Save Jordan from a Curriculum That Promotes Division and Ignorance

The article was originally published in Al-Ghad. It is translated from the original Arabic and reprinted here with the author’s permission.

I write to appeal to His Majesty King Abdullah II to form an independent royal commission for the purpose of reviewing the current Jordanian school and university curriculum.

There is an urgent need to address the presence of exclusionary ideology and extremism in the current curriculum, which endangers the fabric of Jordanian society and fosters dangerous ways of thought among our young people. Many of the concepts embedded in the current system and taught in Jordanian schools today go against the core values of our society, which include a commitment to pluralism, diversity, and openness, despite the troubling increase in extremism and radicalism that has emerged through the rise of ISIS and similar groups. Now more than ever, we need to guard against these elements, which our own curriculum is perversely currently encouraging.

We need a special commission on education because the Jordanian government has thus far failed to act deliberately to address the curriculum issue, despite numerous statements stating its intention to do so. Promises to review the curriculum have thus far failed to result in substantial reform.

To cite a few examples of the problem, Jordan’s new civics curriculum for fourth-grade students does not teach the concept of equal citizenship that is constitutionally guaranteed in this country regardless of religion, race, or color.  Elsewhere, the curriculum emphasizes inherent conflicts between religious groups. A textbook passage reads: “The people in my country are Muslims, and in it, Muslims and Christians live together and love each other.” The religious-education curriculum for the tenth grade contains charges of violent tendencies among Christians, suggesting that they are violent because they do not perform the rituals of Islam. The curriculum is also full of selective notions from the Sunni Muslim point of view that are unsuitable for children, such as apostates, Jihad, justifications for violence, seizing others’ money, and forcing people to perform prayers.  Disciplines such as literature, philosophy, and the arts, and the practice of critical thinking, are sorely neglected or entirely absent in Jordan’s curriculum.  The focus is on narrow-minded, traditional approaches, such as concerning the role of women, without any engagement with the foundations of contemporary society.

To be effective, the commission must include the voices of academics, curriculum development specialists, current and former government officials, leaders of Jordan’s various religious groups, teachers and headmasters both public and private schools, and artists who reflect Jordan’s religious, ethnic, and political diversity. The commission should take care to have equitable gender representation.  It should survey the curriculum as a whole, particularly Arabic-language courses, as well as history, civics, and religious education from first grade and through the end of high school.  Such an in-depth examination will reveal the enormous amount of misleading and dangerous information and ideas that currently exist in Jordan’s curriculum, through which 1.8 million students, 451,000 of them enrolled in private schools, are getting an education.

After the disease is diagnosed, the commission can map out a treatment plan. The curriculum must be updated with a stronger foundation for Jordan’s future that reflects the framework set by King Abdullah II in a series of proposals two years ago. Review and development of an improved curriculum cannot be left to the government. A more inclusive and collaborative process that includes all relevant stakeholders in society is necessary.  Left on its own, the government will continue to procrastinate and point fingers. Due to its traditional and conservative bureaucracy, which has for over half a century been heavily influenced by political and ideological affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Ministry of Education is unable to be objective about curriculum reform. This generation of ministry leadership has used Jordan’s education system to advance their political interests, emphasizing a culture of retrenchment, closed-mindedness, and exclusion. Meanwhile, more moderate leaders in society who are concerned about the current curriculum have been unable to make their voices heard.

Unfortunately, the current education system reaps what it sows. Public opinion polls and debates in online forums reflect the rise of backward, isolationist, and increasingly violent ways of thinking in Jordanian society. Education both reflects and shapes society, and thus educational reform deserves the attention of a royal committee, in the same way that matters of national interest related to the constitution or the economy do.

A royal commission on education reform in which all stakeholders are represented would be uniquely capable of addressing a larger issue affecting Jordan when it comes to education: the increasing outcomes gap between public and private education.  Private schools offer a curriculum that is based on instruction in English and a Western approach, emphasizing openness, critical thinking, and creativity – qualities that the public system sorely needs more of. On the other hand, students who attend private schools receive little exposure to their own cultural heritage, national identity, and language. Private-school graduates are likely to get better employment opportunities in professional positions, while public-school students can expect more difficulty finding work and more modest employment options. As this generation comes of age, this dichotomy creates significant cultural rifts – a growing animosity and mistrust between the haves and have-nots. A royal commission can tackle this problem by working to establish a spectrum of Western-style and Arab educational opportunities and experiences and ensuring a more coherent, integrated education for all Jordanian students based on common values.

Let us remember that modern Jordan was built on concepts established by our ancestors and founding fathers, who were Muslims and Christians; from the Jordanian tribes and the peasants from the countryside; as well as Palestinians, Chechens, Circassians, Armenians, Levantines (from Syria and Lebanon), Hijazians, Egyptians, and Iraqis who took refuge in the kingdom to escape the violence and oppression taking place in their homelands. Our strength lies in our traditions of pluralism, mutual respect, and freedom of religion and expression.  We need to modernize our education system and harness it to advance these values, before it’s too late.

* Rana Sabbagh is founder and executive director of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).


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