- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

WASHINGTON, April 18 (UPI) — Reforming primary and secondary education in the Middle East is central to the future of democracy in the region, according to think tank policy experts. While these analysts agree that democratic values and the practical use of democracy cannot be taught, they believe that the groundwork for democratic political reform can be laid by changing the teaching methods used by the schools and teachers in Arab countries.

They also say that the scholarly emphasis of education in those countries must change from Islamic history to the teaching of problem solving methods and other skills that have real-world applications.

"It seems to me one of the important issues is education and how, if you look forward 30 years to the kind of world you want to live in, what you do about education in places like Iraq and the Middle East is important," Arnold Packer, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said in a lecture Wednesday at the school's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, known as SAIS. "But I don't think you can go in and teach democracy."

Young people are the fastest growing population across the Middle East and policy experts believe that instilling democratic ideals in them before they become adults is a key component to bringing moderate Islamic and Arab leaders to the forefront of political debate in the region. With the American presence in Iraq, analysts are looking to the effort to reform Iraq's education system as an experiment in how to best address the educational problems across the Arab world.

Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the conservative Hudson Institute, said that the problem of what is taught at school in these Arab nations must be addressed in order to stem the spread of ideas that encourage radicalism and are work against freedom.

"We have seen what the destructive ideas of (Islamic) fundamentalists and secular Arab nationalism have done," Wurmser told United Press International. "We have to destroy them and clean up the region of the sick ideas that are antithetical to freedom and democracy."

Although not all analysts share Wurmser's views, they do agree that there are immense obstacles to reforming the ideological and pedagogical underpinning of education in the Middle East. Lecturing by teachers and rote memorization of facts and ideas by students remains the dominant teaching style in the region. Packer and other experts said this method inhibits critical thought and the development of problem solving skills needed for societal growth.

He added that by avoiding the Socratic style of teaching — the interactive, question and answer method dominant in the West — and emphasizing Islamic history over other ideas and skills important to economic development, Arab nations are placing their youth at a disadvantage.

Packer said his preferred vision for education in the Middle East is a curriculum driven by practical concerns and an emphasis on the skills needed to drive workforce development and economic progress. These concepts range from problem-solving skills to ideas, such as teamwork, that are central to productive work. There should also be a significant place for vocational education, he said.

Cheryl Benard, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp. Center for Middle East Public Policy, said reformers could learn a lesson about how to best address the failures of education systems in Middle East by examining how Islamic fundamentalist interests took advantage of the shortcomings of those systems to further their cause.

"If you look at what (Islamic) fundamentalism has done over the last 10 years, it has jumped into gaps of the existing educational systems," Benard told UPI. "That has turned them (schools) into recruitment groups, the operating base and method for passing their ideology on. We need to try to fill in gaps not just in terms of knowledge and facts, but in terms of mindsets, attitudes and values."

In an effort to address the issue, RAND has started its Initiative for Middle East Youth, a program to examine education policy in the region on a country-by-country basis. Benard said it is important to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach because the education problems vary from country to country, and even from city to city within individual nations. For example, she said in Palestinian schools there is a decided lack of vocational training, while in Iraq vocational education is relatively good when compared to the rest of the Islamic world.

An official at the State Department told UPI that education is central to the Bush administration's plans for helping Iraq become a prosperous democratic state. Beyond the pedagogical and ideological issues, the dropout rate for secondary school children in Iraq is estimated by the United Nations to be among the highest in the Arab world, at more than 65 percent. Almost half of girls over 15 have never even attended school. Boys over the age of 15 average fewer than five years in school.

Many of the experts following this issue believe that quick action is needed to prevent radical Islamic schools sponsored by fundamentalist interests in Saudi Arabia and Iran from stealing Iraq's approximately 4.2 million children away from the approximately 25,000 secular schools in Iraq.

Pakistan serves as an example of the dangers inherent in this situation. In Pakistan, where educational opportunities are virtually nonexistent for children in the overwhelmingly poor population, extremist madrassas — fundamentalist Islamic schools that teach nothing but rote memorization and unquestioning obedience to the Koran, and which produced many of the extremist Muslims who created and sustained the Taliban in Afghanistan - flourish because they provide, for no cost, this type of education along with free room and board. The Pakistani madrassas are largely funded by Saudi Arabian money.

In an effort to achieve rapid reform, Creative Associates International, Inc., has been awarded a $62 million contract from the U.S. Agency of International Development to oversee an ambitious plan to have all Iraqi children back in school before Oct. 1 with reforms already underway. A spokesman for the company said they are waiting for the go-ahead from the State Department to send an initial team into the country to begin to assess the needs of Iraq's school system in conjunction with Iraqi education interests. The firm is required to address not only issues of school supplies and school repair, but also curriculum reforms.

Wurmers said she understands the need for quick action, but wondered whether this time frame of bringing schools back on line was too tight. She said that just the efforts to cleanse the Iraqi educational system of those loyal to the former ruling Baath party and removing the Saddam Hussein-related propaganda from the curriculum would be monumental tasks.

Benard warned that the tendency to try wholesale reform of the Iraqi education must be avoided. She said it is necessary to make a careful examination not only of what Saddam's regime has left in children's minds, but also of the positive aspects of the education system that should be retained.

"Do not throw out that baby with the Baath-water," she said. "The temptation might be to get rid of that system too unilaterally and not keep what is good in there."

She added that the United States must be careful to avoid the kind of problems faced in Afghanistan, including the controversies over the design of schoolbooks distributed in the reconstruction effort.

"Some experts in the west projected what they thought a traditional Islamic schoolbook should look like and the results were not very good," she said.

Packer said an official at USAID told him the initial focus of curriculum reforms in Iraq would be in math and science, in order to avoid controversies over social studies and other problematic areas where cultural conflicts would arise. The spokesman for Creative Associates confirmed this.

More broadly, Benard said that an effort should be made through non-governmental organizations to bring modern education ideas to the entire Middle East.

"It is not so much about overtly instilling democratic values," she said. "It is more about developing the mindset and societal processes that ready people for those kinds of values. All of these things make up the modern mindset, that is completely absent in many Islamic societies."

Packer added that the importance of these issues can't be overstated, and that they deserve greater attention that they have been getting.

"This is a very important and complex problem, and people with different views should be brought together — including Arab scholars in the Middle East — to go through the process of trying to examine the challenges," he said.

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