Seek the truth
As the nations' schools and universities kick-off another school year, Farouk El-Baz considers the role of education in the reform of the Arab world
BACKDROP OF EXTREMISM: Tragic results of deficiencies in the political, economic and cultural conditions in the Arab region were thrust on the world stage by the events of 11 September, 2001. It became obvious that these conditions produced groups of disenfranchised, aimless and hopeless youth who were susceptible to being misled by extremists of the worst kind.
Generations of Arabs are told of a glorious past, but experience a grim present and no future. Many see their leaders as pawns to external forces, their countries marginalised and subjugated, and their resources squandered.
The only rhetoric that captures their attention and harnesses their energy is that of "Islamic fundamentalism". It offers a place under the sun through the rejection of the modern world by destructive means. It also preaches that to get rid of corrupt leaders, they must first eject their US backers.
This misguided extremism has no basis in the religion; there is nothing in Islam that condones rejection of modernisation. I am a Muslim and was schooled in Islam by my father. He was a teacher of religion and director of missions at Al-Azhar University in Cairo -- the primary source of Islamic interpretation for over 1,000 years. I learned from him that Islam does not hamper progress. On the contrary, Muslims are encouraged to improve themselves by inquiring about the world around them and continually seeking knowledge, from near or far, wherever possible.
The first and most venerated word in the Quran is "read"; learning is believed to make a person more faithful to God, and more useful to humanity. In Islam, acquiring knowledge is equated with seeking the truth. As the great Arab philosopher Abu Youssef Al-Kindi (805-873) said: "We should not shy away from welcoming and acquiring the truth regardless of where it comes from, even if it comes from distant races and nations that are different from us. Nothing is more important than seeking the truth except the truth itself."
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Students at a public school line up for the morning flag salute before heading to overcrowded classrooms
HISTORY'S LESSONS: Polls throughout the Arab region indicate that people are dismayed by shortcomings in their societies. Although not universally acknowledged, underlying these shortcomings are weaknesses in the educational system, its approaches, materials and institutions. The result is the inability of many to function in the modern world or to communicate with others. The art of reasoned dialog in Islamic discourse has recently been lost. To emphasise the importance of open-minded dialog, the founder of the Sunni school of Islamic jurisprudence, Abu Abdullah Al-Shafie (767-820) said: "My Opinion is right, yet it might be wrong; your opinion is wrong, yet it might be right."
Today's emphasis in pre-university education on rote learning has stifled independent thinking. In some cases, instituting free university education to all has ballooned class sizes to untenable numbers. More importantly, top-down government control has ruled out innovation by teachers and students. Decades of neglect, inaction and the preservation of the status quo have resulted in the preponderance of aimless youth and in a largely muted, passive and ineffective workforce.
Thus, Arab countries missed the industrial age and continued to import most needed machinery and products from others. A case in point is that of Egypt and Japan. Starting in the 19th century, both countries initiated efforts to learn about industrialisation from the West. Egypt made very modest strides due to limitations of its educational system, while Japan developed its industry with sure footing. Today, Japan exports industrial products to all 22 Arab countries.
Similarly, the Arabs missed the nuclear age and did not contribute to unlocking the secrets of the atom or the peaceful uses of radiation. Again, Egypt initiated an effort to participate in this scientific research endeavour at the same time as India, half a century ago. India made vast advances, while little was produced in Egypt.
The space age also passed with little notice in the Arab region. It behaved as a spectator of a sport who does not know the rules of the game. Arab leaders believed that expenditure in space research was a luxury that only rich countries could afford. Very modest efforts by Egypt and Saudi Arabia began recently, but only after European countries, followed by India, Japan, China and Brazil, participated in space endeavours and reaped the fruits of their initiatives in science and technology development.
This reticent attitude contradicts the past performance of Egypt, which used to play a leading role in the Arab region. During the past century, Egypt set the cultural trends and provided administrators, teachers, advisors and aid to others. However, a humiliating military defeat in 1967 derailed its self-confidence and eroded its influence.
As Egypt slumbered in self-pity, the Arab world followed suit and stagnated. Thus, a revival of its pre-eminence would have positive effects in the whole region. A potential catalyst is the newly named cabinet in Egypt, which is led by an information technology expert.
NEED FOR REFORM: Today, we live in the information age and Arab countries could be left behind once again if they do not modernise their education system. The so-called "digital divide" is both a reflection of the science and technology gap and a cause of its continued existence. This has to be taken into account in education reform both to catch up with the developed world, and to insure technological development in every field.
Improving education, emphasising the acquisition, increase and dissemination of knowledge, and empowering innovative thinkers are keys to economic growth. Asian countries such as China, India, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea provide successful cases by emphasising education in their initial development plans to assure economic growth.
South Korea represents a particularly illuminating case. For a whole decade, it gave the highest priority to education in the national budget regardless of the needs of other sectors. This allowed the preparation of a knowledgeable and well-trained workforce whose products are now recognised worldwide.
The trend continues to this day with lightening speed in the field of information technology; the proportion of Internet users in the population is greater in South Korea than in the US. In contrast, although Arabs constitute five per cent of the world population, its Internet users make up only 1.1 per cent of the global usage.
Surveys conducted in the region after 11 September, 2001 showed that Arabs, much like people in the West, are concerned with their safety, fulfilment of their goals, and satisfaction in their lives. Although most reject American policies in the Middle East, particularly in Palestine and Iraq, they admire American prosperity, and indeed its democracy and freedom. They wish to preserve their language, religion and moral standards, but they hope to emulate the technological progress of the American society.
Calls for reform abound from both within and outside the Arab region. Invariably, emphasis is placed on instituting freedom through political democracy, privatisation of the economy, and empowering women.
These goals cannot flourish in the presence of a knowledge deficit. As former US President John Adams said: "Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people." An educated populace is necessary to initiate and update the proposed reforms. Personal freedoms through democracy must be accompanied by upholding the individual's responsibility towards society; a growing economy requires a knowledgeable and continually updated workforce; and gender equality can only take root in a well-informed society. The analytical prowess that is imparted by education is necessary to spread and sustain the needed reforms.
ROLE OF EDUCATION: Although the Arab region is considered oil-rich and wealthy, all indications point to its knowledge deficit. This fact is clearly conveyed in the Arab Human Development Report: Building a Knowledge Society that was issued in 2003 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The report, which I helped to review prior to its publication, pointed out that the Arab region trails behind all other regions in knowledge indicators, except sub-Saharan Africa. These indicators included the number of books, newspapers, radio stations, television channels, telephone lines, personal computers and Internet access.
Although the report remains true in general, some Arab countries have recently reversed the trend. For example, in the United Arab Emirates, nearly 30 per cent of its nationals use personal computers, a number more than 10 times those in Egypt. Also, the Emirate of Dubai has evolved its government transactions to electronic media. Furthermore, it has established an electronic marketplace where all government agencies procure their needs in a totally transparent manner, with all of the benefits of vendor competition. This has allowed the eradication of inflated prices and agent fees in addition to hampering corruption. These examples prove that it is possible to benefit from advanced technology while preserving the local culture.
Arab countries show exceptionally inadequate performance in knowledge acquisition and generation. In terms of knowledge acquisition, one indicator is the efficiency of literature translation. As indicated in the UNDP report, the number of books translated in all 22 Arab countries is equal to one-fifth of those translated into Greek. Knowledge generation does not fare any better. Although Arabs constitute five per cent of the world population, they produce only 0.8 per cent of the literary and artistic literature.
Many Arabs bemoan the ignorance of the West about Islam. Yet, there is not a single translation of the Quran by someone whose mother tongue is Arabic. Similarly, no book about the tenants of Islam was ever published in the US by an Arab Muslim; the responsibility was mostly relegated to European orientalists. To compound the problem, the total number of graduates in the Arabic language from all US universities in the year 2000 was six. Considering these facts, how could Americans properly learn about Islam or appreciate Arab opinions and positions?
The situation in science and technology is even worse. Arab countries spend a mere 0.2 per cent of their national budgets on science and technology research and development. This is more than 10 times less than the amount that developed countries spend.
The results become clear if we consider the publication of scientific research papers and/or patent registration. Results of research conducted in Arab countries are rarely published in international professional journals. The number of patents produced by Arabs is meager; during the past two decades, South Korea registered in the US over 44 times the number of patents from all Arab countries combined.
Reform of education can play a central role in economic development because it develops the minds of the young to be useful citizens. It must include teaching the young how to think for themselves and to have confidence in their knowledge. This requires highly respected and motivated teachers who are well versed in communicating with their students. Teachers must be kept abreast of new teaching methodologies, scientific breakthroughs and literary masterpieces. They must also be motivated by awards and recognised for excellence. Thus, teacher preparation and continued training become integral parts of the necessary reforms.
ROAD AHEAD: It is never too late to remedy a problem, particularly when it relates to the future of a nation. A factory that goes out of step with the times is retooled. In the same manner, the objectives and mission of education in the Arab world need to be updated. In reality, the problem is less acute in the Arab region than in some Asian countries, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia, where informal madrasas (schools that teach Wahabism) have replaced formal education, and proliferated under the influence of extremist elements.
What is needed in the Arab region is to immediately reform the existing software of the educational system, then improving its infrastructure.
It is important for Arab intellectuals to speak their minds and lead the way. As the British parliamentarian Edmund Burke said: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
Conditions are so bleak that they require drastic changes, and more of a revolutionary approach is necessary. For example, some countries produce a surplus of graduates in religion, but few of those trained in science and technology. Higher education institutions in Saudi Arabia alone produce 50,000 graduates in Islamic studies per year. Furthermore, twice as many graduate degrees are given in religious topics as those in scientific subjects. The search for dissertation topics for the plethora of graduate students forces specialisation in esoteric fields that are often irrelevant or only tangential to Islamic discourse. The problem needs to be remedied by encouraging students to pursue subjects that will help their nation in all aspects of life, starting at the very beginning.
Pre-school education, at homes and kindergartens, can set the pattern. A child's perception of learning and the development of its personality begin at a very young age. Inquisitiveness and analytical thinking can all be implanted in the minds of young children through dialogue. More importantly, valuing knowledge and respecting its sources affect children from an early age. I can personally attest to that: my earliest recollection from childhood was about the way my father reached for a book in his bookshelf, carried it with great care, and opened its pages with tenderness to read to my older brothers. Since that time, I have considered a book something to be treasured.
In some countries like Egypt, there is diversity in the subjects covered in primary and secondary education, but the method of teaching is not adequate. Students are taught languages and mathematics in addition to either the sciences or liberal arts topics. However, the information is crammed in the young minds with no time allocated for discussion or reasoning, which forces emphasis on rote learning. There are things that must be memorised, such as multiplication tables, grammar rules, or poems. But, students should learn to discuss possible interpretations and the benefit of debate.
In secondary education there must be a balance between expecting obedience and encouraging innovation. Teachers should seek the participation of students in free and critical thinking, which in itself increases their interest in, and enjoyment of, the time they spend at school.
Emphasis on the one final exam in the last year of high school as the passport to university admission must be moderated. At present, it results in great distortions. Among these is the greed of teachers who hold back in the classroom to give private lessons to those who pay in order to prepare for exams. Results of that one final exam alone are also used to direct students to a path in university education without consideration of their interest, which limits the potential for excellence.
University education requires much reform as well. At higher education institutions, students should be taught how to acquire dynamic and renewable knowledge. Their minds must be challenged to achieve new heights and their energies directed to useful pathways. To do so, educators must be allowed a measure of autonomy. At the same time, they require systems of regular evaluation and monitoring and continued training. Other essential changes include upgrading the libraries and improving the information technology hardware and software to benefit from the vast resources that are now available on electronic media.
INTERNATIONAL ASSISTANCE: Much like successful economic development, reform should incorporate successful practices. There is no shame in this whatsoever; to improve its business management styles, the US imported practices from Japan.
During the past few decades, several Arab countries have experimented with different types and styles of educational institutions. These experiences must be shared and reviewed in an open-minded way to adopt the best for a particular local setting. This can be accomplished in a timely manner through the Arab League, an existing forum that includes cooperation in the field of education as one of its objectives. It is important to note that although Arabs constitute only about 20 per cent of all Muslims, they set the trend and wield a great deal of influence. Modernising Arab education would reverberate throughout the rest of the Islamic world.
It is also important to study cases of education reform in developing countries that have reshaped their workforce in record time. These cases include countries of varied sizes, such as Korea and India, or varied political systems, such as China and Costa Rica. They also encompass largely Islamic countries with varied cultural characteristics, such as Malaysia and Turkey. The objective is not to mimic any one of the cases, but to learn how to implement reforms in the most efficient way.
In terms of the emphasis on education topics and paths, the experience of the West must be taken into consideration. Relatively small countries like Ireland and Finland have made vast advances by educating their workforce in modern science and technology. This has elevated them to leadership positions in innovation and production, raising their per capita income. Today, Finland exports products whose monetary value is equal to the exports, apart from oil and gas, of all 22 Arab countries.
Western countries should be willing and eager to help the Arab region become knowledgeable and partake of the modern world. This helps to ease the pressure of migration of vast numbers of youth from the region to Europe. It also ameliorates the potential for the growth of radicalism, which threatens the whole world. It further allows the West to benefit from Arab minds in the global renaissance of knowledge, which knows no borders. A leading role in this must be played by the United States.
US education enjoys much respect in the Arab world thanks to the reputation of motivated Americans who elected to live in Arab countries as educators, which continued at all levels of education throughout the past century. In addition, the US is held in esteem as the world leader in science and technology since the time of the first Apollo lunar landing mission of 35 years ago.
American educational institutions are universally popular through two tangible and visible ways: First, the presence of the American University campuses in Cairo, Beirut, Sharjah, etc. Second, it is commonly perceived that the vast majority of the most prominent educators, government officials, intellectuals and successful businessmen and women are the products of American education.
To capitalise on these perceptions, the emir of the state of Qatar has recently decided to spend much of the country's wealth from oil and gas on education and health. Starting in 1996 the Qatar Academy was established, followed by the Academic Bridge Programme to prepare graduates of local and regional high schools for high caliber university education. Qatar then sought the help of American educators. Cornell University established the Weill Cornell Medical College (at the staggering cost to Qatar of $750 million for 10 years). The Qatar Foundation also established the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Art; Texas A&M Engineering School and a branch of Carnegie-Melon University.
This trend of benefiting from US education continues by reforming the government-run Qatar University. Although Qatar is a small, rich country, it will exemplify what first-rate education can accomplish. It will also serve as a reminder that US educational institutions can venture into the Arab region without fear of loss of funds or of compromising admission criteria or the quality of the offered curricula.
CLOSING REMARKS: Minor changes in the name of reform at a snail's pace are no longer acceptable. The pace of worldwide progress is exceedingly fast. No one is afforded the luxury of slow motion; being left behind in any endeavour results in marginalisation. Reform in the Arab region must be considered an urgent matter of the highest priority. Leadership, vision and intellectual courage are essential components of the process.
The first obstacle that must be removed is the unfounded fear of "cultural invasion". The goal here is modernisation and not Americanisation or adopting the cultural nuances of the West. Europeans emerged from the Dark Ages by learning from Arab/Muslim civilisation and importing its knowledge to their lands. That was not called "Arabisation", but enlightenment. Furthermore, largely Muslim countries, such as Malaysia and Turkey, have recently modernised their societies while preserving their Islamic culture and societal norms.
The reform of education in the Arab region will assure its political stability, economic growth and cultural elevation. There are two pre-requisites for this: First, the intellectual courage to admit that the present systems do not develop the young minds that are capable of performing the necessary tasks. Second, the political will to institute the required changes. For these reasons there must be a sustained partnership between the governments, private sector and civil society. Educators, intellectuals and the media can work together to assure such a partnership.
A sociological aspect that plays an important role in this endeavour is the way that the society as a whole views the importance of learning and knowledge. Human civilisations were all built on knowledge and facilitating its use. In the Arab region today, the accumulation of wealth is given a higher priority and degree of respect than the accumulation of knowledge. This situation has to be reversed and more status and recognition should be given to those whose knowledge benefits the local society and humanity at large.
Another sociologically important aspect is the need to involve the people of Arab countries in the affairs of their nations. It is common to announce a "national programme" about which the general public knows nothing. Such programmes are conceived, planned and approved by a handful of decision-makers at a high level without having been explained or debated by either the populations or their representatives in parliament. Reforms cannot take root unless the people feel that they have a stake in their success. Thus, they have to be convinced by dialogue and the presentation of proper arguments.
A significant component of education reform, particularly at the university level, must include an emphasis on scientific research and higher budgets to support it. Most Arab governments feel the burden of more pressing issues, such as the provision of food and housing. Expenditure on scientific research is downgraded to the bottom of the priority list. Furthermore, funding of research and development by the private sector is nearly negligible. The opposite condition prevails in developed countries, where the private sector allocates vast sums to this endeavour. For example, in the US, the private sector spends twice as much as the government does for research and development. Expenditure in this sector is not a luxury; it assures the sustained innovation that enhances the growth of any economy and its continued leadership on the world stage.
There is nothing in the Arab personality that hinders growth and achievement. On the contrary, Arab/Islamic civilisation lasted for eight centuries on the shoulders of scholars and innovators in every field. Rather than speak of the glorious past, it is about time to study the causes of the success of our forefathers, which resulted in the distinction and longevity of their civilisation.
Leaders of the Arab/Muslim civilisation opened their borders, their hearts and their minds to every contributor. This allowed them to preserve the findings of those who came before them. They established schools at all levels. They also supported highly advanced research centres to significantly and relentlessly add to the store of knowledge in every scientific and literary field.
Scholars were valued for their contributions, regardless of race, religion or national origin. Among the most significant contributors were Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars from many lands. Those who believe in a long-held animosity between Muslims and Jews should reconsider that opinion based on the facts of history. To cite an example, Maimonides (Musa Bin Maimon, 1135-1204), who is considered to be the greatest Jewish philosopher, was born in Cordoba, supported by its Caliphs, and wrote many of his scholarly masterpieces in Arabic. He later was ceremoniously greeted in Cairo to serve, until his death, as the chief physician in the court of Saladin.
More than anything else, it was the quest for, the preservation of, and the increase and dissemination of knowledge that distinguished those who established and sustained Arab/Muslim civilisation. To them, knowledge was to be treasured no matter where it originated, and it was considered the right of all human beings. It is imperative for us all to learn these significant lessons in order to pave the way for the new generation of Arabs to reach the dream of a better future.
Farouk El-Baz, member of the US National Academy of Engineering, is director of the Boston University Center for Remote Sensing. A veteran of the Apollo Program, he served as Science Adviser to Anwar El-Sadat, late president of Egypt.