In this guest edition of The Interview, Aras Ahmed Mhamad talks to PhD candidate Maysa Jihad Alwan.
Education is the most effective means of bringing about responsible people who believe in the values of cultural diversity and coexistence. Military conflicts and religious violence in the Middle East will only be solved if the next generation is educated from the outset.
Everyday people have lost hope in politicians to bring stability, peace and prosperity to countries like Iraq, where sectarianism is on the rise and people often lose their loved ones, their homes and their jobs. Security issues and economic uncertainty dominate the headlines, causing a forceful disregard to education.
The existing Iraqi and Kurdish education system needs reform if peace, trust and integration are to be restored.
In this guest edition of The Interview, Aras Ahmed Mhamad talks to Maysa Jihad Alwan, a PhD candidate at the University of Essex, United Kingdom, about the challenges facing the Iraqi and Kurdish education system.
Aras Ahmed Mhamad: Do you think the current education system in Iraq and the Kurdistan region has the ability to combat unemployment, ensure equal access to jobs, secure unity among members of society, and provide the knowledge and skills to embrace diversity and oppose inequality?
Maysa Jihad Alwan: The current education system in the Federal Republic of Iraq is not influential concerning the aspects that you have mentioned. There is no direct relation between the education system and unemployment.
Every year we have a good number of graduates from universities and technical institutes, and a number of them get employed according to the needs of the governmental institutions or the private sector. Their employment does not necessarily depend on the quality of education that they have received. Employment sometimes can be obtained only when you know the right people. Education in Iraq, under the current political situation, cannot secure unity among members of society.
People seem to follow different political ideologies which have representations in the parliament, but unfortunately, the inner conflicts between those parties affected people negatively, and the result is the loss of unity and a real sense of belonging to this land. The education system is weak in its confrontation with all those crises brought about by the current Iraqi government.
I am sure that any education system must arm its subjects with knowledge and skills, but how far [is] that knowledge and those skills effective? This depends on the political and economic situation in which they work. Embracing diversity and the opposition of inequality come after you prepare a generation willing to have this frame of mind—namely respecting opposition and regarding it as a motivation for change and development.
Mhamad: What is the right age to introduce sex education at school?
Jihad Alwan: The sex education subject is a sensitive issue for our society, but it is an important one. In advanced countries, they start to teach sex and relationships [SR] at an early age of 5. Certainly, this subject is being taught in a gradual way according to the ranges of the students’ ages up to the upper grades of high school. In our society we need to start SR education, but it needs monitoring and much awareness from the teachers as well as from parents.
According to my opinion, it should start from intermediate school when the child is of 11 years old due to the conservative nature of our society. Probably after some years from now, we need to teach it at an earlier age as societies keep changing and people’s mentality becomes ready to accept this issue as a fact of life. Topics of homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender are not tolerated in our society so we need a gradual approach to them, but we should not deny them as not existing.
Mhamad: Do you think it makes sense to teach primary school children religious books in first grade and force them to memorize certain passages and verses? How would you comment on the moral and intellectual aspects of this trend?
Jihad Alwan: The subject of the Islamic religion should be taught in schools, but I encourage the embracement of other religions within this subject. The emphasis should not be on the philosophical argument on the supreme being or the afterlife and its rewards and damnation, but rather it should be on the moral side of the religion told through stories about the prophets that teach about God as mercy and love, and also on how nations can grow by their morals, and connect that with actual examples from life.
I do not encourage teaching directly from the Quran or the Bible. Memorization of verses from [the] Quran is useless. It does not teach morality and human rights, which are the essential topics of every religion. It makes students memorize without understanding, and also causes resentment of the subject in general.
Mhamad: How can the politicization of the education sector negatively affect the process of educating citizens on the basis of citizenship and principles of democracy, and not party loyalty?
Jihad Alwan: It is obvious that political parties have influence on the employment and the assignment of administrative posts to certain members in the education sector. [This] kind of attitude results in the absence of the honorable competition spirit among staff members and nurtures grudges and hatred, which might affect the education process negatively. Any work environment should be healthy. Members should not feel that their rights were taken by others. Otherwise, they will lose the sense of commitment and loyalty to the bodies they are working for.
We lack resources and access to big electronic libraries, and there is a chasm in the knowledge between the Middle East and the rest of the world.
The enrolment of students in higher education institutions also happen according to nepotism and special admission. This can result in the sense of inequality and injustice among students. Moreover, the huge number of admitted students every year leads to extra hours of teaching and, hence, less research hours which are more important for the development of the educational institution as a whole.
Mhamad: The fact that party leaders and the majority of government officials send their children to private schools and universities abroad tells us a lot about their failure to build a developed education system inside Iraq and in the Kurdish region. How would you comment on that in terms of trust in governmental schools, hospitals and banks?
Jihad Alwan: Our education system, under this difficult political situation, is not trustworthy for us. We lost our faith in each other as people who are able to produce knowledge and work faithfully and, hence, if we have money to send our children abroad for study, we would not hesitate to do that.
We lack resources and access to big electronic libraries, and there is a chasm in the knowledge between the Middle East and the rest of the world. The teacher does not feel secure on the financial level, and the recent financial crisis is evidence that the government has failed to provide a stable economic condition for the citizen to work and be productive.
Mhamad: Do you think Kurdish education since 1992 and Iraqi education since 2004 have been able to create homegrown theories and ideas, and individuals who perform their responsibility and demand their rights according to the rules of law?
Jihad Alwan: On the theoretical level, we have a number of researchers who provide us with good visions concerning the education system, but the implementation of those theories did not find a peaceful and stable environment to grow and thrive. The quality insurance project in the Kurdistan region is successful so far as it encourages teachers to improve their performance and fill the gaps in their information, and I think in the long term, it will give good results. But again the political stability is important for such projects to develop.
On the country level, the Ministry of Planning and Development published a report in 2013, stating that 26% of Iraqi youth, 15 years and younger, are illiterate. This rate is sad especially when we know that UNESCO had considered the education in Iraq as the best in the Middle East prior to 1991, when the rate of enrolment in schools reached 100%.
During the blockade years, the education system suffered from a severe lack of resources, and many teachers migrated to other countries. After the fall of Saddam’s [Hussein] regime, the rehabilitation of schools started, but it was interrupted throughout the years of civil war and political unrest that the country [has faced]. After all, what is the use of a book if I don’t have a lamp to help me read it?
Mhamad: What are the main reasons behind a student’s weakness? Is it a problem with the system and methods of teaching or the individual teachers?
Jihad Alwan: I think we as teachers should be aware of the different types of learners. There are learners who depend on their listening ability, others on their visual sense, and others have to move and talk in order to learn. We need the lesson to be diverse in its means, and the teacher should change and mend his approach always in order to satisfy most of the learners’ needs.
There are other issues that might contribute to the weak performance of the learner, which might be personal or familial. In this case, the education institution should attempt to help through the student advice office and psychological support.
Mhamad: Memorization is widespread in Iraqi and Kurdish education. A huge emphasis is given to the right answer and, usually, students are passive receivers. Arguments, participation and interpretation are limited and sometimes absent. How would you comment on that?
Jihad Alwan: That is true. We still depend on the teacher to provide knowledge for the student, while the student’s role in producing knowledge is very limited or may be absent. We still have the idea that the student is nobody to add his/her opinion to the world of knowledge. That is why we encourage the one path given by the teacher.
It is important that the student knows the major theories in his domain, but on the practical level, he/she should use those theories to have his/her own vision and opinion or even arrive at new results. We need to show the students the way of how to produce, and when they produce we need to trust them after examining their arguments.
Mhamad: Is formal classroom learning and a premeditated curriculum enough to prepare students for the market and to fill the gap between the demands of society and university?
Jihad Alwan: The classroom environment and the curriculum are playing a role in the preparation of the students for the market after graduation, but other skills should be obtained throughout the years of education. They should be educated on how they [can] sell their abilities and, hence, get good job offers after graduation.
We need to provide opportunities for job contracts for students while they are still doing their undergraduate work. Encouraging volunteer work on campus is also important and gives students another chance to practice new skills before they indulge with the business world off campus.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Sadik Gulec