At the end of the past century, economic and political changes took place that tilted the conventional balance of power. At the beginning of this century many thought what the world would be like in the coming decades, particularly the position of Saudi Arabia in the comity of nations.
In a very short time, several countries have become powerful in terms of economy and politics. Until the middle of the past century, many of the countries that have now risen to power were in the periphery. They have now moved to the center of world's economy and politics. Among those nations are China, India, Brazil, South Korea, Turkey and some others. Not to mention Japan that phenomenally moved to the center of world’s economy since the early 70s.
These countries have adopted Western methods and models, specifically those of the United States in education, management and even form of government, which contributed to their development and helped in their advancement. We still remember those countries being described as developing countries.
Quality education and sound strategic planning are the fundamentals for economic progress, which ultimately raise the living standard of the people and the country's status among the nations in a short span of time. Although positive changes are taking place across the world, the Middle East countries still lag behind with minimum economic progress and barely any political clout in world's affairs.
The primary reason for this sad state of affairs is the poor education system in most Middle East countries, which also adversely affect health care and social services. All of these placed almost the entire Middle East region in the category of Third World countries.
In Saudi Arabia, both the government and the people are aware of the importance of quality education. The government has launched massive programs to overhaul the education system. Also, most Saudi parents set aside a good percentage of their income to enroll their children in private schools that are believed to provide quality education. This is the reason behind the increase in the number of private schools and colleges.
But will these efforts by the government and parents bear fruit, particularly in the context of formal and higher education? I don’t think there would be significant changes in the education sector.
Educational institutions, especially in the private sector, rely heavily on teachers from countries that have poor education system. Consequently, people who graduated from educational institutions in those countries and hired to teach in Saudi private schools would produce ill-prepared students. This cycle would continue endlessly.
Most parents who admit their children to private schools are concerned about the competence and the ability of the majority of teachers in these schools. They are also worried about the tendency of teachers to encourage students to take private tutoring.
These teachers receive low wages. To make both ends meet, they tend to push the students for private tutoring. Many of them teach four to five students daily and while finishing their rounds they flip textbooks, sip coffee and then hurriedly move to the next student. At the end of the term, the students get a good grade with virtually no useful skills. They get through the exams because they are taught specifically to get good grades that hardly add to their capability and qualification.
One parent said that he was helping his son to do his elementary Arabic grammar and he was shocked to discover that the teacher had marked right on a wrong answer. This teacher must have been poorly prepared because this subject requires the skills one gets from high school education.
Foreign languages, specifically English, are also taught by teachers who have graduated from that same failed education system. Some Saudi students speak and read English in wrong phonetics, grammar and vocabulary, which are tainted with Middle Eastern enunciation. For this reason, majority of Saudi students are unable to communicate and write the language correctly.
To improve the condition of formal and higher education, serious attention should be given to the curriculum and teachers. The curriculum ought to make sharp distinction between sciences (Chemistry, biology, physics, math, and social sciences) and humanities (religious studies, Arabic studies, history and geography).
Sciences are behind technological development and industrial innovations, which bring with it economic progress. So all strategic educational plans should put emphasis on these subjects and they should be taught in English by competent teachers to enable us to compete in sciences with the rest of the world.
Humanities, on the other hand, ought to be taught by local teachers in Arabic. The English language, however, must be taught by English-native speakers. According to some Saudi educators, most difficulties encountered by Saudi students abroad are due to their poor preparation in the English language.
Good preparation in both sciences and humanities will produce capable students, who can communicate and express their ideas with others in fluent and correct English, as it is the language of the world. Moreover being well-versed in two languages – no matter what the other language is – means one has two ways of thinking that enables one to look at all aspects of an issue, especially those concerning other cultures and the role of women in the society.
We are part of the world and we need to coexist with one another locally and globally.
Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan is a Saudi academician based in Riyadh. This article is exclusive to Arab News.