A Liberal Education in Iraq?

Sometimes we educators in America worry that our universities are becoming too “professional” – that all the old notions of what constitutes a broad liberal education have fallen prey to students’ (and parents’) desire to get a major, get a job, build a career. (I know, I know…the liberal arts deserve it. They’ve made themselves irrelevant, narrow, technical, and politicized. Who in their right mind would want to waste time and dollars studying “Homoerotic Themes in Shakespeare” when you could major in something useful to yourself and society like medicine or nursing or engineering?) So it’s a matter of some curiosity when a new university dedicated to liberal as well as professional education gets itself started, and started in so remarkable a place as Iraq.

But that’s exactly what’s happening. Now in its second year, the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, in the Kurdish area of Iraq, is offering an education where the liberal arts live and thrive along with the various professional and technical courses. Iraq, of course, has long been no stranger to technical courses; no totalitarian country is. Despotic regimes need engineers and doctors and architects as much as the next country. But what they don’t need, as you might guess, are the liberal arts. Young people studying history and international politics and comparative religion and philosophy? Students looking into democratic theory or the philosophy of liberty? What could be more subversive to any form of totalitarianism than the liberation of the mind? Jefferson knew that democracy and education went hand in hand, not tyranny and free inquiry. It was, in Madison’s words, liberty and learning that would lean on each other, not autocracy and learning.

Perhaps more interestingly, Iraq used to be a place where not only were the subjects narrow and specialized, but the mode of learning was as draconian as Saddam’s politics: Lecture… Memorize… Repeat; Lecture… Memorize…Repeat. If you wrote down everything the professor said, exactly as he said it, and repeated it back on the exam again exactly as he said it, you got a good grade. If you didn’t get it exactly right, not such a good grade followed. No thought, no questions, no imagination allowed. Even raising your hand in class was discouraged. The textbook and the professor were the experts; the best you could hope for was to succeed by learning what they said exactly as they presented the material. But the liberal arts are more than content, more than subjects. They are indeed “arts,” skills — and skills learned best learned in the give and take of conversation and collaborative inquiry. (One could just imagine what Saddam might think of that!)

That’s the oddity of what’s afoot right now in Iraq. There’s now a place where no one can major in any technical field without taking a year of English Literature and Rhetoric, a year of laboratory Science, a year of History (both World and American), and a semester each of Political Science, Mathematics, Philosophy and Ethics, and two other humanities or social science electives. In fact, an Iraqi can now major simply in the liberal arts there, taking courses in everything from the history of music to comparative religions to Shakespeare (sans any emphasis on homoeroticism.) And it’s all done in small classes, through open inquiry and conversation, with thoughts and opinions and ideas flying around seminar tables. It’s a liberal arts professor’s dream.

It’s also, it seems, the dream of many Iraqis, especially many Kurds. Despite the fact that the program will run most students five years (including a year of intensive English before a person can enter the undergraduate program proper), and despite the fact that tuition is $10,000 a year, the university went from 45 students at opening last year to over 180 this year. Yes, being associated with something called an “American” university has great cachet abroad, despite what some hyper-sensitive Americans might think; and yes, learning in an English-speaking environment with all native (mostly American) professors gathered from the finest American colleges is a draw. But, most of all, the distinction of learning more than a trade – even so high a trade as engineering or business administration – captures the imagination of these students.

These are students who now have a small sense of what it really means to be free – to see the world and see it in its complexity and wonder, to explore and read and think for one’s self, to make of one’s life what one can and not be slotted by society or fate or even parents to be what one might not choose to be. One student at AUIS told me recently that she was studying in hopes that she might one day be Iraq’s ambassador to the UN; another wrote me that she wanted to be the Minister of Education some day. Yes, both women; yes, both can see the connection between liberal education and liberty itself.

Liberal education might be having a hard time of it in America these days. But sometimes the stones that the builders reject do wind up becoming the cornerstone in other places, other amazing places.

-John Agresto is a Visiting Fellow at the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He was, last academic year, the Provost and Interim chancellor at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani.

 

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