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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Schooling the State: Educators in Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan: c. 1890-c. 1960

  • Author(s): Falb Kalisman, Hilary Bell
  • Advisor(s): Doumani, Beshara
  • Laqueur, Thomas W
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the links between education and political culture by analyzing government-employed educators during the formative period of nation-state creation in the Middle East. It argues that a dearth of qualified personnel, coupled with local support of education, allowed educators in the government schools of Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan, to act as privileged intermediaries, backed by both the states that employed them, and by their societies. Educators’ status as popular and scarce civil servants encouraged them to participate in anti-government protests while remaining government employees. The aggregate consequences of educators’ ability to protest without losing their posts included ideological flexibility, the sidelining of educated groups from armed rebellions and the maintenance of non-representative regimes. Their stories articulate how local civil servants, frequently at the lowest levels of colonial bureaucracies, shape administration and governance.

During the late Ottoman period, educated individuals participated in a culture of petitions and negotiation, which connected civil servants and the Ottoman state. The British military and Mandate administrations incorporated Ottoman laws regarding education, as well as Ottoman-founded institutions and Ottoman-trained personnel into the educational systems of the Mandates. This continuity between British and Ottoman policies, institutions and personnel perpetuated Ottoman-era modes of interaction between educators and the governments that employed them.

British policy makers feared anti-colonial rebellions on the part of an educated unemployed, like uprisings that had taken place in both India and Egypt during periods of British control. Therefore, British officials in Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan restricted government schooling, particularly at upper levels, to a select few. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the region, and the League of Nations’ requirements to prepare the Mandates for eventual independence, resulted in local and international demand for government-sponsored education. This situation of scarcity and need granted educators a privileged position vis-à-vis their employers. Educators used their rare status to manipulate and petition their governments, while rising through the ranks of the civil service. In so doing, they evinced a broader notion of agency than simple resistance to colonial domination.

Educators also theorized and articulated a variety of political ideologies, particularly during the interwar period. Educators’ experiences as students and their relationships to their governments as well as their birthplaces and families shaped their concepts of political affiliation. The American University of Beirut (AUB) in particular functioned as a hub of pan-Arabism for educators; students from throughout the region met, studied, and learned to protest while at AUB. Their academic credentials permitted AUB graduates to put their philosophies into practice, as teachers, authors, administrators and later ministers throughout the Mandates. However, self-avowedly nationalist educators, even at their most extreme, overwhelmingly remained employed by their governments in some capacity despite their rebellious reputations. Educators’ need to work within the government, to keep their present jobs, and the desire of local communities to preserve education and to safeguard their children’s futures reinforced teachers and administrators’ incorporation into government service.

In the late 1950s, three factors threatened educators’ intermediary role. These factors denigrated teachers’ social and economic status, and pushed them towards collective rather than individual action. Mass education reduced the scarcity of teachers; their formerly rare educational qualifications became more common, and less valuable. Standardization, through rigid modes of inspection and national examinations that dictated children’s future careers, reduced educators’ ability to teach beyond the prescribed curriculum. Repressive measures on the part of each government also limited the intermediary position teachers had previously enjoyed. The concurrent hardening of national borders reduced the fluidity of political affiliations once open to the Mandates’ inhabitants.

From the late 1890s through the late 1950s, educators and former educators leveraged their scarcity. As both teachers and government ministers, they influenced the young minds of the region within and beyond the classroom. Their favored status lasted until colonial restrictions on education lessened, and mass education eroded their capacity for bargaining with their governments. The stories of these teachers and administrators underscore the importance of local civil servants to the functioning of imperial, colonial and independent governments. Their rebellions from within the government bureaucracy demonstrate how government education as an institution can simultaneously shore up and impair the authority of its state.

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