Two Academies in Rojava
by Janet Biehl
“You have to educate, twenty-four hours a day, to learn how to discuss, to learn how to decide collectively. You have to reject the idea that you have to wait for some leader to come and tell the people what to do, and instead learn to exercise self-rule as a collective practice. . . . The people themselves educate each other. When you put ten people together and ask them for a solution to a problem or propose them a question, they collectively look for an answer. I believe in this way they will find the right one. This collective discussion will make them politicized.”—Salih Muslim, PYD co-president, November 2014
After the revolution of July 2012, when new self-governing institutions came to power in Rojava, the need for a new kind of education was paramount. Not that the people of western Kurdistan were uneducated—high school graduation rates were and are very high there, as the Academic Delegation learned during our December 2014 visit. But education was crucial to creating the revolutionary culture in which the new institutions could thrive. It is a matter not for children and youths alone but for adults as well, even the elderly.
As Aldar Xelîl, a member of the council of Tev-Dem, explained to us, Rojava’s political project is “not just about changing the regime but creating a mentality to bring the revolution to the society. It’s a revolution for society.” Dorşîn Akîf, a teacher at the academy, agreed: “Perception has to be changed,” she told us, “because mentality is so important for our revolution now. Education is crucial for us.”
The first issue that the revolution had to confront was the language of instruction. For four decades under the Assad regime, Kurdish children had had to learn Arabic and study in Arabic. The Kurdish language was banned from public life; teaching it was illegal and could be punished by imprisonment and even torture. So when the Syrian Kurds took their communities into their own hands, they immediately set up Kurdish language instruction. The first such school to open was Şehîd Fewzî’s School in Efrîn canton, followed by one each in Kobanê and Cizîre. By August 2014, Cizîrê alone had 670 schools with 3,000 teachers offering Kurdish language courses to 49,000 students.
Mesopotamian Academy, Qamislo
On December 8 the delegation visited Rojava’s first and only institution of higher education, the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy in Qamislo. The Assad regime had permitted no such institutions in the Kurdish areas; this one opened in September 2014 and is still very much under construction.
Teaching and discussions are mostly in Kurdish, although the sources are often in Arabic, since many essential texts have not yet been translated into Kurdish.
We met with several members of the administration and faculty, including the rector, Rojda Firat, and teachers Adnan Hasan, Dorşîn Akîf, Medya Doz, Mehmod Kalê, Murat Tolhildan, Serhat Mosis, and Xelîl Hussein.
One challenge the academy faces, they told us, is that people in northeastern Syria think they have to go abroad to get a good education. “We want to change that,” said one instructor, dismissing it as a notion instilled by hegemonic forces. “We don’t want people to feel inferior about where they live. In the Middle East there is a huge amount of knowledge and wisdom, and we are trying to uncover it. Many things that have happened in history happened here.”
The school year consists of three terms, each lasting three to four months, progressing from overviews of subjects to specialization to final projects. The curriculum comprises mainly history and sociology. Why those subjects? we asked. They are crucial, we were told. Under the regime, “our existence [as Kurds] was disputed. We are trying to show that we exist and have made many sacrifices along the way. . . . We consider ourselves part of history, subjects of history.” The instruction seeks to “uncover histories of peoples that have been denied, . . . to create a new life to overcome the years and centuries of enslavement of thought that have been imposed on people.” Ultimately its purpose is “to write a new history.”
The sociology curriculum takes a critical stance toward twentieth-century positivism and instead seeks to develop a new, alternative social science for the twenty-first century, what Abdullah Öcalan calls “sociology of freedom.” For their final projects, students choose a particular social problem, then research it and write a thesis on how to resolve it, in connection with this alternative. So the learning practical as well as intellectual, intended to serve a social good.
Unlike conventional Western approaches, the academy’s pedagogy rejects the unidirectional transmission of facts. Indeed it doesn’t strictly separate teachers and students. Teachers learn from students and vice versa; ideally, through intersubjective discourse, they ideally come to shared conclusions. Nor are the instructors necessarily professors; they are people whose life experience has given them insights that they can impart. One teacher, for example, recounts folk tales once a week. “We want teachers to help us understand the meaning of life,” we were told. “… We focus on giving things meaning, being able to interpret and comment as well as analyze.”
Students take exams, but those exams don’t measure knowledge–they’re “more like reminders, like dialogues.” And teachers themselves are subject to evaluation by students. “You did not explain this very well,” a student can say. A teacher who is criticized has to talk out the issue with the student until they both feel they understand each other.
In many ways, the academy’s approach reminded me of the educational ideas advanced by the twentieth-century American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952). Like the Rojava instructors, Dewey was critical of traditional approaches, in which teachers transmit facts unidirectionally to passive students. Instead, he regarded education as an interactive process, in which students explore social issues through critical give-and-take with their teachers.
Dewey would likely have approved the fact that the academy, rather than requiring students to memorize, teaches them to “claim,” or overcome separateness. “We emphasize that everyone is a subject.” Moreover, it instills habits of lifelong learning: “Our goal is to give students the ability to educate themselves,” beyond graduation Dewey too thought learning should address the whole person, not the intellect alone; that it should highlight our common human condition; and that it should continue throughout life.
The academy seeks not to develop professionalism but to cultivate the well-rounded person. “We believe humans are organisms, they can’t be cut up into parts, separated into sciences,” an instructor told us. “One can be a writer or a poet and also be interested in economy, understand it, because human beings are part of all life.”
For decades, the schools of the Baath regime, with its nationalistic focus, had aimed to create an authoritarian mentality. The Mesopotamian Academy is intent on overcoming this grim past by “helping create free individuals and free thoughts.” Once again I was reminded of Dewey, who also rejected the notion that the purpose of education is to create docile workers for hierarchical workplaces. Rather, he thought, education should help students fulfill the full range of their human potentiality.
The Mesopotamian Academy does not encourage professionalism; least of all does it show students how to maximize their economic self-interest. In the United States, far too many top students nowadays head to Wall Street for careers as investment bankers, but education in Rojava is not about “building a career and getting rich.” Rather, academy students are taught to “ask themselves how to enrich society.”
John Dewey thought the ultimate purpose of education was to create reflective beings who participate ethically as citizens in the democratic community; and that education should thus be a force for social reform. As if echoing this thought, one of the instructors remarked to our delegation, “When we do science of society, what we are trying to do is struggle for social freedom.”
None of the Mesopotamian Academy teachers mentioned John Dewey, and I have no reason to think that they knew his approach; surely they arrived at it independently. But the similarity was striking.
I was also struck by a further coincidence. In the mid-twentieth century, Dewey’s ideas influenced several experimental schools in the United States. Most notable was Goddard College, located in central Vermont, which in the 1960s and 1970s was a trailblazer in Deweyite education. During most of the 1970s, one of the teachers at Goddard College was Murray Bookchin, who taught his ideas under the name “social ecology” there. Bookchin did not write much specifically about education, but his writings on democracy and ecology would go on, in translation, to influence Abdullah Öcalan and Democratic Confederalism, the overall ideology to which Rojava is committed.
Yekitiya Star Academy, Rimelan
The women’s academy (Yekitiya Star Academy) in Rimelan pushes the educational approach of the Mesopotamian Academy further. Founded in 2102, its purpose is to educate female revolutionary cadres, so naturally its emphasis on ideology is more pronounced. The Academic Delegation visited on December 3, 2014.
Over the past thirty years, instructor Dorşîn Akîf told us, women participated in the Kurdish freedom movement, first as fighters, then in women’s institutions. Three years ago Kurdish women produced Jineolojî, or “women’s science,” which they regard as the culmination of that decades-long experience. At the academy in Rimelan, students are first given a general overview of Jineolojî, “the kind of knowledge that was stolen from women” and that women today can recover. “We are trying to overcome women’s nonexistence in history. We try to understand how concepts are produced and reproduced within existing social relations, then we come up with our own understanding. We want to establish a true interpretation of history by looking at the role of women and making women visible in history.”
Jineolojî, said Dorşîn, considers women to be “the main actor in economy, and economy as the main activity of women.” Yet capitalist modernity defines economy as man’s primary responsibility. But we say this is not true, that always and everywhere women are the main actors in the economy.” Because of this basic contradiction, it seems, capitalist modernity will eventually be overcome.
The way people interpret history affects the way they act, said Dorşîn, so “we talk about pre-Sumerian social organization. We also look how the state emerged historically and how the concept has been constructed.” But power and the state are not the same. “Power is everywhere, but the state is not everywhere. Power can operate in different ways.”
Power, for example, is present in grassroots democracy, which has nothing to do with the state. And Jineolojî regards women as quintessentially democratic. The Star Academy educates students (who are still mostly women) in Rojavan civics. “We look at the political mechanisms— women’s parliaments, women’s communes; and the general [mixed] parliaments, general communes, neighborhood parliaments. Here in Rojava we always have both mixed ones and women’s exclusive ones. In the mixed ones, the representation of women is 40 percent plus there is always a co-presidency to ensure equality.”
At the Star Academy, as at the Mesopotamian Academy, students are taught to see themselves as subjects, with “the power to discuss and construct.” “There is no teacher and student. The session is built on sharing experiences.” Students range from teenagers to great-grandmothers. “Some have graduated from universities, and some are illiterate. Each has knowledge, has truth in their life, and all knowledge is crucial for us. … The older woman has experience. A woman at eighteen is spirit, the new generation, representing the future.”
Every program culminates in a final session called the platform. Here each student stands and says how she will participate in Rojava’s democracy. Will she join an organization, or the YPJ, or participate in a women’s council? What kind of responsibility she will take?
We queried Dorşîn about the academy’s teachings on gender (a word that does not exist in Kurdish). “Our dream,” she said, “is that women’s participating and building society will change men, a new kind of masculinity will emerge. Concepts of men and women aren’t biologistic—we’re against that. We define gender as masculine and masculinity in connection with power and hegemony. Of course we believe that gender is socially constructed.”
Moreover, she explained, the woman problem isn’t solely the province of women; “it’s embedded in society, so women’s exclusion is society’s problem. So we have to redefine women, life, and society all together at the same time. The problem of women’s freedom is the problem of society’s freedom.”
She went on to cite a phrase from Öcalan, “Kill the man,” which has become a watchword, meaning “the masculine man has to change.” Equally, women’s colonized subjectivity, or femininity, must be killed. The social ambition embodied by the academy is to overcome domination and hegemonic power and “create an equal life together.”
How much impact do these teachings have on Rojavan society as a whole? That question I cannot answer and will leave it to future researchers to determine.
The quotations from instructors have been edited for conciseness.