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Education and Hope - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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I do not think that anybody who is aware of our situation would argue or claim that there is no educational crisis in the Arab world. A crisis of this nature spares nobody; however the difference lies in the extent and type of problems that each Arab state endures.

Just as a reminder, this crisis had existed long before the 9/11 attacks and has remained as such afterwards. The attacks that changed the face of the world only added more fuel (a lot more fuel) to the rivalries and debates on the crisis of education in the Arab world.

As we refer to the education report in the Arab World in the 21st century, it stated that, “Arab education played a destructive role in Arab lives during the last century (N.B. the last century, not after the 9/11 attacks!) This role is represented by three positions that are incompatible with civilization and enlightenment, namely; the isolation between civilizations, repression of rationality and its subsequent avoidance in dealing with life and individual problems, and finally the lessening of the value of Arab people.” These assumptions were mentioned in the book entitled, “Education and Enlightenment in Developing Arab society” by Ali Assad Watfa.

The education crisis is a fatal disease that has spread throughout all Arab and Islamic societies. But this does not mean that we should accept such a disease simply because our neighbors are also infected with it.

The truth is that this crisis is not limited, as suggested by the clamor of political and ideological rivalry, to religious education. Many specialists, influential educators and people concerned with development, focus on the deteriorating educational output and its invalidity within the labor market. This status is consequent to the many ailments from which education suffers and that is ridden by diseases of memorization and repetition, as well as the abolition of skills of critical thinking.

Thus, the initiative undertaken by the Saudi government on February 12, 2007, which stated upon approving a new strategy in education and was named, “The King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Project for the Development of Public Education,” is a significant development at this level.

To further elaborate, we must admit that the content of this new plan was not disclosed to the public. Therefore, we must stress upon the insufficiency and limited debate that tackled the details and content of this new plan. However, the allocated budget for the project and launching it under the name of King Abdullah suggests the importance and seriousness of this plan and this is what we really hope for.

A budget of 9 billion Saudi Riyals was allocated for the project to be spent over a period of six years. One aspect, upon which the project is to focus, will be developing skills in means of modern education and the utilization of computers. According to the Saudi Press agency, the project aims at “setting standards against which the efficiency of the educational process is to be measured.”

In order to follow up on the implementation of the plan, a condition is set, which is to “present an annual report to the King, highlighting the progress of the implementation of the project.”

Finally, it is underlined that “the intended project for developing public education includes four major programs to address the following fields:

1 – Program for developing educational curricula.

2 – Program for re-qualification of male and female teachers.

3 – Program to improve the educational environment.

4 – Program for extracurricular activity.”

Noticeably, these are brief and insufficient references that do not allow us to clearly comprehend this plan, however they entail important aspects, for example, referring to “improving the educational environment” and the “program for extracurricular activity.” Under these headings, many implications are included…

Nowadays, it is no longer appropriate nor is it responsible to overlook the necessity of reforming the educational process in all its aspects. We are in a real crisis. Let us remember the heated domestic debate that tackled all aspects affecting domestic education. Such controversy had profusely spread after the outbreak of religious terrorism and its culture.

In this atmosphere, there are some who defended our education on absolute terms and absolved it from all its faults and defects. On the other hand, there were those who held it responsible for all the shortcomings in the world. In fact, the truth lies somewhere between those two opinions.

Our education is not free of guilt; in fact it is infected with many ailments. Perhaps the focus of domestic media on the educational environment is what has revealed to us the different aspects of these diseases. The media, however, did not create these defects out of nothing; they were already in existence prior to 9/11. Of these problems are those that are related to educational curricula and educational texts. Thus, a number of mistakes and problems that cannot be condoned had emerged in spite of how many rhetoric arguments we use.

For example, texts of the religious curricula include many statements and ideas that cannot be accepted especially as they are put forward by human beings and are not part of a sacred text. Such texts and instructions do not help endorse the concept of accepting the other and promoting the idea of nationalism, or establishing the culture of communication with the world. In this context, we will not cite examples of these texts which Saudi writers and critics have not fallen short of tackling in detail and in abundant studies and books. This is not to mention other problems that occur in the “educational environment” of culture that spreads behind the back of the official curriculum, which also suffers from some crises already. Such phenomenon is currently dubbed the “hidden curriculum,” which is the title of the seminar that was held in Abha, in southern Saudi Arabia (July 2004) under the initiative and enthusiasm of the Governorate of the Asir region, Prince Khalid al Faisal.

In this “educational environment,” various problems had occurred in the past three years for example the abstention from performing the national anthem under the pretext that it is “sacrilegious”. Another problem is that some teachers praise extremism and terrorism in classes. Furthermore, there is the prosecuting of any teacher who utters a word against the extremist cultural approach as the case was with many teachers in more than one place simply because they criticized Bin Laden or praised music! But then again, we do not want to reiterate these stories since they are already well-known.

I know that I am speaking about one “facet” of education, and not about the comprehensive status of all education. Here, I am referring to religious education, however, from my perspective; it represents the problem of all problems that cannot be overlooked by all arguments and defenses.

As for the claim that if education is responsible for the problem of terrorism then all Saudis would have grown to be terrorists, this is a valid claim and a logical and realistic defense. But in this regard, we are not talking about terrorism but rather about intolerance and the culture of fanaticism, which causes one to view that he is the righteous one and that everybody else is wrong. Such a culture does not establish the concept of cultural pluralism and does not spread the idea of diversity in the faces of truth. The setting of this concept, sponsoring it and nurturing it from childhood, is a necessary task that would ensure the weakening of the impact of a closed culture that believes that it, its source and its aim is the sole face of truth.

The problem of education is severe, thus it requires serious solutions. There is nothing greater than devoting money, manpower, efforts and supervision to this goal. I believe that the attention dedicated by King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz towards such a problem is one of the great factors that we hope would eliminate this dilemma and would allow light to shine upon minds and spirits. In a meeting that was held in August 2005 with leaders of the education system in the country, King Abdullah was the one who had warned against negligence in supervising education. He stressed upon the necessity to prevent the infiltration of the culture of hatred among students. He called upon principals of the educational process to work upon, “rejection of extremism”. Also in his meeting with the American presenter, Barbara Walters, he stated that there are aspects of the education system that need further attention.

Needless to say, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques is not referring in this regard to “westernization” or elimination of the country’s culture, after all, he is the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, thus it [westernization] is an unreasonable idea that could never happen. The King talks about a “correction” of views and reviewing the educational process, which is, in the end, a human contribution that is subjected to conditions and variables. In the same way, the fundamental identity is fixed and cannot be changed or tampered with. The fundamental identity is not fragile glass that may be broken at the first sight of any obstacle, as the feared and the fearful would prefer to understand it.

In all cases, we hope and wish that this plan would be fruitful, provided that its executors would be people who fully comprehend this problem and are not those who want to keep things as they are only for the same cycle to repeat itself in years to come.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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