This is what my colleague and I were told this morning, while trying to apply for teaching positions at the Lebanese University, proud of our respective 20+ pages CVs and countless publications. The secretary in charge of receiving the applications looked at us, laughing, cynically: “Why do you want to apply to this university? Professors are paid every two or three years, depending on the political situation, and do not dream of a full-time position. It is also a political matter – in other words: seems you do not have a wasta (plug), and in this institution you need one. Why did you come back to Lebanon? Why did you leave France and Canada – meaning: what are you doing here? Are you crazy?? Philosophy? We do not need philosophers! Nor experts in sciences of religions of course! And in fact, we do not need anyone! A call for application? Which one? Ah that one… Mmm… This is a list of papers you should submit, but I do not encourage you…”
Needless to say that we were shocked for quite a moment, and a glass of wine seemed the only remedy to this awkward encounter. Everybody knows the Lebanese University, which is the only public university in Lebanon, has problems at all levels: lack of modernization, need of restructuring and change in the faculty and administration’s qualifications, managing the institution is politicized and associated with personal and sectarian interests, etc. Still, one thing is to read about those problems in sporadic articles, and another thing is to face a harsh chaotic reality condensed in a limited time frame and space. The endless struggle of LU students and teachers incarnated in those tiny outdated office, cracked building and embittered employee with a significant axe to grind. The endless battles of individuals and civil society’s organizations for a better university, and country… Working hard, eager to take those to the level of their ambitions and aspirations, away from all sorts of factional, sectarian, partisan and personal interests whatsoever.
The Lebanese University was born in 1950, owing to the strike carried out by students of the poor classes who were unable to pay the private universities’ fees. And today? Professors demonstrating from time to time, defending their own rights as well as their students’; teachers being excluded if they happen to be independent Shiites, Sunnis, Christians and Druze, not affiliated to any party; quotas controlling the LU teachers’ appointments; a strong need for new and diversified specialties, hence additional teachers, and dedicated professors in light of the rising numbers of retiring persons – which is not the case of contract teachers; they simply have no time for elaborate scientific research as they need time to focus on education, either in private universities or schools, so as to secure a decent life.
Let me remind my fellow citizens and our so-called political leaders that the decadence of a nation is linked to poor standards of education, and the leadership problem is a product of falling standards and mediocrity. Failure to invest in education undermines the future of our children, exacerbating social inequality and economic crisis.
I became a university teacher because I enjoy helping young people learn. I saw teaching as a way to “make a difference”, especially in this war-torn country. But at this moment in history, teachers face opponents who are doing great harm, to children, schools, universities and our profession, harm that we cannot impede solely through our role in classrooms. Where are university teachers’ unions? Isn’t it time to think/rethink unions’ goals and organizational structures? Maybe as social movements, seeing its members’ well-being as inextricably connected to broad struggles for social, economic and political justice. Considering now how Honduran teachers led the movement to protect political freedom when the nation’s duly-elected president was ousted by the military…
The bottom line is simple yet important. We collectively need to make greater efforts to arm the next generation with the right mix of robustness, excellence, creativity and agility. If we want to get Lebanon back to work, “you don’t fire teachers or don’t care about your human resources, you invest in them”. It is time for our ‘leaders’ to show foresight and courage by recognizing that public (and private) higher education is simply too big — and far too important — to fail.
Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, once issued this challenge: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Our nation simply cannot afford to give ignorance a try and see what happens. That’s a short-sighted choice based on a misguided, penny-wise-pound-foolish attitude. Our ability to survive, before even competing and winning in the regional economy, requires an emergency plan to rescue and revitalize our higher education system.
Image source: harveysarles.com