The stifling of ideas
Education in the Arab countries is where the paternalism of the traditional family structure, the authoritarianism of the state and the dogmatism of religion all meet, discouraging critical thought and analysis, stifling creativity and instilling submissiveness. The 2004 Arab Human Development Report observed:
Communication in education is didactic, supported by set books containing indisputable texts in which knowledge is objectified so as to hold incontestable facts, and by an examination process that only tests memorisation and factual recall.
Curricula, teaching and evaluation methods, the AHDR noted, “do not permit free dialogue and active, exploratory learning and consequently do not open the doors to freedom of thought and criticism. On the contrary, they weaken the capacity to hold opposing viewpoints and to think outside the box. Their societal role focuses on the reproduction of control in Arab societies.”
The main classroom activities, according to a World Bank report, are copying from the blackboard, writing, and listening to the teachers. “Group work, creative thinking, and proactive learning are rare. Frontal teaching – with a teacher addressing the whole class – is still a dominant feature … The individual needs of the students are not commonly addressed in the classroom. Rather, teachers teach to the whole class, and there is little consideration of individual differences in the teaching-learning process.”
One investigation into the quality of schooling in the Middle East found students were taught to memorise and retain answers to “fairly fixed questions” with “little or no meaningful context”, and that the system mainly rewarded those who were skilled at being passive knowledge recipients. Although that study was published in 1995, the World Bank’s 2008 report concluded that many of its criticisms still applied thirteen years later. Moreover, the few Arab countries that have recognised this deficiency have generally failed to change the classroom practices.
If this makes young Arabs well-equipped for anything at all, it is how to survive in an authoritarian system: just memorise the teacher’s words, regurgitate them as your own, avoid asking questions – and you’ll stay out of trouble. In the same way, the suppression of their critical faculties turns some of them into gullible recipients for religious ideas that would collapse under serious scrutiny. But it ill-equips them for roles as active citizens and contributors to their countries’ development.
The political role of education
Mass education in Arab state-run schools developed mainly in the latter half of the twentieth century and generally had two main objectives: to combat illiteracy and inculcate a sense of national identity. Starting from a very low base, Arab countries have made considerable progress in developing literacy and the biggest gains have been in female education: women’s literacy rates have trebled since 1970 and school enrolment rates for females have more than doubled.
Overall in the Arab countries, adult literacy increased from around 40 per cent in 1980 to 62 per cent in the early 2000s and school enrolment reached 60 per cent. This is certainly progress but it nevertheless means that 65 million Arabs remain illiterate and around ten million children aged 6-15 are not attending school. Adult literacy is still significantly below the world average of 79 per cent, school enrolment is slightly below and the average time spent at school is 5.2 years in Arab countries, compared with 6.7 years worldwide. As might be expected, those most disadvantaged educationally are females and the poor, especially in rural areas.
Besides promoting literacy, Arab states – in the words of the World Bank – “placed a high premium on forging a common heritage and understanding of citizenship, and used a certain reading of history, the instruction in a particular language, and the inclusion of religion in the education curriculum as a way of enhancing national identity”.
These principles were applied in different ways, depending on the preoccupations of the regime. In Syria, education provided an opportunity for the Ba’ath party to indoctrinate the masses with its ideology through schools, and the party also established an “institute of political science” at Damascus University, providing compulsory classes in political orientation. In Saudi Arabia, according to the Basic Law (constitution) of 1992, education aims at “instilling the Islamic faith in the younger generation, providing its members with knowledge and skills and preparing them to become useful members in the building of their society, members who love their homeland and are proud of its history.”
Inevitably, these considerations have their impact on school curricula. Textbooks covering politically sensitive subject, such as the humanities and social sciences, “usually laud past achievements and generally indulge in both self-praise and blame of others, with the aim of instilling loyalty, obedience and support for the regime in power. It is not unusual to find schoolbooks in many Arab countries with a picture of the ruler on the front page, even in the case of textbooks in neutral subjects such as science and mathematics.”
The overall effect of this, in the words of the AHDR, is to encourage submission, obedience, subordination and compliance, rather than free critical thinking.
“At school,” Egyptian blogger/activist Hossam Hamalawy said, “you memorise everything, even literary critique. When you are given a piece of poetry, you study the points of strength and the points of weakness. You don’t move your brain, you don’t use anything – you just memorise what the government textbook tells you.”
Rote learning clearly has a place – for example, memorising vocabulary in a foreign language – but in Arab educational systems it dominates to the exclusion of understanding, analytical thought, problem-solving and so on. This approach reflects the authoritarian tendencies of Arab society, as well as the desire of the regimes not to be subjected to critical scrutiny. Historically, the attachment to memorising probably lies in the traditional religious education system that preceded state-run schooling, described here in connection with Saudi Arabia:
Because the purpose of Islamic education was to ensure that the believer would understand God’s laws and live his or her life in accordance with them, classes for reading and memorising the Qur’an along with selections from the hadith were sponsored in towns and villages throughout the peninsula. At the most elementary level, education took place in the kuttab, a class of Qur’an recitation for children usually attached to a mosque, or as a private tutorial held in the home under the direction of a male or female professional Qur’an reader, which was usually the case for girls.
In the late nineteenth century, nonreligious subjects were also taught under Ottoman rule in the Hijaz and al-Ahsa province, where kuttab schools specialising in Qur’an memorisation sometimes included arithmetic, foreign language, and Arabic reading in the curriculum. Because the purpose of basic religious learning was to know the contents of holy scripture, the ability to read Arabic text was not a priority, and illiteracy remained widespread in the peninsula.
Religious influence in education
The Islamic origins of Arab education systems help to explain the high proportion of the curriculum that is still devoted to religion in Saudi Arabia and some Gulf countries, even today. In Saudi elementary schools, nine hours per week (out of 28-31 teaching hours) are devoted to Islamic studies. At intermediate level the total is eight hours out of 33, compared with only four hours for mathematics. Religion is not necessarily confined to Islamic studies, however: other subjects such as Arabic language, history and social sciences can also contain large Islamic elements.
While governments tend to view education as a way of inculcating loyalty to the regime, Islamists have seized upon it as a way of influencing young minds in a religious direction. By the early 2000s the teaching profession in Kuwait had become heavily infiltrated by Islamists – an issue that came to the fore when one high school teacher, Sulaiman abu Ghaith, disappeared and then resurfaced in Afghanistan as a spokesman for al-Qa‘ida. Ahmad Bishara, a Kuwaiti parent, said the country had many teachers like Sulaiman abu Ghaith:
The whole idea is to control the minds and influence the orientation of the students … A teacher comes to the class and says: “Let’s go to the mosque.” Those who don’t attend feel left out. Kids are asked if their parent goes to mosque, prays at home, etc.
One teacher asked my child in front of all the students whether his father takes him to the mosque on Fridays. It’s embarrassing for the child and it alienates children from their parents.
Bishara complained. It was a private school and he was paying more than $7,000 a year for the privilege of having his religious credentials questioned.
“Teachers tend to come from the more conservative families – especially female teachers,” Masoumah al-Mubarak, a professor of political science at Kuwait University said. “Among conservative families, teaching is one of the few approved professions for women. Most teachers, especially women, are conservative – salafi or ikhwan.” In Kuwait, parents are very trusting of teachers, she said, but “if the family is not aware and alert they will lose that child”.
Source: What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, by Brian Whitaker (Saqi Books, 2009).