‘Elmi’ vs. ‘Adabi’: The Power of Labels in Jordan’s Tawjihi System

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

During a visit to Jordan last summer, I observed boisterous families in the streets, spraying foam in the air and beeping car horns as the pressures of sleepless nights and looming exam dates finally came to an end. They were celebrating the end of the Tawjihi year, the final year of high school that leads up to the Tawjihi exam, which measures high school success and determines who gets into a university and what they can study.

While on holiday, my family members and I gathered around to hear the results of the highest achieving students in the country.

My own high school experience was with the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) and British A-Levels curriculum, which I studied in Oman.

But knowing that most of my relatives in Jordan studied Tawjihi, I became very curious to know what their experiences were like. When I asked my uncle, who was the fifth-highest achieving student across Jordan back in his day, about his opinion on the system, he described it in one word: hectic.

Choosing One’s ‘Stream’

There are many differences between the Tawjihi system and the British curriculum that I studied. For instance, before entering their Tawjihi year, Jordanian students must decide which “stream” of the national high school curriculum to study, whether it be scientific, literary, technological, or managerial.

However, in contrast with the A-levels, in which students study up to four subjects for their final two years of high school, Tawjihi students study up to ten subjects, which could be very diverse in nature and totally unrelated to one other, such as economics, chemistry, physics and art.

Still, I wondered why Jordanians seem to make the Tawjihi seem like such a big deal. After all, isn’t it just high school? But when speaking to my relatives, I noticed that the importance placed on it had a lot to do with the labels that come with the various streams. In their eyes, a student who achieves a high percentage in the scientific stream is perceived as the golden child of the family.

A student who achieves a high percentage in the scientific stream is perceived as the golden child of the family.

This highlights a major issue that is well rooted into Jordanian society today, and that is the power of labels. I once discussed this issue with a colleague at Yarmouk University, in Jordan, where I started my first semester in 2016, before transferring to Sultan Qaboos University, in Oman. She mentioned how important it had been for her to enter the scientific stream, because she was afraid of being labeled incapable or lazy if she had chosen a different path.

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I was taken aback, as the works of renowned authors and poets—such as Naguib Mahfouz, Khalil Gibran, and even the Rahbani brothers, who composed most of Fairuz’s songs—were held in high regard across the Arab world.

My former colleague’s comment also illustrates another myth that plagues Jordanian society, which associates students’ intelligence with the Tawjihi stream they follow; students who studied “Adabi,” the literary stream, were deemed slow, unskilled, and not bright enough to study “Elmi,” the scientific stream.

Tawjihi Dominates Conversations

During our last Ramadan in Jordan, we held an “Iftar,” the evening meal that ends a day of fasting, and invited family friends over. The food looked really appetizing and the efforts that went into the day were worth conversation, but I observed that the guests were much more interested in discussing Tawjihi students and their results. Compared to previous years, the averages of many students across the country were very high.

I recalled particularly how one guest stated that she would much rather see her children underachieve in Elmi, the scientific stream, than do well in Adabi, the literary one. In her view, getting low grades in the path that is believed to be more rigorous would be easier to explain to family and friends.

It is important to note, however, that there are different types of intelligence, whether it be in mathematical, interpersonal, musical, or linguistic fields, among others. And this is something that is not emphasized enough in Jordanian society.

People might think that maybe a student following the literary path had limited capabilities, compared to those who studied Elmi. But language skills are important, too. Would you be able to articulate a proper sentence without a language teacher, or publish your research paper in an international journal without a professional translator and editor?

Unfortunately, for many students, the decision of which stream to study boils down to the concept of prestige.

Unfortunately, for many students, the decision of which stream to study boils down to the concept of prestige. The idea of having someone in the family who is a doctor, scientist, or engineer would essentially give off the shiny image of the well held-together, elite Jordanian family. This, of course, is not to put down students who have a natural leaning toward studying the sciences. If anything, I encourage pursuing the stream that matches well with one’s future endeavors, because I encourage excellence in every field.

On the other hand, there are many notable people who excelled in literary fields, like Edward Said, the Palestinian-American professor of literature and literary critic, who was famous for his book Orientalism. And who could forget Moustapha Akkad, the Syrian-American director of movies such as The Message, which portrayed the life of the Prophet Muhammad to the English-speaking world.

However, how is one to achieve such distinction if they are forced to study Tawjihi courses that they find uninteresting in the first place?

Self-Confidence Is Affected

When looking back at my first semester at Yarmouk University, I remembered one of my classmates defending her reasons for choosing English literature as her major. She exclaimed that her mark on the Tawjihi was in the high 80s, which was high enough for her to be accepted into any engineering course she wanted. She went on to mention that studying English was purely her choice. But what I didn’t understand was why she felt the need to justify herself.

This in turn reveals the deeper issues that come with downgrading the literary stream: A student’s self-confidence is hit because of the overall negative criticism toward the literary stream, and the lack of encouragement for students to choose paths that complement their strong suits.

Nevertheless, the accounts that I heard throughout the term were not only limited to students who studied the scientific stream. During one of my lectures, a student with a literary background stated to our professor bluntly that she would have studied media, economics or anthropology if it wasn’t for her family who pushed her into an English major. This is because they considered it to be the “cream of the crop” among the Adabi majors, and they believed that future employers would pick her over someone with a political science degree.

This in turn made me feel that many Jordanians have a misguided outlook toward the literary fields in general. Why should one compromise their strengths to protect themselves from society’s opinions and judgments?

When public attitudes ultimately decide for high school seniors, young people are hindered in their attempts at achieving brilliance throughout their own unique journeys. With this, I can only hope that one day our voices will be loud and bold enough to encourage Jordanian youth to discover their strengths, in order to study what they see fit for themselves to reach their goals and ambitions.

Sarah Abdel-Hadi is a Jordanian-Canadian who lives in the Gulf and is a recent graduate of Sultan Qaboos University, in Oman, where she majored in English literature.


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