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Volume 20, Number 6November/December 1969

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Wind From The West

For good or ill they came... with money, with science, with ideas... the new ideas of another world...

Written by A. L. Miller
Photographs courtesy of The Jafet Memorial Library, The American University of Beirut

In San Francisco in 1945, 30 of the delegates to the first meeting of the United Nations immediately discovered a common bond: they were all graduates of the American University of Beirut, that large, unique, symbol of western contribution to the rebirth of education in the Arab East. (Aramco World , March/April, 1966).

AUB is no newcomer to the Middle East. It was founded in 1866. But it is still far from being the West's first or only contribution to an area that had given so much to the West centuries before. As early as 1734, in fact, in the Lebanese village of Antoura, a Lebanese priest placed under Jesuit administration the first European school in the area—one still operating today—and about 4 years after that the Lazarist Brothers founded a school for boys in Damascus. Indeed, in Syria and Egypt, all the initial contributions came not from America but from France.

According to one AUB historian, French influence in the Middle East is attributable only partly to Napoleon's Egyptian conquest. The main reason, he said, in addition to France's "special relationship" with the Levant, is that as a child Muhammad Ali, who was to rule Egypt for nearly 40 years, was cared for by the French proprietor of a tobacco shop. When he instituted his sweeping efforts to modernize Egypt, instruction—in engineering, medicine, agriculture and law—was in French, even when it required interpreters. The result was that French culture penetrated society and became a lasting influence. (As late as 1952, there were more French schools in Egypt than schools of any other foreign country, even Great Britain, after years of political domination.)

In the meantime, Ibrahim Pasha, Muhammad Ali's son and a man dedicated to improvement of the Arabs under his rule, had opened up Syria to the influence of the foreign Protestant missionaries who had begun to work in Lebanon and Palestine as early as the 1820's. It was a move that would later prove beneficial but then, it merely provoked a clash between the new missionaries and the various French and Arab Christian communities.

The problem was that the Protestants, forbidden to proselytize among Muslims, and lacking indigenous Protestants, began to seek converts from among the long established Catholic and Orthodox communities. It is not surprising, therefore, that as soon as the missionaries began distributing their Arabic Bibles and opening their schools, the Maronite and Greek Orthodox clergy became inhospitable, and even, sometimes, threatening. The Maronite Patriarch and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop finally forbade their followers to send their children to the new Protestant schools on threat of excommunication; a threat that proved more effective with the Maronite community than with the Orthodox, many of whose children attended American schools from the first.

Just ten years after the first American school was founded in Beirut, a mission report mentioned six such schools in the area, all elemental—the common text was the New Testament; there were few students, irregular classes, and .untrained teachers—yet at least as good as the local schools and probably a shade better. These schools, the madrasahs, attached to a mosque, and others run by the various Arab Christians,, were-not very good. One indication of the general standard of education in the area in the 1830's is that when Ibrahim Pasha offered Egyptian books to Syrian schools in a wide range of available titles, a grand total of only 1,596 was ordered.

Until about the middle of this century, the two decades that began in 1860 were perhaps the most important 20 years in the development of modern higher education in the Middle East and yet they began most inauspiciously. In 1860, clashes between Druzes and Christians in Lebanon and Muslims and Christians in Syria ended in the massacre of thousands and led, not for the first time, to foreign intervention. France, Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria together guaranteed the independence of Christian and Druze Mount Lebanon in 1861, making it an island of relative independence within the Ottoman Empire.

Nevertheless, a few years later, American missionaries were permitted to establish their Syrian Protestant College. The establishment of this college—later to become the American University of Beirut—was to have a visible impact on education in the Middle East. As one reaction to its opening, a graduate of Al-Azhar established a school in Beirut and within nine years the Jesuits founded the University of Saint Joseph. It wasn't the effect the founders had in mind, but for education generally, it was all to the good.

Right through the end of the Ottoman Empire and then during the period of French and British mandates between the two wars, western private schools continued to open. Robert College, in Istanbul, for example, had been founded in 1863; as early as 1869, the Society of Friends established several, including one in Ramallah, in what was then Palestine; and there were many "colleges" in the European use of the term as a private school through the 13th grade. There were also the British-founded Victoria College in Alexandria (1882); International College founded in Izmir, Turkey in 1891 and later moved to Beirut as a preparatory school for AUB; Aleppo College, also founded in Turkey and moved to Syria from Gaziantep in 1924; Baghdad College, founded by the Jesuits in 1932 to serve Iraqi Catholics; and Damascus College founded in 1945.

None of this, it should be pointed out, came cheaply, According to Philip Hitti, the distinguished historian, from 1820 to 1959 the United States alone, largely through missionary groups, footed a bill of about $400 million—second only to the American investment in Middle East oil. The Jesuits, too, must have quite a bill. And investment—in terms of people as well as money—continues. The U.S. government, the foundations, the traditional church groups, plus American exporters, businessmen and industrialists are all involved in education. One recent example: in the wake of the 1967 Middle East war, one organization, Near East Emergency Donations Inc. (NEED), provided nearly $1 million for refugee education by helping the emergency UNRWA tent schools, then supporting several vocational and teacher training institutes in Jordan, and finally by providing scholarships for outstanding students. And recently, International College, the largest of the American-sponsored secondary schools, in a gesture of confidence in the future of progressive education in the Arab world, has launched a campaign to raise $6 million for expansion purposes.

Dollars and buildings, of course, tell only part of the story; the rest is a matter of assessment: how has this western influence affected the education of young men and women in the Middle East today? Or, basically has the influence been for good or ill?

Although there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of these early western missionaries and educators acted with the best of intentions and with selfless dedication, the situation which slowly developed in the Mediterranean Arab countries—in which numerous private secondary schools, each with its own individual western-oriented educational philosophy competed more or less along religious lines for the children of the middle classes, had some disturbing implications.

For one thing, it meant that at many institutions (with the exception of the Syrian Protestant College, which indeed spawned a rebirth of interest in Arabic), the Arabs' own rich history and culture was often neglected—even totally ignored— while students studied the French Revolution and memorized the poetry of Shakespeare (whom they sometimes called, as though determined to assert a kind of pride of nation, "Shaikh Isbere"). The Arabic language itself was frequently slighted to the point that the educated classes spoke French or English in the home. More serious, however, was the fact that private schools released the ruling powers—from Ottomans to the mandate powers—from any obligations to provide education.

It is doubtful, of course, whether nations whose domestic educational policies were still in flux would have acknowledged any obligation, but the fact remains that public education, in today's terms, was neglected. In Lebanon, for example, only two public high schools existed when independence came.

Another questionable aspect of the western educational legacy is the Baccalaureate examination, an educational strait-jacket which France clamped on Syria and Lebanon. This system, already considerably modified by the French in France, and dropped in Syria still binds Lebanon's pupils to memorization of obsolete, irrelevant, even incorrect material and discourages inquiry and original thought.

On the other hand the legacy of foreign languages has not turned out to be any handicap. In fact, French, spoken throughout North Africa, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, and English, common in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, are now valuable tools in the Middle East's drive toward modernization.

Arab educators have discovered that medicine and science are best taught in the language in which the latest texts and technology are coming out. (The founders of the Syrian Protestant College reluctantly reached that conclusion years ago, and one indication that they were right is the fact that Arab doctors at AUB's medical school were practicing open heart surgery within two years of its inception in the United States.)

The education of Arab women, and certainly coeducation, have also been hastened by the influence of western ideas. In 1905, the Syrian Protestant College opened a school of nursing and in 1924, as AUB, it accepted girls in the school of Arts and Sciences and became the only coeducational institution of higher learning in the Middle East. It was a short-lived distinction, because the Egyptian State University at Cairo admitted women students just four years later.

In 1924, too, the Junior College that became the Beirut College for Women was founded. Coeducation, at university level, is now the rule, rather than the exception.

In Saudi Arabia where tradition frowns on coeducational activities, the brand-new King 'Abd al-'Aziz University in Jiddah includes a women's college where several dozen girls arrive each day in traditional aba, slip it off once inside to study in short skirts and patterned hose. And Riyadh University, counting several hundred girls on its rolls, plans to add a women's college soon.

The West, then, has obviously contributed a great deal to education in the Arab East. Most Arab engineers, doctors, and lawyers study western programs, often in institutions like AUB or St. Joseph that are a product of the West. Whatever modern methods of instruction Arabs use today are borrowed from the West. And many concepts, though they might have developed anyway, were at least accelerated under the influence of the West; coeducation is one example. On the other hand, most Arab countries, like other emergent nations, still need indigenous educational approaches to fit their particular situations. If the West can aid in this development of more relevant systems of education for Arab countries, that could be an even greater and more enduring contribution to education in the Arab East.

A. L. Miller, a graduate of Williams College and the University of Michigan, is Chairman of the English Department at International College, a U.S.-supported preparatory school in Lebanon.

This article appeared on pages 4-7 of the November/December 1969 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1969 images.