Youth Mobilization and Foreign Education in Interwar Iraq: The Case of the Baghdad College

By Pelle Valentin Olsen
Submitted to Session P4833 (Schooling in Iraq: Modernity and Education in Iraqi Memory, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Beginning in the 19th century and carrying into the 20th global and local agents enthusiastically sought to remake traditional worlds. In Iraq too, the interwar state demonstrated an increased interest in the education, sexuality, and gender of its citizens. The educational system of Iraq was largely a reflection of the state that determined the political and cultural atmosphere of the country. Institutions such as the army, youth movements, and schools were mobilized to inculcate new and gendered ideals. Organizations such as sports clubs, the Iraqi Boy Scouts and the Futuwwa were founded to emphasize and promote nationalism, new forms of masculinity, and militarism. Recently, historians have pointed out that voices, from across the political spectrum, responded to and were critical of these tendencies.
This paper seeks to further challenge conceptions of education in interwar Iraq by addressing informal institutions and networks that emerged contemporaneously and at times in opposition to state education. More specifically, this paper turns to foreign education in Iraq. It uses Baghdad College as a case study. Baghdad College, which was affiliated with Boston College, opened its doors in 1932. Al-Iraqi, the bilingual yearbook of the school, contains a wealth of information pertaining to the many clubs, societies, and extracurricular activities that were organized under the auspices of the College. The College hosted drama and poetry societies in addition to societies of photography, business and chemistry. The students of the College took part in the mandatory military drills organized by the al-Futuwwa movement and Al-Iraqi enthusiastically reported about such drills and other forms of parades and competitions. While ultranationalist and authoritarian voices made themselves audible in the public sphere in 1930s and 1940s, the case of Baghdad College suggest a much more nuanced picture. The college supported and facilitated a much less authoritarian, although no less ideological, ideal of education. Using Al-Iraqi and the student essays and short stories it published, this paper argues for the need to recognize the multiplicity of intersecting influences that played a role in the lives of Iraqi youth. It furnishes a counter narrative to the official infatuation with authoritarianism and militarism, which has often been accentuated in historical scholarship on Iraq. When read in tandem with autobiographical accounts, the yearbooks paint a picture of the Baghdad College as place that mobilized students around values such as creativity, health, the good life, success, and morality rather than nationalism and militarism.