What Is Education For?

According to the Hadith, the Prophet urges us to “Seek knowledge even in China.” In modern times, when Tony Blair led the British Labour Party in 1997 to victory on a motto of “Education, education, education” he was only reiterating something the ancients had already known: Education is important.  In politics, education is the one priority everyone agrees on.  And of course it is a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Ask what education is for, though, and the warm bath of consensus soon evaporates. The Greek philosopher Plato said that the aim of education is to teach our children to desire the right things—a mix, like a lot of Plato’s ideas, of ethics and esthetics.  He didn’t neglect the practical, though, believing that those destined by birth to wield power in his ideal Republic should learn “enough to fight a war and run a house and administer a state.”  His own student Aristotle took a more skeptical line, writing that “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Arab societies have also placed a high value on education, beginning with the Prophet himself, who held that “the ink of the learned would be weighed against the blood of the martyrs.” The medieval Persian philosopher, Al Ghazali, had an idea of education as self-realization that would not be out of place on a modern campus: “Knowledge,” he wrote, exists “in the soul like a seed in the soil.” The Andalusian scholar Ibn Abd al-Barr, known as Al-Namari, writing during the same epoch, argued that education was needed to encourage religion, awaken the intelligence, furnish a companion during periods of solitude and enable social contacts. In a reflection of contemporary concerns, he also said education is important because it “brings money.”

Compare his language with the mission statement of Harvard College, perhaps the most celebrated university in the world, which pledged that the institution “strives to create knowledge, to open the minds of students to that knowledge, and to enable students to take best advantage of their educational opportunities.” But, of course, whatever else it accomplishes, a Harvard degree also “brings money.”

It might seem that such elite concerns have no connection to the experience of students at overcrowded public universities in the Arab world. It  also might seem irrelevant to their parents who worry about whether, in today’s uncertain economic climate, the time required to obtain a university education will simply leave their children further behind in the search for employment.

If the aim of a university education is to acquire knowledge—of facts, the world or a set of practices—then why not make that ability available to as many people as possible? Why not strip out the expense of professors who teach in small classrooms and the costly bricks and mortar of buildings? That is the thinking behind the recent growth in on-line education, especially Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. When 120,000 students signed up for the introductory course in computer science offered by the California-based company Udacity in 2011, it made headlines around the world.

Although MOOCs began in North America and in English, the Arab world was quick to respond.  Edraak, a partnership between the edX consortium, led by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Amman-based Queen Rania Foundation, is a new Arabic-language portal that will begin by offering Arabic translations of edX courses but hopes to eventually offer original content.

At this point many education policymakers have become weary of the discussion about MOOCs, but the courses have raised the important question of whether students actually need a degree or just a set of courses to broaden their minds and achieve their practical goals.

After all, if the knowledge acquired by taking a MOOC is really the same as a student would get at Harvard, MIT or the American University of Beirut, why travel to Boston or Beirut to pay thousands of dollars a year in tuition?  Why send your son or daughter to study overseas, far from home and family, if the same knowledge can be acquired online?

Some would argue that face-to-face interaction with professors is an indispensable part of higher education and that being able to test ideas in person against the well-stocked, finely honed minds of eminent faculty and other students helps make a good education worthwhile.  But as generations of undergraduates at the world’s leading universities have learned, at least some top professors regard undergraduate teaching as an unpleasant duty or a task best to be avoided. And in some large lectures, a professor once observed, “anything after the third row is distance learning.”

At the same time the increasing demand for education to match the reality of the job market raises a whole new set of questions about the education’s goals. Increasingly, universities are trying to check how many graduates are in paid work within six months or a year of graduation. But they aren’t always able to determine how many of the jobs graduates have come with decent salaries and opportunities for advancement.

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), what does “the reality of the job market” mean in countries where many students will be employed by governments—or struggle to find any job at all?

According to data compiled by the World Bank, an inadequately educated workforce is a significant constraint on economic growth across the Arab World. Given that the MENA region has the highest rate of youth unemployment in the world, this failure to match the workforce and the job market is a serious problem. Simply encouraging more young people into higher education may not be the answer. In Tunisia, for example, the unemployment rate for university graduates (40 per cent) is even higher than for non-university-graduates (24 per cent).

A Tunisian education minister has called for “education for self employment.”  His call echoes the theme across the region of teaching entrepreneurship, with the idea that graduates will start new companies that will employ themselves and others. That theme suggests that one of the purposes of education is to actually create jobs, not just to match graduates with existing jobs. Some students may well argue back that job creation should be the goal of government policies, not of fresh university graduates.

Finally, if learning isn’t just about the acquisition of facts, certificates or even employability or entrepreneurship, what else is it for? Can people be taught to be good citizens? Some scholars have argued that a key part of what is missing in Arab education is “education for citizenship,” in which students are taught to debate, to collaborate, to contribute to their communities and even to challenge government and religious authority.

Can people be taught to be happy? A small south Asian country, Bhutan, has suggested that the success of a society should be measured by “gross national happiness,” not just by economic output. Presumably, education could contribute to helping students find their way to happiness.

In a homogenous societies, where everyone belongs to the same culture and has similar religious and moral values it might make sense to try to teach students to “want the right things.”  But most of us live in diverse societies, where there is little shared agreement on what those things might be. Can education teach us to manage those differences?

Clearly, the question “What is education for” lights up a series of other questions, like torches hanging on the walls of a long hall.  In the walk down that hall, we are all students, with the answers different for each person.

Resources related to this article:

The World Bank’s Arab World Education Indicators has country-by-country data such as the proportion of children who complete primary school.

In an essay on Education for Citizenship in the Arab World: Key to the Future,” two scholars review the literature on citizenship education, the track record of Arab education thus far and the need to teach citizenship skills and concepts.

In a Conversation With an Advocate of “Education for Citizenship, Al-Fanar Media interviewed Muhammad Faour, one of the authors of the previous report, who surveyed how 11 Arab countries teach citizenship. He found that what is taught in the classroom is often divorced from political realities.

The Egyptian political crisis in 2013 spurred a scholar to reflect on how universities could go beyond teaching critical thinking and toward promoting critical citizenship in “Critical Citizenship for Critical Times.”

On the topic of MOOCS, other partnerships connecting the Arab world to online education include Taghreedat, an Arabic crowd-sourcing initiative, and Coursera, and an effort joining the Irish-based company ALISON, which describes itself as world’s leading provider of free online courses and Silatech, a Qatar-based NGO focusing on youth and employment.

 * This article was supported by the U.N. Democracy Fund and was prepared in preparation for a series of workshops to encourage Arab journalists to write about education.

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