Conversation With an Advocate of “Education for Citizenship”

Muhammad Faour, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, has made many contributions toward understanding what kind of education can prepare Arab young people for participating productively in democracies. He has also worked as a sociologist, professor, and administrator at both the school and university level.  He has been a research fellow at York University in Canada, president of Dhofar University, in Oman, and deputy vice president for external programs at the American University of Beirut.

In May 2013, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published Faour’s A Review of Citizenship Education in Arab Nations, a detailed survey of practices in eleven Arab countries. The report took note of the urgent need to prepare Arab youth to become “contributing members of open and pluralistic systems.” But it found that education reform and even citizenship education itself were often divorced from political realities. The democracy mentioned in government-sanctioned textbooks was often neither practiced by the governments nor evident in the authoritarian climate of schools. The human rights mentioned in civics classes could be contradicted in practice and principle in other classes.  Too much of citizenship education was lecturing about official views, instead of giving students a chance to practice or discuss being citizens. Al Fanar interviewed Faour by Skype about his past, current, and future work.

What drew you to education research in the Arab region?

My background is in sociology so I’m interested broadly in areas of social science and people’s behavior. What drew me specifically towards education was my practical experience. I didn’t have much time back then to work on research but was more focused on administration. But when I took a step and got an opportunity with Carnegie, I was interested in it as a new project that fit into my earlier work, namely conflict analysis and resolution and youth’s attitudes. I believe that schools and universities are important agents of change and if we can influence what’s going on there we can have an impact on society in general, especially related to what’s going on now.

What should have more emphasis in citizenship education: producing politically active citizens or citizens who are able to co-exist and tolerate one another?

We believe in education for citizenship rather than education on citizenship. And by that we are conveying our belief in a comprehensive approach to this topic, which is not only confined to knowledge or skills about their rights and/or duties, which is important but not sufficient. Our model follows an approach where students learn citizenship skills through practice by participating in elections or being present in student committees. We want knowledge, skills and also changing attitudes of students; something that cannot be achieved through a course that students enroll in. We need a change in the entire school system and we can also apply that to universities as well. Teachers of various subjects should be trained to prepare students for these skills. The ethos of the school is what we’d like to change so that schools would adopt these ideals so that, for example, we can have an open classroom discussion where students express their ideas freely without fear of upsetting the teacher.

Now that you have written the report and had time to reflect on it, what do you think were your most important recommendations?

The real objective of our work is to try to translate our findings to recommendations that policy makers can use to change the system. Our work is not strictly academic. We try to focus on what we can make use of in research to influence policy in the countries we work in. I would say that stakeholders’ engagement is a key recommendation to promoting citizenship education. In a nutshell, we would like to facilitate the discussions and efforts between various stakeholders, in the countries we’re working on, so that we can come up with new initiatives for citizenship for education. We started that through establishing national networks [of stakeholders in education] that started in Egypt,  and we’re looking to expand next year.

What broader changes will need to take place in Arab countries for schools and universities to be able to effectively educate students about citizenship?

There are some specific changes that should take place. For example, the experts we have met with, so far, have indicated that teachers do not believe in citizenship education. I believe that teachers are key to successful citizenship for education. In the Arab world we have a shortage of teachers and more of a shortage of qualified teachers.

Apart from the specific changes of teachers’ quality, stakeholder engagement and school climate, I believe that there are broader changes that could also help us create more effective educational institutions in terms of education for citizenship. Primarily, a political context that is defined by democracy would certainly be of great help and we’re hoping that the recent Arab uprisings would lead to that climate. Second, governments are also key players in this process. Our research focused on public schools that are heavily influenced by governmental decisions. In the past, there has not been much interest in the topic and when there was, citizenship was conveyed as loyalty to the regime, obedience to authority and that’s not the approach we are advocating. Additionally, a social context that is more conducive to democracy even on the family and household level would boost the process of effectively educating our students about citizenship. The role of the media, and I don’t just mean television but also social media and other types, cannot be overlooked. Influential media figures can help support and promote the concept of citizenship education. A similar role can also be performed by religious and political organizations.

What are you working on now and what would you like to work on in the future?

The education project I am working on now has two phases. Phase one is an inventory mapping exercise of the existing body of knowledge about education in the region. We want to know what education reform programs were implemented and how successful they were and how important citizenship education was within these education-reform programs.

In the second phase, we attempt to fill the gaps found in our knowledge about these programs that result from our findings in phase one and come up with new initiatives that could be implemented in one or more countries. We still don’t know much about certain aspects of school reform that is important for citizenship education, like attitudes and values of students towards issues of citizenship especially after the Arab Spring.

How would you like to take your ideas forward?

We’d like to disseminate the findings we have so far through holding more conferences and workshops to tell various stakeholders in different countries what our findings were. We’d also like to help establish research committees and national networks in as many countries we can as possible so that people would subscribe to the importance of citizenship education and consequently, develop their own understanding of it. We would not like to have a set of ideas that we’re selling—we are mainly offering a set of general ideas to get conversations started on the topic and tweak it according to each country’s socio-political context.

Your research focused on schools, but what role do you think universities should have in citizenship education?

I believe schools are more important as socializing agents for youth but still, universities can also have a vital role to play in building active citizens. Universities could include something about citizenship education in their mission statements. They could also have a course on citizenship that would be part of the general required courses of all students. Additionally, they could create a climate of citizenship through extra curricular activities like participation in student committees or having students engage in decision-making on important matters that are related to curriculum or students, as examples.

What worries you most in the political developments of the past year, when it comes to the future of citizenship education?

Education has not been a priority in the agenda of the people in power after the Arab Spring. This could be understandable when you have revolutions or popular uprisings where political transformation, followed by economic change, would be the major priorities for these countries especially when the economic factor was behind the popular uprisings. However, this worries me because this means that they might not understand the vital impact of education. If they want to ensure political transformation and economic growth, they definitely need human resources that are there to address the new tasks and challenges. We believe that citizenship education, as part of 21st century skills, would do just that.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. Readers may be interested in a related article on “Critical Citizenship for Critical Times.” 

One Comment

  1. Thanks, Joyce, for conducting that important interview… The report was done at a critical time, and I hope the work on the ground that results from it makes a difference at a tme we truly need it.

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