I’m just back from the 69th NAFSA: Association of International Educators annual conference in Los Angeles. It’s my 40th year of membership in NAFSA. My career has circled through many many upheavals on the world stage – and the conference has grown so large (9,700 in attendance from 107 nations) in scope that it’s become a gathering of educators struggling to make sense of war, conflict, and social upheaval in the most complex regions of our world society.
One of the most difficult sessions for me dealt with the destruction of the campus of the University of Anbar in Ramadi, Iraq (http://www.ibtimes.com/iraq-militants-attack-anbar-university-3-guards-killed-1595792) . I can still vividly recall the slide show shown depicting how ISIS forces destroyed virtually every academic building on the campus – including the building which contained the offices of the speaker calmly describing the carnage and pointing out the slide of the building which housed his office…It looked like the bombing of Dresden in WWII.
This session was ostensibly about “what comes next as the country rebuilds’, however, I left the session immeasurably saddened by the destruction I was watching. Yes, there was talk by an IREX representative of new scholarships, and the hopeful (albeit measured) optimism of the outgoing Iraqi cultural affairs officer about prospects for re-building the economy and educating students for a new future; however, clearly, this future is a long way off. A pathway which collides with so many unknown political forces in the region.
Anytime we discuss education, there’s an implied optimism about the power of knowledge and the willfulness of the learner. The hope of these speakers was dependent on the defeat of ISIS. One of the slides showed students returning to clean the grounds with their bare hands. I’m not sure what else I can say about this scene — only that it was so sobering and far removed from the display of strength of the global higher education system in the conference exhibit hall.
As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “And so it goes…”