“Education makes people easy to lead, but difficult to drive, easy to govern but impossible to enslave.” Baron Henry Brougham
Two weeks ago the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) issued its “2012 State of Education Report,” providing analysis and benchmark research on OECD and other countries that agreed to participate.
This report sums up Arab world achievements in the area of human development since Nasser’s instatement in 1952. Almost 60 years ago, Nasser heralded the era of popular slogans of resistance, progression, socialism and revolution. Then military dictators such as Qaddafi perfected the use of the same slogans to oppress Arab youth and eliminate the possibility of human, political and economic development.
The OECD report exposes the crimes committed under the pretext of such slogans against two generations of Arabs who now suffer the dire consequences of poor education. Paradoxically, while most of the 350 million Arabs have been driven to the edge of intellectual bankruptcy, Israel enjoys the second highest level of university education in the world.
This report resonated well in the GCC countries most of which have embarked on ambitious educational reform programs. For example, the UAE and Qatar have managed to attract world-class educational institutes via substantial government investments.
Additionally, most of the GCC’s governments have launched overhaul programs targeting local curriculum, and they seek to deploy digital age educational tools.
The Saudi government announced major investments into new universities such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and other female education facilities. Furthermore, Saudi revitalized the government funded program of sending citizens abroad to study in world class Western universities. This program has been a major contributor to establishing the current generation of successful young Saudi leaders across all economic sectors.
Many GCC curriculums continue to suffer from the effect of being based on the Egyptian curriculum of the 1960’s. Until the 1980’s many GCC based public schools were saturated with pro Muslim Brotherhood teachers that were expelled by Egyptian regime. The outcome was an imbalanced curriculum; focusing on religion to the detriment of basic skills in language, science and math. The net effect is a generation of young nationals who are unemployable in many modern economic sectors.
Moving on to the wider Middle East, Lebanon, once an oasis of educational excellence, is paralyzed by political rifts which negatively affect the educational system in the country. Ideological parties and corrupt feudal leaders find it easier to control uneducated and poor constituencies, the lack of a properly structured national education system facilitates this.
Additionally, the increased erosion of wealth in the middle class is diminishing parents’ abilities to provide a sound private education to their children. The end result is an overall drop in educational standards that has translated into less contribution Lebanon to the growth of new technology based sectors in the region.
Egypt also faces an uncertain future, it all depends on how the Muslim brotherhood will deal with education. While the media focus on the constitutional debate and military’s role in governmental affairs, Egypt badly needs major reform in its educational system, without this Egyptians will continue to face virtual unemployment.
That all said, Jordan stands out as an oasis of hope, the educational and legislative policies adopted by the kingdom over the past decade have created a thriving sector of technology and new media. Jordan, whose population is less than 2 percent of the Arab world and who suffers from high poverty ratio, produces more than 70 percent of Arab content on the web. Jordan provides definite proof that Arabs can succeed and can do so spectacularly. If Jordan can do it, so can Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia.
The case of Jordan proves that the solution is within reach and success is almost guaranteed. Revamping educational systems to meet international standards will usher in the start of new economic, cultural and social development in the Arab world.
There must be less of the typical Arab preoccupation with history and religion, the popular system of route learning must also be abolished. This memory based education system diminishes the student’s abilities to analyze, innovate and research. Most importantly, it diminishes student’s ability to lead exhibit out of the box thinking.
Focus should be placed upon subjects such as science and math, with extra attention paid to training youths in problem solving skills. The new educational regime must nurture intellectual curiosity with regards to the outside world. Muslim Arabs have historically embraced the knowledge of earlier civilizations and used it to leave their own marks in the fields of medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. The isolationist mentality that has been advocated under the false slogan of protecting our religion and culture must end immediately.
The choice is ours; either bridge the educational gap with Israel and the west, or suffer at an economic disadvantage.
Governments must prioritize educational reform and openly cooperate with foreign countries and international organizations to implement strategies that will elevate local educational standards. Education is the answer to reducing religious extremism and eventually eliminating poverty. There is no alternative solution but, education, education and more education.
(Tarek Ayntrazi is a media industry specialist in the MENA region. He has worked with Starcom, one of the largest media groups in the region. In 2010 Tarek launched Mars Media Services, a media and communication consultancy.)