Last month I was invited to participate in The Doha Debates, a televised forum where experts debate the region’s most controversial topics, to discuss the motion: “Education is worthless without freedom of speech”. At the outset, one would jump to agree with the motion. Of course freedom of speech is a worthy cause and a noble pursuit that is hardly contestable, especially in a context like that of the Arab world, where a highly restrictive environment sheds further light on the malaise resulting from the stifling civil liberties.
But a careful reading of the wording of the motion calls for a more profound analysis of what it entails. It is about either the worthiness, or the total lack of worth, of education in the absence of freedom of speech. It is not about the extent of this worthiness. Education in such circumstances, according to the motion, is either worthwhile, or worth zero.
And that is why I argued against the motion.
I argued that no matter what restrictions are placed on freedom of speech, education will be the catalyst for change. Education helps create and expand freedom in all of its layers – political, social, cultural and economic. Education promotes human development. Even coming up against the harshest restraints, education builds a reservoir of intellectual capital that, together with innate human creativity, imagination and will, turns around to push for a state of a home-grown freedom.
The motion presented education as a function of freedom of speech. I argue that freedom is itself a product of education. For what are the Egyptian bloggers and Tunisian activists a product of, if not their local systems of education? And how come Egyptian women enrolled in illiteracy eradication programmes start reporting their abuse once they begin learning how to read and write? And why is the percentage of Egyptian women opposing female genital mutilation higher amongst the educated than the illiterate?
One of my opponents, Tariq Ramadan from Oxford University, argued that education without freedom of speech creates “parrots and sheep”. I wholeheartedly reject this argument. It undermines the capacity of the human mind and its innate ability to probe, question and challenge. It assumes powerless citizens who lack any potential for perception or inquisition.
I, on the contrary, have strong faith in the inherent power of the human intellect and its endless potential for creativity and imagination, no matter how stifled. It is unacceptable that we expect such passivity in students, especially in today’s world where knowledge is acquired from diverse sources and technologies are democratising the learning process.
Education creates true freedom that is built from within, not imposed top down by local governments or, worse yet, enforced by foreign governments who support these authoritarian regimes while suppressing freedoms of their own citizens.
And education saves lives. Dubbed the “social vaccine” for AIDS, education is desperately needed in sub-Saharan Africa, where 22 of the world’s 33 million adults and children are living with HIV/AIDS. Arguing that education’s worthiness awaits a stamp of validation from freedom of speech in that context misses the point.
Education also helps provide for livelihood. My other opponent, Dennis Hayes from the University of Derby, argued that in the absence of freedom of speech, education is reduced to “mere training”. I ask: is it worthless to have a training that helps one find a job, meet basic needs and secure livelihood for oneself and family, promoting dignity and self esteem in true fulfilment of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s concept of “development as freedom”?
Education’s worth increases as freedoms are expanded in the areas of technology, health, employment, education systems, infrastructure and curricula.
But the motion is not about this positive correlation. The motion is about the starting point. It assumes that this positive relationship starts at the origin, where zero freedom also means zero worthiness of education. I, on the other hand, argue that this positive correlation starts at an intercept where, even with zero freedoms, education will provide a reservoir of value.
Education is worthy in and of itself. In the absence of freedom of speech, education may be worth less, but education is never worthless.
In a wider context, this debate is an invitation to interrogate the complexities of development realities beyond the obvious and the established. This is an important conversation for policymakers in the realm of development agendas, where often the assessment of needs is politicised and where an eye on empirics can be conducive to more sensible programming and effective interventions.
* Nagla Rizk is Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Economics and Director of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center at the School of Business of the American University in Cairo. She co-authored The Arab Knowledge Report 2009. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author.