The current security crisis has increased the ethnosectarian tensions within Iraq. Public discourse and news reports are full of remarks about the “war” between Sunnis and Shiites and the tensions between Arabs and Kurds. One possible way to overcome these divisions is through Iraq’s education system. Many both inside and out of Iraq have talked about the need to reform Iraq’s schools. The textbooks and curriculum are out of date, there are questions about the skills that are taught, etc. Not only that but a reformed curriculum can show the shared experiences of all Iraqis, and provide a basis for national reconciliation. To discuss how the country’s schools should be changed is Christine van den Toorn who taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaymaniya (AUIS) 2009-2013. She now runs The Primary Source (), a research services and consulting company, with her former students. She can be followed on Twitter .
Reforming Iraq's school could not only provide a better education but a sense of shared identity and struggle amongst Iraqis argues Christine Van Den Toorn (Al Shorfa)
1. The Iraqi government and international organizations have pointed out that Iraq’s curriculum needs to be overhauled. What do many Iraqi children learn today, what is missing, and what needs to be done about it?
In terms of curriculum, the "what" students are learning, I can speak mainly about the Iraqi history textbooks now being used in schools. There are two main issues: one is that there is a great deal missing, and the other is how texts present the history that is included.
The modern history textbook is framed as a story of repression and victimhood, moving from the "Turkish occupation" to the "British occupation." While most historians can agree that outside powers played a role in the fate of Iraq and the greater Middle East, local agency should not be ignored, especially in teaching history locally. Neither period is evaluated comprehensively, and important parts of Iraq's history – social and political movements of the monarchy, and an analysis of various economic and agricultural “reform” projects, for example – are left out.
Most problematic is that history stops in 1963 in Iraqi textbooks with the first, albeit unsuccessful in the long term, Baathist coup that ousted the first leader of the Iraqi republic, Abd al Karim Qassim. Missing is the rule of the 'Arif brothers from 1963 to 1968, the second, and this time successful, Baathist coup which installed Hassan al Bakr as leader of Iraq until 1979 when Saddam Hussein officially took over as head of the Revolutionary Command Council. There is nothing on the Iran-Iraq War, the 1991 invasion of Kuwait and subsequent sanctions in the 1990s.
This means that students do not learn about shared suffering of all Iraqis – Sunni, Shi'i, Arab, Kurd, Yezidi, Christian – under Saddam's regime. Suspicions, hatred and mistrust based on misinformation, stereotypes and assumptions go uncorrected.
For example, during Saddam's regime, students in Iraq proper were told that the Kurds were trying to destroy the state and were a backward people inferior to Arabs. They were shielded from much of the realities of Arabization, the Anfal campaign and the continuous violent repression against the Kurdish people. A historically accurate treatment of these atrocities remains missing from Iraqi public school textbooks.
Likewise, some Kurds are left to think that there was general support for the Saddam Hussein regime and the Baath party outside of the Kurdish areas. "He couldn't have stayed in power without their support" claim many Kurds, "their" referring to Arabs, as they don't know or will not acknowledge that "support" was, while still condemnable, in some cases nothing more than signing a sheet of paper to save the lives of family members. Nor was "support" for Saddam's regime limited to the "Arabs." In addition, some Kurdish youth are not aware of the brutal suppression of the 1991 uprising in the south, events that mirror their own history. They do not learn of the fear, paranoia, and torture pervasive in Iraq, again, consistent with their own experience.
Last, Iraqi Arabs themselves do not learn about important issues like the brutality of Saddam's regime; the time when Sunni and Shi'i was not a defining, antagonistic identity; or the suffering under sanctions and the Iran Iraq War. Considering the current political environment, many assume that all Sunnis were pro-Saddam Baathists and that they were Saddam's only loyalists, which supports the current sectarian narrative of Iraq and Iraqi history, denying that reality that there were many Shi'i in power and that power was based on blind loyalty and submission not just sect.
It is important that various ethno-sectarian groups of Iraqis understand and acknowledge each other's history to improve relations, to understand they have something in common in the past other than enmity.
The Baath Party and Saddam Hussein's regime need to be carefully examined, so youth understand how they were able to stay in power, and exactly how destructive the regimes were to Iraq's economy, society and politics.
The humanities curriculum in Iraqi high schools and universities should be overhauled to include more comprehensive courses in Iraqi, Middle East and World history as well as in political science, international relations, government and philosophy.
2. What kinds of skills do Iraqis learn in primary and high school, and does that prepare them for going on to college?
Just like important lessons in history, also missing from the curriculum is development of academic skills. Most students enter (and even leave) university without having read multiple texts, written original essays or conducted research. So it’s not just what is being taught in Iraq that is a problem, but how it is taught. Here are a few examples:
When I ask my students whether they had to write anything, or turn in essays in high-school, most say no. Those who respond yes say they just found a piece on the internet on the subject at hand – usually on Wikipedia – "copy pasted" it onto a word document, printed it out and handed it in. "All you have to do is find it and sometimes read it," they say.
Nor are they required to read different books, academic articles, and primary sources – which are always a source of much wonder and amazement (and pain) in history classes at AUIS. Readings in classes are limited to the assigned textbook, and a few questions at the end of each chapter that rarely get to the heart of the historical matter – the causes and effects.
On tests, instead of having short answers and essays requiring students to understand the how and why, students are required to simply memorize and regurgitate as accurately as possible handouts from the teacher or professor. To prepare, they simply copy the text over and over, saying it out loud and in their heads.
Another huge gap is with research. None of my students had ever conducted actual research and really understood what "research" meant. They would use random online sites including Wikipedia for citations, hearsay and generalities. Most did not understand what constituted "evidence" for an "argument" or "thesis." For example, a student might write that the Ottoman Empire was unjust because "the people were treated unfairly" and "there was discrimination." These lines would be quoted from texts and presented as evidence, when they needed examples of that discrimination from academic texts. A bigger issue was providing analysis to link that evidence to the thesis statement.
Research assignments teach students that different people, like academics, have different perspectives. They also teach important history lessons. One of the most popular research topics over the years was "How did the Baath party stay in power?" This required students to read texts and primary sources on the party and its strategies, learning that it wasn't because of love and blind support the Baath stayed in power but usually fear, intimidation, violence, propaganda and indoctrination. The second most selected topic was "What were the main causes of the Iran Iraq War?" Students would all say at the start, "that's easy it was between the Sunni and Shi'i." I would ask, OK what is your evidence and the would say, "Because Sunni and Shi'i have always hated each other and are always fighting." While sectarian identity plays a role here, only after research did students realize that there is more to the story, like the regional power struggle between Iran and Iraq (Saddam and Khomenei after the ‘79 revolution) and access to, control of the Shatt al Arab.
Last, pedagogy is outdated, and teachers and professors hold lecture-based classes with little room for discussion, debate and analysis – for students to share opinions (to analyze texts) and learn to respond to perspectives different than their own.
I want to emphasize here that my point here is not that Iraqi students do not have the ability do these things, it’s that they haven’t been taught. These skills do not come naturally, rather they must be taught starting at the elementary and secondary level. At AUIS students learn pick them up – analysis in reading and discussions, writing and research – after a year or two of courses that emphasize them. But they really need to start earlier, and these skills are not used in any sort of widespread manner in public schools and universities.
I also want to note that there are of course exceptions to the above statements – no doubt there are wonderful instructors, researchers, professors around Iraq that are teaching their subjects and academic skills. My guess though is that they are the exception rather than the rule at this point.
Fixing this will take nothing less than a total overhaul of curriculum and pedagogy, involving rewriting textbooks and intensive teacher and administrator training in academic skill building to ensure implementation. There must be oversight, accountability and benchmarks.
3. When do you think these problems with Iraq’s school started?
[It is] important to keep in mind is that the decline of the education system did not start in 2003, rather it began over thirty years ago during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and then took a serious dip during sanctions in the 1990s when little to no academic research and texts were coming into Iraq. Harith Hassan, a DC based Iraqi academic who taught political science at Baghdad University in the late 90s and early 2000s, mentioned to me once that textbooks he was using were from the 70s. So while during the 1970s, despite the politicization under the Baath, and earlier there was major educational reform, by 2003 most of those initiatives were outdated to say the least.
On top of the out of date materials, there is also a huge lack of human resources. Hundreds of teachers and professors were killed, have quit their work or have left Iraq over the past eleven years due to threats, attacks and assassinations. This was not the first exodus though, before 2003 intellectuals who did not bow to or join the Baath Party were targeted and sent into "early retirement" or to prison. Many escaped and still live in exile.
4. Has the Education and Higher Education Ministries done anything to fix the textbooks, etc. in the country?
As far as I know, there was a curriculum committee in the early years after the invasion, and due to an inability to agree on how to teach about the Baathist era and Saddam, they left it out of books. This seems fairly reasonable considering the inability of Iraqi politicians to agree on just about anything today.
There have been initiatives over the years to reform curriculum but here implementation is a real problem. For example Dr. Alaa Maaki, an advocate for education reform in Iraq who has been both chair and vice-chair of the education committee in the Iraqi Parliament (he was a member of the Iraq Islamic Party and is now a close ally of Ayad Allawi's party, and was number 2 on the Wataniya list in recent elections) partnered with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) to design a civic and human rights curriculum for public schools. They also trained teachers and administrators around Iraq. However the curriculum – which took over a year to design – has yet to be implemented in the Iraqi education system.
So it's not only agreeing on a curriculum, but also the actual implementation that is a serious issues facing education reform.
The Kurdistan Regional Government has in fact overhauled education. But the reports of the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Higher Education do not reflect the reality of the situation. It is true that education reform takes time so we cannot expect things to be perfect now. Education was severely lacking in the Kurdistan Region in the 1980s and 90s, many Kurds did not attend school due to war and displacement. That said the way the Kurds are reforming the education should be improved and revised. A new European style curriculum is used, and thousands of teachers have been hired. But it is near to impossible to think that there has been time to properly train these teachers in progressive pedagogy and basics of instruction. The rule seems to be quantity over quality. For example, they have new English lesson books, like in Iraq proper, but very few teachers here are actually know English well enough to teach the subject. While many schools have been built and renovated, hundreds of others lie in a total state of disrepair.
5. What is the overall state of Iraq’s higher education? Are the universities any better than the primary and high schools and are there enough of them to meet Iraq’s needs?
I'd say the higher education is worse off than the secondary and primary schools due to a the exodus of professors over the decades, and lack of research. Evidence for this is also that the Iraqi scholarship programs sending students to the U.S. are only for graduate school, and with the explicit purpose of filling the gap in university professors.
University students prepare for exams by memorizing their professors’ handouts or texts, copying them over time after time and repeating them over and over in their heads. I have rarely, if ever, heard of students writing research papers even at the university level.
Another issue now is corruption in the system regarding awarding degrees. Ministry of Higher Education officials and students report that degrees - BA, MA and PhD - can be bought or awarded through fear and intimidation. These degrees are in high demand because Iraqi law requires that ministers and high-level officials hold them, and the men and women seeking these positions do not have. The government has also created a remedial test for those who did not graduate high-school, or do not pass their exams to take, essentially further dumbing down the system. There is widespread cheating at all levels of education, which is seen as "helping friends."
6. You’ve written that Iraq’s universities represent both Iraq’s divisions and a hope for a better future. At the American University of Iraq, Sulaymaniya (AUIS) what kinds of splits did you see within the student body?
The ethno-sectarian divisions that exist in Iraq exist at AUIS. In general Kurds hang out with Kurds and Arabs with Arabs. Sunni students hang out in the same groups, as do Shi'i.
Among Arabs and Kurds there is a "we don't like because they don't like us" attitude. Students from Baghdad and other areas in Iraq proper say that the Kurds do not welcome them, exclude them and don't want them there. To an extent they are right - some, though not all, Kurds still associate Arabs with Saddam and the Baath Party and would rather if Arabs were not living the Kurdistan Region or at the very least do not want to befriend them. Kurds, on the other hand, say the Arab students think they are better than them, and look down on Kurdish students. What is at the root of this is hard to determine; it's like figuring out which came first, the chicken or the egg.
The Iraqi Arab students are also mostly divided between Sunni and Shi'i. Not only have they grown up in an Iraq of heightened sectarian identity, but most of them hail from elite families. The division between them reflects the animosity and divides between Iraq's political parties, not really pure sectarianism.
This plays out in ways on campus - on the anniversary of the day Baghdad fell, for example, Sunni students dressed in black and Shi'i students from Najaf handed out candy. Kurdish students were also upset because they claimed the black outfits were for mourning Saddam's fall, and therefore showing respect for the past dictator. There were words exchanged in person and on Facebook, but no fighting. The various reactions to this day show the competing narratives of Baath Party rule and Iraq since its fall. Students must have an opportunity to study and discuss the past, including the years since to invasion, to try to reconcile some of the massive divide and differences of their experiences.
Some of these divisions are understandable considering the violent history Kurds under the Saddam regime, and the past ten years of conflict between sectarian groups in Iraq. And one can argue that with time things will improve - but it's not just time but also education and stable spaces and shared experiences.
There are also practical divisions like language. After 1991, Arabic instruction stopped in the Kurdistan Region, and Kurdish is not taught in Iraqi schools. Even though at AUIS both Kurds and Arabs speak English, they prefer to speak in their own language outside of class. Some Kurds still associate Arabic with the Saddam regime, though most young people are starting to see it as a tool for advancement as many companies require some Arabic language skills. Similarly, many students from Baghdad learn Kurdish, to get by in town, to show respect for the local culture and because many international oil companies in the KRG require Kurdish.
Then there divides that you might find everywhere in the world: rural vs. urban (grew up in a village vs. in Sulaimani), liberal vs. conservative, and wealthy vs. poor. I always called the students from Ranya a “posse” because they were rarely apart, and there are Sulaimani cliques.
7. On the positive side in what ways do you think a rigorous and challenging college education can transform Iraqi society?
Education is key to rebuilding Iraqi society in many different ways.
First, in terms of reconciliation, at AUIS there are many exceptions to the ethno-sectarian divides mentioned in the last question. This is because the University provides a stable environment where students share a language (English) and engage not only in academics but also extracurricular activities.
In Middle East History classes, for example looking at the shared suffering and struggle against Saddam’s regime can bridge gaps between Iraqi Kurdish and Arab students. In Debate Society, students learn to use evidence and form convincing arguments and refutations. The pain and suffering of the engineering major has bridged ethnic divides, “we don’t care about that stuff anymore...we are too busy” said one Kurdish student who “didn’t want to be friends with Arabs” only a couple of years ago.
While in the dorms students usually share rooms with people from their hometown or ethno-sectarian group, there are exceptions. A Kurdish, Turkmen girl from Erbil lives with her best friend, an Arab from Baghdad. A Yezidi student from Sinjar has become good friends with his roommates from Diyala and Anbar. A student from Bashiqa, near Mosul, also Yezidi, went to visit his close friend in Najaf who hails from one of the most prominent religious families there a couple years back. Students from Baghdad go on weekend trips with the friends and classmates in Ranya, and vice versa. There are also several students from Baghdad whose friends cross all the divides – Sunni, Shi’i and Kurdish. Students with Sunni and Shi'i parents, and Kurds who grew up in Baghdad also hang out in mixed groups. One student from Ranya who considers Arabs the same as Kurds, and calls them his brothers, and wrote a letter of tolerance and compassion during one period of ethnic tension at the school when it was proposed to remove the "S" – for Sulaimani, the Kurdish city where the University is located – from the name, leaving on “Iraq.” The women’s basketball and soccer teams have players from all over the Kurdistan Region and Iraq, and Kurds, Arabs (Sunni and Shi’i) and Christians form friendships through their experiences as teammates.
While not all become close friends, important is that they can study and work together after a couple years, and that most at the very least move beyond past suspicions, mistrust, and hatred.
There are also lessons to be learned beyond ethno-sectarian reconciliation. We all hear people talking about the importance of justice, institutions and power sharing to rebuild Iraq. But I’d say you need people, educated Iraqis, to implement and build these programs and institutions.
For example, in the post invasion years, many say that a main problem is that political personalities and parties are unable to power share (though this has really been a problem of Iraqi politics for decades). Parties in power and the opposition won’t compromise – it is all or nothing, right or wrong – nor do they negotiate, look for moderate reforms.
While some of this discord has to do with the personal political history of these particular players, some might at the very least be prevented in future generations by teaching history and politics as well as the academic skills mentioned above which enable them to negotiate, compromise and debate. In conversations I’ve had with students at AUIS, all will mention that AUIS not only taught them things about history and politics they did not know, but also how to think, analyze and consider different perspectives.
One example regarding current perception of Saddam and dictatorship I think shows why history and political science courses and academic skill-building are so important: It is all too common to hear – especially from those who have grown up in extremely violent, sectarian areas – express support or nostalgia for Saddam Hussein era or the security of pre-2003 Iraq. They see dictatorship as stable and secure, and democracy as ineffective, unstable and violent. So they think the chaos they see today is democracy. A lack of knowledge about the realities of the Saddam regime and a lack of courses in government and political science deny them the ability to fully understand and evaluate different types of government and political transitions. While there was no Al Qaeda under Saddam, one could argue that he terrorized his own people, and that no one was really "safe" under his regime, loyal family and friends were also executed. The more years that pass, the fewer young people will have memory of his rule.
8. Can foreign exchange programs for Iraqi college students help with the process of reform and do many such opportunities exist today?
Graduates of exchange programs also can make important contributions to education and political, societal reform in Iraq. While there are several Iraqi and U.S. government exchange program, we need to be more to make a real impact.
The Iraqi government and the KRG have three scholarship programs that send students to the U.S. for graduate school, with the goal of filling the major gap among university professors: one from each Ministry of Higher Education (Erbil and Baghdad) and then the third run out of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s office, the “Higher Committee for Educational Development” or HCED, also known as “Maliki’s scholarship.” However it was founded and is actually run by Iraqi-American academic Zuhair al Jezairy. There are no programs currently for undergraduates.
The HCED is by far the most legitimate and successful of all three, because of its merit based application system and strong academic and English preparation program. The ministry programs, on the other hand, are in need of serious reform and oversight as they are unfortunately plagued with corruption, selecting students based on wasta rather than on merit, which means that many students who are sent abroad do not succeed in their studies.
There have not been enough graduates of these MA and PhD programs in the US to yet evaluate their impact – but these students will, like AUIS grads, be exceptions to the rule in their universities and might not be enough to change the tides of the Iraqi education system.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad offers advice studying in the States through its global Education USA program, and holds annual graduate school fairs around Iraq. There are also several scholarship and exchange programs run by the State Department: Fulbright (which is for both undergraduate and graduate students, as well as teachers and professors) and then three summer exchanges, the Iraq Youth Leadership Program (IYLEP), Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), and the Study of U.S. Institutes (SUSI). From student feedback, MEPI is by far the superior, substantive program with students taking classes at Georgetown University and visiting Capitol Hill. There are several other State Department funded programs run by groups like IREX, such as the Iraqi University linkages program that trains administrators and builds much needed career services centers.
These exchanges produce visible changes in students’ outlook and also provide them opportunities to advance. For example, when they return, while they could be stronger, some alumni networks promote academic and professional exchange – two graduates last year organized a debate about ‘Is oil a blessing or a curse’ between their two universities. One of those same graduates has used his connections from AUIS and MEPI to plan a business that plans and implements corporate social responsibility projects for oil companies operating in the country. In addition, among the community youth groups that have popped up in Baghdad over the past few years – encouraging people to read or pick up trash – are graduates of such exchanges.
Van Den Toorn, Christine, “Reconciliation through Education in Iraq,” The New Middle East, 5/23/14