2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Back to the Future

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    Barry Rosen, director of the TC Afghan Project.

Most people shake their heads when they hear that Barry Rosen, TC's former Executive Director of External Affairs, is working in Kabul as head of the Afghanistan Education Project-a joint effort between the College and UNICEF to create a modern education system in the war-torn country. After all, Rosen was one of the 52 hostages who were held captive for over a year beginning in November 1979 by Iranian students in Tehran.

But for Rosen, that experience was confirmation of a truth to which others merely pay lip service: the idea that education is the best means to defuse the misery and hatred that fuels terrorist violence. 

"TC actually first went into Afghanistan in 1954 to try to build an educational experience for Afghanis," Rosen explained in a recent interview. "With support from USAID, the College reorganized the Ministry of Education, created a process for providing text books and then conducted teacher training for nearly 25 years." But then came revolution, and the ensuing two decades of strife erased most of the College's efforts.  "So when the Taliban fell, Arthur [TC President Arthur Levine] and I began talking about resuscitating the project."

Rosen is now based in Kabul, working with a small team that consists of retired TC Professor Margaret Jo Shepherd and a group of Afghan Canadians, as well as Afghan counterparts in the Ministry of Education. "Right now we're developing textbooks and teacher training," he said. "We're trying to build a child-centered curriculum in Afghanistan with child-centered pedagogy and textbooks."  

The group is working within the framework of Afghani history and culture even as it attempts to create a new model of what the learning process in Afghanistan will look like. "Traditionally, students here have simply memorized information and spit it right back," Rosen explained. "We want to induce students to be part of the learning process." Each lesson presented in the new textbooks demands that students think critically, a revolutionary concept in Afghani education.

Teachers, too, are learning new ways of thinking: "Teacher education here has consisted of simply telling teachers what lesson to teach when. This is the first time they'll learn how to work in a classroom with students." Not surprisingly, he adds, "younger teachers are more receptive than veteran teachers out in the districts and provinces who have not been trained for years."

Rosen recently led an effort to field-test new math, science and social studies textbooks written in Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan's two major languages. The work required him to travel through some rough areas, on roads still subject to sudden ambushes and attacks. But seeing the children's response to the new books made the risk worthwhile. "All of our books are illustrated and culturally sensitive toward Afghanistan," he said. "We have one called Life Skills that I think is particularly important because it addresses the tremendous amount of trauma Afghanis have gone through. There are chapters entitled, ?Who am I?', ?What is the meaning of conflict?' and ?How do I resolve conflict with someone else?'"

Rosen is also proud to report that one-third of Afghani children now in school are young girls.  "The young girls are really thirsting for knowledge. And there are women teaching now for the first time in many years. So there is movement afoot, but it's going to take a long time-probably generations."

The best way to begin that change, he said, is by asking children themselves to think, to question themselves about who they are, and above all, to talk about it. "It's all part and parcel of how you build a civic society," he said.

If there has been one disappointment for Rosen, it has been the lack of outside funding for the Afghanistan Project. But he is determined to stay the course and keep TC involved for as long as possible. "Our intention is nothing other than to open up the system and bring some fresh air," he said. "That works hand in glove with a democratic system. And that's what TC is all about."

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