Operation: Enduring Education

Vanessa Persico

The public events of Colgate’s Education and Development conference culminated Thursday afternoon with a keynote presentation by His Excellency Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S. and Dr. Ashraf Ghani, Chancellor of Kabul University on “Networks of Knowledge against the Networks of Violence: The Case for Global Partnership.”

Jawad delivered his address after a welcome by University President Rebecca Chopp and an introduction by Michael Smith ’79, who had initially proposed the conference after conversations with Ghani.

“Afghanistan is a small country and looks like a far away place from here,” Jawad said. “[It] has somehow managed to be center stage…Afghanistan’s destiny has always been tied to major global changes.”

Jawad pointed out that today, after nearly a quarter of a century of war, more than 60 countries are helping Afghanistan stand on its own two feet, an example, Jawad said, of “the cooperation of civilizations.”

The United States’ relationship with Afghanistan has yielded overwhelmingly positive results, said Jawad. The constitution, national army and police forces, political integration, empowerment of women, infrastructure and free press have all been improved since the U.S. intervention, he said.

“We’ve come a long way,” he said, “But we are not out of the woods.”

Jawad said that the current Afghan government faces many challenges. It must fight “the menace of narcotics,” prevent human rights violations against both men and women, raise the percentage of the population with access to electricity and potable water and improve upon the current “totally unacceptable” literacy rate.

“We have to take these measures soon,” Jawad said. “There is a sense of urgency for us.”

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Replenishing human capital through education is key to Jawad’s plan. The new Afghan constitution mandates that the government provide free education for all of its citizens, from first grade through college.

This is a quantum leap from the country’s post-1978 mentality, according to Jawad.

“We didn’t ignore our education,” Jawad said. “We purposely destroyed it.”

First under the Soviet Union and then under the Taliban, schools and libraries were bombed, teachers exiled or killed and curricula politicized. This has left a devastating footprint: $40 million worth of damage has been done to Kabul University, 40 per cent of all school buildings are in ruins, and of those that still stand, only 20 per cent have roofs.

However, Jawad also cited a hopeful development: since 2002, there has been a tenfold increase in school enrollment. As Ghani said, Afghanistan’s populace recognizes that the future lies in international cooperation.

“In today’s divided world,” Jawad concluded, “Where extremists are building walls, the people of Afghanistan are building bridges.”

Ghani then came to the podium to speak on the importance of the eponymous “Networks of Knowledge.” Networks, he said, were subordinated to hierarchies during the first wave of globalization from 1815 to 1915. For Europe, he said, this period brought a century of peace. For the rest of the world, however, it was a century of sheer turbulence.

Ghani listed the destruction that Europe imposed upon the non-European world during this period: the opium trade in China, the forcible colonization of India and the carving up of Africa.

“This is not history,” Ghani said. “This is the past and the present that haunts us.”

He said that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was an “open moment” – a time when the future could be different from the past – that the world “utterly failed to take advantage of.”

Afghanistan had given the lives of many, many of its citizens to the war effort, Ghani said.

“The day that the war ended, the U.S. and the rest of the world abandoned us like dirty laundry,” he said. “That is called a failure of imagination. That is called a failure of leadership. And the consequences were realized on September 11, 2001.”

Ghani emphasized that human capital must be built up in order to provide a path of upward mobility and empower the young and the poor.

“And where is human capital? Of course,” he said, turning toward President Chopp, “In these institutions.”

Ghani said that many of the international problems of the day spring from an inattention to “global security” and and too much attention to borders.

“The point is that we have one world,” he said. “I say we focus on collective global prosperity and security or we all fail.”

In a private interview after the keynote presentation, Jawad, Ghani and Smith discussed Project Afghanistan. Already, they said, Colgate has been a leader in fortifying the country’s educational system.

Associate Professor of Computer Science Alexander Nakhimovsky has been instrumental in designing two-year, four-year and six-year computer science curricula for Kabul University.

The class of 1970 has adopted Kabul University as a whole as its challenge, and hopes to see succeeding classes adopt smaller portions of the project.

Students from Kabul and Colgate will be meeting this summer at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, where security is less of a consideration than at Kabul and where Colgate students will be helping with the African Virtual Open Initiatives and Resources (AVOIR) project.

Ghani said that distance learning can feasibly come into the picture, as well as programs through which students and staff members from Colgate are able to correspond directly with students and staff members from Kabul.

Colgate’s financial resources may also prove helpful to Afghanistan’s educational goals as time goes on and more alumni develop international connections.

Finally, Ghani said, it may one day be possible for students and faculty from Kabul to come to Colgate for short, medium or long terms.

“Colgate can serve as a template for what a small liberal arts university can do to help,” Smith said. He expressed hope that other Patriot League schools would follow Colgate’s lead and “take bite-sized pieces” of the effort.

“Afghanistan cannot afford to lose yet another generation of its young men and women,” Smith said.

Ghani spoke about the idea of global security and doing away with borders. “American prosperity cannot be separated from global prosperity,” he said. Jawad and Smith nodded their agreement.

“[Before September 11], Kandahar seemed very remote from New York City,” Jawad said. “Yet the people who terrorized Kandahar were the same ones who caused the disaster in New York.”

Wednesday’s lecture on “Technology, Institutional Policy and Educational Creativity” by Derek Keats of the University of the Western Cape focused on the idea that the world today is operating with twenty-first-century minds, twenty-first-century technology, and twenty-first-century pedagogy.

Keats said that information technology is currently used “for substitution, not transformation,” and that the key is to update teaching and learning theory to match the times and to emphasize creativity.

In Keats’ vision for education, the main tool for facilitating this creativity is “free software,” or software whose source code is left open for viewing, modification and redistribution depending on proper attribution to the original writers of the code.

Issues raised during the question-and-answer session involved backlash from software corporations and plagiarism.

“The [free software] license doesn’t make it any easier or more difficult to cite sources,” Keats said.

On Thursday at noon Cisco fellow and Chair of the Internet Society Board of Trustees Fred Baker spoke on the role of technology companies in higher education in developing countries.

Baker’s talk centered on the long-term returns to companies that invest in higher education.

“We want to teach a guy to fish,” he said, “And then he’ll buy lots of fishing hooks.”

The Cisco Corporation offers grants in the $10,000-$100,000 range to fund graduate student research, and this money goes directly to the students rather than to the universities, which sometimes take a cut, Baker said.

Baker, like Keats, stressed the importance of spreading new technological knowledge. He returned frequently to the idea of encouraging researchers to publish their findings in industry journals.

He was also in line with the spirit of Ghani, saying, “China shot itself in the foot very majorly in the 1970’s…it was called the Cultural Revolution.” When China eliminated its intellectual population, Baker said, it crippled its own future in a technologically advancing world.

Baker later said that the most important thing for Afghanistan is “getting off of a war footing and onto a business-friendly footing.”

“[Business] is the lifeblood of any country,” he said, “And the problem is, they’re bleeding.”