Wednesday, May 04, 2005

"Dawsha at Dam. U." by Sabine Lubbe Bakker

Sabine Lubbe Bakker is a Dutch Master's student at the University of Amsterdam. She is in Syria working on a university project about democracy in the Middle East and sent me this report.

Students Demand Freedom and Knowledge3 May 2005
By Sabine Lubbe Bakker

“Knowledge,” that was the name of panel discussion held at Damascus University on Wednesday the 27th of April 2005 that caused such a stir. The Canadian Embassy, Etana Press, and the University of Damascus organized a discussion at the University of Damascus based on the controversial Arab Human Development Report. When the report was first published in 2003, it caused uproar in the Arab world. Written by Arab intellectuals for the UNDP, it pointed out that the Arab World was falling behind in the race to produce educated elites ready to compete in the marketplace of ideas and able to rise to the top of international corporations and institutions.

In attendance were the President of the University, the Dean of the College of Letters and the Canadian Ambassador. Some 150 people came to hear Drs. M. Hadid, J. Hijazi, and Ganeh Hana, most were students.

Once the presentations were over, a number of professors stood up to address the problem of the Syria’s growing knowledge gap. To my surprise they insisted that the answer to Syria’s educational problems was more government control, not less. They called for increased analysis and criticism by the appropriate ministries. They blamed others for the deplorable state of knowledge and education in Syria: some pointed to the authors of the university text books as the culprits of Syria’s educational failings; others argued that the university had to redouble its efforts to advance education through greater emphasis on theory and memorization; none stressed the importance of talent and creativity. According to the professors, the government is the key to change and improvement.

When it came to the turn of the students to take the microphone, the atmosphere in the lecture hall quickly turned electric. A torrent of criticism poured forth. One brave undergraduate held aloft his schoolbook for all to see and calmly explained that it was 17 years old. In fact, all of his texts were as old or older, he said. “How can we innovate?” he asked. “With texts this old, we have no choice but to imitate.” He added, “Scholars and authors cannot allow security agencies to be guardians of the education – that is why we suffer with mediocrity. He ended his comments by declaring that, “with this kind of schooling, I will never be able to find a job, not in Syria or abroad.”

Another student quickly took the microphone to announce that the university had two problems, the first being the corruption of the university board. On hearing this, the Dean jumped to his feet and demanded that the student be quite and sit down. But the student was undeterred. Emboldened by a female student who cried out - “Why is there no freedom of speech?” he continued to his second point - the emergency law governing Syria. “So long as there is emergency rule, the intelligence services can control the university from A to Z. We need freedom to think, question, and learn.”

With that, the discussion period was quickly brought to an end. Many students took the chance to speak up and to be heard. To me this is a sign that Syrian students are no longer a silent mass. They have the courage to stand up to the authorities. They are willing to take responsibility for change.


At 5/04/2005 01:41:00 PM, Anonymous kingcrane said...

I am curious to know if any of the students asked if the knowledge gap was not due to the arabization of scientific teaching which was imposed in 1967. I am not a supporter of global Anglo-Americanization of scientific teaching, but Arabic does not appear to yield itself to such matters, under the current constraints: the comission set by the Arab League to be in charge of translating scientific and technical (etc) terminology from foreign languages into Arabic cannot deal with the pace at which such terminology is generated. Yet, Arabic could deal with this challenge, as it is a mathematical language with great rules to derive new terminology, but it is probably already too late.

At 5/04/2005 07:50:00 PM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

excellent blog and great testimony!

My father always told me that Syria had a good educational system in the past (before the 60's). I am not saying that it was above Harvard but it was definitely above the regional average. Aleppo and Damascus were (along with Beirut and Alexendria) the home of one of the oldest and most powerful educated 'bourgeoisie' in the middle east. This social class moved to Beirut or to Europe after the 60's.

Most of the problem came with arabization. Most of the knowledge is not in arabic but it is in foreign language. It is simply impossible to translate it all into arabic. People have to go and get it as it is. English learning is the most obvious way but other language can be used for that purpose. Arab should be used only in for cultural matters.

At 5/04/2005 10:13:00 PM, Anonymous sonia said...

The 'Knowledge deficit' question in the arab world originated in a 2003 united nations report and was based on some critteria that might be flawed like counting number of books sold, while arab are known for a wide use of illicit photocopying, number of books published where there is no accurate record and number of books translated where many educated arab can actually read books in their original version in english or french. But while a recent UN report seems more accurate, the 'knowledge deficit' story survived mainly thanks to a working paaper on the subject presented to the G8 by the American. As Brian whitaker reports in the Guardian on september 2004:

''The G8 working paper also highlighted the relatively small number of books that are translated into Arabic - allegedly about 330 a year. "Five times as many books are translated into Greek (spoken by just 11 million people) as Arabic," it said.
This is another statistic that has been much quoted since, though where it originated - and whether is it correct - is unclear. The National Book Centre of Greece, which might be expected to know about translations into Greek, does not keep count, according to a recent issue of the Index on Censorship journal.
It is clear, though, that economic conditions in the Arab book trade discourage translation in general while favouring pirate translations where no royalties are paid or slapdash translations that readers may have difficulty understanding.
The implication of the American working paper is that Arabs suffer from a "knowledge deficit" for want of translated books and that more translations would help to rectify the deficit. At the very least, that is debatable: sheer numbers are not the issue and it depends partly on whether we're talking about Harry Potter in Arabic or the seminal works of western culture.
It is also doubtful whether a lack of Arabic-language books about science and technology is a barrier to progress. At the more advanced levels they are virtually impossible to translate and the Arabs who work in these fields are usually accustomed to reading in English or another foreign language.
Despite the talk of a knowledge deficit, reading in foreign languages is far more widespread in the Arab world than in the west. Arab countries import about $40m (£22m) worth of books and magazines every year, according to a background note for the Frankfurt book fair. Most of these are textbooks and reference books.
By far the best selling book in Beirut at the moment is The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. One shop alone claims to have shifted 1,000 copies. It is available in English, French and Arabic but the Arabic version seems to stay longest on the shelves.
General-purpose bookshops in the Arab capitals - unlike their counterparts in the west - almost always have substantial foreign language sections, and in some shops the English and French books outnumber those in Arabic.
The flow of ideas between east and west ought, of course, to be a two-way traffic so we should also consider whether the west has a knowledge deficit of its own where Arab books are concerned - a question that I hope to look at in a future article.''

And who says that we need to have university books and study science in foreign languages. In asian countries like China and Japan, people barely know foreign languages. These countries are at the top of the knowledge chain. I think the real problem in the arab world is monetary; not many people can go to the university and not many people can afford buying translated books.
Is America willing and ready to give monetary aid to some arab countries so that they can make books more affordable to their citizens ?

At 5/05/2005 02:26:00 AM, Blogger yaman said...

Wow. That is very reassuring, and their words are very inspiring. I'm excited just reading it.

At 5/05/2005 05:14:00 AM, Anonymous Hatem said...

I have an Engineering degree from a Syrian college, and I have no comment on the information I received during my study. When I started to work in Saudi Arabia as a chemical engineer I did not feel that my technical knowledge is inferior to those who graduated from Western university. I graduated in 1993, and I developed my skills after the graduation. I was lucky that my father is an engineer and he gave me the way of thinking. What students lack in our universities is to learn the research mentality. The curriculum is pushing students how to memorize the textbook, and become imiting instead of being creative. The new methodlogy should push students to researh, and become initiative.

At 5/05/2005 08:17:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hatim it is a good point.
This is called critical thinking and it is a principal in teaching students in all colleges, universities and in school in all western countries. This is how you raise a generation knowing how to receive information, how to question information and how to judge it. It is risky for some regimes and this might cause a problem for non-democratic institutions.

At 5/05/2005 12:14:00 PM, Anonymous Leila said...

Was all of the brain drain in the Syrian academy due to Arabization? What about the other internal political conflicts of the 60s, 70s and later?

In North Carolina in the 70s I knew a Syrian American family whose father was exiled from Syria due to his Communist politics. He became a professor of literature in the USA and kept his head down. (I still don't know how he got into the States with a COmmunist background - guess he covered it up) This person left Syria because he had the wrong politics for the Baath, not because of Arabization.

His children are totally American of course, high achievers who have integrated well into this country in the sciences and arts. Syria's loss is America's gain. I'll bet they're not even Communists...

At 5/06/2005 08:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would you guys spare us your comments on the "gap" being due to Arabization?! I have an Engineering degree from the University of Aleppo (all terminology and teaching in Arabic) had an excellent career for 5 years and now am an MSc student in one of the UK's top 3 universities.. and am doing better than many students who graduated in the UK, US and even some Lebanese from the American University in Beirut (who speak a FrancoAraboEnglishWhatever lingo in every sentence.. not having a deep understanding of any of the them!!!).
In fact a study I read earlier found that learning in the mother language requires 33% less effort by the brain to comprehend.
Why is it OK for students from Finland, Norway, Israel and other small populations and less developed languages to learn in their own language and when it come to Arabic you see finger pointing at the language as the cause for all you troubles (despite the fact that many of the mathematic/engineering/computing terminologies have Arabic origins)?
The education system in Syria suffers from several problems.. but teaching in Arabic language is one of the good things that this system had provided both the Syrian students and the Lebanese/ Iraqis/ Jordanians/ Palestinians/ Mauritanians/ Kuwaitis/ Japanese/ German/..etc from abroad (people I met while studying in Syria).


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