Education in the Arab world needs more Arab culture
Seek knowledge, even if you have to go all the way to China,” is a saying often attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Whether or not the Prophet actually uttered those words, centuries later the Arab world has responded to the message in an unexpected way: By launching Chinese-language programs in many schools in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Public response has been mixed. Some hailed it as a first for the region, while others privately questioned a move that could pose a further threat to the Arabic language for a generation already more comfortable with English.
The latter group might have a point. While two-thirds of 18 to 24-year-olds polled in the 2015 Arab Youth Survey said they were “concerned” about the declining use of Arabic, more than a third said they use English more than Arabic on a daily basis. The phenomenon was particularly prevalent in GCC nations, where 56 percent said they used English more than Arabic, compared with 24 percent in non-GCC countries.
Why is that? The answer is simple: They went to British or American schools in their home countries, then went on to study abroad in the UK, US, Australia or at an English-language university elsewhere. English became the main language of their professional lives.
It does not help that Arabic classes tend to be outdated and downright boring. A 2013 study of the status of the language concluded that “methods of teaching Arabic and its curricula ... should be revised, improved and modernized.” Classes in Arabic literature, history and heritage seem to be no more than an afterthought, with the core focus being on a British or American curriculum.
There are other factors at play too, some of which are awkward to acknowledge, such as a lack of confidence in the Arabic education system. Then there is “uqdet el khawaja,” which literally means “the foreigner complex.” It endures as a hangover from colonialism, in which Arabs absorb Orientalist stereotypes about themselves and favor foreigners (usually Westerners) over their own people in work or commerce.
For decades it has been a widely accepted notion that if you want your child to have a brighter future, she or he must go to a private British or American school, which will make it easier for them to travel abroad for higher education. This, however, is not entirely true.
Despite this centuries-old love of learning in the Middle East, study after study concludes the region is now lagging in education.
Rym Tina Ghazal
But the old Arabic school system is far from second rate. When I was a student at university in Canada, I found I had already covered the freshman math and science curriculum three years earlier at the private Arabic school I attended in Saudi Arabia. We also received a thorough grounding in Arabic.
At an elementary school in 1990s Saudi Arabia, typically an average of nine periods a week were devoted to religious subjects. At middle school, it was eight a week. We also had nine periods of Arabic language and 12 periods for everything else — geography, history, mathematics, science, art and physical education (or home economics for girls) — all of which amounts to a very rigorous curriculum.
Dig a little deeper into the history of education in the region and we see that the Middle East tradition of seeking knowledge and fostering debate is reflected in the fact that Arabic was by no means the only language spoken and studied. The diversity of the Middle East meant that learning from other cultures was the norm.
The famous Bayt Al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, a library founded in Baghdad in the 9th century, contained translations of works from all around the world. The rich legacy of the Golden Age of Islamic civilization, from the mid-7th to the 13th century, included Arabs and non-Arabs alike, women as well as men. The decimal point, algebra, tools to measure celestial bodies, and medical advances are only a few of the discoveries, inventions and innovations for which the world can thank the great minds of the age. Literature, music, art, architecture — every aspect of life was explored and developed during this time.
Despite this centuries-old love of learning in the Middle East, study after study concludes the region is now lagging in education. A 2013 report by the Brookings Institution states that students are not “learning foundational skills.” Finland and South Korea continue to top global lists for education, followed by Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. The US ranked 17th and the UK 6th according to a 2014 global report by education firm Pearson.
What can we learn from this? Finland, Korea, Hong Kong and the others in the top tier all have curricula that are different from each other. There is no pedagogical homogeneity; they are culturally specific. This, by the way, raises the question of the value that is offered by British and American schools, which are overrepresented in the “international schools” sector here and elsewhere in the world, to local students in the Middle East and beyond.
What we need is the confidence to build our own schools according to cultural norms that make sense to our children, so that they respond in the best possible way. Indeed, a “local,” as opposed to “international,” education clearly is no hindrance to an overseas university career. For example, scholars from Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore are among the largest groups of non-EU foreign students at Cambridge University, despite the relatively small populations of their countries.
Given the diversity of the Arab world, and each country’s unique identity and history, a universal Arab curriculum perhaps is not feasible. But that should not prevent each country from carefully assessing what worked in the past and what did not, and starting afresh.
“Education is like a lantern that lights your way in a dark alley,” said the late Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the UAE. So, as we move forward into an increasingly globalized world, why not use a lantern that is locally made?
• Rym Tina Ghazal is an award-winning journalist. In 2003, she became one of the first women of Arab heritage to cover war zones in the Middle East.