05/01/2008 10:23 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

College Town, Iraq

SULAIMANI, IRAQ - I'm sitting in on a lecture at the public university in Sulaimani, one of the calmer cities in Iraqi Kurdistan, half an hour's drive from the Iran-Iraq border. This is an English literature class. The students are discussing Orwell's Animal Farm. Specifically, Napoleon, the "head pig" in the novel, a character styled after Stalin but not unlike Saddam. "What makes Napoleon's leadership style totalitarian?" the professor asks. A couple hands shoot up.

"How they glorify him," says one student. The student mentions the grandiose titles Napoleon assumes. "Father of All Animals," he is called, or "Terror of Humankind." "This is a sign of totalitarian leadership," the professor says. The class nods.

The room we're in is packed. Just eyeballing it, I would say there are more than fifty students. In a lecture hall, fifty students is one thing, but in a foreign language class, with emphasis on active participation, the size seems unwieldy. Try as the professor might to engage the class with questions, it's clearly difficult. Still, this class is luckier than many. The faculty at many Iraqi universities and high schools don't make nearly such an effort to involve their classes, several Iraqi students tell me. There is too little discussion, they say, and too much lecturing and rote memorization.

There are about 500 students in the University of Sulaimani's English program. Later in the day I interview Dr. Ali Said, the university's president, and he describes how the number of applicants has skyrocketed over the past half decade. The Middle East in general has experienced a substantial "youth bulge" in recent years, straining the education system and in some instances fueling civil conflict. "In 1992, it was just a couple thousand students who applied," says Said. "Now we get over twenty-thousand applications a year."

Efforts are underway to meet this rapid rise in demand. In Sulaimani, the public university has launched a major expansion, a little outside the city. I tour the construction site of the new campus, which is impressive--a complex of more than 1,700 acres, with an architectural master plan that looks very much like the campus of a major American university. A new arts center is nearly completed. Dormitories, male and female, will be separated--and the female dorm will likely be chaperoned--but classes are co-ed. Dr. Ali notes that the school wants to expand its student body substantially, coinciding with the move, to meet the demand spike.

Just across the street is the beginnings of another, perhaps more audacious project in Iraqi education. A parallel construction site is being transformed into a new campus for the freshly minted American University of Iraq, which is based here in Sulaimani and just opened its first classes this academic year. The school is the brainchild of Iraq's deputy prime minister, Dr. Barham Salih, and aims at a lofty goal--bringing the U.S. educational model to Iraqi students. A list of the school's regents and trustees reads like an inter-ethnic who's who of notables--from Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani (a Sunni Kurd), to the former prime minister, Ayad Allawi (Shiite), to the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad (Sunni).

In a compound across town--guarded, heavily, by Kurdish police--the American University's first fifty students are in class. It's a very different kind of experience from that of the public university. Most obviously, it's much smaller. I sit in on an English lesson. Seven students. They are discussing different attitudes toward shopping--the cultural factors that make compulsive buying possible as a phenomenon in the west, and why there isn't such a thing in Iraq. The conversation bounces from the basic fact of there being less money here, to discussion of factors like the prevalence of credit cards, different models of advertising, and differences in family structures.

The teachers I talk to at the American University say one of their main objectives extends well beyond basic lesson plans--they want to teach different ways of thinking. Dr. Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-American who serves as executive secretary of the American University's board, puts it as follows: "The teaching model in Iraq is by rote. The professor stands up and talks and writes on the blackboard. Come exam time you are to mimic what the professor says, and you'll be damned if you actually have a different opinion. They don't teach you how to think, they teach you what to think." The purpose of the American University, Alwash says, it to challenge this model, and in so doing to "bring about a more well-rounded person."

The privilege doesn't come cheap. Whereas the public university is free for students--indeed, undergraduates receive a cost-of-living stipend from the Kurdish government--tuition at the American University runs to $10,000 a year. Currently every student enrolled at the university is on some kind of financial aid, with the vast majority getting well over half their tuition covered by the school. Still, even a few thousand dollars a year is a lot to ask in a country where per capita GDP is less than $3,000. (Some of the students say the fact that they pay for their schooling has led to misperceptions locally--students from other schools think they will automatically be given a passing grade, regardless of the work they do, given their tuition payments. Faculty members from the university say the fact that they flunked four students in the school's first year should dispel any such notion.)

Alwash says he hopes the school will be able to draw students from non-Kurdish parts of Iraq (it already has three) and will be able set up exchange programs with western schools as the security situation in Iraq improves. The ultimate goal, he says, is to build the school's reputation to match those of the American universities of Beirut and Cairo, which have gained accreditation from U.S. educational boards and earned a broadly positive international reputation--and which draw scores of U.S. exchange students.

The first step, of course, is funding. Alwash is in the midst of a major fundraising campaign as part of the school's effort to expand and develop its new campus. Thus far the university has raised over $40 million, with major donations coming from both the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. The United States and Italian governments, as well as several private donors, particularly in Iraq, have also contributed.

With so many young people in Iraq, there's certainly space for competing academic institutions. Both Alwash and Ali say they aren't working in competition with one another, but students say the very fact of a second university in Sulaimani is serving to change the conversation, locally, about education. A push toward academic liberalization is a valuable long-term goal. But in a region struggling with its youth population, where unemployment and lack of opportunity have a way of leading to discontentment and militancy, the basic broadening of educational opportunities, public or private, is an encouraging starting point.