When I was attending Wabash College several years ago, there was a visiting professor in Political Science named John Agresto who actually left the college in 2003 after receiving a call from President Bush asking that he come to Iraq to serve as the “Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Education.” Agresto left America a staunch supporter of the war and came back in the fall of 2004 to give a lecture at the college on “why we failed in Iraq.” He also now has a book out called Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions. I remember at the time of his lecture being excited to hear how one academic had gone from supporter of our efforts to saying, “Wow, we got this wrong. We got this really, really, really wrong.”
But his point at the time was that where we really failed in Iraq had everything to do with education of all things. It wasn’t war strategy or even the mess that was the “post-war” plan (or lack thereof). It was all about our expectations (primarily that we thought democracy would stick if you threw it at freedom), none of which took into consideration how Iraqis had been educated their entire lives. You can’t hope to change a society or a culture for better (or worse) without understanding how its education system works.
Of course, my own opinion on that is that we had no business going to Iraq in the first place and no business “spreading democracy” in the second, though I’m painfully aware that Peace Corps is a little bit of democracy colonizing or can be seen as such.
But it’s an interesting concept to return to in light of these recent revolutions, many of which are pushing for democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and when people ask why this is happening, I can’t help but think of John Agresto and the failure of Iraq.
Earlier today, I had the opportunity to sit in on a few English classes at the high school. The book (it’s called “The Gateway to English”) for students in the class is filled with chapters entitled “Women and Power,” “Citizenship,” “International organizations,” etc. Today’s class in particular was on “Internet Addiction,” a concept that would’ve been (and maybe to some degree still is) completely foreign to Moroccans just three or four years ago. To watch these students raise their hands and answer questions about the internet (in English) was fascinating for me, and as I glanced through the book, I couldn’t help but think about the education students are receiving across North Africa, across the Middle East. How much of it is this, well, Western-centric? How much of it fosters a spirit of capitalist ideals and democratic procedures? And if it is Western-centric, does that have anything to do with why youth, using the internet, suddenly began to rise up and declare that they be allowed to enjoy certain freedoms? Moreover, is the Internet a “liberal arts” experience?
Before French colonization, Moroccan education was essentially Koranic memorization. And that was a little more like someone learning the Latin mass or memorizing the Torah for a Bar Mitzvah without knowing either Latin or Hebrew. No one understood what they were learning, but they still needed to know it. Because of that history, there’s still a heavy emphasis on copying, memorizing, and learning through blatant repetition rather than employing critical thinking or creative skills, but even with that, much has changed. Nowadays, education is not all that dissimilar from the French system (which isn’t terribly dissimilar from the American one), and by the time youth are in university, they’re blabbing on about Karl Marx, dreaming about leaving Morocco, or many of them are talking favorably about secularism. Much has changed indeed. And it started in the classroom.
In the American classroom, critical thinking skills are valued above almost anything else or one would hope they are. A liberal arts culture teaches you to how to think, not what to think. It gives you the tools to approach any situation rather than telling you what to believe about individual circumstances. Why? Because critical thinking is really the art of asking tough questions, and very often, asking those tough questions means challenging authority. The end goal of critical thinking, after all, is to foster change to better oneself or better our world. Why else ask tough questions?
And at the heart of that ideal is what it means to be an American. The American spirit is rebellious. It boycotts and pickets. It’s suspicious of authority, any authority. It celebrates the freedom to ask those tough questions, even the freedom to ask dumb questions. And that’s all embedded into everyday ABCs, 123s of the American education system. We were raised to think that way, raised to question authority.
And now that’s happening here, in North Africa and the Middle East, and while this revolution couldn’t have happened without the advent of Facebook or the internet to bring people together easily and quickly, Facebook and the internet are nothing more than mere tools. The real cause, in my opinion, is that people are thinking differently about their lives, about their society, than they used to think, and youth all over are beginning to ask tough questions, to question authority, to exercise their inalienable, human rights.
And it all, all, starts in the classroom.