Rewriting the Textbooks: Education Policy in Post-Hussein Iraq

Article excerpt

British Liberal Henry Peter Brougham said in the 19th century, "Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern but impossible to enslave." For decades, Saddam Hussein perverted this philosophy and exploited education as an instrument to maintain his government's iron grip on power in Iraq. Now, in an attempt to revive Brougham's pedagogical ideal, the United States hopes to make education the key to stable democratization in postwar Iraq.

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The state of Iraq's school system is a microcosm of the state of Iraqi society during and after the rule of Hussein. For decades, Iraqi schoolbooks were replete with references to Hussein and schoolteachers served as trumpeters of government propaganda. Now, after the US-led war in Iraq, the school system is in shambles with looted school buildings, underpaid (and often under qualified) teachers, and a deadened 30-year-old curriculum. The United States has already begun an effort to reform the education system by purging school texts of all Hussein and Baath party references and bringing education experts from US school systems to serve as advisers in Iraq. Nevertheless, just as Brougham distinguished between "leading" and "driving," the United States must be vigilant in maintaining the distinction between liberation and occupation of Iraq's educational institution.

If the United States sees Iraqi education as merely a means for "winning the heart" of the Iraqi people, any changes to the Iraqi school system are likely to be superficial--cleansing schools of Hussein's domineering presence, renovating Iraqi school buildings, and Westernizing the Iraqi curriculum by incorporating democratic values. The stabilization of Iraqi society hinges on the fundamental restructuring and improvement of its education system. Before pursuing democratization, the United States should focus on securing the stability of Iraqi schools as a means of empowering the Iraqi people with the capacity to recreate their own society.

Emerging from a Troubled Past

When Hussein and the Baath party rose to power in the 1970s, the Iraqi education system became one of indoctrination. The clearest proof, by far, is found in the textbooks written during the period. According to a report by USA Today on October 2, 2003, a fifth grade Iraqi history textbook describes the 1991 Gulf War as "the Mother of all Battles launched by American and Zionist aggression and 30 nations." In mathematics during Hussein's rule, students learned multiplication tables by calculating the casualty count of shooting down four planes with three US pilots in each plane. Students were required to respond to the entrance of an adult in the classroom with "Long live the leader, Saddam Hussein," and began their school day by chanting against the United States for killing Iraqi children and burning Iraqi trees. In physical education classes, students exercised while reciting, "Bush, Bush, listen clearly: We all love Saddam." During flag-raising ceremonies, a teacher fired a round of blanks from an AK-47 rifle to the Hussein chants of students. According to a New York Times article on October 1, 2003, an elementary school teacher at the Tigris School for Girls in Baghdad said of Hussein, "We had to include him in every lesson plan or we'd be in trouble with the Baath Party."

After the US-led war in Iraq ousted Hussein, the United States honed in on the domineering presence of Hussein in Iraqi education and rushed to give the schools a "facelift" before four million Iraqi children returned to school in October 2003. The Governing Council, which consists of 25 members appointed by the United States, decreed a purge of all references to Hussein from the education system. Under a project funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Iraqi officials and teachers tore out images of the former Iraqi ruler and crossed out references to him and the Baath party in millions of textbooks. …