The American Role in Education in the Middle East: Ideology and Experiment, 1920-1940

David M Ment. International Journal of the History of Education. Volume 47, Issue 1-2, 2011.


President Barack Obama gave his first formal interview after taking office to Hisham Melhem of the Dubai‐based Arab television station Al‐Arabiya. In his questions, Melham contrasted the current “alienation” between America and the Muslim world with the situation in the past, when the United States was “held high” as “the only Western power with no colonial legacy”. It is this past that apparently has not been forgotten by the people of the Middle East—the period between the two world wars—that this essay will explore, in its educational dimension.

It has sometimes been noted that the American imprint on the Middle East, before the Second World War, was largely a product of its private educational, missionary and humanitarian activities, and secondarily of its commercial contacts and interests in petroleum. Indeed, when the United States entered the First World War, in 1917, and declared war on Germany and Austria‐Hungary, President Woodrow Wilson decided not to declare war on Turkey. This was understood as designed to protect the American educators and missionaries working throughout the Ottoman Empire. But no policy could exempt the Americans from the need to reassess and redesign their programmes in the light of the revolutionary changes of the postwar Middle East. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of the Republic of Turkey, the massive shifts of population, the creation or reformulation of Iraq, Syria, Transjordan and Palestine as mandates or client states linked to the Western European powers, and the spiritual and intellectual stimulation of the people of the region constituted an overwhelming transformation that could not be ignored.

The Monroe Doctrine

In a 1925 essay titled “Western Education in Moslem Lands”, Paul Monroe tried to elucidate the implications for Western education of the historic changes occurring throughout the Muslim world. Director of the International Institute at Columbia University Teachers College, Monroe had surveyed educational conditions in the Ottoman Empire for President Wilson and the American participants in the First World War peace negotiations, had surveyed postwar conditions among refugee children for the Near East Relief organisation and had visited American schools throughout the Middle East. His essay, however, had a primary purpose of looking forward to new conceptions of America’s role.

One newly important factor in the Middle East, Monroe suggested, was a renaissance of Arab culture, reflected in increased literary activity, newspapers, periodicals and pamphlets, and in renewed appreciation for historic achievements of Arabic culture in mathematics, science and scholarship. With this went an interest in promoting education reflective of Arabic culture and a tendency towards suspicion of the cultural impact of Western educational institutions.

Throughout the Muslim world, among diverse Muslim peoples, movements to “throw off any political restraint or control exercised over them by the Western powers” constituted a second factor that could not be ignored. Turkey had essentially succeeded in this goal, consolidating itself in Anatolia, creating “a nominal republic under a dictator”, and largely eliminating its Greek and Armenian populations. Egypt had replaced British occupation with a constitutional monarchy. In Palestine, nationalists were “restive” and challenged the fairness of the British mandate. Syria was “even more restive under a French protectorate which has not yet made evident, to the Syrians at least, that its chief interest is the welfare of the people living under the mandate”. Iraq was “experimenting” with self‐government under new treaties with Britain and political ferment had even reached Persia.

Monroe perceived a third factor, a distinct movement towards separation of church and State. The starting point had been the structure of the Ottoman Empire, where “State and Church were identical”. In contrast, Turkey had created an explicitly secular republic and varying degrees of separation could be seen elsewhere. One effect would be an attempt to modernise education by replacing church‐sponsored schools with government schools. These would be “jealously guarded” from “any encroachment by ecclesiastical authorities, either native or foreign”.

The changes produced by these cultural and political factors were “so profound”, Monroe argued, that “it must be recognized that the past of Western education in Moslem lands is now a closed chapter”.

Modern historians have analysed many of the complexities in the origins and manifestations of nationalism in the Middle East, producing a deeper understanding than could be possible for Monroe in 1925. Yet it is valuable to consider his conceptions because they underlay his analysis of educational realities and the distinct educational policies that he advocated and, to some degree, implemented.

Looking at Turkey, Monroe recognised that there was “a hostility to all Western governments and all Western enterprises”. There was “a suspicion if not a direct hostility, to Western education, especially Mission education, owing to the fact that it has been directed toward the minority peoples [Christians] and not toward the Turks”. American schools were suspected, fairly or not, of influencing politics. Monroe argued that it must be acknowledged “that there is in Western education as interpreted by Americans, even by American missionaries, a political bias hostile to the traditional political ideals and practices of the East”. But that was the past; republican Turkey presented an “entirely new situation” and Western educators needed an entirely new policy.

Egypt presented a different situation. Western schools had mostly served Muslims of the wealthy middle class. The nationalist movement aimed at ending British control had not, thus far, generated much hostility to foreign educational work.

Syria offered distinctive problems. France, governing under the mandate, essentially gave responsibility for schooling to the Roman Catholic Church. The people of Syria, part Muslim, part Christian, tended to be accepting of American education, especially of the American University of Beirut. The problem for Protestant educators, Monroe believed, would be one of acceptance and tolerance from a “mandatory power accustomed to use the Church as an instrument of government”.

In Persia, Monroe found a situation somewhat comparable to Egypt. Despite the “fanaticism and ignorance of the masses of people”, Western mission schools were patronised by the families of “the best classes”, including government officials, and this ensured a friendly acceptance.

Reviewing the overall situation, including Muslim areas further to the east, in India and the Philippines, a pattern emerged. Hostility to Western power and suspicion of Western culture and mission schools were balanced by a commitment to change, an interest in moving away from traditional structures, and a recognition that Western science and education had potential usefulness.

For Western educators, then, new policies were required. Clearly, with new nationalist governments in place or emerging that perceived education in national terms, it would be essential to accept government regulation and to adapt to government standards. “Education”, Monroe explained, “is now recognized as a great political power”. It was “but natural that these new political organizations, not yet assured of their stability, should seek to control education as a means of strengthening their hold on the people”. Western education should assist public education whenever possible, comply “cheerfully” with political requirements (such as language and history teaching) and seek to “demonstrate to the political authorities and to the public at large that private initiative in education, including the enterprises of mission or Western education, can contribute to general progress and welfare”.

The second major policy area was “adjustment to the actual life and needs of the community, to the culture of the people”. This theme ran through many of the proposals of Monroe and of such progressive colleagues as John Dewey. Whether in Mexico, Appalachia or now the Middle East, the idea was to begin by “investigation of the daily routine of life in home conditions, in industrial process, and in rural custom, followed by judicious attempts to improve this routine”. There was a need to “think things through beyond the individual” and to connect education with “the whole life of the child and hence with the entire life of the communities of which these children become members”.

A suggestion connected to this theme was for Western educators to adopt a small community for an intensive project. Here, education could contribute to progress—in agriculture, health conditions and industry—and demonstrate the unity of life, physical, economic, social and spiritual.

For Western education to contribute successfully to the emerging Muslim communities, it would need to bring local educators into a full sharing of the educational work, not only as teachers but in “administration and control”. For “so long as mission education remained wholly alien”, Monroe argued, “so long does it miss its main purpose of entering fully into the life of the people, thus ceasing to be wholly Western or alien, but becoming a common product and possession”.

Manifestations of the Mission Spirit

Monroe’s use of the ambiguous phrase “Western and mission education” was surely no accident. For he used it to connect a past of primarily missionary educational enterprise to a future of Western education that might be somewhat different. As Monroe knew, and discussed directly in presentations to missionary audiences earlier in the 1920s, American “mission education” took many forms and its participants held divergent ideas about their role.

An obvious motivation for much of the nineteenth‐century mission work was the desire to make converts to Protestant Christianity. As Carolyn McCue Goffman explains in her study of the American College for Girls in Constantinople [Istanbul], which was founded under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions [Congregational], it was quickly recognised that the targets of conversion would not be Muslims, for this was prohibited in the Ottoman Empire. Instead, the college found its main clientele among various minorities throughout the empire, including Armenians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Lebanese Christians and others, as did many other mission enterprises. Thus Western education in Muslim lands, especially prior to the Young Turk revolution of 1908 but largely continuing through the 1920s, was often not Western education of Muslims.

In this context, both the professed goals and the actual practices of missionary schools and educational workers varied widely. Institutions such as Robert College in Istanbul, from its founding in 1863, and the American School for Girls, after 1908, were technically not mission schools since they operated under their own boards, outside the control of the mission board. Yet they were consciously Protestant and required chapel attendance and bible study. At the same time, they emphasised their cultural mission, the provision of an academically reputable modern education, the promotion of a democratic spirit and the achievement of superior character training. At bottom, the missionaries saw a unity of modernisation, Americanisation, democratisation and Protestantism.

While institutions might take proselytising out of their self‐descriptions, the individuals who staffed them had their own ideas. Goffman notes that some missionary teachers recruited to the American College for Girls “were offended by the College’s seeming defection from Christian duty”. At the same time, other more secular‐oriented professors resisted any missionary identification.

Caleb Frank Gates, president of Robert College from 1902 to 1932, illustrates another take on the question. Coming from a background as a missionary educator in some of the most difficult situations in the interior of Anatolia and in Mesopotamia, Gates led Robert College through the complex challenges of the Young Turk rebellion of 1908, the First World War and the creation of the Turkish republic, and somehow managed its survival when so many mission institutions failed. Gates felt a personal commitment to the missionary enterprise as well as an institutional commitment to the college charter, which provided for instruction in the scriptures and for Christian worship and required that “their faculties should be composed of men of Christian character”. The diversity of the student body—Armenian, Greek, Lebanese, Bulgarian, Jewish—had been no problem in his view, for “the college had never tried to win men away from their own churches”. After 1908, as a few Turkish Muslims began to enrol, the college offered them a separate assembly instead of chapel. Yet for Caleb Gates, his real enthusiasm was for his preaching at the Christian chapel, which he felt was universal in spirit. There he brought together Christians, Muslims and Jews, and directed their attention “to their responsibilities to God and to their fellow men”. His preaching was “based on certain principles: never to attack any nation or any religion … and as a Christian, to present the Christian religion so clearly, that every boy could know what it is”.

Writing to the College’s American headquarters in 1924, Gates shared his conception of a Christian school that yet somehow did not impose sectarian beliefs. A Turkish cabinet minister, he reported, had enrolled his nephew because of the “good training in Turkish” and the “good instruction in character‐building”. A delegation of British missionaries had met with members of the teaching staff: “they have brought home the importance and value of personal work under the guidance of God in a new and very impressive way, which has helped many of our young men”. And Gates himself had been leading a weekly evening discussion group, bringing together Muslims and Christians to “discuss life problems”. At the same time that Gates promoted this mild version of cultural Protestantism he quite consistently recognised the right of the Turkish government to establish regulations governing education and the responsibility of the college to adhere to them (when he could not negotiate official waivers).

Thus, the “past” of Western education was multi‐dimensional and, from the perspective of 1925, not really past.

It was one thing to issue a call for educators to champion new policies adapted to changed political and cultural conditions. It was naturally something more complicated to put such ideas into practice. An examination of three projects in the Middle East—in each of which Paul Monroe played a significant role—will give some idea of the problems of implementation. These were redesigning the educational programmes of the Near East Relief organisation, reforming public education in Iraq, and administering the American colleges in Istanbul.

Near East Relief

The Near East Relief began as an emergency response to the systematic programme of massacres and deportations inflicted upon the Armenian communities within Turkey. Of perhaps 1.5 million Armenians living in Turkey, probably one million were killed in massacres in 1915 and ensuing years or died of violence and starvation during forced deportation marches. Initially, the surviving remnant included refugees in Russian Armenia, in Syria and in Lebanon, children and others who had escaped forced marches, and inhabitants of parts of Turkey where deportation was delayed. Armenian refugees were joined by substantial groups of Assyrians, Nestorians and other minorities driven out of homes in Turkey and Persia, while 100,000 Greeks living near Turkey’s Black Sea coast were uprooted and forced to move to less “strategic” regions.

These were the groups in Anatolia that were the primary clients of a network of mission enterprises, especially hospitals and schools. Often the missionaries shared the fate of their charges, or ended up in the same refugee camps. As news of the disasters spread, key figures in American mission and education work came together in New York at the offices of Cleveland H. Dodge, copper baron and philanthropist, chairman of the board of trustees of Robert College and friend of Woodrow Wilson, and created a relief committee. The committee’s original members included, besides Dodge, such men as James L. Barton, secretary of the American Board of Missions; Stephen S. Wise, chairman of the Jewish Emergency Relief Commission; Charles Crane, chairman of the board of the American College for Girls in Constantinople; Stanley White, secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Missions; John R. Mott, secretary of the International Committee of the YMCA; and a dozen others with similar institutional connections. The group set out to raise US$100,000 immediately for refugee relief; ultimately they raised and spent over US$100 million.

The fundamental reason that these men could attempt a meaningful relief programme was that they already had their people on the ground—missionaries who managed to stay in Anatolia and others in the refugee areas of Syria and Lebanon. American missionaries and educators continued to be at least sometimes tolerated in Ottoman territories because of their reputation for non‐political humanitarian work and because the United States was not at war with Turkey. During the war years and for a time thereafter, including the period of forced transfer of Greek and Turkish populations, general relief for refugees claimed priority, but gradually this was replaced by a focus specifically on children, on care of orphans and provision for their education. In 1924, in order to assess current programmes and plan future educational priorities, the Near East Relief turned to Paul Monroe for advice.

Monroe toured the orphanages and schools run by Near East Relief in the Caucasus (Soviet Armenia and Georgia), in Syria, and in Greece and the Balkans. Where the mission movement had traditionally served Christian minorities in Muslim lands, now they served the same people but displaced from their origins. An Armenian orphan might be living in Aleppo, Syria, have Turkish as his native language, and be expected to learn Arabic and French in school.

In his report, Monroe endorsed much of the existing programme of the Near East orphanages, including the priority given to child health, for “achievements in any of the other programs will be readily and speedily undermined, if not wholly aborted by the failure to establish normal health conditions”. Since avoidance of communicable diseases required cooperation of the children, it was an “educational opportunity”, and explicit health education should “form a component and important part of the school program”. Essential, as well, was the programme of placing out orphans with families of their own nationality, which would “offer to them a training in the language, customs, industries, and ideals” of their group in a way that orphan life could not.

Since it was a goal that young people participate effectively in the economy once they left the orphanage, it was important to implement programmes in school and out. Monroe praised training programmes for farm workers in Macedonia, young craftsmen in Aleppo, and nurses in Beirut and Alexandropol and advocated industrial education in the orphanage schools.

Stressing one of the themes that reappeared in his 1925 essay, Monroe urged that the school programme be more identified with “real life”. He had observed excellent teaching of subjects such as language and mathematics, but the teaching had been done in an abstract or formal way, separated from broader individual or social development. A “great effort should be made”, he suggested, “to connect the schoolroom with the actual life and environment of the child. Language study, reading, arithmetic, geography, all should have direct connection with the various activities of the shop, garden, industry, playground, clinic, and orphanage life.”

Looking ahead, Monroe tried to define goals for future work once the mass of orphans had been placed out or “graduated”. His idea was for Near East Relief to select a limited number of institutions directed to “definite vocational lines of training”, in cooperation with local authorities. As rapidly as possible, such institutions should be turned over to local control, with some American subsidy and advice. “Only in this way”, he suggested, “can such institutions be definitely grafted on the native social organizations. Only in this way can American philanthropy make a permanent contribution to the reconstruction of these scattered social organizations.” In Monroe’s conception, helping to prepare orphans for life in the community meant agricultural and industrial training as well as a general progressive education for life. But the needs of orphans were also the needs of the larger community; hence there was a continuing need for American educational expertise, serving the peoples of the Near East through a programme of cooperation.

From this point forward, Monroe became a key participant in the re‐planning of the work of Near East Relief, at first as a member of its Survey Committee, which undertook a major review of educational and social conditions throughout the Middle East, looking to a time when most orphans would have grown up and that focus of activity would end. The survey emphasised the pervasive rural poverty found in many areas of the Middle East and the Balkans. Subsistence farmers lacked skills and resources; education and health services were minimal. American expertise was needed in such communities, rather than in the more advanced urban districts where it had been concentrated.

This was followed by a Conservation Committee, on which Monroe was joined notably by Thomas Jesse Jones as well as by leaders of the Near East board. The committee was charged with planning ways to conserve the capabilities that Near East Relief had built up, its network of supporters, its skilled personnel in the field, its reputation for non‐political humanitarian work, and its potential for future service. Its practical function was to transform Near East Relief into a new organisation, ultimately incorporated in 1930 as the Near East Foundation.

The Near East Foundation adopted a nine‐point statement of principles for community development through education, including health education, rural development, cooperation with local leaders and encouragement of indigenous activity, that was totally in accord with Monroe’s approach. In the space of little more than a decade, the leadership of the American Protestant missionary enterprise had moved from the traditional field of evangelical efforts and mission schools and hospitals to a largely secular programme of technical assistance to emerging communities.

There were new problems ahead, however. Among the foundation’s early projects, led by Harold B. Allen, the foundation’s educational director, was a rural development programme in Greek Macedonia. It went well until the area was overrun by the Nazis in 1941. Allen tells a parallel story about an agricultural school in Albania. Gradually the school learned to be effective in training boys who could contribute to village improvement—until Italy invaded in 1939. Much as the end of the First World War and the gradual recovery from its destruction seemed to open up new possibilities for human development, so the arrival of the Second World War served to close off avenues of progress.

Advice for Iraq

In February 1932, Paul Monroe arrived in Baghdad at the head of an educational commission, invited by the Iraqi government to survey educational conditions and to recommend improvements. The commission also included professor of history Edgar Wallace Knight of the University of North Carolina and professor of education William Chandler Bagley of Teachers College. With them, as “Attaché”, was Mohammed Fadhel Jamali recently returned from graduate study at Columbia and, as secretary, Monroe’s daughter Jeannette.

The context of this commission included Monroe’s earlier, 1930, journey to Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, on behalf of the Near East Foundation and the American Near East Colleges. Just as significant was the role of the International Institute, under his direction, which had encouraged study at Teachers College by a number of Iraqi educators. Monroe could point to the director of education in Basra and the principals and teachers of several normal schools as former students of the Institute. Monroe understood that it was the American graduates as a group who had persuaded the Iraqi government to invite the commission.

The existence of a survey commission combined with the expanding role of Iraqis who had studied in America constituted a new, alternative structure for Western education in a Muslim country. Instead of the pattern of foreign‐run schools that needed to prove their good intentions, the commission was, by definition, a mechanism by which American educators could share their best ideas and Iraqis could choose for themselves those approaches that seemed most appropriate. Similarly, Iraqi educators returning from Teachers College brought familiarity and expertise in modern education, American style; but the choice of which features to implement would be up to the Iraqi educators and officials. This seemed, in principal, a form of international sharing that was well adapted to a country like Iraq involved in nationalist striving.

Indeed, defining an appropriate nationalism was the central political issue in Iraq. A tension existed between conceptions of Iraqi nationalism and conceptions of pan‐Arab nationalism. King Faisal who, in some sense, supported both ideas, saw education—broadly conceived—as an essential means to national identity. “An Iraqi people does not yet exist”, Faisal wrote in 1931, in a confidential letter to his closest advisers.

What we have is throngs of human beings lacking any national consciousness or sense of unity, immersed in religious superstition and traditions, receptive to evil, inclined toward anarchy and always prepared to rise up against any government whatsoever. This being the situation, we would like to fashion these multitudes into a people which we would educate, guide, and enlighten.

Monroe’s commission was able to gain its own impressions of the situation through an intense round of visits to towns and villages, schools and settlements, from the north to the south of Iraq. They met with sheikhs and school teachers, mayors, ministers, peasants and the king. Schooling outside the main cities appeared limited in quantity and quality: a narrow conception of education, formalistic instruction and inadequate reading materials was common. This was somewhat balanced by a sincere desire for improvement on the part of local leaders, especially among the Shiite tribes, who hoped that the survey would result in new schools and practical forms of education.

An example was a visit to Hillah, where, after visiting the primary school, they met with three sheikhs, one of them a revered Shiite religious leader. They spoke of the government’s general neglect of the tribal areas in the southern region, of the difficulties they faced with reduction in support for mosque schools and of the need to develop schools on modern lines. Again, meeting with the Mayor of Nasiriyah, the group was told of a real desire for education among the local tribes. The boys, he thought, “would be delighted to attend an agricultural school and work half‐time. Classroom work was a bore and they would be glad to get out of it.”

The Report of the Educational Inquiry Commission, published in Baghdad by the government of Iraq, took pains to recognise the achievements made since 1920: a gradual increase in government funding for schools and a gradual increase in the number of schools. But it also recognised the severe limitations of the current system: most schooling was concentrated in the towns, village schools were scarce and offered limited grades, and the nomadic and “semi‐nomadic” tribal people were generally without access to any schools.

The central idea of the Commission report was the need to define types of education that were effectively connected to the reality of the lives of Iraqi people and forms of education that could serve them in individual and social development. Through 39 detailed, professionally laid out recommendations, they developed a conception of education that, they believed, would serve the social needs and goals of the country and its people. A few of the report’s recommendations will indicate the spirit of the whole.

The system should try to move away from overly rigid centralisation, which had led to methods of instruction in the schoolroom that tended to be “mechanical and formal”. Greater local initiative was needed so that teachers and communities could experiment with alternative approaches and find those that worked best for their situation. The interest of local communities, the report suggested, ought to be enlisted in working out educational problems and, with that involvement, in supporting increased educational effort and in using local resources to improve schools: “the aim of education is the enlightenment and the improvement of living conditions of the entire community” and this could be secured “only if the local community has a real interest and a responsible participation in the direction of the local school”.

For the half of the population that was considered to be nomadic or semi‐nomadic, and had been “scarcely touched” by schools, a problem was to create a teaching force in sympathy with their needs. Monroe and Jamali proposed a type of teachers’ community, where young married couples from the tribes could train for modern education in a social context, without becoming unfitted for life where they came from. When they returned to their home villages, they could share this larger conception with adults and children, combining individual and community development.

For the more fully settled agricultural villages, the commission had a similarly “progressive” recommendation. The boys’ schools in the villages were offering an urban curriculum, “consisting largely of language study”, and containing “little or nothing which relates directly to agricultural and rural needs”. For those boys who were headed away to the city to become traders, this was no special problem. But for the rural boys, “the curriculum, location, organization, and method all seem to be out of harmony” with their real needs. Beyond the 3Rs what was needed was training in personal health and hygiene; instruction in the basics of agriculture, marketing and industrial processes; and civic education: “a knowledge of the economic, geographic, and political conditions of Iraq and its environing world such as will make him an intelligent citizen able to look after his own interests as well as to contribute to the general good”. A parallel girls’ school, with a staff trained in aspects of public health, nursing and social work, would offer an education relevant to the improvement of village women’s way of life.

In the political sphere, the report discussed the role of schools in building national identity, stating explicitly that “the public school system has for its purpose the development of a modern nation of Iraq. Without a public school system it is obvious to every one that an independent nationality could not be maintained.” While the report did not comment directly on the narrow, somewhat militarist version of nationalism that Reeva Simon has found in the official curriculum; it tried to define civic identify in democratic terms. Part of the existing problem was that there was “evident among teachers and pupils no great patriotic fervor for their new nationalism”. There was:

a general expectation of eventual government position among all the pupils of the intermediate and secondary schools, most of whom are doomed to disappointment. But there is no passion for contributing to the development of that government through free‐will service of any kind.

While they offered some suggestions for solidarity‐building extra‐curricular activities, the commission clearly hoped that real nation‐building would derive from the more general role of education in community‐building and social development.

The report of the Monroe Commission was inevitably controversial. Sati al‐Husri who, as director‐general of education, had largely controlled the national system for most of the previous decade, published a series of letters in the Baghdad newspapers. He questioned the legitimacy of such a group of American educators, challenged many of the recommendations and defended the existing curriculum as effectively anti‐imperialist. Al‐Husri perceived himself in direct opposition to Mohammed Fadhel Jamali and the group who had studied in America and, indeed, from about 1932 on he was largely eclipsed by Jamali in terms of control of the schools.

A measure of the impact of progress on the commission’s concerns comes from Jamali. After the submission of the report he was made supervisor general of education and in 1933 was appointed director general of education, the key position. Writing to Paul Monroe in November 1934, Jamali reported that virtually the entire national and regional leadership of the schools had been reconstituted, mostly with men who had studied in America or at the American University in Beirut. Some meaningful increases in schooling had been accomplished, especially among the nomads and villages, with “peripatetic” schools to serve the “tribal centers in black tents, reed huts, mud huts, etc.”. But much remained to be done.

A hint of trouble might have been perceived in Jamali’s report on technical education. The Ministry of Works and Economics had brought in a German consultant to evaluate the technical schools and he had advised bringing in a German director for the Baghdad school, which was being done. In succeeding years, the German and specifically Nazi connection got worse. Although Jamali remained committed to educational methods often championed by progressives, he was impressed by the effectiveness of Hitler Youth and other German efforts to build social cohesion, without recognising the negative purposes to which these methods were directed. He was not alone in this and it seems fair to judge that the Iraqi educational leaders did nothing to deter the movement, early in the Second World War, to put Iraq in the German orbit.

Monroe’s efforts in Iraq can score high marks for following the precepts of his essay. The right of the Iraqi government to define its educational programme was inherent in the commission’s role as a direct adviser to the government and its focus on improving public education. The report’s recommendations centred on the ways education might be fully integrated into social life and community development. And it pointed, as well, to ways that local people could shape their own education and even to the value of creating an education village for nomad teachers. Yet, wise and influential as the commission may have been, its influence could be outweighed by two forces: first, the primary loyalty of most of the Iraqi leaders to various nationalist and militarist ideologies and the political power struggles this generated and, second, the overwhelming power of those larger geopolitical forces that produced the Second World War, whether represented by the Iraqi attempt to support Germany or the inevitable British reoccupation to forestall such a move.


Virtually without catching his breath, Paul Monroe went from advising Iraq to assuming the presidency of the American colleges in Istanbul. With the retirement of Kathryn Newell Adams from the American College for Girls and the impending retirement of Caleb Frank Gates from Robert College, both positions were open. Partly as an economy measure, their boards negotiated a novel arrangement, where Monroe would serve as president of both colleges for three years, while retaining his position as director of the International Institute and splitting each year between Turkey and Teachers College.

The choice of Monroe signalled that the boards recognised the need for change along the lines that he had advocated. To make the issues perfectly clear, Monroe prepared a detailed letter for Henry Sloan Coffin, head of the Robert College board and William Adams Brown, head of the American College for Girls board. In careful but very direct language, Monroe pointed to the need for fundamental change in the relationship between the colleges and the government and people of Turkey. “The major criticism which the [Turkish] authorities offered on American institutions”, he wrote, “is that many of those connected with the colleges maintain the attitudes which they held under the capitulations … that the colleges yet expect to retain special privileges”. The second criticism was that the colleges,

have not fully committed themselves to the policy that they exist for service to Turkey and to the Turk. The Turkish authorities believe that the college authorities are yet chiefly interested in the minority peoples or in those of the neighboring lands.

The colleges, he argued, needed to be able to show practical achievements towards the advancement of the Turkish people. They needed to take this opportunity to “work out a definite program of contribution to these major reform movements now being undertaken by responsible Turkish leaders”. Such a programme,

would necessitate a change of attitude on the part of the faculty, or at least on the part of many of them. The colleges are now isolated from Turkish life. On the part of many connected with the colleges this is thought to be desirable; as they believe that contact with the Turkish life would weaken the influences desirable in the shaping of the character of the students.

The colleges were distrusted by Turkish leaders because it seemed that “neither the teachers nor the students, nor the institutions in general are motivated towards Turkey”. This would have to change. And the change would require “the full conviction of the Trustees, that this change was a thing to be desired”.

One specific change that Monroe asked the Board to seriously consider would be to end required bible study and chapel at Robert College. This was already the policy at American College for Girls and was demanded by the Turkish government. That the religious mission behind the colleges remained a crucial concern, irrespective of any Turkish laws, had been unmistakably emphasised by Coffin and Brown in their letter offering the position. While affirming that the institutions “should be sympathetic with the national aspirations” and accept in good faith “any regulations that do not involve violation of our charters”, they stated the boards’ concern that,

we should not surrender our right and duty to care religiously for our own Christian students and in every proper way to promote the spirit of unselfish service and religious faith which has made the colleges in the past such notable nurseries of character.

This was a clear hint that the role of college president might be as much that of diplomat as of educator.

Upon taking up his duties in Istanbul, in the fall of 1932, Monroe found the Great Depression to be more of a challenge than the government of Turkey. College finances were much worse than had been realised and required significant cuts in staff and operating budgets. Some faculty positions were left unfilled, annual contracts for others were not renewed, the college farm animals were sold, even afternoon tea fell under the axe. But the budget deficits kept getting worse. The word from New York was that the endowment was seriously affected: its holdings of corporate stocks had lost value and had more or less ceased paying dividends; the Dodge Foundation, a resource in better times, had no income. The banking crisis made transfer of funds almost impossible; the fiscal crisis caused the value of currencies to fluctuate. The faculty was faced with salary cuts of 40% and more, and most of them accepted. The question of maintaining morale was crucial and was made more difficult by constantly changing instructions from New York. At one point Monroe read the riot act. “So far as I can judge”, he wrote,

the people here are willing to follow me into any situation of sacrifice that is necessary, but I cannot face them if I have been led into asking them an unnecessary sacrifice … or have them feel that they have such unreliable leadership.

Things took a difficult turn, also, on the culture and religion front. Just before the start of the academic year, in September 1933, the Turkish government ordered that Edgar Fisher, professor of history and dean, be prohibited from returning to Robert College. Monroe had to cable him to get off his boat in Athens. The source of the problem was a book review. An American professor in Pennsylvania had published a review of the new Turkish history textbooks and had cited Fisher as a source of some translations. The president of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Ataturk, had a special interest in these texts and was said to be offended. It turned out that Fisher had been “in trouble” 10 years earlier over a cultural misunderstanding. It also turned out that he and his wife had a practice of inviting groups of students, including Muslim students, to regular Sunday evening dinners at their home. Dinner was followed by a “religious exercise”. The Fishers thought they were just being friendly; some of the Turkish members of the staff thought this was “a method of circumventing the order of the government” that all schools should have “no religious activities whatever” and of “carrying on, indirectly, proselytizing work”. No efforts by Monroe, the trustees or the American ambassador could get the government to change its ruling. Fisher had taught at Robert College for 20 years and was a personal friend of Monroe; his exclusion put a cloud over the new semester, just as the financial crisis had affected the previous school year.

To make it a “perfect storm”, in the same academic year Monroe’s continuing medical problem was diagnosed as “sprew” and he had to leave the college and spend an extended period at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London. And the vice‐president, George H. Huntington, came down with polio, and had to return to America.

It may have been a relief, in the autumn of 1934, for Monroe to have a crisis that dealt merely with matters of policy and philosophy. Board chair Henry Sloane Coffin informed Monroe that the board had met, had found the financial situation continuing to worsen and feared for the future of the college. In considering future strategy, the first question was whether Turkey really wanted the college. Coffin planned to come out to Turkey and to put the question directly to the Prime Minister:

… whether they wish an American institution with liberty to give the convictions and ideals which have inspired our American culture. If they wish that we shall try to continue. If they simply wish an institution teaching English we should prefer to have them conduct it and pay for it. We do not feel that on the basis of our charter we have any right to conduct a purely secular institution.

Monroe knew that to approach the government with such a demand was to ask for a quick ticket to the States. He had to spend the next two months gently re‐educating Coffin about Turkish nationalism, about the uniform regulations governing schools that Robert College must accept, about the pressures the government had put on Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox schools and about the essentials of elementary diplomacy. The attitude of the government officials was more “appreciative and friendly to Robert College than it is to any other foreign educational institution”, and they “will go as far as they can in making this appreciation a real one”. But there was no way they would formally change a policy to suit one or two small American colleges. Somehow, ultimately, he persuaded Coffin to use his time in the Middle East harmlessly and to hold back from provoking a blow‐up.

By June 1935 Monroe was probably quite happy to have completed his three years in Turkey. Experience had demonstrated that aspirations for a new role for American education in Turkey, in keeping with the national reform spirit, could be virtually wiped out by the world economic depression and continuing religion‐based tensions. Just as the year was ending, the Dodge family came through with a major contribution to resolve the deficit problem. Monroe’s successor, Walter L. Wright, Jr, could look forward to a few easier years, of rebuilding instead of cutting back, until faced with the problems of the Second World War.


These three examples of Monroe’s personal attempt to implement his precepts are instructive. The precepts, in principle, came through very well, but every practical effort experienced serious problem. The problem of the clientele of American education remained difficult to resolve. The missionaries had served primarily the Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire. The Near East Relief was, by definition, primarily serving them. The revised programme of the Near East Foundation was more broadly defined, but it would find its first clientele also among the dispersed minorities. The goal of placing American educational achievements in service to the Middle East’s emerging nationalisms also worked to a degree but, as in Iraq, there was no way to control the direction in which nationalism might go. There, even under Columbia‐trained Mohammed Fadhel Jamali, the precepts of the progressive method were put to use for a non‐tolerant, militarist and ultimately pro‐Nazi nationalist movement. Finally, the question of how to separate the Protestant spirit in American culture from the democratic spirit of American education was never resolved. Both professor Fisher and Reverend Coffin had difficulty with this problem, and it is no wonder, for it remains unresolved in American life.