Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
17 - 23 June 1999
Issue No. 434
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Respecting human nature

By Eman Abdel-Moeti

It may be difficult to eradicate decades of rigid educational principles, which did not accord a high priority to allowing a child's personality to grow in a healthy social environment. But it is not impossible to achieve the original aim that schools were made to achieve.

Amidst the green fields of Sharqiya Governorate, the Sekem School seeks to offer children the opportunity to grow strong physically and mentally, to think scientifically and creatively, and to develop kindness and honesty.

From kindergarten to secondary school, Sekem hosts children from diverse backgrounds. Germans and Egyptians, rich and poor, Muslims and Christians sit side by side, respecting each others' differences: they are all equal, say the teachers, when it comes to learning.

The students learn that God is the Knowledgeable One, who conveys His knowledge to those who seek it through science and meditation. The teachers are trained to develop and improve themselves, and to earn the students' respect before demanding it.

"The whole idea is to foster a positive image of school among both students and teachers, and to respect the child's phases of growth and each phase's needs," explains Ibrahim Abul-Eish, the director of the school. "In the end, we will have healthy, balanced children physically, mentally, and spiritually."

Abul-Eish has developed the curriculum at Sekem School, where learning is based on science, religion, and art. "Since human beings are made up of mind, body, and spirit, then science, religion and arts are the proper nourishment. Without one of these three ingredients, an individual will not be balanced. If science is missing from the education process, the individual will be ignorant; if religion is missing, he will be materialistic; and if art is missing, he will be ruthless," Abul-Eish says.





Learning like playing: the Sekem School's philosophy does not place a high priority on memorising facts and figures. Instead, the joy of learning, respect for nature and humanity, and a large dose of religious holism are the values that inform the curriculum
photos: Khaled El-Fiqi

Abul-Eish himself is a scientist, a pharmacologist who spent nearly 30 years in Austria. All he remembers of Egypt before that time is the beautiful countryside. When he brought his children to visit Egypt in the late '70s, he felt that conditions in rural areas had deteriorated as compared to his rosy memories, and he decided to set up several projects serving the community in Sharqiya. Sekem School was one of these many projects, which include organic farming and related industries, as well as a non-governmental community service organisation he launched to serve the families of agricultural workers.

The Abul-Eish community vision is based on one crucial axiom: respecting and cherishing God's creation, and handing it down from one generation to the next without ruining it. Human beings, Abul-Eish believes, are the most important element of the whole. He therefore sees the school as the most important entity in his community, to be served by all the rest.

According to Abul-Eish's philosophy, the phases of life spent in school are some of the most crucial in a human being's life. This is why so much emphasis is placed on training the teachers.

The first phase is one of growth, and lasts approximately until the seventh year of a child's life. During this phase, explains Abul-Eish, children are characterised by a capacity for imitation, great energy, and the need to play. Therefore, he believes that children should not be restricted to reading and writing, or any kind of education that requires long hours of immobility, during this phase. "If a child starts using his brain at this early age, he will not grow properly and he will become ill," he asserts. At Sekem School, children spend time discovering nature and using their senses in play. "A child builds a relation between himself and a beautiful flower, a small animal, a fresh breeze, twinkling stars, and the colours of a rainbow. Because children at this age tend to emulate parents and teachers, their role models should be happy, and beautiful in the children's eyes. They should sing, dance, and be kind."

Abul-Eish describes the second phase, "the age of enlightenment", from seven to 14, as a time during which children begin to identify the world around them, and form a lasting impression of this world. "Children at this age must be cared for by people who are keen to discover beauty, because beauty is the other face of truth."

Colours, music, the beauty of creation, and the learning process are all parts of a single whole, he feels. "The respect children have for their teachers and their school becomes natural behaviour, not an imposed way of acting." Teachers during this phase guide the children in an artistic and creative way, through songs, crafts, and activities.

The third phase, from 14 to 21, during which children leave school, is one of questions. "Wisdom and truth are now very necessary. Young adults start to ask why, so their teachers must be well educated, very active, and honest. If a teacher does not know the answer to a question, he should not guess or pretend to know. He should tell the students he will have the answer tomorrow," explains Abul-Eish, adding that children will quickly identify a teacher as cunning, ignorant or dishonest and therefore cease to respect him or her.

Truth and facts are important at this age, since the child's intellectual capacities are still being formed, and abstract concepts are still difficult to grasp. Therefore, scientific facts, laboratories and experiments are the tools of knowledge best adapted to this phase. "If the children are not kept busy experimenting and working with their hands, they will start day-dreaming and neglect constructive activities." Abul-Eish concludes that, for the same reason, a strong moral base must be built up by teaching the children to meditate and admire "creation and God's miracles in the universe". This, he believes, fosters not aggressive materialistic behaviour but individuals "who seek truth and knowledge and have respect for nature, creation, and the eternal order of the universe".

Abul-Eish believes that the Sekem School corresponds to the Madaris Amiriya (government schools) of pre-revolution years, "when students of different nationalities and religions studied and played together, and had great respect for their teachers."

Like these schools, the Sekem School takes only symbolic fees (approximately LE500 a year). Muslims and Copts have separate religion classes, but are taught to respect each other's religion. Children from Sharqiya sit next to Cairenes and Germans; some of the latter have been brought here from Germany by their parents, attracted by Abul-Eish's holistic world-view or by his all-natural approach to education and life in general.

The school is not isolated from the "real world", since it is an integral part of the Egyptian educational system. The standard curriculum is taught, but is adapted to Abul-Eish's philosophy. Children and parents, for instance, are advised not to attach great importance to end-of-year examinations. "That way," explains Abul-Eish, "the children learn how to know, rather than learning for the exam." Perhaps, too, the "alternative approach" means they are better prepared for exams -- and life's other trials.

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