Iraqi school lessons take a new course

Education: Students and teachers must adapt to a freer method of learning in the wake of Saddam Hussein's fall.

Postwar Iraq

April 30, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - This morning, when students walk past the palm tree outside Al-Nidimiyah High School after an unplanned 40-day break and go into the classroom, the lesson plan in national culture class will be different.

No longer will teacher Ali Abid stand before a portrait of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and glorify him as the latest in a line of great leaders going back to the caliphs who followed the prophet Muhammad.

"We are going to say this is the end of this man," said the 36-year-old Abid, sounding neither sad nor happy about Hussein's fall from power. "We are going to say it looks like he's a dead man."

Taking out of the curriculum the omnipresent material about Hussein is only one of many daunting tasks facing the United States and others who hope to rebuild Iraq's schools. The education system, once a model in the Arab world for its high literacy rate, is a mess. Fully one-quarter of Iraqi children did not attend school before the war, according to a United Nations report.

Physical problems loom, partly the result of a government focused on military spending and partly because of U.N. sanctions. Many school buildings are decrepit, supplies nonexistent. Teachers were being paid as little as $10 a month.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, will be to instill in teachers and students a culture of free thinking. Questioning authority not only was discouraged by Hussein but could have created serious problems.

Students seemed to heed the warnings. In one child's elementary school text, most photos bear the doodles of a bored student, while pictures of the always smiling Hussein were left pristine.

Teachers and administrators had an incentive to prop up the system because they were part of it. Membership in the Baath Party was a near-prerequisite for teachers at the high school level and for students as well, teachers say. The party is now crushed. But what takes its place remains a question mark.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has hired Creative Associates International of Washington, D.C., to begin redesigning the education system before the next school year begins in September. The one-year, $1 million contract calls for the consultant to develop measures of educational progress, and to coordinate the purchase and distribution of classroom supplies.

Potentially more difficult, AID wants to establish what it calls "child-centered, participatory" teaching methods, but this is a culture that has had nothing of the sort. AID's hope is to cultivate democratic attitudes in the schools.

Hussein did his best to quash such ideas. Every Thursday, and daily just before the war, students sang the national anthem as the Iraqi flag was raised. "Yes, yes, for the leader, Saddam Hussein!" they chanted. It was a message reinforced in the class work, sometimes subtly, sometimes not.

A high school English text, for example, tested students' reading comprehension using passages about French scientist Louis Pasteur, first aid and the Baath Party's seizure of power.

The party's rise to power, the passage begins, "is not simply a change of government. It is a genuine social transformation which is backed by the Iraqi people and the masses of the great Arab Nation."

Here is how it ends: "Our victorious revolution, guarded against foreign enemies and supported by the Iraqi people and Arab masses, continues its confident progress toward even greater achievements [in] the way of unity, freedom and socialism."

As reminders of his power, portraits of Hussein hung on the wall of every classroom. At Kuwait Primary School in eastern Baghdad, the portraits were quickly taken down, said Najim al-Lami, the caretaker who lives in a spare classroom with his wife and six children, three of them students there.

The school's 400 students are a few days from returning, al-Lami said, but he reminds 10-year-old Ali, 9-year-old Hussein and 7-year-old Noor to expect positive change.

"I tell them that in the future they will learn a lot of things that are new and good," he said. "You will get something much more useful that what is in these books."

Ali, who wears a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt, had classes in history, geography, Islamic education, math, English, Arabic grammar and science, as well as the Hussein-focused national culture class.

"In every class, they always told us he is a good leader," said Ali. His sister Nagham, 12, graduated from the same school. She went to middle school for three months, but her family could not afford the $3 monthly bus fare.

Lies unchallenged

Shy, wearing her hair in a long braid, Nagham said teachers made no remarks about the 1991 Persian Gulf war that followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But there were lessons on the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the struggle that Iraq began and that ended without a clear victor. "They said Iran started the war, we had the right to fight it, and we won," she said.

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