Reforming Iraqi Higher Education
Monday, August 04, 2003

Reforming Iraqi Higher Education

For those who believe in media conspiracies, it's interesting to note that over the weekend both the Washington Post (link via InstaPundit) and the New York Times had long articles on efforts to reform Iraq's universities.

Both stories go over the myriad difficulties in this process -- primarily physical insecurity and infrastructure damage.

The Post story does a nice job of suggesting that the phrase "multicultural Iraq" will not necessarily be an oxymoron. The key quote:

On campus, though, the new atmosphere of debate and tolerance is already transforming Baghdad University into an oasis. Last week, students from various ethnic and religious groups -- once pitted against each other by Hussein -- chatted easily between exams. Some engaged in vigorous political arguments that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago.

During one exam break, a group of political science students volunteered opinions that ranged from passionately pro-Hussein and anti-American to the extreme opposite. Shiite students shared once-banned CDs of religious sermons. Kurdish students, whose minority group was severely repressed by Hussein, said they felt safe and comfortable on campus for the first time.

"There is a huge difference now, like between the earth and the sky," said Yaser Abdul Majid, 20, a chemistry student, as his classmates issued a chorus of complaints about the U.S. occupation, the crime problem and the dire lack of water and power in the capital. "The difference is that now, none of us will be killed for expressing our opinion."

Meanwhile, the Times story has more detail on curricular reform, suggesting that U.S. authorities are making the right decision by delegating a healthy share of responsibility to the Iraqis:

The next stage of reconstruction will be perhaps the trickier of tasks: depoliticizing the curriculum and reintroducing Iraqi students, scholars and scientists to the broader intellectual community through fellowships, exchanges and conferences. Professors were not able to leave Iraq without signed permission from the minister of higher education. So few did. And they have viewed education as a one-way street in which information is passed onto students, rather than encouraging critical, independent thought and analysis.

The presidents of all the universities, including from Kurdistan in the north, have been meeting weekly. A committee of representatives from each institution has been set up to prepare a plan on addressing the curriculum. Dr. Erdmann hopes to recruit consultants from American organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, though curriculum decisions will be up to the Iraqis. Experts say that's smart policy.

''Everyone agrees on de-Baathification of the curriculum, but if the U.S. intervenes in how Iraqis view America and globalization and Iran, you're going to see a lot of rebelling,'' says Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, who recently returned from Iraq. ''The whole Arab world is afraid the Americans are focusing on education and want to rewrite curriculums in all the Arab states. It's a threat to their culture and their identity, and they see it as heavy-handed and imperialistic. If we just leave the Iraqis to do it themselves, you'll see that anti-American sentiment won't be primary.''

Frankly, the progress described in both articles is extraordinary. As someone who spent a year in Civic Education Project working to rebuild Ukraine's university system after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it sounds like the Iraqis have a much firmer commitment to reform.

Full disclosure: I know Andrew Erdmann, the American administrator featured in both stories, from when we were fellows together at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies. I take no responsiblility for Erdmann's decision to grow a moustache.


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