Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- There has never been a more in-depth or lengthy debate as that concerning changes in the Saudi educational curriculum. The debate has been addressed in internet forums, in school classrooms, official meetings and in most Saudi households. The social concern for the matter is important to every citizen of kingdom.
The matter of developing the Saudi curriculum is as old as the education system itself, but the principal motive of the debate recently has been due to the American initiative with the launch of the ”Democracy and Partnership initiative” by former US secretary of state Colin Powell. The initiative includes developing and modernizing education as it described the curriculums of the Middle East as backward and suffering from the lack of support of state funding to correspond to population growth. Education further suffers from cultural ideas particularly affecting the education of girls.
Regarding to the curriculum, the initiative states that according to the Arab National Human Development Report, textbooks used in schools are insufficient in their translations of prominent books of philosophy, literature, sociology and physics. Furthermore, the condition of public libraries is a cause for concern.
According to Elena Romanisky, a representative of the ME Partnership initiative, the American administration is what is pushing for a change of curriculum in the Arab world including Saudi Arabia. Such amendments are expected to lead to the removal of hatred, incitement and violence within the region. The change will not affect religious teaching or texts because such modifications would cause controversy and further conflict. Romanisky added that to affect the religious teachings is not the intention of US administration. She continues to state that the Arab educational curriculum is responsible for the stagnation of Arab development rates. Moreover, that any educational system in which the curriculum openly calls for spreading hatred and violence would not be able to build the relevant capacities to deal with globalization and the new world order.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, education within the Islamic world was subject to much blame as fifteen young Saudis were involved in the most infamous terrorist operation in the world, and education is viewed as the greatest influence upon ones thinking.
On the other hand, however, a recent study in education in the Gulf States suggests that the events of 9/11 are the associations made between the education system of the Arab world and terrorists and extremists.
The study, which included a lecture by Dr. Said Abdullah Hareb, vice-president of United Arab Emirates University, also suggests that to support the change in the Arab curricula would exert pressure upon policy makers, educationists and sociologists. The study, assigned by the Arab Education Bureau of the Gulf States, further stated that this pressure would perhaps widen to include both educational and political systems of all Arab states.
The study argues against the claim that Arab education is responsible for producing terrorists, considering that those involved in the 9/11 attacks did not adopt a mainstream Arab education, but rather an alternative one that provided all motives of terrorism and fanaticism. The study further suggests that development is part of the education process, which those responsible have been practicing for years. Exceptional circumstances, however, have caused fear amongst society and in turn, strengthened the belief that reforms should take place.
As mentioned above, many Saudis have engaged in lengthy discussions concerning this matter. Some have called for "development", others prefer the word "reform", some argue that there should be "changes", and others call for a "modification" of the education curricula.
In 2003, as the social debate was widespread, approximately 150 scholars, judges and professors signed a petition against changing the Saudi curriculum, which is based on Islam. The list contained the signatory of Abdullah bin Jibreen who stated that any deleting or distortion of books written by Islamic scholars and imams contradicts what the state advocates to, namely an allegiance based on faith.
Sheikh bin Jibreen continued on the matter of debate, saying that, "some curricula has been based on good intentions and others have had hidden agendas. Those who suggest changes such as adding certain subjects, which are not of much importance, may be why people are not interested in education. It should be the case that each school follows a curriculum in which they teach the basic and religious sciences however, subjects such as algebra, languages and physics should not be obligatory."
The leader of the Al Qaeda organization, Osama Bin Laden made his position clear concerning the potential changes to curriculums of the Arab world. He expressed his opposition to the move through a satellite channel.
Concerning the Gulf, the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz submitted a draft when he was Crown Prince, for education reform in the area. A workshop was convened last January at the King Abdulaziz University to discuss the implementation of the draft. Ibrahim Alawi, one of the speakers who attended the workshop, argued in his paper entitled "Development article: The Thinking approach," that the main problem of the education field is the non-existent practice of broadening ones thinking.
Article 206 of the Kingdom”s education policy affirms that the state considers the curriculum as one of the most important aspects of teaching and education. The Ministry of Education published on its website that it would play an integral role in developing the curriculum of the Kingdom. The project aims at making a difference in the education field by making radical and effective changes to the curriculum.
The importance of these changes relates to the events that have taken place internationally in the past two decades. Such an investment in education will guarantee the stability of the promising generations to lead their nations. Recent years have seen the coordination of all sectors to formulate a civilized project to fulfill such needs and work in accordance with modern times.
Dr. Mohamed al-Rasheed, the former education minister admits that under the Shura (consultative) council, there have been shortages in the curriculum that require development and modification.
Many, especially in internet forums, have addressed the serious issue satirically. For example, one retold the story of a friend”s daughter who returned home one day to say that she had learnt at school that mothers are the ones who cook and clean. The young girl turned to her father and asked whether the book was mistaken or whether her household is an exception as it is the maid who completes such domestic chores!