Unless the Arab states drastically change their education systems, they will stay backward, weak, and a breeding machine of parrots and fanatics. In a program on the current Arab education system on the German-French TV, Arte, 1 December, 2007, Sheikh Saleh Al Fozan, a leading member of the Saudi Council of Senior Ulema (religious leaders), said, “Some of our own people want us to become like the infidels, like the Jews and Christians, Allah condemn them. They want us to renounce our Godly religious beliefs and follow in their footsteps by changing our educational curriculum that is base on the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet, peace be upon him. A parrot is one who repeats the demands of the enemies of Islam that we should stop teaching the Koran so that we abandon our faith.” This came in the wake of publishing the UN Arab Human Development Report 2006 authored by a group of distinguished Arab intellectuals.
Commenting on pressure form the United States on Saudi Arabia since Sept. 11 to reform its educational system, Sultan Al Saud, the Saudi Crown Prince told the Saudi TV on 16 Sept. 2005, “America and the rest of the infidel world should go to hell. We are not going to change our education system which is based on the best religion of the world. We are proud of being Muslims and having an Islamic education system.”
Both the Al Saudi clan which has ruled over Saudi Arabia since its foundation in the 1940s and the religious establishment dominated by Wahabbism (a kind of radical, fanatic, simplistic interpretation of Islam) have used dogmatic Islam to enforce their regime and run the country.
At Saudi schools and universities, words like “alcohol, pigs, and prostitutes” are none existent in English language books. The “evolution theory” is not mentioned or taught at all. “Jewish people” in all books and levels are condemned as “enemies of Allah”. The Western world is presented as “decadent”, “corrupt”, and “atheist”.
In addition to an archaic education system which lacks critical thinking and research, more than 60 million Arab adults remain illiterate, including 55% of all Arab women.
In almost all Arab schools and universities, students are not allowed to question what they are taught. They are expected to accept everything they read and hear from their teachers and memorize to a great extent what they are taught. Critical thinking is penalized and students are patronized. In fact, the Arab regimes have rejected Western methods of education such as critical thinking and liberal thought. They fear that these methods could spawn critics who would question the existence of the ruling regimes.
Students face other constraints. There are little, if any, extra-curricular activities, nothing to exercise their fine motor skills or hand and eye coordination. Classrooms are poorly-equipped and dull.
Private schools and universities are by and large not much better off. Graham Collins who used to work as course coordinator at the Gulf University for Science and Education (GUST) in Kuwait told me, “GUST is supposed to follow the curriculum of Missouri University. But it does not. The owners of this university replicate the same curricula and teaching methods used by traditional Arab universities. The whole thing is a farce. The façade is American but the content is very Arab. GUST and other local universities are degraded to diploma mills.”
A despotic education system coupled with dogmatic religious teaching in all Arab countries have produced passive learners, simply parrots. The majority of university graduates are appointed as teachers who follow in the steps of their former teachers. The Arab education system is moving in a vicious circle.
Vocational schools are rare in the Arab world. Every parent wants their children to have an office job. It is more comfortable and more respectable by society. Manual jobs are learned in workshops under very harsh conditions. People who cannot afford school or whose children drop school are sent to learn a manual craft without theoretical background.
Where do all the graduates from schools and universities go? The Egyptian Al Ahram Weekly estimates that the majority stay jobless. “In Egypt alone 700,000 job opportunities are yearly needed. Over 50% of the Arab labor force are jobless.” Al Ahram said in an editorial on 19 November, 2007. In the Arab oil countries, which awash in petrodollars, over 90% of the local work force are government employees who do simple routine jobs. Sophisticated and technical jobs are done by imported expatriate employees from all over the world. Mohammed’s job, for example, at Kuwait airport consists of stamping the date on cargo receipts.
Arab universities are also burdened with cronyism that stifles innovation and quality graduates. The lack of significant private industry throughout the Arab countries also means that universities are essentially dependent on governments to pay staff salaries and provide jobs for graduates. The appeal of Muslim fundamentalism has thrived among jobless graduates.
Mahmoud Auda, a retired Egyptian professor who used to teach sociology at Ain Shams University in Cairo recently told me, “Most of my colleagues’ publications are geared towards promotion. And most of these publications are translations from a foreign language into Arabic. Very few staff read after they get promoted. They spend most of their time teaching overtime at various institutions to make money. They also force their students to buy their publications to make an extra buck.”
Khaled Al Shallal, a Kuwait University assistant professor, told me, “University teachers at respectable universities use sabbaticals to do research. At Kuwait University and other Arab universities they use it to do nothing. For the majority it is a paid one-year vacation.”
Ali (pseudonym), an associate professor at Kuwait University came to Germany to attend a conference. He showed up only during the opening session. When later after the conference I met him and asked why he did not attend the other sessions, he said, “Who cares? I want to enjoy myself. I’ll concoct a report and present it to the University. They do not care either.”
Hence the current Arab education system is detrimental to generating human resources that are skilled enough to deliver productive jobs and critical of life around them. The system produces people who see things in black and white terms. Unless all this changes to the better, Arab societies will remain backward, underdeveloped, undemocratic, and volatile.
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