Perhaps the most important aspect of Bourguiba’s education agenda was the emphasis on secularism in the Tunisian curriculum. The goal of limiting the influence of Islamist ideology through an enlightened education was explicit. In the words of Mahmoud Messaadi, the former education minister: “Nobody who has ever read Voltaire can become an Islamist.”
Elementary school students received one to two hours per week of instruction in the study of Islam and the Qur’an. Religion courses explicitly focused on the history of Islamic thought and were sometimes even taught in French. Emphasis was given to discussing subjects within their historical and sociological contexts, and students were encouraged to form their own opinions.
This stands in stark difference to religious education elsewhere in the region. In other Arab countries, the Qur’an was the primary teaching resource for the Arabic language. As a result, religious ideology permeated all subjects, including those that would otherwise be modern and secular, thereby further promoting discipline, control, and acceptance of absolute truths. Rigid pedagogy, based in traditional Islamic education at Qur’anic schools, emphasized passive learning through rote memorization. Debate and criticism of those in power was discouraged.
Further, while other countries in the region sought to “Arabize” their curricula, Bourguiba maintained bilingualism in education to “Tunisify” his teaching force. His incentive to do so stemmed largely from a practical matter: Arabization would have required the replacement of French textbooks with suitable Arabic texts and of French teachers with qualified Tunisians, neither of which could be found immediately. Bilingual education also ensured that students were exposed to Western thought and thus better prepared to engage with the outside world.
Bourguiba’s education system also stressed liberal arts, a culture of debate, and philosophy, subjects which are absent from curricula elsewhere in the Arab world. During the final year of secondary school, Tunisian students learned from a three-volume collection of philosophical essays in French that induced them to think about issues of religion, cultural relativism and intercultural encounter and dialogue. The elementary school curriculum consisted of Arabic, French, mathematics, history, geography, civics, drawing, singing and physical education.
By contrast, in Jordan, despite a 1994 education law reform that explicitly articulated an educational objective to give students a taste of aesthetics and different aspects of life in the arts, this topic comprises only 1 percent of the curriculum. Arts, especially theatre and music, are often banned in schools that consider them haram, or forbidden, in Islam, ostensibly leading those who consume them to be “incited by lust and pleasures.” Indeed, elsewhere in the Arab world, education systems have evolved—or, rather, devolved—through decades of deliberate attempts to suppress the Arab mind, resulting in generations of poorly educated, narrow-minded, intolerant individuals ill-equipped for participation in a globalized world. When education is used primarily as a tool to solidify nationalist loyalty and political legitimacy where there was none, it is unsurprising that hyper-nationalist propaganda, exclusionary rhetoric and dogmatic religious discourse are now the defining features of contemporary Arab education systems.
Groundwork for Democracy
Unfortunately, during his years in power, Bourguiba’s successor, Ben Ali, not only shortchanged his nation’s blue-collar workforce, but an emergent professional class as well. In a vainglorious attempt to cement Tunisia’s academic standing in the region, his universities simultaneously lowered academic standards and inflated graduates’ credentials, thus flooding the employment market with candidates for jobs that didn’t—and still don’t—exist. The result: Tunisian college graduates today have a harder time finding a job than those without a degree. Currently, only one in four degree-holders can secure work. Too many of Tunisia’s brightest young people have emigrated in search of better prospects elsewhere.
But while Ben Ali may have undermined much of what his predecessor built, the core curricular underpinnings of the Tunisian education system remain progressive, modern, largely secular, and far better than average—by regional standards, at least.
The more than 20 percent of total government expenditure that Ben Ali continued to direct towards education still outpaced his Arab neighbors. And, perhaps unintentionally, it helped lay the groundwork for the Arab Spring that ultimately ousted him.
In an educational system that for decades provided for students a broad liberal arts education—which taught religious tolerance and philosophy and encouraged debate—it was a younger generation of emboldened anti-authoritarians who spurred the revolution. And it was an older, Bourguiba-educated elite that led the country during the transitional phase to democracy.
Safwan M. Masri is a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and executive vice president for global centers and global development at Columbia. He is the author of Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly (Columbia University Press, 2017), which examines why Tunisia was the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring as a democracy.