U.S. college partners with Palestinian school

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A small liberal arts college in New York is taking on an unusual project. It's about to launch the first American dual-degree program with a Palestinian university. Correspondent Daniel Estrin has the story.
photos: Daniel Estrin

Estrin: Mohammed Abu Sway isn't that engaged in his classes at Al Quds University.

Mohammed Abu Sway: �Students talking everywhere. Some people call it an airport, some people call it a wedding. Some people in the back playing cards. It's not even a class.�

Estrin: His father Mustafa teaches Islamic philosophy at the University. And he too has gripes about Palestinian education, which he says emphasizes learning by rote.

Prof. Abu Sway: �Memorization is not really the best way of preparing future generations.�

Prof. Abu Sway and his 18-year-old son MohammedProf. Abu Sway and his 18-year-old son Mohammed

Estrin: That's why Al Quds University approached Bard College, says Basem Ra'ad. He's an Al Quds professor of American literature.

Ra'ad: �What is missing in the Arab educational system is the crossing of the various disciplines, and also the production of people who can provide the country with a vision.�

Estrin: Bard's president, Leon Botstein, says a liberal arts education can help satisfy that need.

Botstein: �The whole theory of the liberal arts, is to cultivate the sensibilities and critical intellects of citizens, who can exercise their freedom in a way that permits open debate, and candid investigation of views, opinions and facts. So improving an educational system is a contribution towards democracy.�

Estrin: That was Bard's guiding philosophy when it set up an honors college in St. Petersburg after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now, it's partnering with Al Quds to create a liberal arts college just east of Jerusalem. Tuition will be highly-subsidized and classes will be taught in English. The first class of about 100 students will enter this fall. When they graduate, they'll receive dual degrees from Bard and Al Quds. George Soros' Open Society Institute donated a million and a half dollars to launch the project, and Al Quds hopes the U.S. government will chip in too.

Entrance of the future Honors CollegeEntrance of the future Honors College

David: �So these will be classrooms��

Estrin: Anthony David is an American historian who will teach freshman seminars at the Al Quds Bard Honors College. He shows me around this abandoned building overlooking Jerusalem. It was originally intended house the Palestinian parliament. The second Intifada killed that plan. Wild dogs and pigeons moved in instead. Now, Al Quds plans to renovate it to house its new college.

David: �Just imagine. We can have international conferences here, housing hundreds of people. The idea is to turn this into one of the premier academic cultural centers in the Middle East.�

Estrin: But not everyone likes the idea. Bard's Leon Botstein says he's gotten hate mail about the project.

Botstein: �There are those who believe that to collaborate with a Palestinian university is playing with fire.�

Estrin: Yet Israeli universities have partnered with Al Quds. And Al Quds has done smaller projects with other foreign schools, including Brandeis in Massachusetts.

Botstein: �This is a constructive engagement. The common ground of learning, discourse and conversation is the only hope.�

Estrin: But even some of those taking part in the conversation have reservations. Again, Professor Basem Ra'ad.

Ra'ad: �I think there are lots of advantages of course in Western education. However, I don't think we should copy a model. You need one that fits this region. One that does not deny identity of the student.�

Prof. Basem Ra'ad.Prof. Basem Ra'ad.

Estrin: He wants the students to study in Arabic as well as English. Still, the biggest question mark isn't internal academic dispute. It's how Israel will react. At the moment, Israel doesn't recognize degrees from Al Quds. That means thousands of Al Quds graduates who live in Jerusalem can't get higher-paying jobs there. Anthony David notes the new graduates won't face that problem, because they'll also have a degree from Bard.

David: �Indirectly, sure, it's a loophole for students who want to stay in Jerusalem and work as lawyers, teachers, nurses, or whatever.�

Estrin: But some wonder whether Palestinian students will use their US-accredited degree as a ticket out. Mohammed Abu Sway says he's considering it. He wants to transfer to the new liberal arts college. His dream is to become a sports commentator.

Mohammed Abu Sway: �There's not much to do here. I mean, there aren't any sports channels here at all. And in the States there's a lot.�

Estrin: His dad, Professor Sway, hopes his son will stay here when he graduates.

Prof. Abu Sway: �If there are no jobs today, there might be tomorrow. He can establish that, he can create that.�

Estrin: That's a rare note of optimism here. One that Bard and Al Quds hope their new students will take with them, along with their dual degree. For The World, this is Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.