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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Why we don't have healthy academic life in Iraq

2003 marks the end of my life as student and the beginning of my life as academic in the University of Mustanseryia, as teacher of English literature. It was unfortunate beginning for a hard journey through the rough route of Iraqi academia from 2003 to 2015.

As undergraduate and postgraduate student before 2003, I was eager to join the academic world, and follow the example of the amazing teachers who made me passionate about literature. For me, they were the elite, the true leaders of society, the ones who shaped our young minds and implanted in us plans for happy future. Even the bad teachers who didn't give much to our eager minds were kind and just enough to leave impression of their humanity in our hearts, if not in our minds. Under their impact I decided to do master degree, rather than just be satisfied with a bachelor degree. I wanted to join their wonderful world of insatiable quest for knowledge, the infinite world of books, and reach out to the stars with increased intellectual power.

My master thesis was accepted in August 2003, when the universities had just wrapped the academic year 2003 amid lots of chaos, and destruction. All assumed that the next academic year, the first in democratic Iraq, would be a beginning for a new prosperous era for academia in Iraq, after overthrowing the Baath regime and its censorship. The 2003-2004 was a new a beginning no doubt, but it was a new beginning to the ultimate end of academia in Iraq, to the quest for knowledge, and detour toward what proved the abyss of intellectual life in the 'new', 'liberated' Iraq, thanks to American democracy!

I started teaching in the university as instructor of English in 2003-2004. I was passionate about the subjects I would teach and took every opportunity to share what I had learned so far with the young minds, hoping to leave an impression and inspire students as much as my teachers inspired me. However, the environment had changed drastically from the one I knew before 2003. I came to the University of Mustanserya to find students had already decided to liberate themselves from the power of their lecturers and to become the power that should rule university affairs. It got to their minds that the academics who were teaching them were representatives of the Baath power that they hated so much. For some reason, the new Iraq created by American democracy meant lawlessness and no to all kinds of rules. The chaos in the streets were strongly expressed in the academia, where students were determined to be the controlling power in the world of knowledge.

Before 2003, students used to have their Union, which was one of the Baath organizations, but most students thought of it as means to control and spy on them, especially in such place as Mustanserya. After 2003, the students' Union was replaced by another organization. This time it was called Students Association, al-Rabita al-Tulabya. Most of the leaders of this organization were Sadrists, members of Mehdi Army, whose jobs was to make sure that no university teacher would practice any "repressive" power over students. If a student exceeded the limited absence days and was suspended, the association would interfere on their behalf to stop the suspension and return the student to their studies. If a student got a low mark in a class, they would interfere as well to change that mark. When I heard of this, I thought this was exaggeration and there was no way academics would yield to extortion and betray their ideals. But when this happened in my department, I realized that these were not rumors, but the new reality of academia in Iraq.

I learned from my professors and mentors when I was a student that work ethics should not be compromised, education should not fall in the trap of nepotism, and degrees should be earned by hard work. Thus, when I started teaching, I was "strict" as some students described me. They wanted me to take into consideration the chaos of the country when I assessed their papers and answers. I contended that I was assessing their English and knowledge rather than their person, I wanted them to understand that we were living hard times and in bad need for qualified youth to build our future, but my words fell on deaf ears. They had lend their ears and all their senses to another narrative, a narrative that turned them against hard work and study, against respecting the rules, promising them easily earned degrees in English, even if they would not be able to write or speak the language.

Soon, under the influence of the new reality, and the popularity of students' associations, which were facade for militia, universities in Iraq turned to be stores that provide degrees, all students had to do was to join! Soon evening classes expanded to become very profitable business for all and every year new private universities that subscribe to no ethics or ideals were acknowledged by the ministry of higher education, to become more fancy stores for degrees in different majors, even such critical disciplines like medicine!

Chaos and corruption were not limited to undergraduate studies; postgraduate studies had its share, as more professors either yield to the dominant culture of extortion or pay through the nose for resisting the widespread practice in the new-Iraq academia. Most of the good ones, who found it hard to adapt left the country, choosing to live retired refugees in foreign countries, rather than to compromise. Those who decided to stay and to resist soon discovered the futility of their efforts when one after another lost their lives, or the life of family member.

With the continuation of draining Iraq of its talented academia, there was a need for new academics to fill in the gaps in the expanding higher education institution. The new generation of academia were those who received their postgraduate degrees after 2003. I was one of them. I joined the PhD program in 2005, when I realized that sickness of the upper branches had already ruined the roots: even master and PhD degrees were completed under the influence of the same culture. It was the personal responsibility of the candidate to work toward deserving the title that came with the degree, or be satisfied that the degree was given to them, without any standards considered, as part of the gift American democracy decided to give to Iraqis.

Soon we all realized the change, when we, the new academics, realized the web were entangled in: religious militancy repressing free pursuit of knowledge, nepotism and extortion killing all efforts to build fair education environments, and corrupted administration preoccupied with their political rivalry to pay attention to higher education. The previous generation of good academics already left the country, or were pushed to early retirement and excluded from policy-making because of their membership in the Baath party, which all Iraqi knew was imposed on anyone wanted to have a career in the academia when the Baath ruled. Most of the senior academics were not those who worked in Iraqi universities prior to 2003, when Iraqi universities were top ranking in the region, but were those who fled the country in the 70s and early 80s. During their period of exile were detached from the academic world where they took refuge, to  resume it decades later in a country that had changed drastically from the one they had left. They came without updated knowledge, without developed tools of teaching, in the hope of teaching for couple of years so they would qualify for pension. None made a significant contribution, while most harmed the higher education institution.

Most of the laws passed by the parliament in relation to higher education in Iraq were just one nail after another hammered into the coffin of academia in Iraq, which lie today with dead brain, that no life support can revive its lost glory.


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