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03 February 2003

Iraqi-born Educators and Scholars Consider Critical Educational Reforms

(Discussions focus on Iraqi education after Saddam Hussein) (1250)
By Phyllis McIntosh
Washington File Special Correspondent 
Washington -- Seventeen Iraqi-born scholars and educators met at the
Department of State January 24-26 to discuss ways to make Iraq's
education system more effective in preparing citizens to succeed in
the democratic society they hope will follow the fall of the Saddam
Hussein regime.
The session was the first meeting of the Education Working Group, one
of over a dozen groups of free Iraqis meeting under the auspices of
the State Department's Future of Iraq Project to consider issues that
will face the post-Saddam Hussein society. Participants in this
education panel included university professors, primary school
teachers, and several young people with recent experience in the Iraqi
education system.
The educators believe strongly that group's mission is not to impose
change on the people of Iraq but rather to support and advise them as
they seek to reform their education system and right the wrongs that
have been done, according to two members of the group, Hind Rassam and
Zainab Al-Suwaij. Rassam is associate chair of the Social Sciences
Division at Mercy College in suburban New York City; Al-Suwaij is
executive director of the American Islamic Congress in Boston and a
former professor of Arabic at Yale University.
Speaking to the Washington File January 29, they explained that the
group's initial discussion focused on curriculum reform, teacher
training, and changes in education policy affecting mainly the primary
and secondary schools. The group pledged to focus on higher education
at subsequent meetings.
In the event of military conflict, participants agreed that all
necessary measures should be taken to re-open schools as soon as
"Having children going to school is important for providing a sense of
stability," said Al-Suwaij. "The immediate need would be to create a
safe learning environment and provide supplies, nutritious meals, and
counseling for children who may have been traumatized by war," Rassam
Quickly raising teachers' salaries and recruiting new teachers from
among the educated Iraqi population also would be vital to successful
functioning of the schools, she added.
Curriculum reform and teacher training are among the most urgent needs
if young Iraqis are to learn to function effectively in an open
society, the group concluded. Key values, such as critical thinking,
democracy, freedom, tolerance, and caring for others will need to be
integrated into the school curriculum.
"Saddam and his regime have practiced a brain embargo," Rassam
observed. "There have been 30 years of dependence on the system.
People don't have to think as long as they obey and don't say much."
Even teachers' meetings and students' extracurricular activities are
centered on Ba'ath party ideology and loyalty to Saddam Hussein, she
said. Under a new system, "we will want to create citizens who are
responsible, think for themselves, and feel tied to the community."
Tolerance was a recurring theme in the discussions. In its mission
statement, the group envisioned an education system that produces a
citizen of Iraq "who has respect for all, irrespective of religion,
ethnicity, or culture."
Under the Saddam Hussein regime, study of cultural heritage has either
disappeared from the classroom or been cast in a negative light,
Rassam said. A revised curriculum would celebrate Iraq's diversity and
reflect the culture and heritage of major ethnic groups, such as the
Kurds, Turkomans, and Assyrians, and various religious groups,
including the Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians.
To right the wrongs that have been done under Saddam, the group
advocated including what Rassam calls "genocide education" in the
school curriculum -- that is, open discussion of the human rights
abuses and war crimes committed by Saddam. "This will assist in the
truth and reconciliation process which will allow the Iraqi people to
grieve for those unjustly killed," the group wrote in a statement. "It
is the hope of the working group that this aspect will help prevent a
repeat of these atrocities."
Building a civil society also requires creating an atmosphere of
openness and inclusiveness within the schools, the group concluded.
That means changing the attitudes of teachers, students, and parents
alike. "Teachers have been isolated for some time and are not aware of
new methods and technology," Al-Suwaij explained. "Basically, they are
teaching the same old curriculum in the same old way." Schools still
operate on a rigid, hierarchical, "teacher-knows-best" system.
Teachers are stern taskmasters, and instruction is primarily by rote
learning with little give and take between students and teachers,
Rassam said. "We will not change teachers' mentality quickly, but in
the short-term perhaps we could offer mini-courses to start a dialogue
that would change some attitudes."
The goal is to create a more open classroom, where students
participate freely and students and teachers respect each other's
rights. Involving families and community leaders in the schools is a
critical step toward revamping Iraq's educational system, the
conferees agreed. Traditionally, parents' roles have been confined to
hiring tutors in preparations for nationwide exams. Rassam explained,
"You do not see parents in the schools, and there are no
parent-teacher conferences." She added that parental involvement has,
of course, been discouraged by the Saddam regime, whose "main mission
in the schools is brainwashing and asking the children to spy on their
As part of educational reform, the group recommended that Iraq adopt
two models that have proved effective and popular in the United States
-- parent teacher associations (PTA's) and local school boards,
composed of community leaders and parents, that would determine
policies for schools in their areas. Such measures would help shift
control of schools from the all-powerful Ministry of Education to the
families and communities that know their children best.
Parents also should be encouraged to volunteer in the schools and
speak to their children's classes about their work and experiences,
the panel advised. Al-Suwaij noted that parents and especially
grandparents could play a critical role during a transition period.
"Many of these Iraqis were raised before Saddam rose to power. As
such, they will be able to assist in the development of 'free'
thinking skills. They were brought up in a time when all Iraqis,
regardless of ethic or religious backgrounds, lived in peace and
tolerance as a way of life."
The group is examining a number of wide-ranging policy changes that
would affect many aspects of the education system. These include
extending compulsory education from the sixth grade to the ninth grade
and providing programs for mentally and physically handicapped
students and those with learning disabilities. Establishing adult
education programs also will be vital to combat the growing problem of
illiteracy, the panel concluded. The illiteracy rate, once quite low
in Iraq, has climbed steadily under Saddam Hussein, said Al-Suwaij.
"Many people, especially men, were failed in school on purpose, so
they would have no choice but to go into the army. Others were forced
to drop out of school to support their families."
Over the long term, the group would like to see the education system
offer students more flexibility and provide advisors to help them make
decisions about college and career. Rassam and Al-Suwaij said there
was a strong sense of optimism, dedication and a genuine desire to
bring about positive change among the members of the Education Working
"Education is the tool with which we can change society," said
(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International
Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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