TRIPOLI, Libya — On the first day of lectures since July, Tripoli University appeared a much-changed place last week. Gaudy “Free Libya” murals adorned the walls, the red-black-and-green revolutionary flag fluttered from the angular architecture, and young women outnumbered men in the busy corridors.
“A lot of guys died at the front,” said Arwa Muntasser, an 18-year-old medical student in a bright hijab and Free Libya jewelry. “A lot of my classmates were killed in the revolution.”
Their absence is the bitter price paid for the sense of anticipation tangible among teachers and students here, a nervous hope that the new era will sweep away a culture of indoctrination and corruption fostered in schools and universities by Moammar Gaddafi.
“We have 120,000 students and about 5,000 teaching staff, in a country of 6 million,” said Faisal Krekshi, Tripoli University’s new head. “This will tell you how vital this structure is. This place could be the nucleus of a rebuilt country.”
Stability is holding for the moment in Libya, which was shaken loose from Gaddafi’s 42-year grip this year by a bloody, internationally backed uprising. So the country has begun the process of rebuilding its institutions, which many believe the whimsical leader — who was killed in October — deliberately crippled to eliminate threats.
Creating a coherent army is important, if only to employ the armed revolutionaries still on the streets. But for those looking to the future, improving education is even more crucial — and more difficult.
“Gaddafi had this system so that the end result would be that people would be ignorant, so they would not be educated, so they would not be against him,” said Khadija bin Musa, who teaches computer engineering at Tripoli University.
She said that, under Gaddafi, she was forced to use what she considered old-fashioned teaching methods. “The students just memorize. There is no analysis or understanding,” she said, adding that the Gaddafi government “didn’t want people to think . . . to be creative or to read.”
When Gaddafi came to power in a 1969 coup, he built universities and schools and encouraged modern teaching methods and curricula. But as he cemented his dominance, publishing his Green Book of political theory and building a cult of personality, he changed the nation’s education goals drastically.
By the 1980s, the study of English and French was forbidden, and science, mathematics and medicine were being taught with less emphasis on demonstration, according to teachers. Often, they said, students were able to pass exams by writing patriotic slogans on the page or pulling strings with a relative close to the government.
Gaddafi “didn’t want Libyan people to be talented and prosperous,” said Sammy Sunni, a 23-year-old student. “It is quite sad that someone thinks in this way. . . . It is also insanely stupid.”
In schools, reading primers featured passages from Gaddafi’s writings, while classes in Islamic studies paired his words with those of the prophet Muhammad. Younger students devoted whole weeks to singing songs about the leader, drawing pictures of him and marching through neighborhoods chanting pro-Gaddafi slogans, teachers recalled. For older ones, study of the Green Book was compulsory.
Such classes were emblematic of all that was hated about the old way — “I always had the feeling the teachers didn’t believe” in Gaddafi-style education, said Sunni — and their disappearance underscores the questions facing education reformers now. What subjects should be kept, and what changed? Which teachers were too pro-Gaddafi to continue teaching, and which ones should be allowed to stay?
The curriculum is the easy part, said Suleiman al-Khoja, an Education Ministry official. The Green Book is gone, except as a historical artifact. Gaddafi-free versions of the reading and religious studies books are being produced. Math and science will remain untouched for now.
The humanities are more challenging — especially modern history, which in the Gaddafi era skipped the parts of the 1950s and ’60s when Libya had elections and a parliament. In particular, senior academics have warned teachers against glorifying the events of the uprising this year in a way reminiscent of Gaddafi’s cult of revolution.
But the most pressing matter is the fate of those teachers deemed close to the former government — and how to identify them. Educators used to have to present credentials from one of Gaddafi’s revolutionary committees to get a job, though many now say they hated the committee and lied to get the papers.
Others, facing calls to leave, protest that they had to work within the system to do any good at all. Khoja himself wrote parts of the curriculum under Gaddafi, describing it as a frustrating process in which the leader interfered frequently.
“We had to be part of the regime to make a difference,” Khoja said, while conceding that he may not be able to keep his senior ministry post. “Some people say we helped Gaddafi’s system stay longer, and in a way I accept this, but in a way I say no, I didn’t do everything he said.”
Those who taught the Green Book have been suspended on full pay while their fate is decided. Some educators and ministry officials spoke of the possibility of reconciliation and rehabilitation, but several suspended teachers said they feared violent repercussions if they told their stories.
Another problem teachers face is high expectations. University students have gone on strike to complain that promised books, buses and allowances have not materialized.
Tripoli University used to have offices for the secret police and Gaddafi’s favored son, Saif al-Islam, as well as networks of informers. Transforming it into a true center of learning will take time, said the dean of the medical school, Mustafa M. Gawass, although he applauded the idea of students striking — something unthinkable a year ago.
The new era in education could take other forms, as well. Many Libyans now rejoice in the freedom to be more openly devout and say they would welcome a more Islamic tinge to learning. Fatima Tayyar, a schoolteacher, wore voluminous black clothes at Eid celebrations this month, a sign of Islamic piety frowned on in the past.
“I couldn’t wear this in Gaddafi’s time, and I couldn’t talk to the students about religion,” she said. “Now I am free. . . . I want to teach religion, and the students want to learn it.”
But Hassan al-Damluji of the Britain-based education charity Achievement for All said that subject matter is less important than teaching methods. As long as children are encouraged to analyze, he said, they will build the skills to make up their own minds about the world around them.
“Whether they are taught Gaddafi dogma or Islamic theology, if the next generation are taught to think for themselves by well-informed teachers, they themselves will work out how to best build their country,” he said.