that.”

Signs of an intellectual renaissance are everywhere, starting with Dohuk University , a large public university in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq . They are opening a College of Humanities where students will be required to take classes like Philosophy of Democracy, History of Liberty, Human Rights and-believe it or not– Comparative Religions.

At the secondary school level, 33,000 teachers finished U.S.-led teacher training courses in which they learned teaching methods that encouraged students to participate, debate and challenge the information presented.

On Monday, I caught up with one graduating class at the Al Sharkiya High School for Girls in Baghdad .

Isra Ihsan, a computer teacher at Al Makahassad High School, said students in her class would now be encouraged to question. “In the past, the way was just to explain the lesson, give the homework and go home. This week we learned: Don’t teach in only one way. Use many kinds, maybe a joke or make them ask you a question. Do something to break the routine.”

She added: “Nowadays, we have to understand the student and how they are feeling. This is a very modern way.”

Mr. Taher Muhamed, an English language teacher at the Al Kumait High school, said he used to crush any signs of disobedience.

“In the past, I was severe with some students. If some of the students didn’t pay attention; I beat them. Now I think I don’t have to do that. I can manage them. I have the desire. Tomorrow I will make student groups for the first time.”

Legislation has helped this burgeoning of free thought. In recent months, the US led government here have made several changes: University presidents no longer have to ask permission from the ministry of higher education to leave the country. The hiring and firing of all university administrators and presidents is done by a council of colleagues-not by solely the minister, as in the past. Some of these changes were opposed by Iraqi leaders, and fought for by the US .

For example, shortly after the Iraqi Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Zaied Abdel Razzak Mohammed Aswad, was appointed by the Iraqi Governing Council here, he fired all university presidents who were democratically elected in the summer.

‘We went to his office and we told him: We absolutely forbid this,” said Dr. Agresto.

The Minister was forced to reinstate every one. However, two weeks later he fired the president of Baghdad University and handpicked his own appointee to replace him. This time, Agresto did not interfere because he thought the Governing Council would stop it. Students and professors demonstrated but they were ignored by the Iraqi Governing Council. In the end, the Baghdad University president was not reinstated.

Not interfering “was one of the mistakes of my time here,” Dr. Agresto now concedes.

Since then, Dr. Agresto has pushed the minister to make his new Baghdad University president’s appointment “interim.” Agresto and a council of university presidents drew up a policy for hiring university presidents that includes open nominations and committee review, as is done in the US, (although, Iraq universities don’t have boards of trustees.) He expects it to be codified in the next few months.

These advocates of free thought are constantly being challenged by threats of violence, terrorism and a rise in religious fundamentalist groups– but those on the side of freedom of expression are many more in number and willing to risk their lives too. Most teach by example.

In June, the then-US advisor to Iraq ‘s higher education, Dr. Andrew Erdmann, stood in the blazing 110 degree sun for 2 hours listening as students at Al Mustansiriyah University meekly approached him with their concerns and protests. Afterwards, he told me: I want them to see that they can approach administrators; that we will listen to them. For so long they have been dismissed and told not to challenge authority.

Months later in November, the elected president of Al Mustansiriyah University, Dr. Taher Al Bakka, gave an hour long speech to all staff: “I want full freedom. No one should be scared. Professors may speak their minds without fear from the president or the administration.” This kind of announcement was unprecedented.

The Iraqi teachers also said they are learning from the example being set by Iraqi leadership and their US advisors.

“The biggest surprise this week has been truth,” said Mr. Muhamed, the English high school teacher who had just finished the training course. “Everything the US said was true. They said we would get a 5-day training course, and we got one. They said we’d get a certificate and we got one. We even got the $50 they promised. In the past, you couldn’t believe anything school officials said.”

For more on new teacher training methods taught to Iraqis, click on Christina’s article in the Christian Science Monitor:

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