Exodus of Westerners deepens crisis in Lebanese education. Classes are halted indefinitely at American University
Nicosia, Cyprus — The writer gathered information for this report before his evacuation last month with other Westerners from west Beirut. The exodus of Western professors and teachers from west Beirut has deepened the crisis in Lebanon's educational system, once the envy of the Arab world.
The mounting violence of more than a decade of civil war has seriously undermined the whole system and left a generation of students in the lurch.
Many of the 70 Westerners evacuated from the capital's Muslim sector last month were academics and administrators. They had defied the gunmen who rule west Beirut to keep leading colleges and schools functioning despite kidnappings by Muslim extremists of British, French, American, and Irish teachers.
Last Friday, teaching shut down indefinitely at the American University of Beirut, as academics stepped up protests against attacks on staff and students. It was the first time teachers have indefinitely halted classes at the 120-year-old US-funded institution.
``Can't these people doing the kidnapping see what they're doing?'' asked a Lebanese government official. ``It's our children, and theirs, too, who suffer. They're being robbed of their future.''
More than 40 state schools in the Beirut area have closed. In the villages, schools have closed because of a shortage of teachers. The Beirut schools no longer function because they're either jammed with refugees, occupied by militias, or shut down because they are too close to the city's dividing ``green line.''
Many of the schools still open are so packed with pupils from other schools that they have to take classes in shifts.
``Some schools shelter three other schools, so each batch can only attend classes for 2 hours a day so that everyone can be accommodated,'' says Muhammad Kassem, a general secretary at the Education Ministry. ``That's instead of six hours of teaching a day.''
``Many students have been affected materially and psychologically by the war,'' says Prof. Fuad Rifka of Beirut University College (BUC). ``Some have lost homes and relatives. It's hard for them to concentrate on studies. Some students are even involved in the fighting as militia members, and that keeps them from classes. High schools have lost their standards.''
Some students who belong to militias carry guns, usually pistols jammed in their jeans, when they go to colleges like BUC and the American University of Beirut, one of the institutions hardest hit by the kidnappings and killings.
One Western teacher told of a student taking apart his 9mm automatic in class. When he was chastised the first time, he told the teacher: ``I can always put it together again, you know.''
Such intimidation is not uncommon. ``Students who get a B grade these days would probably have gotten a C for the same work a few years ago,'' Rifka says. ``Students who get a D would have failed the course. I'm much more lenient these days.''
Prof. John Munro, a Briton who taught English literature at American University, commented before he left in the evacuation: ``Can you ask someone to put his life on the line for some grades?''
The Star, Beirut's struggling English-language weekly, said: ``The devastation is taking place within the minds of the teachers and students. . . . All that counts for these students are the diplomas and degrees they have not earned through study, but which they extort from their teachers.''
The paper cited these cases:
A pathology professor was told to hire an assistant nominated by a political party or get out of Lebanon. He left.
A student militia representatative on campus gave his professor a list of students who were to get passing grades -- or else.
A teacher of English took an examination for one of his dullest students because he feared for his life if the youngster failed it on his own.
Some faculty members of BUC and American University fear they will lose their vital US accreditation if standards continue to decline.
Twenty-five Western teachers were among the foreigners who fled in April. That left only 10 American and British staffers on American University's 450-member faculty, but the institution's information director, Radwan Mawlawi, is confident the university, founded by American missionary Daniel Bliss, will struggle on.
``We've passed through worse times,'' he said. ``We'll replace those who left with Lebanese. Somehow we'll survive.''