Assyrian Education Network

In Search of an Education Program, Part 7
by Francis Sarguis "Assyrian Kibitzer"
Posted: Friday, June 02, 2000 01:06 pm CST


Ben, Thanks for Thinking of Us.

Finally, the six designated Assyrian organizations have received their share of the Benjamin S. Adams estate.

Distribution totals $1,120,000, in the following proportions:

  • Assyrian Foundation of America, Berkeley, CA - $280,000 (25%)
  • Assyrian Aid Society (non-profit branch of Zowaa) - San Francisco $224,000 (20%)
  • Assyrian National Federation - $168,000 (15%)
  • Assyrian National Council of Illinois - $168,000 (15%)
  • Assyrian Welfare Council, Chicago - $168,000 (15%)
  • Assyrian Association of Southern California - $112,000 (10%)

Previous Kibitzer columns on this subject have inspired some unexpected correspondence. On the erroneous assumption that we have any control over project selection, several readers have volunteered specific suggestions on how the Adams funds ought to be spent. Others have urged closely monitoring how the funds are actually spent.

Behind the Green $$ Door: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

For the record, readers should understand that only the directors of each of the above six groups are authorized to make any funding decisions. The Adams Will does not require the six groups to work with each other; nor does it require the directors of any of the six groups to consult or inform the Assyrian public. Ominously, at least four of the six groups have already revealed their fondness for "secrecy". They assume wrongly that the disposition of these monies is not a legitimate public question.

Of the six groups, only the Association of Southern California has revealed openness and a taste for democracy. Kibitzer has yet to see any indication from the other five that they are prepared to solicit the views of the Assyrian public for whose benefit the funds were left. Readers may recall that of the six groups, only two even bothered to respond to our previous inquiry (the Association of Southern California; and the National Federation). Apparently, merely to ask general journalistic questions is considered by some of our "leaders" as "unfair", an "invasion of privacy", and a form of challenge or personal insult. Amid these stonewalls, perhaps none was more dismaying than that of the Assyrian Aid Society, making a mockery of the principles implied in the name of its parent organization: Assyrian Democratic Movement.

Obsessive secrecy is not the invention of our modern-day Presidents and Directors. It is the legacy of an ancient system characterized by rigid hierarchy and cozy personal relationships, which more or less assumed a "we and they" mentality. There was one system in the mountains, another in the plains. But in either place, individual rights were rarely acknowledged. Views not in lockstep with the "higher ups" were considered hostile if not seditious. It was so for centuries.

Whatever its historic justification, this paternalistic style of leadership is unacceptable in today's world. It is foolhardy to bypass public opinion and spurn detailed accountability. We need to place a great deal of trust particularly in our young people. Many of them have studied Western political thought. Understandably, stonewalling for them signals skullduggery.

To get back to our correspondents, anyone seeking specific answers should direct his/her questions or comments to the President of each of the six organizations. In a previous column, Kibitzer provided the mailing address for each of these groups. Presumably, if your correspondence is addressed to "the President and the Board", your letter will then be presented to the group's Board at its next meeting.

After the Form, There is the Substance

In connection with the Adams Will, we have said a great deal about the need for public accountability, and about the obligation to inform interested Assyrians. But we have yet to touch another serious dimension, which has to do with how Assyrian institutions should define the term "education", "schooling", and "refugee assistance." Both the financial windfall created by the late Benjamin Adams and, to a lesser extent, the generosity of the Youhanian family in donating a sizeable sum (entrusted to the Southern California Assocation) to the memory of their young son, give rise to a long-ignored question: How should our community order its priorities when it comes to distributing such funds? The assumption of this essay is that some of the Adams funds will go to "refugee assistance" (a future Kibitzer subject), but a good portion will also be earmarked for "schooling and education."

Good Intentions; Unfortunate Advice

Unfortunately, Benjamin Adams' Will reference to "Assyrian children's education and schooling," is vague and ambiguous. (This wording may have been provided to Adams by a well-meaning Assyrian who unfortunately failed to understand the nuances of the English language). There certainly should have been greater linguistic clarity (as we are about to note). But what is most important now is that the policy issue ( to which we will return below) must no longer be ignored.

What, exactly, is the linguistic issue, i.e., what does this Will mean by "Assyrian children's education and schooling"? Does this mean any children (Assyrian or non-Assyrian," who pursue Assyrian education and schooling? Which of these two words is the modifier: "Assyrian" or "children"?

The use of the word "children" also suggests an age range. But exactly what age range was contemplated? Age 4 to 12? "Children" normally excludes adults. Does the term include a twenty-year old? Does it exclude a teenager? Does it include pre-teens? All pre-teens?

There is further question in the phraseology "education and schooling". Did Adams intend to make a distinction between these two terms? If not, why did he use both terms? It would be helpful if the living Adams proxy, the individual who apparently provided much of the script for the Adams Will, would step forward and shed some light on this.

The ABC's of Advising the Next Assyrian Angel.

If Adams had received proper advice, what is the form his Will should have taken? Stated another way, if a rich Assyrian approached you, the reader, and solicited your advice on how to distribute his/her estate, what would be your suggestion?

As far back as one year ago, Kibitzer had received no less than some two dozen specific suggestions in the mail. Kibitzer's own view starts with the premise that the source of funds is always severely limited. Therefore, assuming one is acting with forethought, priorities must be considered, necessarily entailing variables such as the following.

There is the general issue of AGE GROUP targeting. For example: Pre-school? Early education? Primary and Secondary? Higher Studies? General Public education?

There is the issue of GEOGRAPHY. If education assistance in the homeland (loosely, the Middle East) is part of our responsibility (which Kibitzer believes), there is probably justification for applying a somewhat different standard there than in the diaspora. Even with the broad-based diaspora, distinctions can be justified between those settled in the "have" countries, and those settled in the "have not" countries.

There is also the issue of OBJECTIVES, which obviously should be the engine that drives the entire process. How can limited funds be used to "get the biggest bang for the buck?" What is the wisest form of expenditure? Whom do we seek to benefit - a handful of individuals, or the body politic?

Our History of "Education" Support - Speak Loudly but Carry a Small Stick.

The history of student assistance by Assyrian organizations in the U.S. reveals an abject neglect of all these questions. Past practice (like the road to hell) was paved with good intentions. But it has been seriously-flawed and rudderless. It has dissipated , i.e., wasted, limited resources for no visible community benefit. In the name of "education," those who have distributed these funds helter-skelter have seriously impaired the development of a genuinely Assyrian "educated" class.

It is time to reconsider the "mom and pop" approach, and (for the first time) to focus on a vision. This will require extraordinary fortitude from very ordinary persons who will be loath to relinquish their authority. Keep in mind that many of these persons have egos well above the average, and not necessarily commensurate to their ability to act for the common good.

The present disarray of our "educational" programs is illustrated by a multitude of examples. Let us simply turn to an item in ZENDA (February 23, 1998) featuring the following announcement:


FINANCIAL AID FOR ASSYRIAN STUDENTS
If you are an Assyrian student studying at a four-year college or university ZENDA urges you to apply for financial assistance to one of these national Assyrian organizations and request a scholarship application: Assyrian American National Federation, Education Committee 4318 West Birchwood, Skokie, IL 60076

Assyrian National Foundation
P.O. Box 2620, Berkeley, CA 94702

Chaldean Federation of America
18470 W. 10 Mile Southfield, MI 48075


One can hardly argue with the veneer content of this announcement. Yet on closer examination, this hopeful message masks continuation of a barren policy. It is scandalous that over the past several years, various of our organizations have disbursed their scarce "education" funds without any coherent Assyrian educational objective?

All along, the key consideration should have been, and today it should be, the collective advancement of our people. In these terms, one individual's pursuit of education should not be a drain on the limited collective funds, unless that individual's education has a direct and probable correlation to the common cause.

While in past years the sums which have been squandered under the false name of "Assyrian education" have been trivial, suddenly six of our groups have come into sums unprecedented in their experience. It is the responsibility of all of our organizations, and of the Assyrian public, not merely of these six groups, to ascertain how these resources should be expended. Filled with both hope and anxiety, one skeptic noted: "This is a historical opportunity to lay a foundation for the future. We've never been in this position before."

Education for all who seek it? Yes, by all means. Any kind of education for all who seek it? Yes, but not at the expense of the collective.

Grow the U.S. GNP? Yes: Forbes 500 and Sinking the Ninevites!

Let us be clear on one point. The pursuit of education in any form by Assyrians should be encouraged and applauded. All of us rightfully share joy in the achievements of our community members, whether it is in the professions, the arts, or the world of commerce. It is a source of great pride to Kibitzer that San Jose has 150 engineers or more, that Chicago has 50 physicians and 60 attorneys, and that a number of Assyrians are now teaching subjects ranging from forestry to mathematics, and from American history to medical surgery. While this kind of achievement by Assyrian individuals enhances the image of our people in a generic way, it is simply an illusion to suppose that Assyrians who are well-educated and successful in the world at large will necessarily contribute to the general Assyrian cause.

Kibitzer's own high school class graduated three Assyrian professionals:

One a physician, and two attorneys. None of the three is literate in the mother tongue. By most measurements, all three achieved "career" success. Each is well-known and respected in the American community, but precious few in their communities even know of their Assyrian heritage. Each of the three married a non-Assyrian, and raised children who are healthy, successful, and illiterate in Assyrian.

Kibitzer has seen this scenario replay itself time and again. There is no reason to think that a "new consciousness" will now change the pattern. For this reason, Kibitzer urges serious rethinking.

PRINCIPLE ONE: Our "education" funds must be used in support of "Assyrian education", which emphatically is not the same as the "education of Assyrians." Assyrian community funds should not be awarded to individuals in a general course of study, whether in secondary school or in higher education. While such awards may be good public relations or ego-satisfying to the one who is doing the doling, they do not represent a sensible investment in our people.

If an Assyrian student is awarded a few hundred dollars because of dire financial need, this should be called what it really is, namely, an act of charity, not an educational incentive. If an Assyrian student is awarded a few hundred dollars solely because of his/her ethnicity, this is a misplaced gesture, unless the individual's studies are in some way community-enhancing. Every dollar that is distributed for such students is a dollar less available to students, Assyrian or otherwise, who wish to pursue Assyrian-relevant work.

PRINCIPLE TWO: We encourage everyone to pursue education as far as he/she can. We know from observation that those who achieve the greater academic goals will gain in personal stature, and will likely leave a greater mark on society. But there is no known correlation suggesting that the more educated an Assyrian becomes, the more he/she will become an asset to the Assyrian community. Paradoxically, there may be an opposite effect: The more educated an Assyrian becomes, the more rapidly he/she will merge into the dominant American culture, while the individual who remains anchored to the old ways tends to be more resistant to assimilation. This is certainly not to suggest that Assyrians should discourage their children from bettering themselves through education. But it also contradicts the implication that by providing money to a future doctor, lawyer, accountant or scientist, somehow we are "advancing the common cause."

PRINCIPLE THREE: "Assyrian education" has been totally ignored, and it is time to devote our scarce resources exclusively to this enterprise. Assyrian education has many needs, both in the homeland and in the diaspora. In the homeland, support to our students in almost any field is bound to be of positive value in strengthening our presence there (there already exists an inspiring example in the Assyrian Democratic Organization, where the European diaspora has an ongoing commitment to support students in the homeland). But in assisting students in the diaspora, we must be more discriminating, and for a change we must focus on some significant options.

PRE-SCHOOL AND PRIMARY LEVEL. Subsidize Assyrian language and cultural enrichment classes. The recent proposal for an Assyrian school in Turlock would seem an ideal goal.

SECONDARY LEVEL. Subsidize Assyrian language and cultural classes. Financial award for student achievement, but solely for Assyrian-related projects.

HIGHER EDUCATION. Provide funding commitments to individuals who choose to devote their study emphasis to an Assyrian subject, or a subject very likely to redound to the community interest. We cannot and should not expect to discourage Assyrians from pursuing their dream in any field of their choice, whether it is Assyrian-related or not. But there is a large class of bright individuals whose interests lie in such fields as sociology, politics, history, language, economics, anthropology, the arts and even the sciences, where the study or the research has great potential as Assyrian-relevant. A few individuals from this pool might well take heart in the fact that the Assyrian community would stand behind them if they chose to accentuate an Assyrian dimension to their studies. The chances are great that following his/her studies, a person coming out of such a process would benefit the general Assyrian community, whether it is done through writings, through political work, through teaching, or in some other way.

For Once, Do the Right Thing.

Admittedly, doing the right thing involves a lot more thought, a lot more effort, and there is less occasion for an ego trip. It takes sober work to map out a program which allocates funds based on long-term community objectives. Funding an Assyrian school, bankrolling a doctoral fellowship on an Assyrian subject, assuming the full costs of an important new Assyrian publication, lobbying for a University chair in Assyrian studies --- these are deeds lacking the instant gratification to which our bursars have become accustomed. But these are the kinds of programs which can have a positive impact on the general welfare.

What is at issue in the end is not the integrity of our leaders, but their sagacity. None of their previous track record inspires confidence that they can administer this new found wealth in the best community-wide inte rest.

"Image is Everything"- - But What About the Bottom Line?

Some Assyrians who recognize the bankruptcy of past "student aid" think that reform can be brought about without much tinkering. Even if they are sympathetic to the idea of consolidation, they argue that one of the already existing groups should be utilized for this function. They should consider the following.

It is true that the 65-year old Assyrian American National Federation, senior among U.S. groups, has coast-to-coast representation. But more often than not, AANF has been plagued by mediocre leadership, and a clear absence of direction. It has revealed itself incompetent in public outreach as well as in political lobbying. Nothing better epitomizes its ineptitude than the puerile annual chautauquas it passes off as conventions. If AANF had performed according to its original design, there would be little need for this discussion. By now, it should have established the broad credibility needed to lead this kind of task. But it is hard to take seriously an organization which takes out full-page ads in its own magazine to publicize form letter snubs from invited dignitaries, and somehow inteprets this as subliminal success. In reality, it is far from certain whether the Federation has the wherewithal to properly manage its own 20% share of the Adams funds, much less that of the others.

The second group, the Assyrian Academic Society of Chicago, is located amid the largest Assyrian community in the diaspora. By virtue of its name and its general objectives, one would think it is ideally positioned to assert leadership in this matter. After all, what is more "academic" than to enunciate the ps and qs of a rational "Assyrian education" policy? That other Assyrian organizations do not turn to AAS for direction in matters of educational import is a commentary about the failure of all of them to get out of their own little sandbox. That the AAS membership is not a society of scholars is no excuse. At any given moment, there are promising students interested in pursuing advanced Assyrian studies instead of a degree in law or medicine, who are prime candidates for financial support. We do not know of a single case where AAS has stepped into that breach.

Kibitzer believes that all of the organizations should pool their "education" funds into a common pool, and these funds should be administered by a broad-based board, including among others representatives of each of the contributing groups and of the AAS. Based on broad consultation, such a board should map out a blue print for the best and most efficient use of our limited education funds.

Readers, Your Comments Please!

In conclusion, the aimless practice of feel-good "educational" aid needs to be replaced by a program designed to advance the Assyrian nation. Those who control our scarce community resources are required to administer them consistently with the public trust which has been placed in them, and with intelligent objectives. If they are unwilling or unable to perform this solemn task, they should have the grace to admit it and let fresh new minds tackle the challenge.

Please send your comments to: Francis Sarguis, fsarguis@west.net



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