A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Lebanese education: a refusal to learn from the past …

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 10, 2008

Now Lebanon has some of the most curious translations of any English-language media operating in the Arab World, and its headlines often only tangentially match the content of its news stories, but its articles do provide some great food for thought.

Yesterday, for example, I read that Education Minister Khaled Qabbani believes that a common history textbook [i.e., one that all schools use] requires “the appropriate political climate”.

Lebanon has no history textbook. Despite numerous efforts and much pontificating, the Education Ministry has failed to create one, or even approve one, because Lebanon’s history is considered too politicized. Writing a textbook means taking a stance on everything from the 1860 events in Mount Lebanon and Ottoman rule generally to the French mandate and the creation of “Greater Lebanon” – not to mentioning covering the history of the civil war, including causal factors, events, and – horrors! – culpability.

Here’s what Now Lebanon has to say, or at least how it translates Qabbani’s interview in the pro-opposition Al Safir:

Education Minister Khaled Qabbani said that launching a common history textbook for Lebanese schools is a necessary matter.

“But it requires the existence of an appropriate political climate,” Qabbani told the Lebanese daily As-Safir. “Such a textbook cannot be launched in the midst of sectarian tension. The political climate is inappropriate,” he added.

Qabbani said that a committee of experts would have to be appointed to establish the history manual away from tensions and disputes. “The textbooks of history have always reflected the negative image of Lebanon. As if the country was the result of sectarian struggle and civil wars,” Qabbani noted.

“If the whole history of Lebanon is made up of struggles and civil wars, how did we manage to preserve it unity and this Arab and international concern for it?” he wondered.

Minister Qabbani said there was an attempt in 1996 to come up with a common account of history, but said that it failed because of political interference and other factors.

“Ever since I became education minister, I have been considering this matter. But I still think that its achievement is conditioned both to the existence of an appropriate climate and to the existence of mutual trust among the Lebanese,” Qabbani declared.

Qabbani has been education minister for some time. If the best he has been able to do during his time in office is to “consider” the textbook issue, no wonder his conclusion – that a textbook is “necessary” – is so vapid.

A time of sectarian tension is PRECISELY the time to introduce a history textbook – and to go through the painful process of sorting out just what this country’s history is.

For more on why this is such an important issue, you might enjoy this surprisingly good article by Jim Quilty, which was published in the Daily Star in February 2007 in response to the strike and the riots of January 2007 and the Ain Alaq bus bombings February 13, 2007.

The article covers several topics, but for me its most interesting part comes when Quilty notes: It’s worth asking if the education of the rioters (“the ignorant poor”) is any better than it was. Are Lebanese students being inculcated with a sense of what it means to be, say, “Lebanese citizens” in addition to being Shiite or Sunni or Maronite?

Quilty then begins investigating, only to find that Qabbani is too busy to talk:

The logical place to begin is the Lebanese state. When The Daily Star contacted Education Minister Khaled Qabbani for an interview, the minister politely said he didn’t have time at present.

Qabbani and his fellow cabinet members were preoccupied with the twin bus bombings that had shaken the Bikfaya area that morning. There were also concerns, he said, that the upcoming ceremonies commemorating the second anniversary of the assassination of Rafik Hariri would provoke sectarian confrontations between pro-government ralliers and opposition supporters, who have been conducting a sit-in since 1 December.

Fine. But surely he could have answered the question without 1) demeaning the Ain Alaq victims or 2) provoking sectarian confrontations.

So Quilty turns to actual teachers:

“Our school,” begins Khalil Makari, “is tailored to accommodate several systems – Lebanese Baccalaureate [BAC], [American-modeled] high school and International Baccalaureate [IB], which has a standard level and an advanced level.

Makari has been teaching high school social sciences since 1998. As he maps the various parallel streams in the staff room of a prominent Ras Beirut high school, it seems the best term to describe Lebanese education is “divided.”

The primary division in the Lebanese school system, between public and private schools, is well known. The public school system is fragile and under-funded, so most Lebanese families work to send their kids to private schools. Though some of these are self-consciously secular, most are confessional. This means the system isn’t bifurcated between public and private as such, but shattered into a multiplicity of sectarian shards. The subdivision doesn’t end there.

“Once the kids finish middle school [grade eight],” Makari says, “they are split. The high school and IB kids stay together, the Lebanese kids have to go into the Brevet. If you pass the Brevet you continue in the BAC system. If you fail, the only option is vocational school. …

“So there are two versions of grade nine: one the Lebanese standard; the other international standard. All students go to grade 10 together, but you can automatically see the difference when you ask them to write an essay or do a project. After only a year, their background is drastically different.

“If you go to grade nine in the high school and IB system, you do debates, you write papers and so forth. They come out it with a diverse idea of what civilization is. The kids from the Brevet have to talk about Roman Empire or the Islamic or Mayan empires but they don’t have the historical concepts.”

Once divided, the students also face different teaching techniques. “Rote memorization plays a major role in the BAC system. The history textbooks they use for the Brevet take the essence – the causes of the First World War and who was involved. That’s it. …

“In 12th grade, BAC students study the period from the First World War to the anti-colonial period, in Lebanon until 1946, in Algeria until the 1960s. The pedagogy is rote memorization because they’re gearing you to a final exam where they want you to give them the facts: It’s not about giving your opinions.”

So this is the Lebanese system, in all its glory. And what are the results?

Makari agrees that the system divides his students into three – an Americanized elite, an international elite, and everybody else – but says High School students don’t necessarily do better than Brevet graduates.

“It depends on how you judge it,” he winces. “If you want them to do research and write well the way I do as a social sciences teacher, the Lebanese system students tend not to be the best. They don’t have time to develop these skills. But it varies. You have dedicated students in the IB but … I had a student last year who did both [high school and brevet] systems, which is very demanding.”

Senior students in the three streams also study different curricula. “I start my high school students in the 19th century; other high school teachers start later. It goes through the modern period – the causes of World War I, fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of nation states.

“The IB standard level you start with is World War I, then you chose to focus on Nasserism or the Arab-Israeli conflict, maybe the region in the 1950s. The IB advance level starts in the 19th century all the way to the 1970s and ’80s, so they cover the Lebanese Civil War and the Iranian Revolution in depth. They have two essays on the Middle East region. Our school has decided to focus on the Middle East as matter of policy.

“If you’re BAC,” Makari says, “you study the period from World War I to 1946. Their system is completely different from the other two. If you look at the book, it’s like the skeleton – causes and effects and events – the story’s not really developed.”

No, it definitely isn’t. Guess what’s missing: everything that has happened in Lebanon since 1946:

Of the three streams of Lebanese high school students, the BAC students are alone in learning Lebanese history. That history, though, ends with independence. This is most peculiar since so much contentious history has passed in Lebanon’s 60-odd years of independence, not least the 15-year-long “civil war.”

… Makari reckons there are four or five history textbooks presently being used to teach Lebanese history in Lebanon’s plethora of different schools. “There are well-known books that know how to be neutral on sensitive matters,” he says. Effectively, the way Lebanese history is taught varies depending on the school and the religion of its sponsors.

Having a selection of books to choose from isn’t a problem. The problem resides in students receiving such divergent versions of what purports to be the same history that they don’t resemble one another.

“I’m a Sunni Muslim of Palestinian background,” smiles American University of Beirut (AUB) political science professor Hilal Khashan. “I studied at the Makassed School, where they taught us that Fakhreddine Maan was a traitor for having collaborated with the Italians against the Ottoman sultan. Meanwhile, in the Maronite schools and the public schools, they taught the students that he was the founder of Lebanese nationalism …

Basically, the right to teach sect-specific versions of history is guaranteed by Ta’if. But Quilty closes with an alternate perspective: that all this fuss about an official history textbook is counter-productive:

“History,” [Emeritus Professor of History at AUB] Kamal Salibi reflects, “is thinking. To teach the official history of Lebanon defeats the purpose of thinking historically. There’s no reason that an official history is necessarily any more reliable than an official biography.

Salibi has more to say on teaching history, and its very good reading – as is the rest of the article. I agree that putting the focus on official history is as narrow-minded as any of the sectarian histories currently being taught – but ignoring Lebanese history post-1946 seems like a very grave abrogation of responsibility on the part of the nation’s schools.

After all, if the schools refuse to teach children their history, they will get it elsewhere.

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