Some information of interest from our colleague in Beirut, Siad Darwish.
Education in the Arab countries is where the paternalism of the traditional family structure, the authoritarianism of the state and the dogmatism of religion all meet, discouraging critical thought and analysis, stifling creativity and instilling submissiveness.
These problems begin in the home, the 2004 Arab Human Development Report observed:
Studies indicate that the most widespread style of child rearing in Arab families is the authoritarian mode accompanied by the overprotective. This reduces children’s independence, selfconfidence and social efficiency, and fosters passive attitudes and hesitant decision-making skills. Most of all, it affects how the child thinks by suppressing questioning, exploration and initiative.
Schooling continues this process, and reinforces it:
Communication in education is didactic, supported by set books containing indisputable texts in which knowledge is objectified so as to hold incontestable facts, and by an examination process that only tests memorisation and factual recall. Curricula, teaching and evaluation methods, the AHDR noted, “do not permit free dialogue and active, exploratory learning and consequently do not open the doors to freedom of thought and criticism. On the contrary, they weaken the capacity to hold opposing viewpoints and to think outside the box. Their societal role focuses on the reproduction of control in Arab societies.”
The main classroom activities, according to a World Bank report, are copying from the blackboard, writing, and listening to the what’s really wrong with the middle east teachers. “Group work, creative thinking, and proactive learning are rare. Frontal teaching – with a teacher addressing the whole class – is still a dominant feature … The individual needs of the students are not commonly addressed in the classroom. Rather, teachers teach to the whole class, and there is little consideration of individual differences in the teaching-learning process.”
One investigation into the quality of schooling in the Middle East found students were taught to memorise and retain answers to “fairly fixed questions” with “little or no meaningful context”, and that the system mainly rewarded those who were skilled at being passive knowledge recipients.
Although that study was published in 1995, the World Bank’s 2008 report concluded that many of its criticisms still applied thirteen years later: “higher-order cognitive skills such as flexibility, problem-solving, and judgment remain inadequately rewarded in schools”.
Moreover, the few Arab countries that have recognised this deficiency and tried to introduce such skills as an educational objective have generally failed to change the classroom practices. Egypt, for example, tried sending teachers to Europe to learn modern teaching methods but when they returned to Egypt they quickly reverted to the old ways.
If this makes young Arabs well-equipped for anything at all, it is how to survive in an authoritarian system: just memorise the teacher’s words, regurgitate them as your own, avoid asking questions – and you’ll stay out of trouble. In the same way, the suppression of their critical faculties turns some of them into gullible recipients for religious ideas that would collapse under serious scrutiny. But it ill-equips them for roles as active citizens and contributors to their countries’ development.
Moroccan writer Abdellah Taia sums up the result in one word: detachment.
Detachment or disengagement, not just from power and thinking inside the box politics, but from the realities of daily life. “It’s as if the things you study in school, in university are not real – just things you study,” he said. “Maybe you discuss them with friends, but it’s only discussion. I think Moroccans – and Arabs in general – are very detached from things that really matter.