Commencement Speaker Serves as Senior Adviser to Coalition Education Ministry
BIRMINGHAM, Ala.--Dr. John Agresto, a former college president who has written widely on education and government, went to Iraq last summer to help reconstruct the country’s higher education system in the aftermath of war.
In his role as Senior Adviser for Higher Education and Scientific Research to the Coalition Provisional Authority, Dr. Agresto set about putting the 70 universities and technical colleges in touch with American universities for assistance.
He arranged for books and science equipment to be sent to Iraqi schools damaged by war. He organized three new liberal arts schools. He lent his expertise as an educator in any way that would help the school system rebound.
Will the U.S. be successful in these and other efforts to establish democracy in Iraq?
"We may not," Agresto said during Commencement remarks at Samford May 22. He addressed a graduating class of 677 seniors. Cumberland School of Law graduated 158 seniors later in the day. The graduates hailed from 24 states and nine foreign nations.
Education will play a vital role in whether Iraq can grow as a democracy, he said. And a key question is whether the Iraqi education system can become more "liberal and liberating" and less narrowly focused, he said.
Thomas Jefferson said "there is no democracy without education," Agresto reminded. "Without the ability to think about alternatives, evaluate courses of action, and weigh consequences, no country can succeed."
The Iraqi education system has emphasized training people deeply in areas for which they test well, such as engineering and computer activity, but not broadly beyond their fields. Part of Agresto’s efforts have been to broaden the approach "so that thinking, questioning and common deliberation could take place," he said.
The goal is to "let students think about their course of study, choose their majors freely, let them ask questions, see more than just their specialties, and give them breadth, not just narrow, expert depth."
In short, his work with a group of Iraqi college presidents seeks one result for students. The former president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N. Mex., characterized it this way: "Give them the ability to reflect and choose. Give them the tools for rational deliberation."
Agresto, a political scientist, was named to his post in Iraq last August and has been in the country for most of the time since then. He came to Samford Commencement directly from Baghdad, returning after a short visit with his family.
"Maybe we will succeed," Agresto said of America’s efforts to build "civil society" in Iraq. He is sure of only one thing. If efforts are successful, a broadened approach to education will be a key ingredient.