Friday, August 3, 2007

A Syrian Rendezvous with Destiny?

Syria Today Magazine
August 2007

There is plenty of talk in Syria these days about the glorious future of the next generation. Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari – Syria’s reform guru – told Syria Today last month that his generation would be the last to “sit and talk” about reclaiming the Golan Heights. It seems the 200,000-odd young Syrians flooding a stagnant job market every year are running out of patience.

At the end of his first term 71 years ago, US President Franklin Roosevelt told millions of young Americans struggling to find work during the Great Depression that they had a “rendezvous with destiny”. And they did. Not only did they help defeat fascist authoritarianism in Europe, but what is today known as the “Greatest Generation” went on to build the world’s only remaining economic and political superpower.

How did this happen? Ironically, the federal government invested much more in their education than weapons. Millions of American soldiers returned home not to their old jobs as farmers and labourers, but to university paid for or subsidised by a state grateful for their battlefield sacrifice. Women, who took the place of their husbands on the assembly lines during the war, kept their jobs. The result was a transformation of the American labour market that led to sustained economic growth in peacetime and greater equality among the sexes.

Sabre-rattling and wars in the Middle East continue to grab international headlines. Meanwhile, countries like Syria are working to overhaul their education systems to prepare youth for a better and more prosperous tomorrow. So far it has been hard going. Decades of state-dominance of education spread learning opportunities into the far corners of Syria. But the system it spread often placed memorisation and obedience above problem solving and creative thinking. This trained Syrians to await orders instead of identifying problems and solving them independently. Today, ministers and businessmen (and editors in chief!) sit at their desks pulling out their hair because the productivity of their workers is frighteningly low.

As usual, the private sector is racing to the rescue. A slew of programmes now aim to turn Syria’s education system on its head. Many of the ideas involve trade-offs of quantity versus quality, and rewarding individual effort. International consultants are on hand like never before to help programme steps in the right direction. The sooner Syria starts to implement new programmes, so the logic goes, the better Syria’s future prospects.

But can the private sector also criticise itself? Analysts and practitioners are quick to say that Syria’s education system is also an extension of home life. Many Syrian youth cannot easily challenge their fathers’ decisions on most issues and are expected to obey arbitrary decisions. Parents are quick to reply that they protect and provide for their children better than moms and dads in the West. Maybe. But dictating a career path (or marital partner) beyond their child’s wishes often saps their productivity and all but destroys self-actualisation – the stage of human development (coined by psychologist Abraham Maslow) where creativity, spontaneity, problem solving and lack of prejudice thrive.

Sound like another egghead, Western concept that doesn’t easily fit in Arab culture? Perhaps. But a quick look across the globe shows that the trajectory of human development from Beijing to Brasilia and beyond is to allow the individual to bloom, which in turn makes stronger nations. Today, Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, and South Korean companies, amongst others, are challenging America economically. Their governments are increasingly standing up to Washington as well. By planning for a more prosperous peacetime now through greater creativity and free thinking, Syrians might just be able to overcome their challenges in the region, tap into their renowned trading and business prowess, and make their own rendezvous with destiny.

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