A more youthful Syria softens


Education: While some topics are still off limits, the nation's college classrooms overflow with students and discussion.

December 21, 2003|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DAMASCUS, Syria - Today's lesson, the professor standing in the cavernous lecture hall at Damascus University reminded his freshman students, was Shakespeare.

Waddah al-Khatib was using a microphone because his students numbered more than 500. The total number actually enrolled in his English poetry class is 4,000. Mostly women sat in front, the majority of them veiled with head scarfs, and the men scattered themselves in back, the curving rows of wooden benches rising high. Jeans were the uniform for nearly everyone. And before discussing Shakespeare the professor earnestly wanted the class to talk about sexual passion.

Students and teachers here can talk freely about almost, but not quite, everything, and Syria is increasingly a country of the young. Nearly 60 percent of the population is under the age of 20, and the beginnings of political change allow them to live with far fewer constraints, in a society that is far less rigid.

"There's a contract that one establishes with such a big group of students at the beginning - that there'll be mutual respect," said Khatib, who earned a doctorate in English literature at the University of Virginia. "You can pretty much talk to them about anything."

The one subject clearly off-limits is President Bashar Assad unless the speaker wants to praise him. "When it comes to the president," said Dr. Hani Mourtada, a pediatrician who is the former head of the university and now minister of higher education, "I think it is normal in many countries that you should not criticize the president personally."

A giant banner hanging in the lecture hall quotes the president about his belief in a special Syrian brand of democracy, "built on our history and intellect and our civilized personality." Hanging on the opposite wall is a banner quoting his formidable father, the late president Hafez el Assad, on joys of student life, an unlikely subject for a ruler who inspired fear and tolerated no dissent.

"If you compare what they can do and say now with what they could do 10 years ago," Mourtada said of the students, "they have 100 times more opportunity to express themselves."

There are also many more students, more than the university system is equipped to educate. Of the roughly 200,000 college students, about 120,000 are at Damascus University. Syria's high schools meanwhile graduate another 120,000 young people a year, nearly 60 percent more than five years ago.

Those who pass the college entrance exam are assigned their fields of studies, to a large extent on the basis of their test scores. Score well, and a young person can study engineering or medicine. Students with lower scores find themselves assigned to the liberal arts.

Thus the outsized number of English majors - 4,000 in this year's freshman class - including a substantial number, according to students and professors both, who are not interested in the subject.

Given those numbers and the cramped lecture halls, the English department doesn't require attendance. Khatib has never seen all of his 4,000 students at any one time. Many of them have yet to attend a lecture and never will, settling for buying transcripts of what he says, tape-recorded, printed and sold by enterprising classmates who omit nothing, including pleas for students to turn off their cell phones.

Super-size enrollments have snowballing effects. Because teachers with 4,000 students can't easily grade 4,000 term papers, government policy calls for exams, with few exceptions, to be multiple choice. Students tested only that way during all of college probably learn differently, and learn less, than those who have to think creatively enough to produce term papers and write essays for their exams. In its methods of teaching English and the other liberal arts, acknowledged Moutarda, the minister of higher education, Syria is "way behind."

The dissatisfaction is shared by officials overseeing attempts at economic reform, worried that Syrians will be poorly prepared for a less regulated society. "The challenge for Syria is education, education, education," said Ghassan al-Rifai, minister of economy and trade. "In our education system there is a fundamental flaw, in my opinion, in both content and the way people are directed."

At the beginning of Khatib's two-hour class, the students were restless, and Khatib tapped on the microphone to stop their chatter. He raised the subject of sexual passion and pleasure early on. He did most of the talking. Everyone was supposed to focus on a single verse by the 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell. The words from Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" were those of a lustful man addressing the woman he impatiently desires. If only they could meet and meet soon, he promises her, they would "Tear our pleasure with rough strife."

Khatib asked what this ripping, tearing pleasure could possibly mean.

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