Thursday, April 28, 2005


Bellevue University hosted a dinner in Omaha Thursday with a guest speaker who was sent by the U.S. government to Iraq in 2003. His purpose: to help rebuild their 22 universities and 46 vocational colleges after the twin assaults of the Saddam regime, and the looting and bombing of the insurgency. What he has to say provides important lessons for how Americans can and should conserve what’s good about our educational system.

We all know about the casual torture, rape rooms, beheadings, and 300,000 political corpses in Iraq. The insanity and depravity reflected in news accounts of the war and its aftermath put a new perspective on the blessings of living in a free society.

But hearing stories about looters who ripped wires out of classroom walls and sinks out of science labs, and professors trying to teach chemistry with ingredients labeled “Expires June 1980,” puts new perspective on the billions and billions of dollars that Americans have invested in our school facilities and supplies, and how we shouldn’t take what we’ve built for granted or let it slide in the direction of what happened in Iraq.

Leftist extremism in American universities, speech codes and Political Correctness all come into chilling focus when you learn that Iraqi universities and their professors were denied new books under Saddam, suffered from “endemic corruption,” couldn’t access the Internet, couldn’t get a Ph.D. if they weren’t in Saddam’s political party, couldn’t go to conferences abroad and couldn’t learn from visiting professors . . . all because of the intellectual totalitarianism propagated by Saddam.

The speaker, former college president and now educational consultant John Agresto of Santa Fe, N.M., told the Omahans that the desperate straits of Iraqi higher education stem in large part from the “tyranny of socialism” under Saddam. Utter dependency on government, even a corrupt and violent one, has denied the Iraqi people a foundation of self-sufficiency which may prevent them from ever having a great education system or a truly free society, he said.

“It was a funny kind of tyranny,” Agresto said, noting that Saddam’s tactics of alternately spreading treasure and torture made the people “very much like children,” scared to death of making a mistake that could cost them their lives. They had free food, free water and free electricity, but they valued their own institutions so little that they burned entire libraries and destroyed college buildings during their looting rampage.

For example, the army found $43,000 in cash that Saddam had ratholed, and gave it to a university dean to fix the bombed-out windows on his campus. He was soon fired for political reasons – apparently he wasn’t enough of a religious fanatic, Agresto said. Agresto became curious as to what had happened to the money, and called the former dean to ask.

It turns out that he had been so afraid of making a mistake and ordering the wrong windows – a mistake which, in that culture, could actually get you killed – that he had just put the money under his bed. He was relieved when Agresto called, because he wanted to give it back to the authorities, but didn’t know how. So Agresto met him and received two big shopping bags full of cash, which he turned over to the new dean.

Agresto joked that when President Bush appointed him to the job, he never expected to go from being a college president to “a bag man.”

Agresto is former president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe and is an expert on the liberal arts who has been assistant, deputy and acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He said that the Iraqi vocational colleges and their students were actually in better shape than the universities. That’s because they stuck to business of preparing students for future careers, while the universities had been ravaged politically for so many years that he has doubts that they will ever be very good.

So what hope is there for the Iraqi future? Agresto said, “The answer is to bring a kind of prosperous, middle-class democracy to Iraq – make the other Arab countries worry about something other than God and what I believe and what you believe and am I going to go to heaven? We need them thinking about getting a job – get them to mind their own business. Adam Smith said that people do the least amount of damage when they are engaged in business, and that is really what we need to be about over there.”

Agresto said he was afraid for his life a few times while in that country, and said, “I don’t think we did a very good job of restoring order over there . . . we went without enough men, money and gumption to do all that we had to do when we went over there.”

He anticipates more chaos, violence and disruption in that country of 27 million people, and warned that the younger generation is much more radical and volatile than their elders. Agresto is working on a book about his experiences, “Mugged By Reality: Lessons I Learned in Iraq and Other Classrooms.”

The insights prompted Bellevue University President John B. Muller to say after the meeting that the speech reminded him that the freedom, democracy and economic prosperity that we have built up in this nation “are not part of the natural state of affairs,” and need to be carefully cultivated with renewed attention and investment, including in our institutions of higher learning.

Muller also said the disturbing developments in Islamic fundamentalism and the breakdown in dealings between nation-states, government to government, pose tremendous long-term challenges for the generation of Americans now being prepared in college.

For more about Bellevue University, see

For more about Agresto, see

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