Libyan teachers get ready for education overhaul

Teachers at Nemuthajia Elementary School in Benghazi, Libya, will return Sept. 17 for the first day of classes in a new Libya. It will be the first time in 42 years they can teach the truth, they say.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Children sing a new national anthem during the raising of the Kingdom of Libya flag at their school in Tripoli, Libya, on Aug. 29.

At a small elementary school here in Libya’s second-largest city, dozens of teachers are preparing for the first day of classes since the fighting started in February and abruptly forced all schools to close.

They gather in sunny but spare classrooms surrounding a bare courtyard with peach walls. According to a sign above the entrance, this is Maarakat El Karama Elementary School. But the teachers shake their heads at mention of the name. It was bestowed on the school after the 1969 coup led by Muammar Qaddafi, who became Libya’s leader for the next 42 years before being ousted by this year’s revolution. The teachers have decided to return to the original name of the school, El Nemuthajia. It means “exemplary.”

But the school’s name isn’t the only thing that will change when students come back on Sept. 17. “Next week, for the first time in 40 years, the teachers will begin teaching the truth,” says Zakia Abdel Nabi, an elderly Arabic language teacher.

Getting rid of Qaddafi propaganda that fills the textbooks is just one of the tasks ahead as Libya faces the enormous challenge – and opportunity – of rebuilding an education system that was systematically eroded for four decades. Libya’s new leaders must also work to transform a system that sought to instill the regime’s ideology in unquestioning students into one that encourages dissenting opinions, critical thinking, and dialogue. Doing so, say education experts, will be key to building a strong and democratic Libya.

“If education doesn’t change, nothing else will change,” says Hana El Gallal, a law professor at Benghazi University and rights activist. “This is for me the biggest challenge and the biggest fight ahead.”

Textbooks, classes heavily influenced by Qaddafi

And there is much work to be done. Teachers receive dismal salaries, and little, if any, training. Corporal punishment for students is rife. Officials say that new school construction has been mostly nonexistent for 20 years while the population grew, leading to overcrowding. (Making matters worse, during the revolution hundreds of school buildings across the country were damaged or mined, looted, or used as makeshift munitions storage depots, prisons, or housing for refugees.)

And while teaching standards were low, 9th and 12th grade exams were purposefully made so difficult that only 30 percent of the students would pass and go on to secondary and higher education. That left 70 percent of them to drop out of school altogether or go to technical training, says Wafa Bugaighis, an official with the transitional leadership’s Ministry of Education who helped develop the ministry’s plan for getting education back on track.

“There was a systematic destruction of the education sector,” she says. “There has been no training, no investment, no upgrading.”

Textbooks were infused with Qaddafi regime ideals to train obedient citizens. The most blatant was a subject called “The People’s Society," in which students studied, among other things, Qaddafi’s Green Book laying out his political philosophy. But his propaganda was also woven into history textbooks, which teachers say almost totally omitted mention of the monarchy that Qaddafi’s coup overthrew.

“A huge period was missing” from the history books, says history teacher Abdel Salam El Imami. "I didn't know who tried to unite all of Libya after colonization – it was the monarchy." But under Qaddafi, he couldn't teach that to students. In Arabic language lessons, the text to be studied often contained stories about the leader.

While some teachers were hired for their loyalty to Qaddafi, others simply did what they had to out of fear. “We could not say anything,” says teacher Najat El Darreji. “If we talked about it, for sure we would go to prison. We knew it was wrong, but we couldn't say anything.” Several teachers say they sidestepped students’ questions on sensitive topics by telling the pupils they were required to memorize the material, not to understand it.

Rewriting the textbooks is a task that will fall to a new transitional government, which Libya’s leaders say they won’t appoint until all of the country is under their control. Qaddafi loyalists still hold a wide swath of central Libya from Sirte in the north to Sabha in the south, and the former leader is still believed to be at large.

“At this point we have no right to change the curricula,” says Mrs. Bugaighis. “Developing it has to be a national project.”

From indoctrination to critical thinking

For now, the priority is getting kids back to school. They will continue using the same textbooks; the NTC’s education committee went through the books and issued instructions on which parts to teach and which parts to discard.

The subject called “The People’s Society” has been thrown out entirely. And students who were forced from schooling through harsh exam standards will be invited back to school. The Ministry of Education plans to arrange a parallel system for them, so they won't have to be embarrassed by sitting in classes full of younger students, says Bougaighis.

Yet aside from the books, the buildings, and the classes, the style of teaching – and of learning – also needs revision, says Zahi Mogherbi, political science professor at Garyounis University in Benghazi. “The education system in Libya was a one-way street,” he says. “Students are not trained to discuss and question opinions or ideas. They are just taught to learn what the regime is teaching them, this propaganda and indoctrination.”

That has to change if Libya is to build a democratic political culture and society, he says. Students and teachers alike need to be trained to think critically and voice dissenting opinions, while respecting the opinions of others. “We need to have more inclusive dialogue,” he says. “What we've had for the last 42 years was a monologue.”

Changing this mentality may be the biggest hurdle that lies ahead, and teachers who have long taught through rote memorization will need training in how to encourage discussion. This was evident when the Qaddafi regime, in an aberration from its usual educational policies, dumped a new curriculum on math teachers before the uprising.

They received no training in how to teach the new curriculum, from Singapore, which emphasizes active learning and problem solving. It was working terribly, they said.

This summer the NTC’s education committee implemented an internationally funded training program for teachers focusing on active teaching and learning, and encouraging students in skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, even tolerance and negotiation. But the funding ran out after training only 280 teachers.

Getting programs like these back on track is important, but Bugaighis worries that education is often overlooked when funds are distributed. She hopes the international community, as well as Libya’s new leaders, will not neglect what she sees as an important part of Libya’s future.

“There is no development if you don't develop education,” she says.

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