Dr. May Abboud
American University in Beirut


This paper presents the author’s experience in teaching of Mathematics at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, Lebanon, in the aftermath of the civil war that ravaged the country from 1975-1990. A comparison of students’ preparation as well as behavior with that before the war indicates patterns that can be attributed to the war that lasted from 1975 until 1990.

In this paper, I describe my experience of teaching mathematics at the college level at the Lebanese American University in the aftermath of the civil war that waged all over Lebanon in the period from 1975 and 1990. The Lebanese American University, (LAU), formerly a women’s college, is a private university following the American system of education. Initially, it was a small college dedicated to the education of women in Lebanon and the Arab world, and as such it attracted a large number of female students from all over the region. In 1973, it went coeducational, and started introducing new disciplines, to meet the changing needs. Later on, a new campus was developed in Byblos with a school of Engineering, Arts & Sciences, Pharmacy and a Business school. More recently a new campus in Sidon was established to primarily accommodate a school of Agriculture. In addition, graduate studies in a number of disciplines were introduced to meet the growing needs of the market place. Thus the name of the institution was changed from "Beirut University College" (BUC), to "The Lebanese American University" to reflect the changes that had taken place as well as the history of the university. The Beirut campus, where I teach, includes about three thousand students, and most of my students are majoring in Computer Science, Math Education or Engineering. In addition to teaching mathematics courses, I also teach computer science courses.

My experience before the war included teaching at LAU from 1973-1976 when it was still a small college and had just started admitting men. I also taught at the Faculty of Sciences of the Lebanese University, the national university, this period being from 1977-1984, entirely a war period. In the 70’s, the Faculty of Sciences had developed an excellent program with outstanding faculty and was able to attract excellent students from all over the country. However, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon put an end to the aspirations of many people of having an outstanding national university. The university was first occupied by the Israelis, abruptly terminating the academic year. After their withdrawal at the end of 1983, it was occupied by Lebanese militia groups, making the whole area a front line inaccessible to civilians . In 1984, due to the worsening security situation, the university was unable to function at all. That year instead of teaching we started a study group to explore the field of Computer Science, and it was then that my professional interest began to shift in that direction. At that time, few computers were available in Lebanon.

During that year, the security situation continued to deteriorate, with the fighting not being restricted to the front lines, but just about everywhere, not sparing residential areas or civilian life. "Normal" life was no longer possible. At that time, the adversaries were all Lebanese and the fighting took on a fratricidal character and often between militias belonging to different groups competing for control of the streets, and the neighbourhoods. I do not intend to delve into the political reasons of the war, or to identify the interests of the various groups within Lebanon, or countries in the region or internationally, my purpose is to lay the background for this paper.

Finally in the summer of that year, I decided to escape and leave to the US, until things calmed down. My absence from Lebanon lasted ten years in a state of waiting for the war to end. During that period I studied Computer Science and taught at a university in Washington D.C. Finally in 1994, I was able to return to Lebanon, when I accepted the teaching position that at LAU, that I currently hold. In this paper, I compare my teaching experience on the one hand, before and during the war as well as my experience in the US.

Even though the war officially ended in 1990, the scars of the war were still there, the whole downtown district of Beirut as well as other areas was completely destroyed. Numerous villages were ravaged. There were thousands of people killed, and many more injured or permanently maimed. The south of Lebanon was and is still occupied by the Israeli forces and the entire infrastructure of the country completely destroyed. Electric power was still being rationed to 12 hours a day, the telephones for the most part not functional, roads in a very backward state, and the economy in shambles. In addition, there were still hundreds of thousands of families that were still displaced and have not been able to return to their villages or to the areas they lived in before the war. Even though the war was over, the great majority of the people suffered great hardships. A large number of families who had fled the country because of the war decided to stay in their adopted homes in the US, Europe, Australia or elsewhere. Now, that the reconstruction effort has been in full force the last four years, life is almost going back to normal, at least as it appears on the surface. However the problems of the displaced have been only partially solved and still thousands of people have not been able to return to their homes. In addition, life has become very expensive, unemployment is rampant, and the shelling in the south is ongoing on a daily basis, and the future often seems to be precarious and uncertain.

I will now describe briefly the educational system in Lebanon. Historically Lebanon was under the French mandate until it got its independence in 1943; hence there is a strong French Legacy reflected by the number of educational institutions using French as the language of instruction and adopting the French educational system. On the other hand, missionary schools were created by various denominations each defining its own system. As a consequence there are schools using French, English, Arabic and even German as the language of instruction. Public schools exist, but lag behind in quality partly because of the war and partly for inadequate support.

Lebanese students wishing to enrol at any university have to pass the Lebanese Baccalaureate, a national examination prepared by the Lebanese Ministry of Education and administered at the end of each school year. Students planning to go to the sciences either opt to take the "Mathematics" section or the "Experimental Sciences" section of the exam. All students majoring in Computer Science or Mathematics Education come from this kind of background.

The high school curriculum has not changed in the last 25 years, and many educators have put the validity of the Lebanese Baccalaureate into question. Had it not been for the war, the high school curriculum would certainly have been restructured to take into consideration changes in society, as well as changes in technology and education. However it was only last year that a new curriculum was put into place and now the National Center for Educational Research is preparing the instructional materials needed. Hence, most of our students have followed a high school program that is completely outdated, and none have any experience with computers or mathematical software.

The Lebanese American University being a private university still commands high tuition fees and as a result most of the students come from either middle class or upper class. A consequence of the war is the devaluation of the Lebanese pound, which impoverished the middle class, formerly substantial and making the poor still poorer. That leaves a tiny minority of very wealthy people. As a result many of our students require financial aid, and actually 20% get financial aid in the form of work-study program or loans. A lot of students whose parents have limited means aspire to have them enrol in an American institution, whose diplomas guarantee a good job for the graduate, whereas a degree from the Lebanese University does not necessarily insure the future, especially in the sciences. The Lebanese University which at one time had a lot of promise, now has been partitioned and weakened but still educates about 50,000 students, by far the largest number of students compared with any other university.

The student body at LAU (Beirut) is 80% Lebanese, 13% citizens of other Arab countries and 7% non-Arab. The Lebanese students belong to all the existing sects of Lebanon, with students coming from all parts of the country even though the majority is from Beirut. Amongst students majoring in computer science, about 15% of the students are female. A large number of students come from schools using French as the language of instruction and some are from schools using Arabic as the language of instruction. In addition, the students coming from other Arab countries are used to having Arabic as the language of instruction. The problem of the English language causes a great deal of difficulty for the students, especially in the beginning years.

During the last three years, I have been teaching Calculus III, a course in Abstract Algebra, one in Linear Algebra and some computer science courses. In the first session of the Calculus III class, I start a dialogue with the students trying to assess how much they know of Calculus, and their understanding of the concepts involved. The majority of the students had already studied Calculus for one year, as this is a major topic of the Lebanese Baccalaureate exams. Students seem to have good algorithmic knowledge, such as knowing how to compute derivatives and integrals, but when asked about the meaning of the derivative very few would be able to articulate it as the rate of change, and none would be able to define it. When asked about the difference between the definite and indefinite integral, all identified the definite integral with the process of evaluating it. They have absolutely no idea that the relationship is a consequence of a profound theorem. When asked whether they had studied the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus in school, the answer was that the teacher told them that all they had to know was how to evaluate the integral, and that the other matter was not important.

The mathematical skills of our students are confined to routine algorithmic problems such as calculating the derivatives or integrals. When given problems that require some reasoning or even understanding of the problem, they fail miserably. In addition, they have poor reading and writing skills. After having studied Calculus for one year in high school, they show that they have almost no understanding of the concepts underlying the Calculus. What they seem to know quite well are the steps that are involved in routine problems, but have little understanding of the relationship between the various steps. They have no idea of why a particular topic is interesting or why they are doing it. When asked to do some reading, or asked some problems that require thinking, their main worry about whether it is will be on the test, and if reassured that it is not, they will not give it any importance.

During the war years, the primary concern of individuals and institutions was mere survival. During a typical year of the war, there was fighting and random shelling not only on the front lines but in the residential sectors of Beirut as well as other towns. For at least one third of the year, no one was able to venture outside their homes, or the shelters. The only people who moved around were the militiamen and the fighters. Frequently, a day would start with relative calm, however in the middle of the day, fighting would erupt and parents would be in a desperate state trying to get their children back to safety. We have no exact statistics on how many school days were lost during those years. However going back to the account of the war for the year 1986, there were 300 days of war activity in various parts of the country. As to the security situation in and around Beirut, there were about 100 days, when there was random shelling, street fighting, and instances of car bombs or sniping. During that year, there were 2592 people killed, and 7250 people injured. There were 42 individuals who were assassinated that year; these were leaders, intellectuals and politicians. In 1987, there were 142 days of fighting, shelling, bombing and for 93 of these days, these acts were taking place in Beirut and within 20-km radius around the city.

For a short period some schools tried to organize classes at teachers’ houses for those students who lived in the immediate neighbourhood. Since schools are not organized around neighbourhoods, that experience was unsuccessful and did not last. We can give a conservative estimate that schools opened for less than two thirds of the required time. When classes were held, material had to be quickly covered, and there was very little time and opportunity for exploration and experimentation to develop the higher level cognitive skills. Thus, the luxury of exploring, learning concepts and problem solving had to be subordinated to the goal of finishing the curriculum and to prepare the students to sit for the Baccalaureate exams in spite of the war and the continuous interruptions. During a number of years, the Baccalaureate exams could not be held, and students were then given certificates attesting that they had completed their high school studies in lieu of the official diploma, even though they had not finished the curriculum. This happened in 1980 when students were admitted on an open basis to the Lebanese University. It was a disaster, students did not have the necessary background. Classes were held in an amphitheatre; it was chaos with students going in and out as they pleased. Those serious about studying had to come early in the morning to guarantee a seat in the front rows. Because the university was free, students enrolled in large numbers, as they had nothing to lose, and had no other alternative. In other years when the exams were held, the questions were predictable, being largely restricted to algorithmic knowledge and students as well as teachers knew how many questions to expect on each of the topics included. In these sessions the rate of success was almost total, and the rationale was not to ruin the future of the students and to enable them to continue their studies or to allow them to pursue their life as they wished.

According to a study by Zein El Din (1997), an analysis of 10 sessions of the official exams (in the Mathematics Section) showed that 91.1% of the questions tested algorithmic knowledge, whereas only 1.8% of the questions tested understanding of concepts and only 7.1% of the questions involved problem solving. Similar statistics were obtained on the "Experimental Sciences" sections. Considering the situation in Lebanon, it made sense for examiners then not to be tough on the exams, to take into consideration that life and schooling was not "normal". Often, while teaching at the Lebanese University, we would be hearing the bombing and the shelling and we would be wondering, which areas have been hit, and worrying whether we would be able to make it back home safely. I would agonize whether class should be dismissed or not, because we were trying desperately to keep a semblance of a normal life. Not to mention the psychological state of the students who for the most part came from the south, or lived in areas subjected to constant bombardment and shelling. They lived in a constant state of insecurity and fear. When they went back home, there was overcrowding, often there was no electric power, and sometimes they had to go to shelters or to the safest area of the building.

The ages of the students that I teach at LAU vary from 18 until 22. So, these students spent a big part of their childhood, knowing nothing but a state of war. In a study by J. Abu Nasr (1981) about the effects of the war (1978-79) on children, a sample of 548 Lebanese children, from different parts of the country, and belonging to various social economic classes. This study shows that 61% of the children were directly exposed to the war, while 53% were displaced at some point from their homes and 14% had their homes completely destroyed whereas for 11.7%, their homes were partially destroyed. 15.5% had lost a member of the family whereas 5.3% had lost more than one member. We observe in our students the lack of the ability for concentration and perseverance in their study habits. In class, they do not have the ability to pursue a line of reasoning that would take more than a few steps. At home, they do not have the perseverance to solve non-routine problems. Their attention span is extremely limited and they can hardly stop from talking to their neighbour in class. One might say that this was a cultural characteristic, but certainly, this behavior was not prevalent before the war. Students had more discipline and accepted the authority of the parents and the teachers. Students had certain amount awe being at the university and felt a great deal of responsibility towards their parents and their teachers.

Another strange matter, is the students’ inability to assess the seriousness of a particular situation. For example, we may be in the midst of a difficult proof and all students seem to be involved when a student will interrupt and ask permission to ask a question. When allowed to speak, assuming that his question to be relevant to the point under discussion, it turns out the contribution is a funny story or something totally irrelevant to the topic such as "When are we having the next test"? It might have been the student’s way of expressing his frustration and trying to break the tension that was becoming unbearable.

There are also economic considerations. Before the war, a university education was a promise for a better future. Whereas now, students are very cynical about their future, justifiably so, since they know that when they graduate, if they are lucky to get a good job, the salary of 500 US dollars would be insufficient to have them rent an apartment, let alone get married and raise a family. A few of them aspire to find a job in the Gulf region where the jobs pay well, and some of the better students hope to do graduate work and try to emigrate to the US or Canada. However for the majority of the students from the middle class, the future looks bleak. The role models in society that they see now are the successful businessman, who made a lot of money very quickly, or the powerful warlords and politicians. During the war, the hero was the militiaman, the macho character carrying the Kalashnikov and demonstrating his power in the streets. In a sense, the young militiamen were expressing their rebellion against a patriarchal authority and traditionalism, unfortunately they were unable to replace it with anything qualitatively better. On the contrary, the net result of the war that ordinary people became poorer, and the society more corrupt and decadent, with democracy lessened and people losing power, rather than being empowered.

Neither here before the war, nor in the US, have I experienced similar behavior on the part of university students. No doubt, the times are different and values have changed. Whether we can attribute all the above-mentioned symptoms entirely to the war, may be put into question. Some observations we make here about students understanding of mathematical concepts and problem solving skills seem to be widespread as has been documented in the math education literature. But we can certainly say that the war exacerbated matters related to the learning environment, making it extremely unhealthy, and not conducive to real learning. Amongst LAU students, there are some students whose parents had fled the country during the war, but returned when life went back to "normal". These students spent their childhood and did their schooling in another country (mostly in Europe, The US and Canada) and we observe that they do not manifest the same behavioural symptoms that other students exhibit. They exhibit a higher level of maturity. They have better reading and writing skills, and more discipline and perseverance in pursuing a subject. The students who have studied in Lebanon have been conditioned very strongly to have to know the next step, and their primary concern is the test. They rarely ask why! Nor will they explore for knowledge’s sake.

Another matter that creates serious problems for students is English, the language of instruction at LAU. Even for those students who have studied in schools using English for the sciences, their language skills are quite weak, so they are unable to communicate effectively, let alone read or write. The textbooks used are mostly books published in the US and written to native English speakers, and all the examples taken are culture specific. As a result, textbooks are used only as reference to look up how specific problems are solved so that these can be mimicked in solving homework problems. When students ask questions in class, they use a combination of English, Arabic as well as gestures, and are unable to convey what they mean. For those students coming from schools using French or Arabic as the language of instruction the problem becomes much worse. Even though the educational system has not changed, the level of the students has certainly gone down

In conclusion, the students at the Lebanese American University observed in the period from 1994 to the present exhibit behavior and learning difficulties that were not prevalent before the war or in the early part. Other learning difficulties such as weak problem solving skills or lack of understanding of mathematical concepts seem to be more universal.