Sharing lessons with Iraq's educators

Retired Arundel teacher imparts democratic ideas

January 01, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

James "Chip" Adomanis was eating lunch at his hotel in the Iraqi city of Irbil when news broke of toppled dictator Saddam Hussein's capture.

Within moments, the retired Anne Arundel County history teacher heard the sounds of residents firing machine guns into the air and honking their horns as they circled the streets.

As he watched the story unfold on CNN, Adomanis pondered how he might use the news to impart democratic principles to about 60 Iraqi teachers he'd come there to train.

The next day, he asked the teachers, most of them Kurds, what should be done with Hussein, accused of ordering the slaughter of thousands of their people. He was impressed when they said he should be tried in an Iraqi court.

"You are here to teach us democracy, and democracy caught Saddam," one teacher told him.

Hussein's capture and its aftermath highlighted the week and a half Adomanis spent in northern Iraq working for the Center for Civic Education, a nonprofit group that assists teachers in various countries. He arrived home Christmas Eve, inspired by the warm reception he had received and determined to go back to share more lessons.

As Maryland's representative for the federally funded organization, Adomanis spends about three months a year in foreign countries. His friends back home joke that he must be in the CIA because every time he visits a country, war breaks out. But he says he believes he is doing his patriotic duty by espousing free speech and thought on land where U.S. soldiers have spilled their blood.

"A lot of people you know question your sanity, but Americans are dying over there, and if we're going to fight a war, we have got to win the peace as well," Adomanis said.

He has given his retirement years over to the quest, leaving his Arnold home almost every month to go to Croatia, Bosnia and now Iraq. He pays himself about a $3,000 stipend from the $60,000 in federal money he receives annually to pay for expenses such as travel and materials.

Though his wife, three daughters and friends sometimes worry about his trips into war zones, Adomanis dismisses the danger, noting that far more people have been killed in Baltimore this year than in the Iraqi cities he visited.

Adomanis said he felt heartened to watch Iraqi teachers embrace his lessons and celebrate the capture of Hussein.

"The people want us there," he said. "We just have to be willing to stay for four or five years."

Public policy experts say civilians such as Adomanis, who traveled to Iraq alone, could prove an invaluable part of any U.S. success in building a democratic Iraq.

"Our ideas and our social institutions are some of the best things we have going for us," said William Galston, chairman of the Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. "They attract people to us. We need to remember that our effort in Iraq, more than a power transaction, has to do with persuasion."

Adomanis - who taught history at Annapolis and South River high schools for 13 years, and teaches Maryland history at Anne Arundel Community College - said he is careful not to impose American ideas or force teachers from other countries to learn the Bill of Rights. Instead, he helps them set up basic programs for teaching open debate and consensus problem-solving to students who have grown up under a despot.

"The whole basis is, we're looking to develop a decision-making person," he said. "If they don't want my help, they don't have to use it."

Teachers entering Iraq are continuing a long tradition, Galston said, and could look to successes in post-World War II Germany and Japan for inspiration.

"One would have to say that what appeared to be very ambitious goals in those situations ... worked out a lot better than anyone expected," he said.

Adomanis - a 60-year-old Hyattsville native with a doctorate in education from the University of Maryland, College Park - had never been out of the country until 10 years ago, when he and 18 cousins traveled to Lithuania to trace their family roots. There, he saw a country occupied by 15,000 Russian soldiers, who had seized everything of value, down to the brass numbers on street signs.

"People there were really desperate for help, and that got my attention," he said. "It was a life-changing experience."

Adomanis was too old to fight in Vietnam, but it occurred to him that teaching American ideals in former dictatorships might be his way of carrying out a patriotic mission.

Two years later, he made his first international trip on behalf of the Center for Civic Education, a California-based nonprofit group with representatives in all 50 states.

Three years after that, he quit his job with Anne Arundel County public schools to focus on his travels, which took him from Croatia to Bosnia to Indonesia. He learned, he said, that all people, no matter how poor or war-ravaged, are more alike than different. He saw touches of home everywhere, even finding "Maryland fried chicken" on the menu at a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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