Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (523)
A column in Al-Ahram in 1933 described the system of education in Egypt and how it compared, in most cases unfavourably, with that of the British. Though it lasted for just three months, the column gave rise to several issues of concern regarding the country's schools that,
says Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* , are as relevant today as they were then
The Egyptian encyclopaedist Ahmed Attiyatallah was born in 1906. After graduating from the Higher School of Education he received a scholarship to study in Britain. Upon his return he worked as an instructor, then was promoted to inspector and then director of the Museum of Education. He also founded the Institute of Islamic Studies, of which he became dean. Among his best known works are the 1944 Political Dictionary and the Encyclopaedia of Education. He died in 1983 at the age of 77.
While this general biography may be known to historians, and education specialists, most are probably unaware that in 1933 Al-Ahram engaged Attiyatallah to write a column on his field of expertise. "The Education Diary", as it was called, appeared on an almost daily basis for a period of three months. Many of the issues it raised are still cause for concern today.
It is obvious from Attiyatallah's writings that he was fired up by the enthusiasm of the graduate recently returned from his studies in the West. Before his column appeared, Al- Ahram featured several articles on what he termed "the educational constitution in Britain". By way of introduction, he writes, "The facts that I will discuss on the educational system in Britain are based on my personal experiences and the visits I undertook to many British schools. These visits took place from 1927, when I was a member of an Egyptian study mission in Britain, to the summers of 1932 and 1933. Over these years I visited a great number of schools, especially schools for handicapped children. I do not believe that there is a single major city in Britain which escaped my visits to its schools."
He went on to explain why he felt his point of view would be of interest to Al-Ahram readers. "A visitor, especially one specialising in educational affairs, is well positioned to detect strong and weak points in an educational system and to draw comparisons between the schools he visited abroad and those in his home country." Although Attiyatallah greatly admired the educational system in Britain he was quick to stress that his admiration was not blind. "It is not better than others in any respect and I do no entertain the wish that we in Egypt should copy it to the letter. The environment should influence the design of any educational system and peoples vary in their degree of general education. Such disparities render it absurd to consider a uniform universal system of education."
Attiyatallah was immediately struck by the considerable freedom British deans and teachers enjoyed. In creating curricula and material they were not restricted by Ministry of Education bulletins or regulations regarding pedagogy, course design or textbooks. "Undoubtedly, all this contributes to creating powerful teachers and helps teachers who are naturally inclined to reform and innovation."
He also remarked on the fact that private schools, whether run by individuals or organisations such as philanthropic and religious societies, outstripped government schools both in number and in quality of instruction. "One who visits privately owned nursery schools in London, for example, is immediately struck by the vast difference between these schools and those under the supervision of the London municipal council, especially with regard to the use of modern pedagogical methods. This is because it is much easier to modify the system of an independent school than to reform a dozen schools that fall under the supervision of a single educational authority."
This led Attiyatallah to a comparison between the British and Egyptian ministries of education. The former is located, along with the British Ministry of Health, in a modest building in Whitehall. "In the rooms you enter or pass by, you do not find those rows upon rows of innumerable bureaucrats. Indeed, one wonders how a country the population of which is six times that of Egypt and which controls politically and educationally a fifth of the world, can manage its affairs in such consummate silence. There are none of those gatherings of junior and senior applicants for jobs, promotions and transfers to Cairo."
The inspector of education was a key post in the ministries in both London and Cairo. The post was originally created in Britain in 1839. "The position remained as is until 1862, when it later became a bane on education, as the function of the inspector then was to examine students in all educational subjects. However, the results of these examinations also became the basis for judging instructors and for setting budgetary allocations to schools. In 1901, this system was abolished and the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme, reducing the inspector to no more than a counsellor to instructors. Now the position has assumed a middle course, enabling inspectors to perform technical functions of vital importance."
In Egypt, the post underwent similar changes, not only in function but in name. By the 1930s, the occupants of this position were known as counsellors, and Attiyatallah suggested that educational authorities should have these counsellors produce teaching manuals on the courses they inspected. "The Ministry of Education would then publish these manuals and distribute them at an appropriate price. Teachers would be obliged to purchase those pertaining to their fields of instruction." However, he hastened to add that teachers would not be obliged to follow those manuals to the letter. "Rather, they are intended to benefit those teachers who perform their jobs like monotonous talking machines with no element of creativity or innovation. At the same time, the manuals would constitute statements of the inspectors' points of view and compel them to organise their experiences systematically, which would keep them from thinking that their job is merely to tick off 'good', 'average' or 'below average.'"
Attiyatallah's comparison between the British and Egyptian educational systems led him to a discussion of teachers. In Britain, the status of teachers had risen remarkably. Only 80 years earlier, a famous British writer likened them to "destitute travelling salesmen and vagabonds whose sole concern is to impart the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic as monotonously as possible. They are akin to the fiqis who in the past were placed in charge of education in Egypt." But times had changed and now it was possible to rank teachers in three categories: teachers with technical certificates, those without and specialists in particular subjects. "Those in the first category make up three-quarters of the teaching staff in Britain, where local municipal councils are responsible for all teachers' salaries."
Although Attiyatallah's articles on the "educational constitution in Britain" ended here, his relationship with Al- Ahram did not. Impressed with his abilities to convey his enthusiasm for and concerns about his field of expertise, the newspaper's management invited him to contribute a series that concentrated more closely on education in Egypt. The result was the "Education Diary", the first instalment of which appeared in early October 1933.
If the young educationalist was careful to devote as much attention to students as to teachers, his primary focus was reform. Not surprisingly, therefore, he continued, in this series, to draw comparisons between his experiences along the banks of the Thames and his observations on the banks of the Nile.
He begins at the top of the school hierarchy -- with the dean. He remarks, "The relationship between this person and students is purely artificial. It is devoid of so much as an ounce of sympathy or affection. Rather, the position is founded solely on its power to intimidate. The only reason students enter the dean's office is to be punished, disciplined or warned. Merely to pass in front of his door causes them to tremble. True, that office no longer is equipped with such instruments of torture as the whip, switch and cane. However, it remains the chamber of terror in every school, at least from the students' point of view."
What occasioned this scathing criticism of the school dean in Egypt was the news of a ceremony in honour of the recently retired dean of Eton, the famous school for British aristocrats. The ceremony was attended by Eton alumni, now occupying positions in the government and House of Lords. "That man who had long occupied the dean's chair in their alma mater and dedicated himself to the preservation of the Eton traditions as had his predecessors, merited the highest esteem from all the former students of the school." Our columnist relates that when he read the account of this occasion in the British press he was moved to tears, but not over Eton's loss. Rather, "I remembered my school, and I recalled how we live and learn without hearts."
Many teachers also seemed to lack the spirit of dedication exemplified by the Eton dean. Indicative of this was their general pining, if stationed in the provinces, to be transferred to Cairo, towards which end applicants for transfers more often than not cited false justifications. The reason for this "madness for Cairo" was that the bachelors among them, at least, believed that only in the capital could they find ways to solve their solitude. The fact was, however, that "they do not know how to live without cinemas, theatres and elegant cafés. I have never heard a single one of them argue that living and working outside of Cairo isolates them from the intellectual life he claims to champion, or from the city's museums and academic societies."
One solution to this problem was to work to let rural schools double as academic, social and cultural centres and for the teachers themselves to pioneer this transformation. Using these institutions as their base, teachers could disseminate recent publications, deliver lectures and arrange for literary and scientific study circles and debates. Perhaps we can count Attiyatallah fortunate for not having lived to see the age of compulsory private tuition, which rendered the type of teacher he advocated an alien from another planet.
Another common fault among teachers in Egypt was their constant rivalry over which courses and classes they were assigned, a phenomenon he likened to the squabbling among political parties. The teachers' first and foremost concern, he continues, is that teaching schedules be drawn up "so as to accommodate the wishes of those who like to sleep in, those who want to have lunch at home and those who are accustomed to taking an afternoon nap". Worse yet, teachers spread their disputes among students and non-teaching staff. As he put it, "These partisan fights are not confined to teachers. Frequently students get stuck in the crossfire and janitors are given dangerous missions in the party warfare, for which services they receive their share of secret funds."
Perhaps Ahmed Attiyatallah may have forgiven teachers these foibles had the quality of instruction been better, especially with regards to the subjects of history and Arabic. Teaching history, he said, entails more than having students recite the names of famous battles, the conditions of treaties and the chronologies of kings and rulers. "It is the story of mankind over the ages that preceded ours and the battles, treaties and kings are important only insofar as they affected life in the societies under study. Lessons that do not stress this vital aspect cannot fix important facts in the students' memories and cannot trigger their curiosity and inspire them to read further." This applied in particular to the teaching of Egyptian history, "attention to which should not be overshadowed by other subjects".
To illustrate his point, Attiyatallah relates that during a visit to a school for girls in Birmingham, he entered a classroom to find that the teacher was giving a lesson on the history of the Pharaohs. The teacher welcomed him enthusiastically, and overjoyed at the coincidence that the visitor to her class had hailed from the country of the Pharaohs, she invited him to continue her lesson. Much to Attiyatallah's embarrassment and consternation, he found himself at a total loss and was forced to apologise and let her complete the lesson.
If anything, the instruction of Arabic was worse than history. One had only to hear a student read a passage from a book or newspaper or to read a student composition to realise the deficiency. "Expositional styles are learned by rote and, when you read what a student writes, you feel that he is fighting with the language, that he is struggling to free himself from the noose of memorised formulas."
The fault for this lay with teachers of Arabic literature, especially their methods of teaching grammar and composition. "There is nothing more odious to a student than dull, dry grammar lessons. Moreover, what logic tells us that we have to teach students grammar before exposing them to the language itself? Grammar is the laws of language, but why should students study the law before they know to what it applies?" Then, in teaching composition, instructors merely chose the topics from textbooks, and stuck rigidly to those textbooks in spite of the fact that they were written decades earlier and did not address the concerns of the times. Students were thus condemned to having to hone their writing skills on such dreary topics as "describe a rainy day", "the benefits of steam", "how you spent your holiday", and "write a holiday greeting letter to your father". Attiyatallah further charged that instructors of Arabic literature were the least informed of all on modern literary productions.
Turning to the target of the educational system, the student, the author of the "Education Diary" observed that there was a vast difference between "the knight of the Middle Ages whose culture consisted of the epics of gallantry and valour and the gentleman of the present day whose sole experience with the sword consists of what he sees on the theatre stage". The objective of education was to produce the best of the latter type of individual, "for the age of Antara Bin Shaddad and his comrades is no more".
As Attiyatallah's series overlapped with mid-year exams, he dedicated an instalment to what he regarded as the students' major scourge. Examinations were necessary, but that students should be forced to sit for dozens of them within a given period was excessive. Moreover, it wasted precious class time, indeed, as much as a week per month. Attiyatallah pleaded for "a measure of economy" on exams and "revive the confidence, which has been smothered under this inundation of school exams, in the teacher's capacity to perform his duties without the examinations, whip cracking behind his back".
Following exams, schools would close for the holiday season. Attiyatallah felt it a pity to leave those buildings vacant and not in use during that period. "If only those hundreds of students, teachers and others who gather in a single school felt bound by some type of sympathy or affection, if only they felt they were a large family held together by the loftiest of bonds, the bond of knowledge, if only they felt something of this sort, schoolhouses would not be so desolate during the holiday season."
Once again, he found a stark contrast with British schools, in which "sumptuously laden tea tables are laid out in the lecture halls, festive music peels instead of the shrill hallway bells and teachers sit with students and bosses with staff, as though all are joined in a family assembly in which prevails a climate of joy, conviviality and friendship". Nor were such festivities frivolous affairs. "They do more than all the school bulletins and rules and regulations put together. They also ensure that the dean is no longer a terrifying ogre and the teacher a ruthless tyrant."
Attiyatallah was an advocate of female education and felt that the British model in this regard had much to offer. So impressed was he by that system's ability to produce strong and capable women that he devoted his entire column of 22 October 1933 to the subject. "Put a British woman anywhere," he writes, "and she remains what she is. She does not weaken, does not lose her culture or forfeit her traditions. A British girl, wherever she may be, creates a thoroughly British atmosphere around her. This atmosphere protects British traditions and inherited British mores from extinction."
At the same time, a British woman might not know her algebraic equations or the history of the Middle Ages, "but with the small arithmetic she has she can manage the affairs of a household and with the history she has studied she can hold forth on the affairs of the Empire, and with this knowledge at her disposal she can cast her vote in general elections".
In his discussion of female education in Egypt, on the other hand, Attiyatallah's goals were very modest. Schools for girls should instruct their students in the proper art of cuisine. "Girls who cannot strike the appropriate balance in weights and measurements in cooking fail to appreciate that harmony is beauty in all aspects of life. Girls who are not motivated to develop their cooking skills, indeed to attain a certain artistry in cooking, are lacking an important source of taste and refinement." Cooking entailed more than measuring out certain quantities of water, flour and butter and mixing such ingredients together in a certain way. "In this there is no taste or art, and is on par with the painter who mixes his colours according to a set formula rather than as his skills and temperament dictate."
The Great Depression of the early 1930s brought to the fore another major issue: free tuition. The corridors of the Ministry of Education were filled with people demanding free education and "there is scarcely a visitor or a senior official or petty clerk in this ministry who is not carrying with him an application for exemption from school fees." Although Attiyatallah welcomed this phenomenon as a sign that parents attached great importance to the education of their children, he also felt that it posed a grave danger because the national budget could not be stretched enough to cover all levels of education. Elementary school education, he maintained, was not an end in itself but a means towards an end. "Supposing that we showed mercy to those unable to afford the fees for primary education. By accepting these students, we will have steered them towards the doors of secondary school and they will demand the same right. Then a few years later we will find the graduates standing before the institutes of higher education, again, unable to afford the tuition. In encouraging this process we will have helped increase, with our own hands, the army of unemployed degree holders who are technically unqualified for any employment because their advancement in education was only an end in itself."
Attiyatallah had clearly allied himself with the camp that felt that free tuition should not extend beyond primary school except for only the very talented among the poor. This camp continued to prevail until the early 1950s when the last Wafd government introduced a certain degree of free education, culminating in the drive spearheaded by then Minister of Education Taha Hussein.
Nevertheless, apart from his position on this issue, one can still regard Ahmed Attiyatallah as an early champion of educational reform. And so he remained even after he completed the "Education Diary" and turned his efforts to other projects, many of which also fed educational development in Egypt.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.