The Challenges of Teaching in Afghanistan:
Barry Rosen Heads Team
His fluency in Farsi is so good that the proprietor of an Afghani market once greeted him as “Mr. Iranian.” His language skills, cultivated in the Peace Corps (1967-9), along with his manifest idealism, made Barry Rosen a significant player in America’s Middle East initiatives in the late sixties. But, of course, it was Rosen’s year-long detention, along with 51 other hostages by Irani student radicals in November 1979, that made him well known. It’s been many years since Barry Rosen returned to civilian life, so to speak, but what’s striking about him in his new position as Director of Public and External Affairs at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), are his continued enthusiasm and dedication. He believed then, and he still believes, that it is his calling, his mission, to try to leave the world a better place. Recalling early years spent in a Yeshiva, before he attended Brooklyn College and after that, the Maxwell School of Public Affairs for a Master’s in Political Science, he invokes an old and important Hebrew maxim: “Tikkun Olam,” which means repairing or healing the world.
Given his past experiences in Iran and Afghanistan and the current state of affairs in both countries, it’s not surprising to know that Barry Rosen is a sought-after guest on various news programs where he is asked about political and educational conditions. He thinks many Americans don’t yet fully appreciate the complexity of facts abroad. For example, it is widely believed in this country that the Iranian president, Ahmad Ahmadinejad, is the most dominant person in his country, but that is not so. The supreme and most powerful presence is Sayyid Ali Khamenei and his band of loyal mullahs. He’s “the real decision maker,” says Rosen. It is he who controls the military and security forces. If Rosen’s rhetoric betrays impatience, it’s because this soft spoken, humane but focused pro, is frustrated that the current American administration does not seem to care about investing in what Rosen sees as the number one priority in both Iran and Afghanistan: education, though for sure the situation in both countries is not the same. For one, in Afghanistan approximately 80% of the population is Sunni (the other 20% being Shia).
Iran, Rosen points out, is largely in the grip of ideologues who are full of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment and apparently intractable, at the moment anyway, about considering democratic values. Afghanistan, on the other hand, has made some educational progress in its cities, particularly in Kabul. Rosen also discerns no attempts in Afghanistan to undo the educational advances he and colleagues helped establish when he was Teachers College’s Executive Director of External Affairs in Kabul. He points with pride to more girls in schools, the increased number of both boys and girls attending the lower and middle grades and to curricular and textbook reforms as well as new emphases in methodology still in place. Of course, outside Kabul, where local traditions reign and where there is hostility to girls going to school, challenges remain. Women who teach often do so in their own home, with their own children and those of neighbors. In addition, security remains a central problem country wide, as evidenced by continuing rocket attacks on civilians by warring tribes and by violence attendant on a flourishing drug trade.
In his new position at BMCC Barry Rosen easily and naturally carries over commitment to good works that moved him to become involved in Iran and then in Afghanistan. He is delighted, he says, to be working with a diverse student body, promoting and disseminating student and faculty news, both internally and for the public at large, online as well as in print. This month, for example, the focus is on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Yes, people know who he is and what happened to him when he was a hostage, but he is eager now to talk about his willing captivity to the compassionate ideals of Tikkun Olam.#