Wednesday, June 23, 2004

U.S. administrators have made great strides in rebuilding the Iraqi educational system, but still face hurdles, many of their own making, a senior coalition official said in Washington yesterday.

“There is a growing independence of the universities,” said John Agresto , the senior adviser for higher education and scientific research with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad.

“Despite the fears of religious and political coercion, I think you find incredible openness and dialogue,” Mr. Agresto added during a discussion hosted by the American Enterprise Institute.

“I think higher education is absolutely going in the right direction,” he said.

Iraq now has 20 functioning universities and 43 technical institutes and colleges. These are mainly public and overall experienced a 50 percent increase in freshman enrollment last year.

Policy at the institutions is set by their own presidents, rather than the central government, Mr. Agresto said. “This is absolutely a major change.”

He also noted that university students for the first time have access to the Internet.

However, he said the system had suffered “incredible damage” and pointed out several areas demanding improvement.

“Something that immediately struck me was the incredible specialization,” a process that begins early in high schools and denies students a broad education about “the world in general,” he said.

Furthermore, there is an “incredible hierarchy of profession,” Mr. Agresto said. Science, medicine and engineering are “the crown jewels of education” in Iraq, but whole universities lack departments of philosophy, history or political science.

“Religious departments are absolutely rare,” Mr. Agresto added.

He criticized the “narrowness of the method” used to educate in Iraq. Describing the learning process as “listen, memorize, repeat,” he said Iraqis seldom questioned their teachers.

Mr. Agresto also said Iraqi students seemed indifferent to their country. “It is the only country I know that does not have any patriotic songs,” he said.

As a result, he said, the fact that “we liberated them, they did not liberate themselves” constitutes “the heart of our problem.”

The greatest mistake made in this regard, Mr. Agresto said, was a tendency within the CPA “to think democracy is easy.”

He said this attitude originates in the tremendous success of democracy in the United States, where people forget about “all the ingredients that make it possible.”

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