- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Some years ago in the pre-Saddam Hussein pre-laptop era, I was hassled at the Baghdad airport by an English-speaking, uniformed customs officer because I was carrying a portable typewriter. Not only was the portable confiscated but all my newspaper clippings as well. I was told all would be returned to me when I exited Iraq.

Several weeks later when I came to the airport I found the customs officer. We walked down to some office door he unlocked and retrieved my Olivetti machine and my folders of clippings. He said to me:

“You’ve got to understand why I behaved as I did. I’m not really a customs officer but they’ve put me down here because I speak English, and I speak English because I’ve been a student at a Christian college here. And I’m watched so I behave in a nasty fashion. So here’s your typewriter and clippings.”

I thanked him and said I understood his problem. He replied:

“You’re a journalist so you must know everybody. Can you help me get into Rush Medical School? I could go to a medical school here in Baghdad, but I want an American medical school. Can you help me get in?”

Forgotten was his role as an Iraqi customs officer. He, like thousands of Arab students, wanted a graduate degree from an institution in Europe, the United States or Canada.

And there’s a good reason for such an ambition, a reason given with startling frankness in a recent article in a Saudi newspaper, Al-Jazirah, under the headline: “Tell me one Arab university that can stand side by side with Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard ….”

The article replied to a reader’s complaint that no Arab university had been included in a recent ranking of the world’s top 500 universities. Arguing that no Arab university deserved to be on the list, the article criticized teaching methods, academic priorities and dedication to scholarship in Arab schools. And then to rub it in even harder, the Saudi newspaper article pointed out that Israel — Israel — had received seven listings among the world’s top 500 universities. Replying to complaints that Arab universities were not included among the 500, the Saudi newspaper article (translated by MEMRI) said:

“Tell me the name of one Arab university that qualifies to be on the list. Tell me one Arab university that can stand side by side with Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Stanford, the Sorbonne.

“Although there are hundreds of educational institutions in our region, they still follow old methods and techniques which were first used several hundred years ago. We continue to use them even though the world beyond our borders is living in — and reacting to — the era of discovery and the age of electronic information.”

The writer says universities outside the Arab world “compete with each other to produce distinguished academic research, [while] ours busy themselves with elementary academic matters.” He continues:

“Under the pressure of sheer numbers of students and other considerations, including the financial one, our universities have become little more than large buildings full of students. The only thing about them that would indicate they are universities is the banner bearing the magic word ‘university’ which is displayed everywhere.”

And then in a sardonic conclusion, the article reveals “the list was not produced by any European or American agency; it has nothing to do with either the CIA or Mossad. It came from the Institute of Higher Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.”

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times. His updated biography “Herman Wouk, the Novelist as Social Historian,” has just been published.

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