AMMAN–In the battle for hearts and minds in Syria, a much-overlooked front by outsiders is the curriculum.
“In Syria, the curriculum, especially the history curriculum, was incredibly edited to reflect the political realities of the Baath party or what it would like to project,” said Adrienne Fricke, a human-rights consultant. “It isn’t surprising to me at all that curriculum would be changing. I think it is one of the main loci of contestation – it’s one
of the main areas where people fight out political battles.” It wasn’t surprising, she said, that one of the first things the rebels did after taking over territories was to set up parallel education systems.
Anwar al-Masri is an opposition official for the government education agency, the National Higher Commission for Learning and Higher Education, and is in charge at the largest Syrian refugee camp, Za’atari, based in Jordan. He says the process of reshaping education has been going on for months. And it has intensified as the opposition prepared to administer the revised annual exam needed to enter university, known as the baccalaureate, to thousands of students either in rebel-held areas or outside of the country.
“All subjects which related to the regime have been deleted from the curriculum, like the National Education subject,” he said, referring to a curriculum teaching the fundamentals of the Arab Socialist Baath Party and Arab nationalism. Islam, on the other hand, was added into the curriculum, and will be included in grading the exam for the first time this year for students in the opposition areas.
Khalil Muflih, who organized and oversaw the exams in Jordan for the commission, said it was important these changes were made, even if they were done quickly and have to be refined for the second round of the tests next year.
“The National Education subject has been deleted because it talks about ‘the Eternal Leader Hafez al-Assad, his accomplishments in the Corrective Movement [a reference to Assad’s 1970 coup] and the accomplishments of his Baath Party,” he said. “That is why the commission members decided to delete it.” Every time students saw the book about National Education, he said “they ripped it apart because it had pictures of Hafez and Bashar Assad who have killed people they know.”
Other observers of the curriculum and examination changes said that they should be watched carefully. The topic of philosophy was deleted along with the National Education subject. The combination of deleting philosophy and adding in Islam calls into question whether the new exam will simply reflect yet another political viewpoint, observers say, rather than a neutral representation of important knowledge.
Students who took the opposition baccalaureate say that even though they didn’t have much time to prepare for the curriculum changes, they are glad of them.
The National Subject “was all lies, lies – all lies,” said Youssef Mhameed, 19, of Daraa who took the exam in Za’atari in August.
Fricke recalls a Syrian friend who took the baccalaureate in the days of Hafez Assad’s regime. When asked to write an essay on how Syria won the Six Day War [with Israel], he wrote how the country was defeated instead.
“He got a zero,” she recalled. ”