Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

New Lessons for New Era

Education system is being overhauled with Ba'ath party ideology replaced by big emphasis on human rights.
By Ayub Nuri

When Iraqi children return to school on October 1 they will find a few changes in their curriculum.


Textbooks will no longer prominently feature the image of Saddam Hussein and will not contain endless references to him as "the hero of the nation", "the Arab knight" and "the saviour of the Muslim world".


"It was [in the past] compulsory to memorise about 100 sayings of Saddam Hussein's to discuss in class," said Ala' Ajeen, now a student at the Baghdad Technical Institute.


Under the former regime, pupils were effectively fed a diet of Ba'ath party ideology and encouraged to devote themselves to Saddam.


According to UNICEF, all textbooks will have to be overhauled, as even science ones were tainted with propaganda - a maths text apparently included exercises in which students were told the length and breadth of a Saddam picture and asked to calculate the area.


In the future, says Fuad Hussein, a senior advisor to the Iraqi ministry of education, "Iraqi history books will talk about Saddam Hussein as a dictator, a man who killed millions of people."


"What we want to do is participatory learning, which is engaging children in problem-solving so that they develop all kinds of skills, not just memorisation," said UNICEF spokesman Geoffrey Keele.


Under a UNESCO and UNICEF programme, textbooks from civic values to English language have been altered to reflect a post-Saddam Iraq. More than 70 million books are being printed in Jordan and Iraq to be ready for the start of the new school year.


For this first year, emphasis has been placed on simply eliminating Ba'athist ideology and outdated material from textbooks. They will later be more comprehensively altered and updated.


Starting this year, primary schools book will include new lessons on basic human rights and land mine awareness. Children will be taught, for example, how to identify mine fields and what to do if a friend steps on an explosive device. Human rights lessons will discuss the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Convention, and the history of various international bodies that people were not made aware of under Saddam, such as the International Court of Law.


Iraqis worked closely with the UN to make the textbook changes. The Kurdish area in the north has been free from regime control since 1991 and they made alterations to their textbooks years ago. The addition of human rights and mine awareness to primary school texts, for example, was at the suggestion of Kurdish education ministry officials.


Meanwhile, as many as 12,000 of the country's 365,000 teachers are slated for dismissal because of their Ba'ath party connections. Several dozen members of the education ministry were sacked shortly after the war. Teachers who remain will find their salaries have increased from 5 - 8 US dollars a month to 60 - 300 dollars a month. UNICEF will train approximately 2000 teachers each month, beginning in October, in new educational theories and methods.


This is all a far cry from Saddam's propaganda driven schooling system. Waeel Mahdi, who is starting his second year of high school in October, says that in his geography classes, he would have to memorise the great Saddam projects, all of which contained his name, of course: the Saddam Dam and Saddam River, for example.


Students knew that teachers were required to make 75 per cent of exam questions about these projects. Mahdi says they would, therefore, only memorise the Saddam name places to get a passing grade, and not bother to learn the rest.


In general, students were not allowed to comment in class except to praise Hussein and Iraq's many victories over its many enemies. Many teachers say that these heavy handed techniques failed to win the hearts of the people - most understood the game for what it was.


But, they say, Saddam was successful in isolating the Iraqi people from the outside world. The world presented in the classroom and to the public was a narrow one and left Iraqis with little understanding of what was going on beyond their borders.


Students broadly support changes to the education system, but warn that future textbooks may cast them in a negative light unless they stabilise the country.


"The Americans are now liberators," Mahdi said. "But their behaviour while in this country will be judged in future Iraqi history books."


Ayub Nuri is a translator and fixer working with international media in Baghdad.