Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (609)
Ministry of Education Centennial
On 29 March 1837, Muhammad Ali issued a decree transferring the supervision of government schools from the Ministry of War to the Divan of Schools. The newly founded divan enabled students to be enrolled directly in the government's academies. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk reviews the development of Egypt's modern educational system
The modern educational system in Egypt was born somewhat back to front. Unlike in Europe, it did not emerge from existing religious academic institutes that dated back to the middle ages, but alongside them, even if it was dependent upon them at the outset. Nor did it derive its initial impetus from civil society but from the military establishment. Indeed, the explicit purpose of Egypt's first modern schools was to supply the cadres for the new army that Muhammad Ali established after putting a decisive end to Mameluke influence through the famous Citadel massacre of 1811. In fact, these schools were directly subordinate to the Ministry of War until 1838. Which brings us to another anomaly. The new military academies Muhammad Ali had founded needed students, but candidates that were reasonably equipped for these schools could only be found among the remnants of the Mameluke order or in the existing religious institutions. It would take some time before the Divan of Schools, formed in that year, could put into place the educational systems that would feed students directly into the government's academies.
The foregoing information and more can be found in Ahmed Ezzat Abdel-Karim's History of Education in the Muhammad Ali Era. In this work the noted education historian also informs us that on 29 March 1837 the founder of modern Egypt issued a decree transferring supervision of the government schools from the Ministry of War to the newly founded divan. Later that day, Muhammad Ali met the head of that ministry, "Mukhtar Bek", and his nine fellow members.
Under the regulations defining the functions of the new government agency, it was not only responsible for supervising the schools, but also the operations of libraries, museums, workshops, the Delta barrages, the Boulaq Press and The Egyptian Gazette. In his History of Egypt under Muhammad Ali, P N Hamont, who served in the School of Veterinarian Medicine founded by Muhammad Ali, explains the seeming hodgepodge of activities placed under the supervision of the new ministry. All those operations were directed by Europeans and the officials of the new ministry had all been educated in Europe and were therefore familiar with European languages and administrative systems. His argument is convincing.
Abdel-Karim describes Mustafa Mukhtar, the first minister of education, as "keenly intelligent, energetic and found of working independently, even if that led to some exaggeration in the assessment of his influence and pride." Mukhtar remained in his post until his death in 1839, two years after his ministry was founded. His successor was Adham Bek, who had studied artillery in Britain, spoke English and French and was also very intelligent and energetic. Adham Bek enjoyed a longer term of service, remaining in that post until the end of the reign of Muhammad Ali.
Abdel-Karim regards 1837 as a landmark in the history of education in Egypt. "That was the year in which the foundations were laid for the construction of the educational system during the remaining years of Muhammad Ali's age and the subsequent eras. Whether that foundation was sound or faulty, there is a marvellous truth that we must always bear in mind when studying the development of education in Egypt in the past and present. That is, in formative year the educational system was divided into distinct stages: primary, preparatory and specialised training.
The purpose of primary schools was to prepare students for the preparatory stage and "to spread the essential principles of knowledge among the populace". Fifty primary schools were established throughout the provinces in accordance with their population densities. The purpose of preparatory schools was to broaden the knowledge of primary school graduates and to equip them for the specialised schools. At the outset there were two preparatory schools, one in Cairo with a capacity of 1,500 students and the other in Alexandria with a capacity of 500.
At the top of the educational ladder, the specialised schools aimed to prepare employees for the various civil and military administrations. There were seven: the Alsun School of Languages to produce translators from French into Arabic or Turkish and to feed other specialised schools with students with foreign language abilities; the School of Engineering to equip students for the naval, military and mining academies and to produce officials for various government departments that required familiarity with the mathematical and natural sciences; the Artillery, Cavalry and Infantry Schools to produce officers for those branches of the army; the Schools of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine whose graduates would serve as physicians, pharmacists or vets in the army or civil administration.
Such was the educational system when Muhammad Ali first founded what was initially called the Divan of Schools, which evolved into the Department of Education when the Khedive Ismail introduced the ministerial system. This was in 1878, towards the end of his reign, or 40 years after the divan was founded. Under the khedival decree, issued on 10 December that year, the department was responsible for supervising the administration and financial needs of public schools, with the exception of the military and naval academies, Egyptian educational missions and community schools and libraries.
And so that department remained until, at the end of 1914, when the British declared a protectorate over Egypt, it underwent another metamorphosis to become the Ministry of Public Education. The bureaucratic changes that this effected remained essentially in place for another 40 years or so until 1956, when it emerged under its present official appellation as the Ministry of Upbringing and Education.
The foregoing historical overview of one of Egypt's most important modern government institutions was by way of introduction to the topic of this episode of the Chronicle. In 1937, Egypt commemorated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Divan of Schools. Naturally, the event was covered enthusiastically by Al-Ahram and other newspapers of the period. It is interesting to us today because not only does it offer a vantage point from which to observe a century's march in the development of our educational system but also to understand the extent to which modern education had moved beyond its original role as a supplier of government functionaries to become a major formative social and cultural force.
It is also useful to note, first, that Ali Zaki El-Orabi, then minister of education, was perhaps the least famous individual to hold that portfolio. His predecessors included Ali Mubarak, Abdallah Fikri, Mahmoud El-Falaki, Mustafa Riad, Saad Zaghlul, Ahmed Hishmat, Adli Yakin, Ahmed Maher, Ali Maher, Ali El-Shamsi, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayid and Ahmed Naguib El-Hilali. That many of these had gone to become prime minister is indicative of the importance attached to this ministry.
The first news of a centennial celebration appeared in Al-Ahram of 12 March 1937. Ali El-Orabi had formed a committee to put the final touches on the "golden book" his ministry intended to publish in commemoration of its 100th anniversary, the newspaper reported. The committee consisted of Egypt University Director Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayid, Deputy Minister of Education Mohamed El-Ashmawi and Dean of the Faculty of Letters Taha Hussein. Simultaneously, another committee was formed to plan the forthcoming celebrations, the date for which was set for 29 March. One of the members of this committee, incidentally, was Ahmed Ezzat Abdel-Karim, a teacher at Ibrahimiya Secondary School, who had just completed his master's thesis on the History of Education in the Muhammad Ali era.
At 10am that morning, in the Egyptian University's main conference hall, there commenced what Al-Ahram described as "a splendid ceremony characterised by a simplicity that cast into relief the humility gained by knowledge and the quiet reserve of those who impart it." The Al-Ahram correspondent who was on hand to cover the event relates that he was moved by the presence of individuals who had served as minister of education in various eras. "Their attendance revived a chain of historic memories and a palpable sense of the spirit of each age." He was also impressed by the opening speech by the minister of education on the history of his ministry from its inception to its current state of administrative and academic diversification. He adds, "the hall resounded with thundering applause when the third speaker, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayid, related the steps the university is taking to promote stronger bonds of friendship between Egypt and other eastern countries."
It was a formidable audience that issued that thundering applause. When he arrived in the auditorium, the Al-Ahram correspondent found it packed with prestigious people. Foreign ambassadors filled the balcony to the right and former ministers and religious leaders the balcony to the left. Members of parliament occupied the centre of the auditorium and were flanked on the left by university faculty members and representatives of the foreign and local press, and on the right by the ulema of Al-Azhar, senior officials of the Ministry of Education, school principals and education inspectors. "A large flock of women involved in upbringing and education occupied a block of seats behind their male colleagues."
At precisely 10 am, two of the three-member regency council, Aziz Ezzat Pasha and Sherif Sabri Pasha, entered the hall, the third member, chief regent Prince Muhammad Ali, being out of the country at the time. They were followed by Prime Minister Mustafa El-Nahhas, whose entrance was greeted by loud applause, and then by El-Sayid, clad in the university gown, who took the seat next to the prime minister.
The prime minister rose to give the opening address. What made this occasion a particularly happy and propitious one, he said, was that it took place at the outset of the era of constitutional freedoms and national independence and dignity. He was referring to the recent restoration of the 1923 Constitution and to the recently concluded Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in accordance with which Egypt obtained a sovereign status. He then reminded his audience that Saad Zaghlul, who founded the party that he, El-Nahhas, now headed, had served a lengthy term as minister of education. In this post the famous nationalist leader "set the highest possible model for dedication, dignity, sound management and excellence and imbued the ministry and its academic institutions with a true spirit of patriotism."
The prime minister's introductory remarks were followed by a lengthy speech by the minister of education. Ali Zaki El-Orabi opened with a historical overview of his ministry, which over its 100 years grew from a small government department whose task was to furnish the government with civil servants into a large and diversified ministry whose mission was to educate the people. He added that whereas the original Divan of Schools had a budget of LE50,000 the Ministry of Public Education today had a budget of LE4.5 million.
He then proceeded to outline the types of education that fell under the supervision of the ministry, beginning with elementary education. At first, he said, this was confined to the kuttabs, the religious schools that taught the fundamentals of reading and righting and the memorisation of the Quran. Instruction used to take place in small, cramped rooms situated in mosques, tombs and the homes of sheikhs, conditions which began to change dramatically after 1889 when the kuttabs were transferred from the Ministry of Waqf Foundations to the Ministry of Education. Although this administrative re- organisation aggravated some differences of opinion, as occurred in the case of what he referred to as the battle between the kuttabs and the advocates of founding national university, such differences were baseless as there was no inherent conflict between the two types of education. The next important landmark in elementary education was the obligatory elementary education law. Promulgated soon after the ratification of the 1923 Constitution, this law set into motion the establishment of many modern full-day elementary schools as well as industrial and agricultural training offices, "in which students found the instruction appropriate to their needs".
The primary and secondary phases of public education were not new, both having been initiated in the reign of Muhammad Ali. At the time of its centennial, the Ministry of Education boasted 131 primary schools providing education at this level to some 25,000. On top of these were the privately owned primary schools, bringing the total number of such schools in the country to 258 and total primary school enrolment up to between 70,000 and 80,000. At the next level, which began with two preparatory schools in the time of Muhammad Ali, there were now 31 public secondary schools serving approximately 16,000 students and 63 private secondary schools serving 11,000 students.
El-Orabi went on to discuss public female education, which had its official start in 1873 in the age of the Khedive Ismail. At present, he said there were 31 government-run primary schools for girls, with a total enrolment of 4,000 students, and seven secondary schools for girls with some 2,000 students. However, he confessed that private endeavours were much more numerous, with 115 private elementary schools for girls with a total student body of 15,000 and 10 private secondary schools serving approximately 800 female students.
Because of similar discrepancies between the public and private domains in other areas of education, El-Orabi felt compelled to address the question of his ministry's relationship with private educational institutions. In 1934, a law was passed giving the ministry the right to supervise those schools which prepare their students for the public examinations. The purpose was "to raise these institutions' administrative and technical capacities and to improve their quality in every aspect," he said, adding, "while some of these schools have attained a satisfactory level, many others still require reform."
Naturally, industrial, agricultural and commercial education also came under the ministry's purvey. After a brief account of the growth of this kind of technical training schools, which at the time of the centennial amounted to 25 with a total students population of 12,000, he explained that the ministry had introduced a system whereby these schools specialised in the industries appropriate to the areas in which they were located. For example, stonework with granite was taught in Aswan, texstonework cutting and polishing were taught in Aswan, textile manufacture in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra and carpet weaving in Assiut. Agricultural education, the minister continued, only began to take off with the founding of the Tawfiqiya Agricultural School in 1889. Now there were four such schools with a total capacity of about 1,600 students. Commercial education got started even later. Until 1917, this branch was limited to only a single school; now there were five with an enrolment of approximately 2,000.
But, El-Orabi stressed, his ministry was not concerned solely with honing students' intellectual skills, for which reason it has made physical education compulsory in all public schools for boys and girls. It has also promoted and expanded such extracurricular activities as the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movements. Moreover, the Ministry of Education had several other important functions. One was to provide scholarships for study abroad. Over recent years, the numbers of students benefiting from these grants had increased significantly, reaching at present 1,794 recipients. Another vital concern was teacher training, for which purpose the ministry recently founded the Institute of Education. The institute had two departments, the first for training primary school teachers, which took its candidates from secondary school graduates, and the second for training secondary school teachers, acceptance into which required a certificate of graduation from either the Faculty of Letters or the Faculty of Sciences.
The minister then turned to some of the other institutions that now fell under his supervision, notably the School of Fine Arts, the National Library and the Antiquities Department. The first of these was founded by Prince Youssef Kamal in 1908 and had recently been incorporated into the ministry in deference to the prince's wishes. Although the prince continued to contribute to the funding of the institute, the ministry dedicated itself to improving its management and quality of instruction. It also had recently begun to fund scholarships for the study of the arts abroad. The Dar Al-Kutub, as the national library was now called, began as the Khedival Library, which had been set up primarily by Ali Mubarak with a core of 20,000 volumes. The library gradually began to expand, under the auspices of the Ministry of Waqf Foundations, until, in 1904, it was relocated to its current premises. Afterwards, the literature department of the Royal Publishing House was placed under its authority for the purpose of publishing major Arabic works in the sciences and the arts. The library now housed more than 150,000 books. As for the third institution, El-Orabi described its work on Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic antiquities.
Although this subject brought the El-Orabi's speech to a close, and a formal end to the ministry's centennial celebration, there began a widespread discussion of the substance of this speech and of the state of education in general.
In its editorial the day after the event, Al-Ahram expressed its regret that the celebration had not been held a few weeks later, after the results of the new census came out. It anticipated that the census would list a 12 per cent increase in the segment of the population that had received at least a primary education, bringing the total up to 36 per cent of the populace. But even if the figures are not exaggerated, the newspaper added, "this does not meet the needs of the nation nor satisfy the people's thirst for knowledge and their aspirations for intellectual and cultural progress and advancement that would place us on an equal footing with Western nations in this respect."
The same edition carried a commentary by Qelini Fahmi who lauded the minister for having given credit to the great men who contributed to the rise of modern education in Egypt. Unfortunately, he continued, the minister overlooked one great man whose noble services to the cause of education and the people in that field could not be overestimated. "We are referring to the late Rifaa Rafie El-Tahtawi, the celebrated scholar and masterful educator whose indefatigable dedication to the dissemination of knowledge and the establishment of schools knew no bounds. It is no exaggeration to say that the kernel of the modern academic revival was planted by his great efforts."
The third commentary on the speech was, in fact, an apology inserted by ministry officials for having omitted mention of the Arab Language Academy. This institution was founded in 1923 "for the purpose of preserving the integrity of the Arabic language and rendering it capable of meeting the demands posed by the advancement in the sciences and the arts and the needs of contemporary everyday life."
Perhaps the most entertaining contribution was that by Assiut College Professor Agban Daniel on "Education in the eras of Abbas and Said." The former viceroy, he wrote, was so disappointed by a general examination he conducted for professors and students alike in the Abu Zaabal School of Medicine that they decided to entirely overhaul the educational system. Because the army needed properly trained physicians, he thought it prudent to re-structure the School of Medicine on entirely new foundations. Abbas's successor, Said, had received a Western education. Yet, when asked by his Swiss tutor whether he intended to re-open the schools Abbas had closed down, he responded, "do you educate people so as to render the comprehension and management of their affairs more complex for them than it already is? Leave them to their ignorance, for the unlettered is a far easier nation to rule."
Perhaps the topic that most interested those involved or concerned with education was the question of community schools. The first to comment on this subject was Tawfiq Tanous, whose letter appeared beneath the headline, "The community school policy: A frank opinion and an appeal to members of parliament". Tanous referred to the minister of education's remarks regarding how privately owned schools outnumbered government schools. He went on to note that the operating costs of the former were three times more per student than government schools. Yet, the government has been reluctant to approve an LE80,000 increase in its allocations to those hundreds of schools, "in spite of the fact that this sum barely suffices to build a single government school." He concluded with an appeal to parliament members to "do duty to their conscience" and come to the rescue of community education.
The most outspoken critic of current educational policies was Abdel-Hamid El-Batriq, who would later become a noted historian. The educational system in its current state "does not prepare our youth for the practical challenges of life," he maintained. "There is a vast difference between our approach to education and that of advanced nations. Here, the teacher does everything. He prepares the lessons and dictates them to the students while they remain planted in their seats as pure recipients who have little effort to make in obtaining and processing information. In the world's modern schools, by contrast, students are trained from the tenderest age to think for themselves and to shoulder the responsibility for their work. This can only take place if education is oriented to the individual, whereby students are allowed to progress in accordance with their natural strengths and psychological proclivities."
His opinion was echoed by Girgis Mikhael, a teacher in Beni Sweif Secondary School, who drew attention to the distinction between the terms "instruction" and "education", which by definition was the ministry's job. The former implied the mere process of funnel information into students' heads, whereas the latter entailed drawing on the child's natural motivation and interests and channelling these in a manner conducive to the proper formation of character.
One suspects that both professors El-Batriq and Mikhael would find that little had changed in the public school system today. Undoubtedly, this goes a long way to explaining the rise of several alternative educational tracks.