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Education Reform: What Kind of Arab World Do We Aspire for?

Education Reform: What Kind of Arab World Do We Aspire for?

Monday, 2 March, 2020 - 12:45
Marwan Muasher
Ex-Minister for Foreign Affairs in Jordan

One cannot look at the Arab world today and conclude that things are fine. Waves of popular protests have swept through the Arab world, erupting in 12 of the 22 Arab states.

Foreign conspiracy arguments are no longer convincing to nations hoping to live with dignity, take part in shaping their lives, and for corruption and nepotism to not be among the foundational principles of their societies. While there is an absence of social justice and a productive economy, thought and freedom are restricted, dissenting opinions are not accepted and creativity is discouraged in an almost systematic manner.

We should not be surprised, then, when we see the quantitative indicators coming from the Arab world. The youth unemployment rate in the region is double that of the rest of the world, making it one of the highest in the world. More than 40 percent of youths in many Arab states want to emigrate, while most Arab countries are ranked in some of the lowest positions in the world with regard to indicators of freedom and democratization.

Unfortunately, the gap between us and the rest of the world is growing with the massive acceleration brought about by technology to a global economy that is becoming increasingly more reliant on knowledge than it is on traditional industrial and agricultural activity.

Where do we stand in this transformation? It seems to many that a number of Arab countries have become outside the circle of contemporary society. This is due to our disregard for the essence of matters, Arab governments' insistence on managing economic activity rather than leaving it to the private sector, and their control over the political decision-making process, thereby expelling capable Arabs, who, if they were allowed to, would qualitatively transform educational, technological and digital sectors in the Arab world.

In the era of modern technology, where applications such as Uber revolutionized transportation and Amazon shopping, to give two examples, where does the Arab world fit into these transformations in knowledge as its educational systems are still based on indoctrination, a unilateral education of absolute facts, where the opinions of the teachers who refuse to engage in dialogue are sanctified? How could our educational systems cultivate young people who are not only capable of entering the labor market of the modern era, but also be armed with the skills that allow them to adapt to the ever-changing needs of that market, changing so rapidly that the skills students are required to acquire at university in a specific course would have changed by 30% before they even graduate?

With the exception of the few who were granted real educational opportunities, either by studying abroad or at private educational institutions, an opportunity given only those from social classes that are able to grant it, how could the Arab world claim that its educational systems are preparing its new generation of young people to deal with these new changes while they hardly qualify these students to work in the public sector and engage activities that are mostly unproductive?

How can the new generation adapt itself to the continuous change to the needs of the labor market while it is not trained to think critically, scrutinize, research, express opinion and to learn continuously and accept different opinions? How does the Arab world hope to catch up with modern global civilization while it is not equipped with the ABCs of modern education?

Here, I would like to quote a 2018 report on education in the Arab world that was co-written by many authors. It concluded that “Arab educational systems do not—and indeed are not designed to—foster democratic and engaged citizenship in all of its aspects. Rather than focus on learning more broadly, most of them center more narrowly on the acquisition of defined and approved bodies of knowledge. School systems are designed to use specific academic material, and as a result, teachers are encouraged to impart lower-level cognitive skills (recall and comprehension) at the expense of higher-level ones (application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and critical thinking).

The systems therefore produce graduates with credentials but not the range of skills necessary to deal with the political, economic, and social challenges faced by Arab societies—or even to meet the needs of the workplace, which is the purported goal of many recent reform efforts”.

The problem is not a financial one, for many Arab states spend heavily on education and modern technology allows for access to modern education with the resources at hand. The more significant problem is the singular mode of thinking that has been prevalent in the Arab world for a long time, a mode of thinking that sees any educational reform as going against religious or societal norms or as an attempt by foreign powers to change Arab culture. The insistence on maintaining the current education system under the ridiculous pretext of protecting it from other societies are called for by those who use cell phones, computers, the internet, cars and airplanes and other technologies that are made by other societies. Engaging other societies has been considered degrading by them, while, after Islam entered the Arab world, the Arabs engaged with Persian, Roman and Greek societies, learned things from them that they evolved, built on and exported to the west without any issues.

Educational reform in the Arab should not be conditioned on getting those who want to stand against innovation and creativity on board, regardless of their motives. It does not make sense to use theories of foreign conspiracies to maintain educational systems that are no longer valid for today and tomorrow's worlds. This is an unjustified and unacceptable pretext and should be feared. Educational reform has become a request for survival. It's not a luxury reserved for the elite or a foreign conspiracy, and it is not directed against religion or Arab culture. Rather, it is the adoption of a new intellectual framework that is based on accepting intellectual pluralism, and the realization that difference gives us strength and an impetus towards continuous renewal. For accepting pluralism of thought and lifestyle are requisites for creativity, while the insistence on singularity of thought and action and patriarchal systems hinder our progress in a constantly changing world.

The only result of our insistence on arguing about the basics and clinging to tradition is that it allowed others to produce knowledge and adapt and develop it to serve their societies, while we became mere consumers of this knowledge, without this consumption resulting in a noticeable increase to development of the Arab region.

The battle to develop educational systems in the region is not a political battle as some people like to portray it to be, one in which the outside world tries to trump our national culture; rather, it is an existential battle in which to put an end to the great decline of our societies, which will lead to the Arab nation’s disappearance and underdevelopment. We cannot afford to keep bickering among ourselves until we are outside human civilization, for insisting on living in yesterday's homes prevents us from building tomorrow's dwellings.

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