U.S. Academic Brings Philosophy 101 to Iraqi Universities

Mar 2, 2004 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

Baghdad-As the American in charge of Iraq’s higher education system, Dr. John Agresto’s primary goal is to promote the liberal arts in a nation long enamored with hard sciences like medicine, chemistry and engineering. He will. As soon as he gets out of this noisy traffic jam.

Christina Asquith

“I would worry about a country that was liberated politically but not intellectually,” Dr. Agresto says, swiveling around from the front seat of his GMC. “For a country to produce leaders it has to be a country where the humanities can grow, where literature of the world is prized, where people can think clearly and write persuasively and understand more than just their specialty. Where people are . . .

His new Iraqi mobile phone rings.

“Hello? Hello? Jim? I’m stuck in a traffic jam. Hello?” The phone cuts.

Dr. Agresto gazes at the hundreds of beaten-up cars belching exhaust into the stagnant desert heat.

“Ay yay yay. These phones. It’s amazing anything gets done. Where was I? . . .If by liberation we mean liberation of the mind, that can’t be done by lecturing, memorizing and repeating. Democracy depends on people thinking for themselves and asking questions.”

A man who has devoted his life to the promotion of liberal arts is facing his biggest challenge ever.

Since September, Dr. Agresto has been the U.S. Senior Advisor to Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education, (a slightly misleading title, as it is Dr. Agresto who calls the shots.) He is the retired president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a small classical liberal arts college best known for its “Great Books” tradition; and the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington DC. In his distinguished career, he has written three books, and scores of articles with titles like “Why Latin? Why Greek?” and “The Strange Usefulness of the Liberal Arts.”

He’s taken his passion to a university community terrorized by assassinations, devastated by a broken economy and simmering over a military occupation that they complain increasingly reminds them of Saddam’s days. They don’t have a whole lot of free time to read, at the moment.

By building up the liberal arts, Dr. Agresto says, he will produce the nation’s next leaders. A belief he risks his life for. Although his superiors say he must travel with a flak jacket and armed convoy, Dr. Agresto prefers to go out simply dressed, in a common car, and hope he passes for a regular Iraqi.

Dr. Agresto’s predecessor, a 36-year old Harvard PhD from the State Department, Andrew Erdmann, did much of the physical ground work.

Dr. Erdmann hired contractors to fix looted buildings, made bank runs in armored Humvees and fired professors who were high-ranking members of the Baath Party, all in the first post-war months without phones, email or air conditioning. Shortly before Dr. Agresto’s arrival, a 22-year old U.S. soldier was shot at Baghdad University campus, while accompanying Dr. Erdmann.

Dr. Agresto’s arrival in September marked Phase Two of the rebuilding– the intellectual renaissance. While he still oversees reconstruction and does an occasional bank run, Dr. Agresto’s main attention nowadays goes to creating humanities programs, setting up conferences and exchange programs, and ensuring universities become autonomous and democratic-essentially he’s trying to connect the long-repressed Iraqi academic society with the rest of the world.

“The academic community knows they’re leagues behind everyone else,” Dr. Agresto says. “They want to catch up desperately. And they don’t want what’s happening today, they want what’s happening tomorrow.”

“I tell you,” he adds. “This is going to be the most progressive, exciting, interesting academic place going.”

On this late February day, Dr. Agresto is meeting with the president of the University of Technology, Dr. Ail Al Rafaie. After looting gutted the campuses, Dr. Erdmann gave the University of Technology $275,000 to rebuild and Dr. Agresto’s visit is intended to promote good relations and show off the campuses’ new internet center and book fair to a reporter.

Dr. Agresto, a stocky, Brooklyn-born self-made man in his late 50s, is as intellectual as he is energetic. At the university, Dr. Agresto greets the president with a huge laugh and the customary Arabic hug and a three kisses on the cheeks.

“My friend. My friend,” Dr. Al Rafaie booms. “I do not like him. I love him.”

They sit down to chat. Dr. Agresto lights his pipe, and Dr. Al Rafaie keeps a steady stream of Arabic tea, sweets and Turkish coffee coming.

Dr. Al Rafaie talks about his June trip to the United Nations in New York City, and the introduction of distance learning at the university and how all the university presidents are open minded and have “a new mentality” since Saddam’s overthrow.

Conscious of the presence of a reporter, Dr. Agresto brings up the recent influx of books to the university. But just as media savvy is Dr. Al Rafaie, a demanding, effusive president who rarely misses an opportunity to get something for his university.

“Books, books, we have plenty of books from our Iraqi professors in Britain,” says Dr. Al Rafaie. “If we build our internet, we will have access to journals and everything. We need the development of our educational system.”

Along those lines, Dr. Al Rafaie asks why there haven’t been more conferences, more exchange programs, more visiting professors; he wants foreign universities to “adopt” Iraqi universities and act as supervisors on PhDs, and more partnerships.

Dr. Agresto relights his pipe. “But you’re seeing this now,” he says.

“But we have lost ten months!”

Dr. Agresto looks crestfallen.

Back in the “Green Zone” the nickname for Saddam’s palace where the U.S. is headquartered, Dr. Agresto has a staff of 11 working on higher education issues, including several Iraqi professors who double as translators. Much of the staffers’ energy has been devoted to finance and budgetary issues, while others are working on getting the Ministry’s software and technology up and running. Two staffers work on exchange programs.

On Dr. Agresto’s watch, two dozen partnerships have been set up with US universities, nearly 30 Iraqi students have headed to the US on Fulbright scholarships, and more recently, US Congress approved $8 million in funding for science supplies for Iraqi universities.

One soldier works in the office, acts as the army liaison, arranging helicopters to transport Dr. Agresto between the farthest of Iraq’s 22 universities, and helping to smooth over occasional flare ups between the military and students.

Dr. Al Rafaie moves through a few other subjects, landing on one that makes Dr. Agresto cringe-the minister of higher education, Dr. Zaied Abdel Razzak Mohammed Aswad. He was appointed by Iraq’s Governing Council in late August, and is a member of a highly conservative Islamic Party. Most university professors and presidents complain that the position weds universities too tightly to the government, and that the minister has fired popularly elected presidents to appoint his own people. Professors have repeatedly cried to abolish the position of Minister of Higher Education.

“He (The minister) doesn’t believe in the autonomy of the university,” says Dr. Al Rafaie. “If we had a meeting now, and we decide on things the minister doesn’t like, he’ll send us a letter and he has the power.”

Like most academics, Dr. Al Rafaie wants to repeal Saddam’s 1988 law that gave authority over all higher education issues to the minister. Dr. Al Rafaie wants a law that says the authority over universities goes to the council of democratically elected university presidents that was formed during the summer. Dr. Agresto promises his office will do this before they leave in June.

“I’m completely on your side,” he tells Dr. Al Rafaie. “We hope to see this happen by mid March.”

Dr. Agresto received his undergraduate degree in Political Science at Boston College, class of 1967, and his PhD at Cornell University in Government in 1974. After retiring from his 11-year reign as president of St. John’s College in 2000, he started his own consulting company specializing in curriculum renewal in the liberal arts. Currently, he is a senior research fellow in the liberal arts, Wabash College, in Indiana.

Back in the Green Zone, Dr. Agresto heads down a dirt road to a trailer, which he will share with three other employees of the U.S.-led coalition government here until June 30th.

In one of his final acts, Dr. Agresto hopes to loosen the admissions requirements at Iraq universities, so that students can enter college and study a variety of subjects before determining a career path.

“This is a country with a lot of unhappy doctors,” he said. “Through a liberal education they may find they have a capacity in music or art or literature or ask more philosophical questions in their discipline. I’m not sure what good it is to free a country without freeing their mind.”

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