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How education in the Arab world is failing our people

Most studies agree that education systems here do not prepare students for the real world

Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi

Published: Updated:

How and when did civilized countries in this region, once the shining light of the world with their scientists and groundbreaking inventions, morph into this tragedy of failed and fragmented states?

Why is the rest of the world moving forward and we are going backwards? What we hoped would be a flourishing Arab Spring has turned into seasons of discontent and violence.

The Economist magazine recently put forward the argument that the core of the problem is the way Arabs interpret Islam. Many Arabs, the magazine contends, perceive their faith as the sum total of the authority vested in religious and spiritual bodies, and eschew independent political institutions.

Many families were surprised that their seemingly educated sons went to fight in Syria and Iraq in the name of Jihad

Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi

Religious extremism, it argues, is a symptom of people’s frustration and not a goal in itself. And democracy does not contradict Islamic tenets as can be seen in Indonesia.

The role of education

However, this analysis fails to consider the role of education in the Arab world. High illiteracy rates combined with undeveloped curricula have resulted in generations of poorly trained students who are susceptible to radicalism. The emphasis on memorization has undermined the development of independent personalities and the analytical ability of students.

Most studies agree that education systems here do not prepare students for the real world. Young people should not only learn how to live in a world where technology, in the form of social media and other developments, is having such a profound influence, but also to positively navigate their society and culture.

Some claim a lack of education funding is to blame, but the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reveals that there is a great deal of wasteful spending in this sector. UNESCO adds that good quality education for everyone would create economic benefits equaling about 23 percent of a country’s Gross Domestic Product.

Academic standards have dropped because quality education has been traded off to the building of increasing numbers of schools and universities. This has seen many graduates unable to find jobs in the highly competitive private sector, a potentially serious burden for the state. This has created ideal conditions for the festering of sectarian, ethnic and regional prejudices.

Jihad

Many families, for example, were surprised that their seemingly educated sons went to fight in Syria and Iraq in the name of Jihad. These young men are victims of an education system that produces a culture of followers. A man’s worst enemy, in some cases, can be himself.

Educational institutions should focus on the development of independent thinkers, open-mindedness, and exposure to multiple cultures and societies. The key to advanced education begins with dialogue and a culture of reasoning and questioning. This can be a bulwark against extremism.

The challenge lies in developing people who respect diversity and appreciate analysis and logic. Once this foundation is established, it paves the way for a commitment to professionalism and continuous development. It is unfair to criticize our sons and say they’re not innovative when it is the system that has failed them. Intelligence alone does not create a well-rounded student.

Now we are reaping what we sow. It would be naive to blame our mistakes on conspiracy theories and colonialism. Surat al-Ra’d in the Qur’an provides the correct advice: “God does not change the condition of a people until they change what’s in themselves.” This is what we need to build a bright future; the alternative is darkness and misery.

This article was first published in Arab News on July 16, 2014.

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Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi is the editor-in-chief of Sayidaty and al-Jamila magazines. A prominent journalist who worked with Asharq al-Awsat in London and Arab News in KSA, al-Harthi later moved on to establish al-Eqtisadiah newspaper in KSA, in which he rose the position of Editorial Manager. He was appointed editor-in-chief for Arajol magazine in 1997. He won the Gulf Excellence award in 1992.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.