Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

In search of Algerian education

A new exhibition in northern France has intriguing things to say about the history of Algerian education, writes David Tresilian

In search of Algerian education

It has long been recognised that the educational impact of European colonialism on the Arab world was ambiguous. On the one hand, the provision of education was modernised and standardised, with the example of European systems looming large in the minds of reformers. Nineteenth-century Egyptian educationalists such as Rifaa Al-Tahtawi and Ali Mubarak wanted to replace the ad hoc system of primarily religious schooling with something more like what they had found on their travels abroad.

Later figures associated with the modern movement in Egypt such as Yehia Haqqi and Taha Hussein wrote of the impact particularly European higher education had had on them, with the latter devoting much of his autobiography The Days to his experience first of modern education at the new Egyptian University (founded in 1908 and now Cairo University) and then of further education in France. Hussein had already finished the Al-Azhar curriculum of the time, about which he has some revealing, if uncomplimentary, things to say in his memoirs. 

However, on the other hand none of these figures wanted to see a wholly European educational system introduced root and branch into Egypt, where Hussein thought it would harm the country’s nascent national feeling. In his 1956 proposals for the reform of particularly humanistic education in Egypt, The Future of Culture in Egypt, Hussein says that it is important that the educational system use the national, and not a foreign, language or languages, since doing so could damage social cohesion. 

However, it was precisely the latter that was tried by the French colonial authorities in Algeria, between 1830 and 1962 part of metropolitan France, with complex consequences that are still being fought over today. As L’Ecole en Algérie, L’Algérie à l’école, an exhibition at the French National Museum of Education in the northern French town of Rouen, reveals, some at least of the questions that later loomed large over educational policy in Algeria were present almost from the very earliest days of the French colonial administration.

 One of these had to do with the content of education, particularly at the primary and early secondary levels which were seeing the beginnings of mass schooling. The traditional educational system in Algeria had placed the emphasis on religion, for which reading and writing, but little more, had been required. This was unlikely to be sufficient to meet the needs of a modern educational system.

Another had to do with how many, and for what purposes, young people should be educated in Algeria. Only a tiny fraction of the population had benefited from anything but a rudimentary education on the eve of the French conquest in 1830, and many of those that were educated would have gone on to follow careers as religious scholars, drawing up contracts for matters to do with the civil law or reading religious texts at weddings and funerals. 

Like in other colonised countries in the same period, the new colonial states needed administrators who could communicate with the local populations. In British India, the British politician Thomas Macaulay recommended in his 1835 “Minute on Indian Education” that Britain should support Indian schools teaching a British curriculum with English as the language of instruction. After some experimentation, something similar was adopted by the French authorities in Algeria, substituting French for English as the language of the education system but similarly marginalising other possible languages of instruction, Arabic pre-eminent among them.

While French education in Algeria, like British in India, was supposed, in Macaulay’s words, to rescue those receiving it from a lifetime of “neither bread nor respect”, since employment opportunities were increasingly dependent on certification in European languages, it also had the consequence, deliberate or not, of dividing the population. 

Modern education took place in French and followed a French curriculum. Traditional education took place in Arabic and became increasingly restricted in content and outcome.



LLUSTRATING EDUCATION: The Rouen exhibition is alive to issues of this sort, but perhaps its major contribution is the way it illustrates them. 

Designed for a wide public, and not having any particular axe to grind while recognising the strong feelings that can still arise on the subject of French rule in Algeria, it presents a fascinating case-study, in the Algerian context, of the modernisation and standardisation of education under European colonial rule. Visitors to the exhibition may be led to make comparisons to analogous developments elsewhere, whether in the Arab world or beyond.

The exhibition begins by presenting what it calls the remains and legacy of Algerian traditional education. When the French conquered Algeria, they discovered a decentralised primary education system for boys that taught reading and writing through the study of the Quran in institutions called msids, perhaps the equivalent of the Egyptian village kuttab. These seem to have been financed on a local basis from contributions from the families concerned and perhaps also local religious foundations.

Only a small percentage of such pupils would then go on to secondary education, based on the traditional curriculum of Arabic grammar and some arithmetic, in merdersas (madrasas) and zawias (religious fraternities attached to local mosques). An even smaller percentage of pupils from wealthy families might then have gone on to study at one of the region’s larger mosque-universities, perhaps the Zitouna Mosque in Tunis or the Qarawiyin Mosque in Fez. There does not seem to have been any educational provision for girls. 

In search of Algerian education

The exhibition contains a range of objects associated with this form of education, including handwriting exercises done by pupils attending merdersas in the 1850s and the wooden tablets (alluha) used by pupils at msids in the same period. Coated with clay, these could be scratched with a stylus (qalam) to carry the imprint of letters. 

Attempts were made under the French Second Empire to develop a Franco-Arab system of education in Algeria that used French and Arabic as languages of instruction and built on the traditional merdersas. While these were limited, they nevertheless represent a remarkable attempt to put French and Arabic on an equal footing. They were effectively abandoned, or at least defunded, after 1870 when the French Third Republic began to institute the same highly centralised educational system in Algeria as in metropolitan France, effectively ending local control of education.

It was this policy, designed to extend France’s “civilising mission” to every corner of the country’s colonies, which had what in retrospect were perverse consequences. While Europeans in Algeria received the same high-quality state-provided education that was available in metropolitan France, an inferior separate system was set up for Algerian Muslims, with the result that only a small minority of them was able to attend quality schools. 

“The Algerian educational system became completely segregated, just like the colonial society,” the exhibition comments, so much so that in 1908 only 33,000 Muslim Algerian children were going to school (out of an estimated school-age population of 800,000). This figure had scarcely improved in 1948, when only ten per cent of Muslim Algerian children were receiving schooling.

Meanwhile, the European institutions in Algeria were going from strength to strength, with the high-school system in particular producing remarkable results. The exhibition catalogue, full of information about Algerian education, contains an interview with Benjamin Stora, today a distinguished historian, who remembers that when he attended the Lycée d’Aumale, now the Lycée Ahmed Reda Houhou, in the eastern Algerian city of Constantine in the 1950s, the pupils and teachers were almost entirely European. 

A similar situation prevailed at the Lycée Bugeaud, now the Lycée Abdel-Kader, in the capital Algiers, whose pupils once included the Nobel Prize-winning author Albert Camus, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, and, perhaps more remarkably, the late Algerian writer Assia Djebar. By the time the French authorities in Algeria, pushed by the government in Paris, had resolved to do something about the shocking disparities in educational provision for European and Muslim Algerians, the situation had become unreformable, the exhibition suggests.

The sharply divided Algerian context of the 1950s, with the country plunged into an independence war, was hardly propitious for reforms to education. Nevertheless, many tried, and the exhibition includes interesting material from the time, including attempts by the anthropologist Germaine Tillon, who had spent the war years incarcerated in the German concentration camp at Ravensbruck, to set up socio-educational centres across the country intended to raise both the educational and the living standards of Algerian Muslims.

After the country’s independence in 1962, massive efforts were made to extend primary and secondary education to all Algerian children, at first in French, and then after the Arabisation campaigns of the later 1960s, in Arabic. The exhibition touches on the debates these policies gave rise to, similar to those taking place at the same time in other Maghreb countries. While Arabic was used in schools for many subjects, in the sciences, and for those wanting to have the chance of better jobs, fluency in French remained essential.

Fifty years after independence, Algeria “has 50 universities and more than one-and-a-half million students… [but] debates about the effectiveness and modernisation of the educational system are still very much alive, echoing debates in the colonial period about Arabic, French and bilingualism,” the exhibition says.

L’Ecole en Algérie, L’Algérie à l’école, de 1830 à nos jours, Musée national de l’éducation, Rouen, until 2 April 2018.

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