BENGHAZI, Libya: How do you teach in schools where history books omitted revolutions, geography books had few maps and children learned never to question authority?
Libyan rebels are having to come up with responses to those and related issues as they try to reopen schools in rebel-held Benghazi where in the past much of the curriculum was devoted to the wisdom of longtime ruler Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.
Before the uprising against Gadhafi began in February, “Mushtama” and “Fikr al-Jamahiri” weekly lessons based on his doctrine were mandatory, rebels say. Schoolchildren studied insights from Gadhafi’s Green Book, which famously includes lines like “Women menstruate every month or so, while men, being male, do not” and were quizzed on topics like “Why was Gadhafi’s 1969 revolution successful?”
The correct answer to that, students learned, lay in four points, the first point being that it was planned in secret.
“It was really shameful that you had to memorize and repeat all the things it said as if you were convinced of it,” said Brayka Tarhouni, a doctor who was told to repeat her second year of university after passing all her medical subjects but failing Fikr al-Jamihiri.
Those subjects will no longer be taught when schools reopen, but rebel officials said there is much more to overhaul. “My son in fourth grade was being taught about the Stone Age in history class,” said Hanal al-Gallal, who oversees education issues for the local council in the rebel base of Benghazi.
“They don’t know anything about World War I, World War II or the French Revolution. He [Gadhafi] was scared of any story that might make people stand up for their rights.”
Schools and universities have been shut in the rebel-held east since the uprising began, and the rebel administration is keen to reopen them to show a semblance of normality and distract youth from the conflict.
Ordering them open may be the easy part. Teachers have fled, parents are wary of sending their children to school amid fears of insecurity, and teachers have to be retrained to encourage free thinking and end corporal punishment.
“It’s a completely new building of an institution. We’re starting from zero – actually from below zero,” said Gallal.
She said the days when she was made to stand in the sun for two hours as punishment for failing to show up for military training at the age of 12 were over, but Libyan children were still being hit for failing to memorize pre-written answers to questions.
Gallal said she is working to reopen schools by June, so students can catch up on studies before they start the new school year in October. Some schools have already thrown their doors open for a couple of hours a day to ward off boredom and stress from a civil war that shows no imminent signs of an end.
In a private school run by Thaira al-Barasi in Benghazi, children are back for a few hours a day for activities like sketching and singing.
“I was very surprised. When I divided them into groups, I thought they would name the groups after the sun, moon and flowers,” said Barasi. “But they named the groups after revolutionary heros like Omar al-Mukhtar.”
Indeed, Gallal says she is optimistic that students will adapt to a new system quickly, despite the challenges.
“We’re making history right now in the Arab region,” she said. “If the students learn this, they’ve learned a lot.”