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1 - 7 March 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (379)
"Improving Qur'anic schools was believed to be one way of developing primary education in Egypt in the early 1920s. The schools were the primary, perhaps only source of education in the countryside. But raising their standard proved difficult when modern-day, non-religious subjects introduced into their curriculum met with suspicion and resistance. In addition, with the departure of Lord Cromer -- whose backing of these schools had less to do with serving Egyptian education than bolstering the British occupation -- the project was shelved. The idea was replaced by so-called elementary "first and last schools," so named because the vast majority of poor, rural students were unable to continue on to higher levels. The plan was discussed at an education conference which tackled several other of the country's educational issues. The meetings were covered by Al-Ahram. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* culled the major points of this learning experience
Education's growing pains
The first decade of the 20th century in Egypt saw a movement to develop primary education through improving the kuttab (Qur'anic school). This, it was felt, would be the best way to "open those closed eyes, cure the intellect of intractable diseases, cleanse the mind of ignorance, mellow the people's disposition, smooth the coarseness of their hearts and rid the love of corruption."
The movement was founded upon the belief that the kuttab formed an intrinsic component of the village social structure and ingrained rural customs and traditions. The fiqi, or Qur'anic school teacher, was a respected and trusted village figure, and peasants felt it both a social and religious obligation to send their children to the kuttab, if only for a short stretch. Certainly, they found these institutions preferable to government schools, with their formidable rules and regulations which kept their children locked up even when they were badly needed by their families to help out in the fields.
The idea of enhancing education in the katatib (kuttab's plural) gained its initial impetus in government circles when, in 1902, Harari Pasha, an official in the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments), submitted a report deploring the poor standards of education in these schools and urging certain reforms. He recommended that students be required to "go to school for half a day in the kuttab and supplement their education when they reach adolescence in one of the major industries such as shipyards, the government publishing house or the railways depot so that by the time they finish their education they will have acquired a skill whereby they can earn their living."
Harari's suggestion strongly appealed to British High Commissioner Lord Cromer who, in his 1905 report on Egypt, called for the creation of "societies for the betterment of the katatib." Eleven such societies quickly sprang up in provincial capitals, all directly under the sponsorship of the occupation authorities. Meanwhile, Douglas Dunlop, the British adviser to the Ministry of Education, was entrusted with devising a strategy to improve standards of education in the katatib and gradually transform them into a primary medium for elementary schooling in the countryside. In his report, Cromer boasted that his plans would usher in "a new phase in public elementary education in Arabic," towards which end "a committee is to be created in the Ministry of Education to supervise the affairs of this elementary education." The proposed scheme would accomplish two very practical objectives: it would put an end to the incessant demands to open up elementary schools in the major rural towns and it would tone down the religious character of the katatib, the primary function of which had been to provide Qur'anic instruction.
Although the appeal to enhance instruction in the katatib met with some favourable responses over the next three years, after Cromer left his post in 1907 enthusiasm for the project began to dwindle. It ran up against traditional rural values, rendering the task of raising the teaching standards of the fiqi all the more difficult when the modern, non-religious subjects introduced into the curriculum met with general suspicion and resistance. Secondly, the idea was clearly a pet project of the British occupation authorities, as embodied in Lord Cromer and Dunlop. Both were seen to be using the project, on the one hand, as an excuse to evade the public demand for new primary educational schools and, on the other, to counter the growing movement to found a national university, a drive spearheaded by nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel.
As the "betterment of the katatib" floundered, the search began for another solution to rural education, a quest that would become all the more pressing following the promulgation of the 1923 Constitution which called for obligatory education for boys and girls and free elementary education.
One suggestion was to institute elementary schools. Although Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Gawish, supervisor of elementary education in the Ministry of Education, held that such schools existed in Egypt as early as the turn of the century, most sources are of the opinion that the concept only gained currency following the end of World War I. Even then, the idea took off very slowly. In 1925, Gawish reported that no more than 23,000 students were enrolled in elementary schools although he expressed his hope that the figure would increase to 80,000 the following year.
A second suggestion was based on the concept of the German volkschule (people's school), in which "students are enrolled for eight years, from the age of six to 14. It is both compulsory and free of charge." Al-Ahram mentions that in Germany this kind of education is "the first step in the educational ladder, followed by intermediate, technical and specialised schools." It said eight years in a volkschule "equals what would be learnt in primary and elementary schools in Egypt."
However, Abdallah Amin, dean of the Elementary School Teachers College in Imbaba, offered a novel idea. He argued that elementary education was "the first and last educational level for the vast majority of the people because they are unable to continue to subsequent levels." Simultaneously, this was the level at which "children are the most receptive to physical, moral and intellectual development." Therefore, the "first and last" level should not be approached as if it were preparatory to subsequent levels, particularly since most rural families could not afford to pay for their children's education beyond the age of 13, at which time -- if not before -- most children were expected to enter the job market in order to help support their families. Rather, it should be designed as "that educational stage through which most children pass on their way from childhood to adulthood and from the home to society. In these two respects they must become appropriately equipped to best serve themselves and their nation."
Based on this conception, Amin believed that "first and last" schools would serve certain fundamental social objectives. Not only would they build sound bodies, minds and spirits and equip their students with essential knowledge, but they would help in the fight against "disease, physical and mental handicaps, indolence and apathy." They would combat illiteracy by enabling people to "read and understand books, newspapers and the texts of laws; eradicate the myths, illusions and superstitions born of ignorance, thereby elevating the level of public opinion and "steering it to religious and scientific truths that obviate error and hardship;" and eliminate "the differences that arise among people due to the disparities in their standards of living."
The general concern with improving rural education prompted officials of the Teachers' Syndicate to host a conference on education. The proceedings of the conference were interesting, not only because of the diversity of views but because it treated a form of education that was in the process of a difficult birth.
The conference opened on 11 July 1925. At 7.00pm that day, Al-Ahram reports, "the assembly hall of the American University began to fill with representatives of the elite in the field of education, from professors of higher educational institutes to deans and instructors of government and community secondary and elementary schools. Approximately 300 such figures were present."
The Al-Ahram correspondent also noted that the conference organisers had cordoned off a section of the auditorium for women educators. These included Nabawiya Moussa, senior inspector for female education in the Ministry of Education, and Saniya Azmi and Emily Abdel-Massih, other inspectors in the ministry, as well as the deans of the Elementary School for Girls in Mansoura, the Women's Teachers College in Tanta, the Port Said Philanthropic Society and the Elementary School for Girls in Zaqaziq, in addition to a large number of women instructors from around the country.
The attention Al-Ahram accorded the conference was considerable, its coverage of the proceedings extending to three pages in some issues, furnishing a complete picture of the various bones of contention in education during that period in Egyptian history.
One major body of opinion consisted of those who fell under the influence of the pre-war school in favour of promoting the kuttab. They felt that continuing rural education should constitute an extension of these institutions. Prominent among these was Sheikh Mahdi Ahmed Khalil, dean of the Abdel-Aziz School. Khalil proposed establishing a form of supplementary schooling for "those who have completed elementary education. It would consist of three years of study during which students would receive instruction in Qur'an recitation after having memorised it, in addition to an appropriate amount of instruction in the Islamic sciences such as jurisprudence, hadith, exegesis and ethics."
Khalil was not averse to the rest of the curriculum including "the essential principles of arithmetic and reading and writing up to a certain level so as to allow the young to read books, newspapers and magazines and to derive from them information beneficial to their livelihood." He also recommended instruction in "easy-to-apply sciences of agriculture, although in the industrialised and commercial cities this subject would be replaced by the general study of industry and commerce."
The conservative thrust of his appeal was especially manifested in his demand that students in these schools not be permitted to wear European-style clothing but rather be obliged to "wear oriental clothing such as the galabiya and skullcap," as well as "walk barefoot in school so as not to encourage them to scorn agricultural work."
Sheikh Khalil argued against the primary schools because the parents of their graduates were rarely able to afford the costs of sending them to preparatory schools. As a result, these graduates "have become a burden on the nation because they have become incapable of agricultural labour and have come to form the vanguard of the idle and unemployed." Conversely, were this "vast army" of children to be raised in elementary schools "they would create prosperity through their activities in agriculture."
At the liberal end of the spectrum were the advocates of modernising education through introducing fundamental changes in the concept of primary schooling, away from the kuttab concept. Emily Abdel-Massih, for example, held that the purpose of such schools should not be to eliminate illiteracy but "to shape children into becoming men, with all the powerful and lofty connotations the word 'man' conveys." Towards this end, she said efforts must be made to create a bond of affection between students and their school. Teachers, for example, should not behave in that impersonal, authoritative manner that makes them "foreigners among their students." Instead, students should be able to get to know their teacher as an individual, a friend and a member of the community. To encourage this bond of affection Abdel-Massih stressed the importance of inculcating a sense of identity with and loyalty to the school by promoting assemblies which bring students and graduates together on special occasions. She called for a special school code of ethics whereby students would understand that it would bring dishonour to themselves and the school "to hurl insults at one another or to lie to one's brother."
A Mr Walzer, British teacher at the Khedival School, offered a very practical approach to rural education. Walzer held that education in the village should go beyond providing the rudimentaries of knowledge to the young and "create a climate of learning and inspire an educational revival." One way to accomplish this, he said, was to organise lectures for farmers on mainly agricultural topics and also hygiene. Walzer urged taking the children's interests and aspirations into account when formulating the curricula.
Perhaps one of the more controversial issues discussed at the conference was the question of female education. The two most prominent proponents of advancing this cause were Shafiq Ghurbal, a professor in the Higher Teachers College, and the well-known educator Nabawiya Moussa.
Ghurbal, as usual, was clear and to the point. He criticised the prevalent attitude which maintained that women's education should be restricted to the daughters of the rich and that its aim should be to form "meek, docile wives whose sole purpose in conjugal life is to content the hearts of their husbands." Instead, he stressed that elementary schooling should provide the same education for girls as for boys and that a new concept of schooling should be devised scientifically "without delving into religious debate." In this regard, he faulted education officials for being overly sensitive to current social attitudes regarding women, pointing to "methodical psychological studies" which proved that there was no disparity in how boys and girls below the age of 12 learn. In addition, he observed that the customary approach -- teaching young men to become productive bread-earners and young women efficient housewives and child-rearers -- was no longer appropriate as year after year more women were seeking employment before marriage.
Moussa presented a similar point of view, declaring that "a woman is sister to man, so what serves to enlighten and refine his mind should also serve to hone and expand hers."
A third body of opinion among the modernist camp was made up of the more romantically inclined visionaries. Foremost among these was Ahmed Fahmi El-Amrousi who believed that any school curriculum should feature a strong department in the arts. El-Amrousi advocated developing students' aesthetic senses through courses in drawing and photography. "Exposing children to nature's landscapes is the best means to refine them, indeed to hone their aesthetic sense," he said. "The further they progress in this, the easier it will become for them to discover what best suits them, for the beauty of the universe is vast and immensely profound and opens itself to those of perspicacity and discernment." He also urged education officials to give greater attention to musical instruction. Music was the most potent of the arts in its effect on the mind, El-Amrousi said, "and when its sounds are combined with the knowledge of the principles of composition it has an even greater impact on the heart and the psyche." Clearly, the speaker was responding to those who felt that music was a luxury, its sole purpose being to delight and entertain, with no place in a proper educational curriculum. El-Amrousi could not have disagreed more. To him, in view of its astounding ability "to penetrate the mind and soul as electricity passes through wire, music was a marvellously powerful tool whose grace and delicacy can be most effective in refining morals and uplifting the mind."
Remove from the ideologues in education were the pragmatists such as Abdel-Hamid Hassan of Dar Al-Ulum and Abdallah Amin, proponent of "the first and last" level of schooling. While both favoured female education and a well-rounded curriculum, their thrust was to encourage the link between the classroom and practical experience. Hassan outlined the usual elementary school curriculum for boys and girls: Qur'an and religion, Arabic, calligraphy, arithmetic, drawing, hygiene and geography. Girls were given landscape contemplation, needlework and the like. Not only did such curricula lack music, physical education and class outings; more important, they were heavily theoretical and lacked any practical component. "Elementary school students, whose ages fall between five and 14, spend some eight hours a day in the classroom," he said. "This is extremely strenuous for the child."
To keep students so classroom-bound, therefore, was highly detrimental. It stunted their physical and psychological growth, ignored their natural instincts for beauty and pleasant sounds, stymied their ability to analyse and weakened their love for games and movement. Furthermore, he maintained, the emphasis on theoretical instruction ran counter to the home and society for "it should not be the function of the school to throw at students every newfangled science that neither the home nor the community understands or needs."
The solution was proposed by Abdallah Amin, who offered a system that would give students fundamental theoretical knowledge and expose them to practical skills such as cultivation, masonry, woodwork, construction and metallurgy for boys and cooking, washing, ironing and sewing for girls. Such a curriculum, he argued, would give boys "practical experience in agricultural and manufacturing in their communities. It would give girls practical experience in domestic activities."
He maintained that in addition to building sounder bodies and honing the agility of the senses and the limbs, particularly the hands, this approach would safeguard society from "the danger of scorning manual activities." He went so far as to propose that children receive instruction in the manufacture of straw mats, wooden clogs, basketry, pottery and brass utensils.
Whatever consensus was reached at the conference over Amin's proposals and the other opinions that were voiced, within a quarter of a century the fate of elementary schools was sealed. In the early 1950s, Taha Hussein, the minister of education in the last Wafd government, decreed free education, opening to the urban and rural disadvantaged the avenues to higher educational facilities and closing the chapter on the concept of "the first and last school."
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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