TRIPOLI, Libya — "Our enemies are targeting our nationality and our beliefs.… Throughout their history, the Arabs have faced one foreign enemy with one ambition: to divide us up."
So began the first day of school for Libya's 14-year-olds in 2010. The previous year they had been taught how the Crusades and the Ottoman "occupation" drove the "Arab Nation" back into a dark age. Now, this ninth-grade history textbook told them the story of Arab nationalism and its leader, Egyptian liberator Gamal Abdel Nasser -- the adolescent hero of Muammar al-Qaddafi. It was only a fitting tribute: Nasser, after all, had helped inspire Qaddafi's 1969 seizure of power in Libya -- a coup that Qaddafi institutionalized over four decades in power by exercising sweeping control over even the most basic lessons taught in classrooms.
Qaddafi made his eccentric ideologies the very foundation of Libyan schooling, from the warped renderings of the past in history books to the opaque political theories in the Green Book, the Qaddafi treatise that formed the core of the Libyan curriculum. Multiple generations were taught under this regime, so when the revolution came last year it was no simple matter to fix an education system needing an overhaul from top to bottom.
Members of the ruling National Transitional Council first met in the spring of last year to discuss how to purge Qaddafi's curriculum, and despite the six further months of civil war that followed, the new Education Ministry managed to dispense with Qaddafi's old books by the time schools in Tripoli reopened in September. For the time being, schools have relied on flimsy handouts and even reprints of books from the early 1970s.
The question now is how to create an intellectual basis for free thinking out of a near vacuum. What will fill the books that replace Qaddafi's? If history is written by the winners, Libya's rebels still have much work to do.
THE NEW EDUCATION MINISTRY is housed in a spacious yellow stone building erected by Italian colonists and boasting a tiled fountain and peaceful courtyard. Open since September, the ministry stands on a tree-lined street just up the road from Tripoli's Martyrs' Square -- formerly Green Square until it was seized and renamed by Libya's revolutionaries last year.
When I met Suliman el-Sahli, the acting education minister, there in March, he told me that "the most important thing to change in the curriculum was anything related to the old regime."
Generations of Libyans had come to resent Qaddafi's deep influence on the public schools. Under his rule, any administrator or curriculum designer was required to be a member of the lijan thawriya ("revolutionary committees") -- a sort of all-purpose thought police and snitch service. Libyan textbooks printed only what the dictator mandated, with all educational principles ultimately drawn from his three-part, roughly 100-page Green Book, first published in the 1970s. Whether claiming that "dictatorship is established under the cover of false democracy" in elections or criticizing political parties as "instrument[s] to rule the people," Qaddafi's text was widely considered convoluted and inconsistent -- not to mention reviled openly by many Libyans
Students didn't read the full Green Book, instead absorbing the thoughts of the "Brother Leader" through companion textbooks for the mandatory "Jamahiriya studies." (Jamahiriya, which translates literally as "republics," was Qaddafi's term for his system of government.) Lasting from ages 9 to 18, these courses formed the basis for education and civic life in Libya, but the Jamahiriya books were also largely incomprehensible. A text for 12-year-olds, for instance, introduces the concept of "popular committees" -- local government bodies under Qaddafi's rule -- that were "chosen by the masses." The committees do not "make decisions," the Jamahiriya book says, but instead "collect the decisions of the masses, which they took note of in the popular meetings." The book instructs each class of students to choose such a "committee" to represent them, "and from the committees of each class you will establish the popular conferences, where these committees will choose another committee to go to the regional conferences." But Libyans told me that did not happen when they were students.
Even subjects that did not seem political were treated as though they were. Geography, for example, was taught with maps that failed to show national borders in the Arab world, in keeping with Qaddafi's exaggerated Nasserist ideology of pan-Arab unity. It was often difficult for Libyan students to know their country's own borders, Suleiman Khoja, the new deputy education minister, told me.