Educating Fatima

Why curriculum reform is one of the Arab world’s hottest issues.

Western officials, journalists, and progressive Arab voices, including leaders like Jordan’s King Abdullah II, all believe that education is the key to the Arab world’s renaissance. And yet, as has been reporting over the last few weeks in an important developing story, proposed educational reforms in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan are meeting with stiff resistance. Academics and government officials are worried that reform will affect the transmission of Muslim and Arab values. Furthermore, as all three Arab states are U.S. allies, critics, especially Islamist members of the Jordanian parliament, have charged that the Bush administration is pulling the strings.

Not true, said Jordanian Minister of Education Khaled Tuqan when I visited him in his office in Amman last month. Tuqan is hardly a typical Arab bureaucrat. A 49-year-old nuclear physicist with a Ph.D. from MIT, Tuqan doesn’t have as much time as he’d like to continue his original research, but he recognizes how central education is to the future of his country. “Reform started in 1987,” explained Tuqan, who assumed his post in 2000. “There was another phase between 1996 and 2001, and this is our third major initiative. The idea of U.S. interference is unfounded.”

There are essentially two aspects to the reform controversy. The first has to do with the actual curriculum, based on four main concepts: human rights, peace culture, common values, and the study of literary texts. Given the political situation in the Arab world, the concern is that “peace culture” is an idea that would play into the hands of Israel and the United States by reinforcing, as one Islamist member of parliament put it, “surrender and defeat in the minds of students.” Clearly, both Israel and the United States have an interest in the Arab world promoting peace culture, but then so do Arab parents who don’t want textbooks explaining the necessity of jihad and virtues of martyrdom to their children. And indeed, some Jordanian MPs have agitated to include the concept of jihad in the new curriculum. (For an interesting debate on whether some Arab textbooks promote jihad and martyrdom, click here, here, and here.)

The second issue is more theoretical and just as thorny. For several years now, Jordan has been encouraging students to enter the information and computer technology field, so education, as Tuqan says, “has to promote skills that are relevant to ICT, like critical and analytical thinking.” What Tuqan calls “classical education” emphasized memorization, and while, as he says, “there should still be memorization, education has to move from rote learning to problem solving.”

In Western education, “memorization” usually denotes the accumulation of dates and facts. In the context of Arab education, it refers almost invariably to how the Quran is taught. Indeed, until Muhammad Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt, and his progeny started to overhaul the Egyptian school system throughout the 19th century, virtually all primary education for Muslim students in the Arab world consisted of nothing but memorizing the Quran. Exceptionally gifted students would then move on to a university like Al-Azhar in Cairo, where they would study “Islamic sciences,” such as jurisprudence, theology, and grammar.

At the end of the 19th century, Muhammad Abdu was named rector of Al-Azhar. There Abdu, one of the leaders of the Muslim reform movement and already recognized as one of the great figures in Arab intellectual history, established a supplementary course of “modern sciences” that included history, physical science, and literature. One of Abdu’s protégés was a blind Egyptian sheikh named Taha Hussein, who had memorized the Quran by the time he was 9.

Hussein eventually left Al Azhar, disenchanted with the stifling educational atmosphere, and enrolled in Egypt’s first public, secular college, today called Cairo University. In addition to writing novels and a three-volume autobiography, The Days, considered his masterpiece, the onetime minister of education also wrote The Future of Culture in Egypt, published in 1938, where he recommended, with some qualifications, that Egypt reform its educational system in line with Western models. He promoted the acquisition of foreign languages, including Latin and Greek, and, above all, the study of literature. He said, “Literature is perhaps the most important element of general education because it disciplines the mind, stirs the heart, and refines the taste, whereas other subjects only affect the mind.”

In other words, without the critical judgment that comes from studying literature, analytical thinking is merely technical. Medicine, pharmacy, law, and engineering all require problem-solving skills, but these professions have fed the membership of all the Arab world’s Islamist groups, from moderates to extremists like Osama Bin Laden lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri. No one has a problem, then, if critical thinking in the curriculum just means better jobs in the computer industry. The question is what relationship critical thinking will have to the Quran. The Islamists fear change, while other Arabs welcome it.

“If you set your mind to memorizing the Quran, of course you’ll eventually memorize it,” says Jihad Fakhreddine, a researcher in the United Arab Emirates. “But what do you get out of learning it by heart? The question should be: Am I thinking?”

Where Taha Hussein thought literature was the answer, Fakhreddine contends that the Arab curriculum needs more hard sciences. Tuqan, himself a scientist, would likely agree, even though literary texts are a major component of Jordan’s proposed course of study. At any rate, Tuqan has one of the most important jobs in the Arab world.

“Even the United States and Japan have to reform their educational systems to keep up,” says Tuqan, “but it’s more dire for us. Jordan needs to compensate for and catch up to the last 100 years.”

Or better yet, reap the profits that were sown within the last hundred years by reformers like Muhammad Abdu and Taha Hussein.