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Opinion: Education is not a free lunch - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The righteousness of a goal does not guarantee that efforts to achieve it will succeed. If a bad strategy is used to reach an objective, the result will turn out to be the opposite of that expected. Achieving social justice through the wrong method, for instance, would end up in greater injustice.

People often use certain words that seem to have an almost magical effect in order to conjure up goals that do not exist in reality. Language in fact contains a few of these magical words that refer to things that do not exist in reality. The word “free” is an example.

The word “free” fills people’s hearts with relief and mesmerizes their minds, only for them to end up realizing that what they thought was free came at a great cost. “Free education” is a case in point.

The popular American adage “There is no such thing as a free lunch” expresses this idea. A similar, although harsher, Egyptian saying originating in Dumyat states: “Nothing comes for free, except for blind and deaf.” I believe that the saying implies that one has to be either blind or deaf to believe in the existence of free things.

Dr. Taha Hussein said that “education is like the air we breathe and the water we drink,” to defend the notion that education is no less important than these two essential elements. His words have been, however, interpreted differently. Considering that both the water that floods the Nile river and the air we breathe come for free, education should also be free of charge.

These days, Egyptian parents have come to the conclusion that schools no longer have a role in education. They spend large sums to provide their children with a minimum level of education. As a result, it is not unusual to see a mother rushing home from work to take her son or daughter to a private math teacher in the Mohandessin area, wait for him or her to finish their lesson, then accompany them to a science teacher in the Manial neighborhood, and to their Arabic teacher in the Heliopolis District after that.

No wonder the traffic in Cairo is so dense both at night and during the day, with all these people taking their children to private tutors outside working hours.

The situation is truly tragic in smaller cities and in villages. People are poor, whereas most teachers are wealthy and organize protests to request a pay rise. May God preserve free schooling at all stages of education, or perhaps that should be at all stages of non-education.

Don’t get me wrong—I believe that the state should cover the cost of primary education only. Only then would people realize that the cost of secondary education is much less than that of “free education.”

The word “free” is a transgression of the honor of language, just like the word “profits” in the factories of the private sector. There are no profits, only losses. That, however, does not stop the workers from revolting and staging strikes in iron and steel plants to request their share of profits.

I can state a thousand words which transgress the sanctity and honor of language, words that became malicious and restrain our ability to act and think. We need to stop lying to ourselves.

Ali Salem

Ali Salem

Ali Salem is a renowned Egyptian playwright and humorist. He is the author of several books, including Journey into Israel. He is based in Cairo.

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