Reform in Arab Countries – The Role of Education By Farouk El-Baz

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Reform in Arab Countries – The Role of Education

- By Farouk El-Baz

Dr. Farouk El-Baz, member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, is Director of the Boston University Center for Remote Sensing and a veteran of the golden age of the Apollo space program. Besides a spacecraft on Star Trek named after him, award-winning El-Baz also served as Science Advisor to Anwar Sadat, late President of Egypt. After decades of training top-notch astronauts, El-Baz explains in this eloquent essay the critical need for educational reform in Arab countries.

Historical Backdrop

The first and most venerated word in the Koran is “read;” learning is believed to make a person more faithful to God, and more useful to humanity. In Islam, acquiring knowledge is equated with seeking the truth. As the great Arab philosopher Abu Yusef Al-Kindi (805-873) said: "We should not shy away from welcoming and acquiring the truth regardless of where it comes from, even if it comes from distant races and nations that are different from us. Nothing is more important than seeking the truth except the truth itself."

During the last few decades, the spirit of such philosophy was lost and the region was intellectually blocked from the rest of the world. Today, polls throughout the Arab region indicate that people are dismayed by the resulting shortcomings in their societies. Although not universally acknowledged, underlying these shortcomings are weaknesses in the educational system, its approaches, materials and institutions. This is true at all levels of the education systems.

Emphasis in pre-university education on rote learning has stifled independent thinking. In some cases, instituting free university education to all has ballooned class sizes to untenable numbers. More importantly, top-down government control has ruled out innovation by teachers and students. Decades of neglect, inaction and the preservation of the status quo have produced aimless youth to join a largely muted, passive and ineffective workforce.

Thus, Arab countries missed the industrial age and continued to import most needed machinery and products from others. Similarly, they missed the nuclear age and did not contribute to unlocking the secrets of the atom or the peaceful uses of radiation. The space age also passed with little notice in the Arab region. It behaved as a spectator of a sport who does not know the rules of the game. Arab leaders believed that expenditure in scientific research was a luxury that only rich countries could afford.

Egypt used to play a leading role in the Arab region. During the past century, it set the cultural trends and provided administrators, teachers, advisors and aid to others. However, a humiliating military defeat in 1967 derailed its self-confidence and eroded its influence. As Egypt slumbered in self-pity, the rest of the Arab world followed suit and stagnated. Thus, a revival of its preeminence would have positive effects in the whole region. Egypt’s newly-named cabinet is led by an information technology expert. The success of this cabinet’s forward-looking reform mandate could inspire similar efforts elsewhere in the Arab world.


Need for Reform

Today, we live in the information age and Arab countries could be left behind once again if they do not modernize their education system. The so-called “digital divide” is both a reflection of the science and technology gap and a cause of its continued existence. This has to be taken into account in education reform both to catch up with the developed world, and to ensure technological development in every field.

Improving education, emphasizing the acquisition, increase and dissemination of knowledge, and empowering innovative thinkers are keys to economic growth. Asian countries such as China, India, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea provide successful cases by emphasizing education in their initial development plans to assure economic growth.

South Korea represents a particularly illuminating case. For a whole decade, it gave the highest priority to education in the national budget regardless of the needs of other sectors. This allowed the preparation of a knowledgeable and well-trained workforce whose products are now recognized worldwide. The trend continues to this day with lightening speed in the field of information technology; the proportion of Internet users in the population is greater in South Korea than in the U.S. In contrast, although Arabs constitute 5% of the world population, Internet users make up only 1.1% of the global usage.

Calls for reform abound from both within and outside the Arab region. Invariably, emphasis is placed on instituting freedom through political democracy, privatization of the economy, and empowering women.

These goals cannot flourish in the presence of a knowledge deficit. As former U.S. President John Adams said: “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” An educated populace is necessary to initiate and update the proposed reforms. Personal freedoms through democracy must be accompanied by upholding the individual’s responsibility toward society; a growing economy requires a knowledgeable and continually updated workforce; and gender equality can only take root in a well-informed society. The analytical prowess that is imparted by education is necessary to spread and sustain the needed reforms.


Role of Education

Although the Arab region is considered oil-rich and wealthy, all indications point to its knowledge deficit. This fact is clearly conveyed in the “Arab Human Development Report: Building a Knowledge Society” that was issued in 2003 by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). It pointed out that the Arab region trails behind all other regions in knowledge indicators, except sub-Saharan Africa. These indicators included the number of books, newspapers, radio stations, television channels, telephone lines, personal computers and Internet access.

A few small Arab countries have recently reversed this trend. For example, in the United Arab Emirates, nearly 30% of its nationals use personal computers, a number more than ten times those in Egypt. Also, the Emirate of Dubai has evolved its government transactions to electronic media. Furthermore, Dubai has established an electronic marketplace where all government agencies procure their needs in a totally transparent manner, with all of the benefits of vendor competition. This has allowed the eradication of inflated prices and agent fees in addition to hampering corruption. These examples prove that it is possible to benefit from advanced technology while preserving the local culture.

In general, Arab countries show exceptionally inadequate performance in knowledge acquisition and generation. In terms of knowledge acquisition, one indicator is the efficiency of literature translation. As indicated in the UNDP Report, the number of books translated in twenty-two Arab countries during the early 1980s is equal to one-fifth of those translated into Greek. Knowledge generation does not fare any better. Although Arabs constitute 5% of the world population, they produce only 0.8% of the literary and artistic literature.

The situation is particularly acute in science and technology. Arab countries spend less than 0.2% of their national budgets on science and technology research and development. This is more than ten times less than the amount that developed countries spend. The results become clear if we consider the publication of scientific research papers and/or patent registration. Results of research conducted in Arab countries are rarely published in international professional journals. The number of patents produced by Arabs is meager; during the past two decades, South Korea registered in the U.S. over 44 times the number of patents from all Arab countries combined.

Reform of education can play a central role in economic development. Education is critical to a nation’s growth because it develops the minds of the young to be useful citizens. It must include teaching the young how to think for themselves and to have confidence in their knowledge. This requires highly respected and motivated teachers who are well versed in communicating with their students. Teachers must be kept abreast of new teaching methodologies, scientific breakthroughs and literary masterpieces. They must also be motivated by awards and recognized for excellence. Thus, teacher preparation and continued training become integral parts of the necessary reforms.


Road Ahead

It is never too late to remedy a problem, particularly when it relates to the future of a nation. A factory that goes out of step with the times is retooled. In the same manner, the objectives and mission of education in the Arab world need to be updated. The problem needs to be remedied starting at the very beginning.

Pre-school education, at homes and kindergartens, can set the pattern. A child’s perception of learning and the development of its personality begin at a very young age. Inquisitiveness and analytical thinking can all be implanted in the minds of young children through dialogue. More importantly, valuing knowledge and respecting its sources affect children from an early age. I can personally attest to that: my earliest recollection from childhood was about the way my father reached for a book in his bookshelf, carried it with great care, and opened its pages with tenderness and respect.

In some countries like Egypt, the information is crammed in the young minds with no time allocated for discussion or reasoning, which forces emphasis on rote learning. There are things that must be memorized, such as multiplication tables, grammar rules, or poems. But, students should learn to discuss possible interpretations and the benefit of debate. There must be a balance between expecting obedience and encouraging innovation. Teachers should seek the participation of students in free and critical thinking, which in itself increases their interest in, and enjoyment of, the time they spend at school.

University education requires much reform as well. At higher education institutions, students should be taught how to acquire dynamic and renewable knowledge. Their minds must be challenged to achieve new heights and their energies directed to useful pathways. To do so, educators must be allowed a measure of autonomy. At the same time, they require systems of regular evaluation and monitoring and continued training. Other essential changes include upgrading the libraries and improving the information technology hardware and software to benefit from the vast resources that are now available on electronic media.


International Assistance

Reform of education is a long-term process that requires focused objectives, perseverance in their implementation, and the application of the knowledge gained from the experiences of others. Much like successful economic development, reform should incorporate successful practices. There is no shame in this whatsoever; to improve its business management styles, the U.S. imported practices from Japan.

Several Arab countries have experimented with different types and styles of educational institutions. These experiences must be shared and reviewed in an open-minded way to adopt the best for a particular local setting. It is important to note that although Arabs constitute only about 20% of all Muslims, they set the trend and wield a great deal of influence. Modernizing Arab education would reverberate throughout the rest of the Islamic world.

In so doing we must study cases of education reform in developing countries that have reshaped their workforce in record time. These cases include countries of varied sizes, such as Korea and India, or varied political systems, such as China and Costa Rica. They also encompass largely Islamic countries with varied cultural characteristics, such as Malaysia and Turkey. The objective is not to mimic any one of the cases, but to learn how to implement reforms in the most efficient way.

In terms of the emphasis on education topics and paths, the experience of the West must be taken into consideration. Relatively small countries like Ireland and Finland have made vast advances by educating their workforce in modern science and technology. This has elevated them to leadership positions in innovation and production, raising their per capita income. Today, Finland exports products whose monetary value is equal to the exports, apart from oil and gas, of all twenty-two Arab countries.

Western countries should be willing and eager to help the Arab region become knowledgeable and partake of the modern world. This helps to ease the pressure of migration of vast numbers of youth from the region to Europe. It also ameliorates the potential for the growth of radicalism, which threatens the whole world. It further allows the West to benefit from Arab minds in the global renaissance of knowledge, which knows no borders. A leading role in this must be played by the United States.

U.S. education enjoys much respect in the Arab world thanks to the reputation of motivated Americans who elected to live in Arab countries as educators. In addition, the U.S. is held in esteem as the world leader in science and technology since the time of the first Apollo lunar landing mission of thirty-five years ago.

American educational institutions are universally popular through two tangible and visible ways: First, the presence of the American University campuses in Cairo, Beirut, Sharjah, etc. Second, it is commonly perceived that the vast majority of the most prominent local educators, government officials, intellectuals and successful businessmen and women are the products of American education.

To capitalize on these perceptions, the State of Qatar has recently decided to spend much of the country’s wealth from oil and gas on education and health. Starting in 1996 the Qatar Academy was established, followed by the Academic Bridge Program to prepare graduates of local and regional high schools for high caliber university education. Qatar then invited several U.S. universities to establish schools there, including Cornell, Virginia Commonwealth, Texas A&M, and Carnegie-Melon. The trend of benefiting from U.S. education continues by reforming the government run Qatar University. It serves as a reminder that U.S. educational institutions can venture into the Arab region without fear of loss of funds or of compromising admission criteria or the quality of the offered curricula.


Closing Remarks

The reform of education in the Arab region will assure its political stability, economic growth and cultural elevation. There are two pre-requisites for this: First, the intellectual courage to admit that the present systems do not develop the young minds that are capable of performing the necessary tasks. Second, the political will to institute the required changes. For these reasons there must be a sustained partnership between the governments, private sector and civil society. Educators, intellectuals and the media can work together to assure such a partnership.

One sociological aspect that plays an important role in this endeavor is the way that the society as a whole views the importance of learning and knowledge. Human civilizations were all built on knowledge and facilitating its use. In the Arab region today, the accumulation of wealth is given a higher priority and degree of respect than the accumulation of knowledge. This situation has to be reversed and more recognition should be given to those whose knowledge benefits the local society and humanity at large.

A significant component of education reform, particularly at the university level, must include an emphasis on scientific research and higher budgets to support it. Most Arab governments feel the burden of more pressing issues, such as the provision of food and housing. Expenditure on scientific research is downgraded to the bottom of the priority list. Furthermore, funding of research and development by the private sector is nearly negligible. The opposite condition prevails in developed countries, where the private sector allocates vast sums to this endeavor. For example, in the U.S., the private sector spends twice as much as the government does for research and development. Expenditure in this sector is not a luxury; it assures the sustained innovation that enhances the growth of any economy and its continued leadership on the world stage.

There is nothing in the Arab personality that hinders growth and achievement. On the contrary, Arab/Islamic civilization lasted for eight centuries on the shoulders of scholars and innovators in every field.

Leaders of the Arab/Muslim civilization opened their borders, their hearts and their minds to every contributor. This allowed them to preserve the findings of those who came before them. They established schools at all levels. They also supported highly advanced research centers to significantly add to the store of knowledge in every scientific and literary field.

Scholars were valued for their contributions, regardless of race, religion or national origin. Among the most significant contributors were Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars from many lands. Those who believe in a long-held animosity between Muslims and Jews should reconsider that opinion based on the facts of history. For example, Maimonides (Musa bin Maimon, 1135-1204), was the greatest Jewish philosopher, whose name was aptly commemorated on the moon. He was born in Cordoba, supported by its Caliphs, and wrote many of his scholarly masterpieces in Arabic. He later was ceremoniously greeted in Cairo to serve, until his death, as the chief physician in the court of Saladin.

More than anything else, it was the quest for, the preservation of, and the increase and dissemination of knowledge that distinguished those who established and sustained Arab/Muslim civilization. To them, knowledge was to be treasured no matter where it originated, and it was considered the right of all human beings. It is imperative for us all to learn these significant lessons in order to pave the way for the new generation of Arabs to reach the dream of a better future and to contribute to modern civilization.

Source: Strategic Foresight group (


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