Iraq Attempts to Reform Higher Education, Post-Saddam

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:15pm EDT

( - A liberal arts education, the norm for millions of American college and university students, is now available to young Iraqis as well, according to a top American advisor helping to convert an educational system that was "starved under Saddam" Hussein.

John Agresto, the Coalition Provisional Authority's senior advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education, told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute this week that he was encouraged by the progress made so far in rebuilding and strengthening the system.

"They used to have the strongest [educational] system in the Middle East," Agresto said. But private institutions crumbled under Saddam's rule, giving way to "highly specialized institutions."

Students at these specialized institutions were short-changed on history, philosophy and comparative religion courses, Agresto said. Quotas also existed to keep women out of more respected areas of higher education. No more than 40 percent of students could be women. That quota system has been eliminated, according to Agresto.

"Despite the fear of religious and political coercion ... you find incredible openness, dialogue and intellectual inquiry," in the post-Saddam Iraq, he added, where professors are looking to catch up on the last 35 years that they missed during the rule of the former dictator.

Enrollment for first year students at colleges and universities in Iraq rose from 60,000 in the last year of Saddam's regime to 90,000 in the 2003-2004 year, Agresto said. The struggle with rebuilding the higher education system in Iraq centered on overcoming the "tyrannical culture of hesitation" and the "socialist culture of entitlement," he added.

The culture of entitlement created a distinct hierarchy of professions, Agresto explained, with science, medicine and engineering at the top. Students were forced into certain fields based on their intelligence and were not permitted to explore other subjects.

The Coalition's goal was to overcome the "incredible love for specialization" and show that, especially in the leadership, the lack of broad study was a problem, he added.

Another challenge for the Coalition Provisional Authority was repairing the damage caused during the war's aftermath. "Iraqis looted their own universities," Agresto said. "They must have room for over 5,000 books in the [Tikrit] law school," he said, but most of the books were stolen. "My best count was there were 80 books," when Coalition officials arrived, he said.

Iraqis are slowly rebuilding the collections with the help of donors from around the world. Some American institutions, like Duke University, have donated portions of their own libraries to Iraqi universities.

Ahmed al-Rahim, a teacher of Arabic language and literature at Harvard University, said he tried to organize members from several different academic departments at Harvard to help the Iraqis rebuild their educational system. However, al-Rahim found resistance, especially from individuals in the Middle Eastern studies department, because of their hatred for the Bush administration.

Al-Rahim said the civics curriculum in Iraq was in need of revamping. The old curriculum was based on religious teachings, but younger people in charge of developing new standards are excited about exploring more than just a history of faith, he said.

Among the steps that teachers took to transition their students to a new educational system was to encourage them to tear out pictures of Saddam Hussein from their textbooks, al-Rahim said.

But he noted that such a transition, from a curriculum saturated with pro-Saddam and Baath Party materials to a balanced area of study, should happen slowly so that students can be completely aware of what is happening.

Eleana Gordon, vice president of communications and democracy programs at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, emphasized the need for Iraqis to be educated about all aspects of democracy. "They know democracy has to do with freedom and rights and electing leaders," she said, "but they are missing critical concepts like separation of powers, checks and balances, individual liberty, minority rights and free markets."

The same problems that plague the reconstruction of the higher education system in Iraq -- cultures of hesitation and entitlement and the fear of strong authority -- are evident in the overall rebuilding of the nation, Agresto said.

"Tyranny is natural. Democracy must be built," he said, adding that Americans believe the establishment of democracy is easy because of their national history. "It's hard to establish democracy without security," Agresto cautioned. In fact, he said, security concerns remain a major impediment in Iraqi reconstruction, currently discouraging international professors from visiting Iraqi universities to help in the rebuilding.

Visit the Coalition Provisional Authority's Higher Education website

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