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Volume 24, Number 5September/October 1973

In This Issue

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A Centennial

In Lebanon, an American-sponsored school moves hopefully into its second century of service.

Written by John Fistere
Photographed by Wasim Tchorbachi
Additional photographs by John Fistere

One hundred and one years ago, a group of 21 boys gathered in a small room of the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut to listen to their teacher, David Stuart Dodge, read out their first lesson. They had come on foot and on horseback from the city and surrounding villages to enroll in "Prep," the preparatory section of what later became the American University of Beirut, A.U.B. (Aramco World, November-December, 1969).

At appropriate ceremonies a century later, other pupils and teachers, along with an impressive gathering of administrators and distinguished alumni, looked back in astonishment at what has happened in the interim: the expansion of that tiny class to 2,126 pupils representing 40 countries and 18 religious sects, to a three-language, 44-subject curriculum, a 130-man teaching staff, a new name—International College—and a 170-acre, $6-million campus designed by world-famous architect Edward Durell Stone and constructed in green foothills high above the Mediterranean.

For I.C.'s old grads, the new campus, a long-time dream of Thomas C. Schuller, I.C.'s plainspoken president, may seem a startling change from the old, cramped grounds in Beirut. But it is really only the climax of a series of readjustments by which I.C. grew, and grew up. In so doing it slipped out of the sometimes stifling embrace of its parent school—and next door neighbor—A.U.B.

I.C.'s original role had been to prepare students properly for higher education in the Syrian Protestant College. Since the emphasis at S.P.C. in its early days was on medicine, proper preparation meant a kind of high-school pre-med course in which teachers taught such subjects as "anatomy and English," "surgery and arithmetic," and placed considerable stress on behavior and prayer. (One early annual report says the school abandoned the practice of having students offer prayers before each meal when they began praying not to have beans and rice stew for lunch.)

As tile school grew in size, it also grew in educational stature. By the turn of the century it was generally regarded as the leading university preparatory school in the Ottoman Empire. It was not until 1936, however, that International College in its present form came into existence. The year before, in 1935, a boys' mission school in what was then Smyrna, Turkey, closed down because of increasingly strict government restrictions. A.U.B.'s president, Bayard Dodge (Aramco World, July-August, 1972) invited that school to bring its name, International College, and its resources to Beirut, by then capital of Lebanon, to join with the university's "Prep" section. The following year the combined institutions opened as International College, with strengthened elementary and secondary schools, and classes taught in French, Arabic and English. Its first principal was Archie S. Crawford, still serving today as an I.C. vice-president. After Crawford came Leslie Leavitt, who retired in 1960, and SchulIer, the current president.

Since 1936, international College has certainly earned a solid place in the Arab academic community. More than 90 percent of its graduates go on to a university and its graduates staff the administration and faculties of schools throughout the Arab world.

I.C. has also begun to affect Lebanon in indirect, informal ways. A Social Service Club of 35 members offers towns near the new campus an informal and unpaid tutoring service. Pupils, newly aware of poverty enclaves in the remote southern third of Lebanon, have taken up collections of food and clothing. At Christmas last year students in Land Rovers visited isolated villages, gave out gifts and put on a pantomime show developed on campus. The school has also sought to make its student body more representative of the country as a whole by means of a $50,000 scholarship and loan program which last year helped nearly 250 less fortunate students.

Other changes being slowly introduced by I.C. include the concept of school counselling on future careers, and student employment—this last almost unheard of among upper middle classes in the Middle East and attributed by some to the pupils' desire to break away from complete dependence on parental largess.

Its American sponsorship has always meant that such aspects of education as athletics and extra-curricular activities have received more attention than at most area schools. But recently I.C. has also begun to experiment with concepts that are still seen as radical departures from the entrenched French-influenced norm. I.C., for example, has introduced the non-graded classroom, possibly for the first time in the Middle East. It has also set up the Educational Resources Center, an experimental project which I.C. envisions as a wellspring for the continuing education of its own and other teachers throughout the Arab world.

According to its advocates, the E.R.C. will be a "library of theory and experience for the teacher as student, learning his lessons from the student as teacher." The center already has a body of research papers, reports, books, monographs, syllabuses, M.A. and Ph.D. theses, slide films and documentaries on what and how to teach children. And a cast of teachers and students will act out the lessons for visiting teachers.

The facilities of the Educational Resources Center will be available year-round as well as in summer seminars on the I.C. campus, and faculty members will be sent throughout the area as teachers-in-residence. The E.R.C. hopes to be able to help a school plan its curriculum, but its primary function will be to extend to teachers of other schools the same opportunities for learning that it offers its own faculty.

Growth, however, imposed physical strains on I.C. By the 1950's, soaring enrollment was cramping the facilities of the shady, quiet Beirut campus shared with A.U.B., and I.C.'s solution was to buy a magnificent hilltop site near the village of Mechref about 10 miles south of the city. There, in 1966, the school broke ground for the first of eight buildings now completed.

The architect chosen was the distinguished Mr. Stone, among whose buildings are the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Basing his theme on the graceful arcade of a traditional house in Lebanon's mountains, Stone produced plans for a campus that so far includes six classroom buildings, a dormitory and a student center. The names of the buildings constitute an honor roll of distinguished men whose common but not least distinction was service to I.C: principals Alexander MacLachlan (of Smyrna) and Leslie Leavitt; teachers William H. Hall, Khalid Tabet, Alexander Wuthier and Barclay Acheson (of the Reader's Digest family); A.U.B.'s vice-president Constantine Zurayk; and I.C.'s board chairman Daniel Bliss, grandson of A.U.B.'s founder ( Aramco World, March-April, 1966).

Planned for immediate construction are an athletic center and an administration building and for 1980, a library, an auditorium, an infirmary and another dormitory. Besides the 90 children in the new non-graded school, Mechref now houses almost 1,000 students, including 200 boarders, in the four upper classes. In three years' time, the entire school will have been transferred from the city to the Mechref hilltop, from which it will have a long clear view of the Mediterranean—and the future of education in the Arab world.

John Fistere, formerly an editor with Time-Life, has worked in public relations in Beirut since 1955 and is co-author, with his wife, of Jordan, The Holy Land.

This article appeared on pages 28-32 of the September/October 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1973 images.