Education, from a quantitative and qualitative standpoint, is an essential tool for any state to devise its national identity and provide future generations with the necessary knowledge potential and practical experiences to build their future and that of their country. The challenges facing the education system are not simple, especially in an era characterized with widespread knowledge and technology, the communication revolution, readily available social networking, and plurality in sources and variety of knowledge. Hence, there is a need to develop advanced curricula that keep pace with the accelerating and substantial changes. In addition to these theoretical challenges, the most difficult task for a committee commissioned with developing curricula is formulating educational curricula in a country suffering from declining growth rates and a gap between knowledge and labor.

As for the Syrian situation, the regression in the education system, negligence of the education sector, lack of investment in knowledge and research, and the dominance of the security apparatus all go back to a period long before the destructive civil war and deep divisions in the society began. These matters made formulating common concepts and axioms such as the nation, identity, and geography extremely complex issues that intertwine with the current situation.

Constructing and developing curricula is an educational, politically-oriented, and organized project, i.e. the desired objectives are evident and defined, and so are the plans, activities, and means employed to achieve these objectives. Developing educational curricula entails sequential steps that start off with setting long-term goals and objectives, which require a relatively long time to achieve. These goals and objectives are derived from the government’s general policies and the community’s traditions and values, in addition to common ethical and humanitarian values.

Consequently, partial and interim objectives are set based on the main objectives, and then specific objectives of each classroom period are set. Choosing the content and suitable means and methods should take all of the above into consideration. Moreover, an evaluation and review program should be also set on the local level (district and governorates) and the national level in order to gauge what has been achieved.

The dilemma here is: What are these goals? What society do these curricula aspire to reach? In pressing contexts, such as wars, can the education process or curricula be separated from other aspects of life and the problems and needs of society? Can the education process be separated from the psychological trauma children have been through, or the alarming numbers of children who have dropped out of school[1], or even curricula that have been modified[2] and imposed in areas not under the government’s control?  Is there a genuine will for change? How will that come to be? Are comparisons with experiences of other countries valid and feasible? What is the significance of the current controversy in Syria regarding the curricula in light of a devastated political, social, and economic reality? Are not the changes in the curricula restricted to formalities that do not address the essence and content, especially with all the red lines that cannot be crossed? Is it possible to remove Religious Education and National Education from the curricula, especially from the early stages of school? So many questions can be asked in this regard, however, under the current Syrian reality: what is possible and what is not?

Here, we try to highlight the controversy that took place regarding the new curricula, in addition to the ramifications and reactions in Syria and the media.

Social Media and Ministerial Blunders

The current controversy in Syria regarding the new curricula and the criticism directed towards them were influenced by posts on social media websites that depicted some problematic lessons and paragraphs, which later turned out to be fake or not actually present in the curricula. Instead of reading the new curricula (fifty-two books – not all grades were covered in the change) and criticizing them scientifically and methodologically in order to shed light on the validity and value of the information they contain[3], Facebook posts turned into articles and tools that evoked conflict surrounding minor details. This reflected the ideological polarization among Syrians, which was already foreseen. For example, government supporters opposed the use of a poem by poet Yaser al-Atrash. The poem was then omitted and replaced by another one through a ministerial decree. At first glance, this appears to be normal news, however, the reason behind the omission raises questions regarding axioms such as: which Syrians are targeted for reconstruction. The poem was not omitted because it is not suitable for the children’s age or typos within it, but rather as a result of public pressure from regime supporters who refused a poem by a poet affiliated with the opposition! The Education Ministry did not justify the reason for the omission in its decree and did not even mention the name of the poet or the title of the poem. It merely mentioned that it was on page six of ‘Music Education Book’ for the first grade, however, the same decree named the alternative poem “My Nation” along with the name of the poet Sa’er Ali Ibrahim[4]. (Figure 1).

 

Figure 1: Ministerial decree that provides for the omission of a poem by a poet from the opposition

The ministry also issued another decree that provided for re-placing Liwa’ al-Iskandarona and al-Golan Heights in Syria’s map after objections centered around a map on pages one-hundred and sixty-nine and two-hundred and four of the Biology and Environment book (Student’s Book and the Activity Book) for the tenth grade that did not include these two areas. (Figure 2)

 

Figure 2: Ministerial decree that provides for the replacement of the Syrian Arab Republic’s map with a map attached within

 

In an interview with the official Syrian TV, Darem Tabbaa, the Director of the National Center for Curriculum Development, acknowledged the presence of mistakes in some of the new book. He mentioned the role of social media in highlighting them in an early stage, however, he also confirmed that all the maps are all correct. In an ambiguous answer, he said that the map that stirred public opinion was “an exercise for students where only borders were placed without the other elements. A part of it was taken out as if Liwa’ al-Iskandarona was not present. It was rearranged – only a line was used -, whereas the other maps in the same book were all complete and they all included Liwa’ al-Iskandarona. Nobody can cancel them”[5]. In another interview with the weekly program “Min al-Akher”, presented by Ja’far Ahmad and broadcasted on the official Syrian Satellite Channel and Souriana FM, the program host began the show by reading a petition of ten paragraphs in the name of the “Syrian People.” It demanded that the developers of the curricula be put to trial. He then proceeded to ask, using a tone similar to that of an interrogator, about the “catastrophes” that took place. In one of the questions, Ahmad directly addressed the issue of the opposition poet wondering if “the presence of poems by Yaser al-Atrash reinforce national pride”. Tabbaa replied:

“This is something that simply nobody noticed. They all thought that he belonged to the reputable al-Atrash family [alluding to the family of Sultan Basha al-Atrash, the leader of the Syrian Revolution against French Mandate, who is from al-Sweida province, whereas the poet Yaser al-Atrash is from Idlib province]”[6].

Other objections, from both supporters and opponents of the government, were directed at the books’ covers which they saw as “spooky”[7]. For example, there was disapproval surrounding a cover of the history book which showed a statue. Secularists interpreted it as spooky and containing clear religious implications with its long beard and shaved moustache; Islamists on the other side interpreted as a “return to paganism” (Figure 3). There was also an image of a covered lady on the cover of the Arabic Language book[8]. The statue turned out to be that of Kingdom of Mary’s ruler Iku Shamagan (2453 B.C), and the covered lady was a painting by the Syrian artist Adham Ismail (Figure 4).

Figure 3: Covers of the new History books, the controversial cover is in the middle.[9]

Some interpretations from regime opponents went so far as to consider that the new curricula targeted the “Arabic and Islamic Identity.” In an interview on a program called “Hona Souria/ Here’s Syria” on an opposition channel called Orient TV, the program’s guest, Mazen Rashid, an Arabic teacher living in Istanbul, described the covers as: “disgraceful and a concealment of the Arab and Islamic civilization. They are a continuation of paganism, or rather a reach for paganism… They are a clear message for people to dispose of the Arab umbrella, a clear message to dispose of the Islamic message, and a clear message also to work in favor of the Shiite and Socialist agendas.”[10]

It is not clear what part of the covers that caught Rashid’s attention as clear evidence of “Shiite and Socialist agendas”, and what brings Shiite and Socialism together?

 

Figure 4: Arabic Literature book cover[11]

 

The situation worsened and a hearing in the parliament was held for the Minister of Education[12]. TV interviews and seminars were held on the topic, in addition to various comments, articles, petitions, and criticism that spread like fire on social media.

Formal statements, which considered the discussions a positive thing that strengthens national dialogue, were a surprise to many. On one hand, many of the quarrels were based on misguided foundations, for example: sharing images for Koranic verses of infidels from the curricula of ISIS or the curricula of other countries as images from the new curricula; on the other hand, developing educational curricula is commissioned to academic and professional institutions and committees that possess all the required power and cannot be influenced by any other party. In the best case scenario, they can take suggestions presented to them by teachers and supervisors into consideration.

The curricula’s content, although being extremely important, can only be evaluated within the context of the learning system in its entirety. Schools are more like military posts and classrooms are overcrowded with fifty students in a single classroom, after most school were destroyed as a result of bombing and clashes and many people were displaced from their homes. There is also a shortage in teaching aids, while unsuitable and traditional techniques are used which rely on literary memorization, in addition to the terrible mental and economic state of both students and teachers. Collectively, all of the aforementioned had implications on the outcomes of education. Thus, any serious attempt to promote education should take into consideration all of these factors, i.e. the theory of systematic teaching should be implemented as the education process is an integrated system that has input, processes, output, and evaluation. Any flaw in any part of the system will negatively affect it as a whole.

Educational Curricula and Formulating an Identity

The French Marxist Philosopher Louis Althusser (1918-1990) distinguishes between “repressive state apparatus” (RSA) and “ideological state apparatuses” (ISAs), where the latter comprises a group of apparatuses including the educational ISA represented by schools[13]. That is why states monopolize the process of developing curricula in order to establish the national identity and political orientations of their citizens. Curricula are formulated in accordance with state policies, or rather with the ruling elite, regarding foreign and internal affairs and within a vision that seeks to reproduce the relations of production.

This is where compulsory education comes in as a tool for states to declare their sovereignty of their borders. They monopolize formulation, restricting what is allowed and what is not in regards to the mother tongue language, history, geography, and national identity of the state and society (in addition to religious identity as in most curricula in the Arab World). Education and curricula also play a major role in reproducing gender roles and reinforcing the dominant culture[14].

During the rule of the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad (1970-2000), focus in history, geography, and Arabic was on society as a whole, within a uniform vision that considered the Syrian society as an Arab society and an integral part of the Arab World that was subject to colonial fragmentation and conspiracies that toppled most unitarian projects. At that time, Syrians had to face contradictions relating to their mere existence in silence or in the privacy of their homes. They had to memorize lessons about the practice of popular democracy, rule of the people, and rule of the law amid a culture of daily fear from security forces, corruption, and stories about detainees and abducted people. Society’s problems were reduced to the need to confront the “current” external challenges and “exceptional” circumstances that the nation was going through. Mandatory military uniforms were imposed on students, in addition to ideological organizations such as “al-Baath Pioneers” and the “Revolutionary Youth Union” that represented an exclusive framework for student activities in art, poetry, and music. Moreover, there were commandos training camps and productive camps during the secondary stage, whereas university training camps were imposed on (male) university students. All of this was part of a process to militarize society as a whole and impose the totalitarian domination of the state at the institutional and individual levels at the expense of developing children and teenagers psychologically and intellectually. This “education” policy affected entire generations. The subject of National Socialist Education (Figure 5) represented the ideological guide framework for all political visions of the one-party state, on the theoretical and official levels leastwise. On the practical level, however, most students viewed it as a subject they had to pass or another party book. Despite the dubious secular orientation, due to the absolute power of the Arab Baath Socialist Party over all sectors and institutions of the state, teaching Islamic and Christian subjects remained an essential and compulsory, not optional, part of students’ education.

 

Figure 5: The index from the National Socialist Education book for twelfth grade, academic, vocational, and religious branches. Published by the General Institutions for Publications and School Books. School year 1996-1997. Private archive.

The goal of the curricula during that period was to construct a uniform society and feed it with unified concepts that are in line with the hegemonic political ideology and the nature of the ruling system, regardless of class and social stratification and complexities that varied from one governorate to another, including ethnic and sectarian diversity. The Kurdish issue is one of the most prominent examples of that. Despite the distinct Kurdish cultural and linguistic legacy, the curricula in place did not take that into account. The Arabic language was the language of education and the Kurdish language was completely prohibited from being used in schools, which led to the marginalization and exclusion of the Kurds. On one hand, many Kurds had their citizenship withdrawn due to the 1962 census that was carried out during the period after the separation between Syria and Egypt, and on the other hand they were forced to adopt an identity and a language different from theirs, instead of recognizing their own identity as an essential part of the Syrian identity. However, with the change in the political situation nowadays, we saw that the first thing that the Kurdish self-administration did[15] was impose special education curricula, especially on the first three elementary grades (school year 2015-2016), that are based on the Kurdish language for the first time in Syria. This step was justified as necessary and essential to “restore the Kurdish identity.”[16] This measure was widely objected and refused by some parents, leading to the closure of some schools, such as the case in Ghweiran neighborhood in Hasakeh[17]. The ongoing tensions between the Directorate of Educations, as an official government institution, and the Education Authority, which is affiliated with the Kurdish self-administration[18], led to the students’ future swinging back and forth between political consensus among all parties and the possibility that their degrees may not be recognized in case of a political collapse. This affects future prospects for students who wish to continue their post-graduate studies in the long run. That’s why the curricula endorsed by the Ministry of Education are still adopted to a large extent in areas outside government control, with a few adjustments. For example, Islamic Cham Organization, established in October 2011, adopted the official Syrian curricula and republished it after cancelling National Socialist Education subject, which it called National Education and omitting everything related to the ruling Baath party in Syria and the Assad family. It distributed the curricula in some camps and in Aleppo (before the opposition lost control over the city), as well as in some schools in Turkish cities[19].

In addition to all of the previous challenges, there is the identity of individuals as Syrians after the war ends. Syrians are living in a period of conflicting identities, which will be fundamental in the formation of their personalities, aspirations, and ideas.

 

The New Curricula: Difficulties of Life and Research

In a visit I made to one of the schools in Sweida city on 28 September 2017,[20] I headed for the school administration to see if I could take a look at some old books in the school’s archive in order to analyze and compare them along with my colleague in the research. However, the principal informed me that there were instructions for the disposal of books every five years. She suggested that I check with the janitor who collects these books and uses them for heating. When I asked my relatives and friends about their school books (prior to 2000), their answers varied from getting rid of them a long time ago, handing them to others while they were still accredited by the ministry, or using them along with their old copybooks for heating during the harsh winters the area witnessed in the last few years.[21] When I asked the principal about her opinion in the new curricula, she answered: “Frankly, I don’t see a big difference between the old and new curricula, except for the music book in first grade, which we dreamed of having in our days. There are some new teaching methods, as well.”

The principal asked me to pose this question to the teachers in the school, so I went to the teacher’s lounge where I found two female teachers chatting. After greeting them, I went on and asked one of them a question. She sat up, changed her voice tone, and replied using canned phrases as if I were a delegate from the Ministry of Education: “The curricula are good and rich. We have taken a course on implementing new teaching methods, such as learning through playing and activities, and self-learning, and enriching the child’s intelligence, knowledge, and skills.”

When I asked her to clarify this with examples about the mechanisms that were being used (or going to be used), she dodged the question by reciting the problems of teaching and the weakness of available potential. I tried to investigate the opinions of other teacher, their answers varied from serious and critical to lack of interest and hope in the future due to the deteriorating economic situation, the war, and social rupture. According to Tamer (pseudo name, thirty-four years old, history teacher for elementary grades), the problem is not in the curricula or the teachers, but rather in this “generation of students who don’t want to learn and don’t appreciate the value of learning.” He went on bemoaning: “in our days, we dreamed of having just one quarter of what these students have, and yet, we studied and succeeded despite all difficulties. Nowadays, there are a lot of problems within the family, which is directly reflected in school. How much can one teacher handle?!”

What struck me is that Tamer did not mention the war. Despite all the difficulties we went through, they pale in comparison with the current catastrophic situation.

I also met Rabea’ (pseudo name, forty-five years, employee, driver in the Directorate of Agriculture) and asked him about the new curricula, since his children are still in public schools. He answered me frankly: “Damn this country and its schools. If it were not for compulsory education, I would have made my children quit school and learn a craft they could live off from. Knowing how to read and write is enough. What benefit will they get from education? In this country, education will not provide you with enough money to buy bread. Even if they study and graduate from universities, what are the available work opportunities for them? They will either hang their degrees on the wall and sit without working, or they will work in construction works. In the best-case scenario, they might get a government job with a monthly salary that’s less than what a craftsman earns in a single day!”

In an answer that corresponds with Rabea’s daily concerns, Hasan (pseudo name, thirty-one years, Arabic teacher for elementary grades) was surprised at my question, saying: “Quite frankly, I don’t care about this matter. Are you serious in your question? The situation will remain bad and cannot be fixed no matter how much we try. I give my lessons and do my best. But the most important thing is the salary at the end of the month. As you know, I work as a taxi driver at night to make ends meet. Although the salary is worth nothing, it’s still a source of fixed and guaranteed income every month.” As for Manal (pseudo name, thirty-one years, independent journalist), she condemned wasting public funds on developing curricula at the expense of investment, as the latter may benefit people suffering from grave economic situations.

The problems surrounding the old and new Syrian curricula are abundant. However, according to Rami (pseudo name, thirty-six years, music teacher for elementary grades), there are sensitive and important aspects that can be summarized in two things: The first is related to teaching religion at schools, and the second is concerned with developing creative, artistic, and critical skills for students. Rami explained what he meant by emphasizing the need to connect between the rationale of the teaching process and the knowledge students acquire on the one hand and respecting their intellects and ideas on the other, stating: “How can a student take a Science lesson and learn about Darwin’s theory of evolution, and at the same time, Religion lessons teach him the opposite of that when they say that Adam and Eve are the origin of humankind. How can a student take Geography or Physics lessons about the spherical and rotating Earth, the creation of the universe, and the nature of matter and elements, only to be confronted with people who deny all of that? Mental and knowledge contradictions in students, or even psychological ones, will be catastrophic.” He added: “We can’t just dream of the possibility of cancelling religion from schools or secularizing the curricula, however, we can teach ethical values present in religions instead of focusing on doctrines of the religion itself, especially in primary levels.”

The authors of this article remember how during their high school studies in Sweida the Islamic education teacher who happened to be the art teacher as well banned them from drawing any living beings because this is considered an emulation of “God’s creation”[22].

As for developing creativity and art, Rami denounced treating art and music lessons as unimportant and insignificant in comparison with essential subjects, and neglecting their crucial role in building the personality of students; other than that “the methods still used in teaching are primitive and they don’t nurture free thinking and dialogue or stimulate creativity.”

In sum, the controversy surrounding the educational curricula reflects several aspects that cannot be separated from the conflict itself. First, it has to be acknowledged that any change in the curricula that has occurred/is occurring directly affects Syrians who still live inside Syria, whether in areas controlled by the government or the opposition, and to a lesser extent Syrians living abroad or refugees. We do not intend to reproduce the dominant categorization, which is ideological in its essence, between people “inside” and “outside” Syria, but rather to implement reflexivity in our evaluation. Millions of Syrians have left their homes. They have either enrolled their children in the places where they sought refuge (especially Europe and America), or they suffer from the lack of means to continue their children’s education (especially in neighboring Arab countries). Therefore, the ramifications of the current controversy regarding the curricula are more crucial for Syrians inside Syria, at least in the short-run, and for all Syrians in the medium and long run.

Second, curricula are undoubtedly not just an educational means, but also a political and ideological means as well. That is why states monopolize them, or seek to monopolize them, and make them compulsory. They play a crucial role in formulating presupposed identities that are in line with the visions and aspirations of the ruling elite and government policies.[23] This raises the question about the effectiveness of the curricula and their objectives in the long-run amid an ongoing war and the displacement of more than half of the population. During this current war, the drop-out rate has increased. Children, including those in refugee camps, found themselves using various and altered curricula or even ones that contradict to their lives. These contradictions, which are planted by these curricula in the generations of the war, are aggravated throughout the children’s lived-experience. There is rarely a family who has not lost a dear one at the hands of one of the fighting parties. The psychological effect of this loss and blaming “the other” is no less significant than the effect of the educational process itself. Finally, as some teachers’ opinions indicated, developing curricula cannot be substantial unless criticism is directed towards the essence of the educational process. Otherwise, it will lead to a vicious circle with the same results no matter how rich the new curricula are with information and new methods.

 

[This article was originally published in Arabic on 14 December 2017.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] One in every three Syrian children is not enrolled in school, and 1.4 million children are in danger of dropping out of school. Moreover, one in every four schools has been damaged, destroyed, occupied, closed down, or used as a shelter. See:

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). 2017 Humanitarian Needs Overview: Syrian Arab Republic. December. 2016. p.11.

[2] The official Syrian curriculum is still used in most areas controlled by the opposition, with some modifications in some areas, where accomplishments of the al-Baa’th party and the two Assads were omitted. See:

درويش، صبر: العملية التعليمية في مناطق سيطرة المعارضة المعتدلة. سوريا حكاية ما انحكت. 21 حزيران، 2015

[3] Syrian historian Sami Moubayed previously criticized the history book for twelfth grade, which is called “New and Contemporary History of the Arab World” for school year 2014-2015, because of the grave historical mistakes it contained. He pointed out twenty-two of them. See:

مبيض، سامي: تزوير كتب التاريخ المدرسية نتيجة خطأ أم جهل؟! … المؤرخون والمفكرون والسياسيون السوريون يغيبون عن المشهد التعليمي! صحيفة الوطن. 2  شباط، 2017.

Syrian journalist Sabr Darwish also analyzed the books in the primary stage (first to ninth grade) for school year 2014-2015. See:

درويش، صبر: العملية التعليمية في سوريا بين الحاضر وبين المستقبل المأمول. سوريا حكاية ما انحكت. 19 أيار، 2015.

[4] Ministry of Education in the Syrian Arab Republic: تشكيل لجنة خاصة لدراسة الملاحظات والمقترحات الواردة إلى الوزارة حول المناهج المطورة، 16 أيلول، 2017.

[5] Youtube channel: “صباحنا غير – Saba7na Gheer”: د. دارم طباع مدير المركز الوطني لتطوير المناهج التربوية September 18, 2017. Timecode: 2:10-2:30

[6] برنامج من الآخر: آزمة المناهج هل خطأ في الاختيار أم خلل في التفكير. الهيئة العامة للإذاعة والتلفزيون- سورية. 18 أيلول، 2017. 1:06:50-1:07:25

[7] فاضل، عهد: ليس فيلم رعب.. بل أغلفة كتب تلاميذ سوريا!. العربية. 9 أيلول، 2017.

[8] عنجريني، صهيب: «داعش» والمناهج الجديدة: السوريون «يقصفون» عشوائيّاً. الأخبار. العدد 3274 الخميس 14 أيلول، 2017

[9] Source: Website for the National Center for Curriculum Development

[10] ‘From Syria’ show  “تثير الرعب” الصور الكاملة لمنهاج النظام الجديد! Orient TV, 11 September 2017. Timecode: 3:42-4:17.

[11] Source: Website for the National Center for Curriculum Development

[12] ديب، يسرى: «ضجّة» المناهج بين أسئلة مجلس الشعب وأجوبة وزير التربية. جريدة تشرين. 21 أيلول، 2017.

[13] Althusser, Louis. On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, trans. and ed. G.M. Goshgarian (Verso, 2014).

[14] الجباعي، جاد الكريم: نحو مدخل اجتماعي للتربية والتعليم. جيرون. 12 آب، 2012.

[15] خليل، إبراهيم: مناهج التعليم الكردية في الإدارة الذاتية. مدارات كُرد. 8 كانون الأول، 2015.

[16] عثمان، أحمد: افتتاح المدارس في مدينة قامشلو مع المنهاج الكردي الجديد. نبض الشمال. 28 أيلول، 2015.

[17] الأحمد، سامر: الحسكة: مناهج تربوية مسيسة تهدد مستقبل جيل بأكمله. المدن. 23 نيسان، 2017.

[18] ملا رشيد، بدر: الواقع التعليمي في مناطق “الإدارة الذاتية”. مركز عمران للدراسات الاستراتيجية. 15 تشرين الثاني، 2016.

[19] توزيع عشرة ملايين كتاب مدرسي في المناطق المحررة. عنب بلدي. العدد 217. 17 نيسان، 2017.

[20] In reference to author Motaz al-Hinawi who lives in Sweida, Syria; author Basileus Zeno lives in the United States.

[21] الحناوي، معتز: سنديان السويداء ولعنة الحرب السورية. جدلية. 23  حزيران، 2017.

[22] During one of the classes, this teacher asked that we do free drawing or study for another subject. I drew caricatures of people. When he saw this, he scratched them off, which made me feel surprised and angry. I asked him why he did that and he answered that drawing living beings is against religion (haram) and that painters are committing a sin when they emulate the creator in his creatures. It was a strange explanation for me and I couldn’t keep myself from laughing, which got me kicked out of the classroom (Basileus Zeno, the incident took place in 1998).

[23] We don’t mean to say here that education is restricted to what the state imposes in schools. Many indigenous communities and Landless groups (who had their lands taken by force by the state) in Latin American countries, such as Brazil, were able to impose their own educational systems that promote their cultural identity in face of the neo-liberal values being imposed upon them, while emphasizing the importance of education “in movement” as an essential part of continuous social movements. For further information, see:

Zibechi, Raúl. 2012. Territories of Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements. Oakland, CA: AK Press. pp. 21-33.