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Back to School in Liberated Libya

Ann Marlowe

Benghazi —While foreign observers focus on the internecine struggles of Free Libya’s Transitional National Council, much more profound developments are under way here. The crippled Libyan educational system molded by Gadhafi’s 42-year rule is being retooled to “build the principles of democracy,” says the council’s education minister, Suliman el Sahli. On Sept. 5, he and his colleagues in the Education Working Group plan what he calls a “soft re-opening” of primary and secondary schools, rolling out from Benghazi to other areas of liberated Libya.

They face a massive task. Nearly everything was wrong with Libyan education at the start of the Feb. 17 revolution. Not just because of underfunding, which led to overcrowding (Gadhafi had virtually stopped school construction from the late 1980s until 2010) and abysmal teacher salaries (not raised in years, and often not a living wage).

Gadhafi’s practice of making all decisions from the top, often impulsively and with no systemization, led to an educational culture in which administrators and teachers had little idea of what to expect from one week to the next. As de facto mouthpieces—some willing and some not—for the regime, they were often scorned, much in contrast to traditional Arab veneration of the teacher.

Five months of war have added new problems and practical obstacles to reopening the schools. The grimmest concern is to provide support for students who have lost family members or witnessed atrocities by Gadhafi’s troops. Another is a mine-awareness campaign that has so far trained 280 teachers to help children avoid mines planted by Gadhafi’s forces (the revolutionary government has forsworn the use of mines).

Earlier this year, many teachers, parents and even older high-school students were doing volunteer work supporting the nascent Free Libyan government or, if they were men over 18, fighting on the front lines. As the action moved west and eastern Libya returned to relative stability, financial problems moved to the fore. With oil production disrupted, the new revolutionary government has been chronically short of funds, unable to pay teachers. Electricity has been an issue. Many here fear that Gadhafi still has sleeper cells in the liberated areas, and that attacks on schools are a possibility. Fourteen hundred guards are being trained (though they will be unarmed).

Despite all this, the council is determined to open schools in September—without the Green Book-inflected ideology and with an aim to changing Libyan culture to prepare students for democracy.

Libya’s educational system was in theory modeled on the European system, where a difficult exam given after the ninth grade separated the 15% or so who continued on an academic track leading to university from the others, who entered vocational training. For example, in February there were about 120,000 students in Benghazi’s primary schools but just 15,480 in academic secondary schools. The select few who made it into the academic high schools faced a stultifyingly narrow curriculum. According to Wafa Bugaighis, until recently the head of a Benghazi private school, secondary and tertiary education was designed to produce doctors, engineers and lawyers, and not much else.

Even so, Ms. Bugaighis adds, there is a big gap between the few rich (including her family) and the many poor in this supposedly socialist oil state. “Yes, the schools are open to all,” she says. “But the outcome of the system is the problem.” The better-off have long paid for private courses in English—at one point Gadhafi removed foreign languages from the curriculum and their teaching has yet to recover—and even Arabic, to make sure their kids write proper standard Arabic. And the rich could afford to pay for private schools (about $2,000 a year).

Education Minister Sahli, a well-regarded Arabic poet in Libya, recognizes that he is beginning a long-term effort. For the very young, this fall promises much. But many older Libyans must live this moment through their children. Aisha el Sallawi. who has a degree in electrical engineering, apologizes for being unable to speak English: “I still remember the day they burned the English books at my school. I was crying.”

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