AMMAN—From a plush leather sofa in a large room full of tasteful trinkets and elegant artwork, Safwan M. Masri, Executive Vice President for Global Centers at Columbia University and the director of the Global Center | Middle East branch, smokes a small electronic shisha pipe. He spends about one week a month in this oversized office, hopping back and forth from New York City.
Originally from the Palestinian town of Nablus, Masri grew up in Jordan’s hilly capital before moving to the United States at age 17. His background is in engineering, with a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He later joined Columbia University’s business school faculty in the late 80s.
Over the last five years he has become increasingly involved with the state of education in Arab countries. He says the tumultuous events across the region have renewed his commitment at Columbia University’s global center: “There is a real readiness in the region for positive change and that can only come from education.”
The polite and composed globetrotting ambassador for Manhattan’s Ivy League university spoke with Al-Fanar Media. He told us about the presence of American universities like Columbia in the region, a program to reform teaching in Arab schools and his personal perspectives on education and the role of religion in the classroom.
What exactly is a Global Center?
It is an outgrowth of the university. We’re asking a serious question about whether our faculty and students are actually engaged with the world. The broader question would be: what does it mean to be an institution of higher education in the 21st century. To some universities the answer is to build branch campuses, like New York University in Abu Dhabi. We think that model is questionable in the long run and doesn’t really answer the question of whether faculty and students are engaging with the world.
Members of our faculty come to the center to conduct research and collaborate with colleagues throughout the region, not just in Amman and Jordan. Some of this has been going on for a long while: Columbia has been international for over a century. The center aims to extend, deepen and broaden these engagements.
So what would be a flagship initiative that you most like to boast about?
We have been heavily involved with the Queen Rania Teacher Academy. The Jordanian ministry of education identified a need to help teachers to teach English as a second language. But really it all started with Her Majesty asking for help to set up a training academy. Our university already had a mind to establish a center in the Middle East, so we decided to build our presence in the region around the teacher training academy with an aim to expand from it.
It started with just 20 teachers who went to the U.S. for a couple of months. Then in 2008 new subjects were added to the program like math, science, Arabic and leadership skills.
The energy behind project has always been driven by an undercurrent belief in the need to reform education. We believe in advancing values of tolerance, inclusion and respect. But rather than have programs that deal with these values individually, we do it as part of our English, science and math programs. We’re trying to show teachers that those values are found across subjects and curricula.
The project has grown so much. It’s not a huge exaggeration to say that we’ve reached 30 thousand educators that teach students in primary and secondary schools across the region.
You said there’s a drive to reform. What’s wrong with the system that needs changing?
Broadly speaking, teaching methods are wildly outdated with an overreliance on lecture style memorization. There is a lack of focus on teaching critical thought and education in the region is too concentrated on teaching and doesn’t pay enough attention to learning.
Are these issues region-wide?
Classroom culture varies throughout the region of course, but frankly these problems are widespread.
You also find that religious conservatism is rampant. Teachers don’t necessarily espouse good values. We aren’t going in and trying to reform all of these things at once, but we hope that by working with teachers and enlightening them, they will embrace a different approach to the classroom. When they start practicing these values in the classroom, it’s promoted in the wider society. Don’t misunderstand me—I’m not necessarily talking about western values, but rather globally held values of respect and inclusion.
What’s the biggest challenge for education in the Arab world?
The number of hours a student spends per week studying religion in class versus math or other basic skills is a problem. It’s the distribution of time and energy that’s an issue. I think the dominance of religion in curriculum is the most daunting obstacle. Firstly, It takes up an undue portion of time in the class. Secondly, it also permeates the entire curriculum and thus limits creativity and perspective. Even when you study geography and science, you’re studying the Quran. When you study Arabic, it’s there again. Thirdly, by definition religion is antithetical to critical thinking.
In this part of the world, is it hard for you to talk about religion as a barrier to education?
It’s very hard. I would say the overwhelming dominance of religion is the problem, rather than religion itself. In addition to this, even the teaching of religion is flawed. It’s about practice, obedience and memorization. It’s about the ability to recite the Quran without necessarily understanding it. You get people who are exposed to religious studies more than any other subject, but you don’t get people who actually understand their religion. There is no theology, we don’t teach that—just the practice of it.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.