The misguided idea that freedom means everyone can do whatever they want, whenever they want, is running rampant in Iraq. So said John Agresto, who spoke along with a panel of experts at a June 23 conference on college education in Iraq, hosted by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. As a senior adviser for higher education and scientific research with the Coalition Provisional Authority, Agresto has been directly involved with improving the Iraqi university system.
Panelist Eleana Gordon, a vice president at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, agreed with Agresto.
“There is a fear that democracy means chaos, democracy means a lack of order,” she said.
Clearly, many Iraqis do not have a thorough and accurate understanding of exactly what freedom and democracy entail. Improvements in Iraq’s college education system may provide one way to correct this problem.
One important change in the education system that has already occurred in Iraq is the Declaration of Academic Freedom and Conduct. This declaration, Agresto explained, makes academic freedom sacrosanct. In the classroom, one can express a belief or opinion on any issue without fear of political or religious repercussions. Learning by doing can be a powerful tool, and perhaps no better way exists to teach the true meaning of democracy than to make it possible for students and professors to practice it when they stand up and express their views and then sit down without fear of retaliation.
In addition to the Declaration of Academic Freedom, many other improvements to the Iraqi university system have been made, all of which promise to benefit Iraqi society. For example, for the first time in many years, professors can travel in complete freedom to any lecture or symposium they wish to attend, Agresto said. They can also reconnect with the outside world and start up a dialogue with members of the rest of academia.
“They want to see what they’ve missed over the last 35 years,” Agresto said.
Other improvements to the university system include increasing freshman enrollment by 50 percent, bringing universities online, and eliminating quotas on how many women can major in the fields of science, medicine and engineering. Universities have also been granted a greater amount of independence, Agresto said. Hiring and firing guidelines have been set up so that university presidents can have some leeway in setting policy without fearing dismissal from higher-ups with different ideas.
Another improvement in the university system has been the donation of 20 tons of books to help rebuild libraries, Agresto said. These books were much-needed additions to the Iraqi education system because the system has been pauperized. For example, Agresto said Basra University has only received an allotment of eight new books a year for the past 15 years.
Unfortunately, despite many improvements, some major problems still exist for both the university system and the advancement of democracy in Iraq.
“Democracy is not easy,” Agresto said. “Tyranny is easy. Democracy may take a thousand ingredients. Democracy is hard.”
The lack of a liberal arts education remains one of the major problems with the university system, Agresto said. Sometimes, the classes college students in America have to take can seem ridiculous. Humanities majors suffer through hours of biology or chemistry labs, while science and engineering majors are usually required to take classes in history, English and foreign languages, learning material that seems totally useless in preparing for a career. But imagine an education without liberal arts, an education where students become experts in one field and one field only, learning nothing of other disciplines. Such is the education in Iraq, and it is not good for democracy, Agresto said.
A strong connection exists between the educational and the political experience, said Hillel Fradkin, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and one of the education conference’s panelists. Having a specialized education system, Fradkin said, helps tyranny, but hurts democracy. Starving people’s knowledge of history and the humanities makes them less threatening to the tyrant because they do not have a fact-based understanding of the world, Fradkin said. Perhaps this type of education is part of the reason many Iraqis do not even have a clear idea of what democracy is.
Fortunately, the lack of a liberal arts education has begun to change, at least in the north, where the Kurds are in control, Agresto said. The Kurds are opening three private universities that plan on having a full liberal arts curriculum taught in English and rivaling the educational opportunities available in other parts of the world.
However, in much of the rest of the country, Iraqis remain plagued by a narrowness of education, Agresto said. Additionally, a narrowness of method exists in the Iraqi education system. Iraqis, Agresto explained, are taught to listen, memorize, and repeat. No room for questioning ideas exists. Agresto said that a university president once told him that Iraqis never learn to argue. In the mosques they are taught not to question religion, in the homes they are taught not to question their fathers, and in the schools they are taught not to question their teachers.
“We do not think for ourselves in this country,” the president told Agresto.
Perhaps a culture where people learn to accept whatever they are told has contributed to another problem Agresto said he saw in Iraq, a lack of initiative.
“We have a society with no initiative, no independence of action,” Agresto said. “They always want to have somebody’s name on a piece of paper that they could blame.”
Such are the results of tyranny. But perhaps things are beginning to change for the better. After all, the Iraqis themselves chose to take over full sovereignty of the government two days before the June 30 deadline. And the Iraqi government seems more than eager to get custody of Saddam. Certainly, that shows some initiative and some promise for a future where freedom is more than just getting your way.