As an Egyptian citizen, I would consider any further delay in the eradication of the scourge of illiteracy to be an act of high treason to our nation.
It is obvious the educational system in Egypt is in need of radical reform. As my contribution to these efforts, I would like to emphasize the following elements, which I believe are essential for the reform of education in Egypt:
1. We must adopt a clear philosophy in education that would form the basis for the choice of curricula and teaching methods. The aim should be to teach students to think scientifically, to renounce myths and superstitions and to link results with their logical causes. This task is not as easy as it may seem. For more than a quarter of a century, extremely aggressive efforts were undertaken, with strong government involvement, ostensibly to strengthen the religious and Arabic language curricula in schools. However, the result was the cramming of these curricula with writings that were not only unscientific but which also propagated views that are contrary to an enlightened understanding of the teachings of Islam. These curricula produced a generation of teachers who considered it their primary duty to close the minds of their pupils. As a result, we now see the prevalence of regressive ideas throughout all levels of education. Ironically, this emphasis on religion did not improve moral standards. On the contrary, cheating increased in schools and hypocrisy increased in society.
I am not calling for reducing Arabic language lessons or for depriving pupils from learning religious rites and the lofty values of Islam. I am calling for a revision of these excessively crammed curricula and for selecting readings that are compatible with the realities of the present age. The readings should encourage students to think, and they should show how progressive and enlightened Islam is. There are so many enlightened reformers, both past and present, who have enriched religious literature, to which students should be exposed. Some rapidly advancing Islamic states, like Malaysia and Tunisia, have been successful in this respect and we should benefit from their experience.
2. We must ensure that educational curricula emphasize that, except for God, truth is not absolute, and that it is natural for people to hold differing opinions based on different perceptions and interests. The curricula should teach people to be tolerant of their differences, and to be moderate in their positions so as to enable the advancement of society through dialogue and not through violent conflict. Even though this seems natural and self evident, regrettably it is no longer true in Egyptian society, and beliefs denying the legitimacy of other opinions can be found throughout the educational curricula. Furthermore, certain opinions attributed to specific persons, some of whom are long gone, are accorded an undeserved sanctity in school textbooks and in the media. In order to change this mindset, open discussion should be encouraged in schools, and teachers should organize seminars and debates where different points of view are expressed on social issues and scientific matters. This will teach young people to think freely and will lead to the emergence of a new generation uncorrupted by the media and the present system of education.
3. We should foster in students the values of teamwork, discipline, punctuality, and the fulfillment of obligations. Students should be taught the sanctity of the law and of public and private property, as well respect for contracts at all times. They should also be taught that cleanliness is a supreme value to be treasured at all times. These values form an integral part of Islamic and Christian religious teachings, and are embedded in the social fabric of advanced nations and nations striving to develop successfully. Unfortunately, notwithstanding all the popular religious slogans permeating our society today, these values remain lacking in much of our personal and group behaviour. Obviously, the school is only one of the factors that influence values in society, and it cannot succeed on its own in molding a student’s personality and in modifying his behaviour. Nevertheless, the role of the school is paramount in this respect. The first step must be to make sure these values are ingrained in the teachers themselves, since they cannot preach what they don’t practice. If teachers, who are role models in schools and universities, do not reflect these values in their own behaviour, we cannot expect them to succeed in teaching them to their students. That is why the system of teachers’ incentives should take this into account. The proper training of teachers, especially those in basic education, is the first and most important step in education reform.
4. We should also propagate all the values noted above throughout the media as well since the latter’s influence is often much greater than that of schools, given its impact on society as a whole. It is worth noting here that as the State devotes increasing energy to the fight against terrorism, much of what is propagated in state run media, showing only one side of any issue and presenting it as the absolute truth, actually helps foster an environment conducive to terrorism.
I am not calling for reducing Arabic language lessons or for depriving pupils from learning religious rites and the lofty values of Islam. I am calling for a revision of these excessively crammed curricula and for selecting readings that are compatible with the realities of the present age
5. It is self evident that decisions related to education should be based on scientific thinking. This means that the allocation of financial resources devoted to education should be directed to the areas that would achieve the highest possible social return. This is done by calculating the cost of each stage of education, as well as each type and each specialization, and comparing that cost to the benefits that would accrue to individuals and to society from each alternative allocation. Given that all country studies have proven that basic education (primary and preparatory) achieves the highest economic return to the individual and to society, the first priority must be to provide free basic education to all children, both male and female, before expanding public expenditure on other stages and types of education. These studies also point to the cost effectiveness of focusing on pre-primary education as well, especially in rural areas and in poor urban neighborhoods.
6. We must ensure that free basic education is of the highest possible quality, i.e. through full-day schools, for a sufficient number of days per year, and with teaching methods that combine academic material with extracurricular activities. We must also make sure this quality education is made accessible to even the poorest children. To achieve that, some countries provide grants to poor families for the coverage of additional expenses they may incur to send their children to school or as compensation for not sending their children to work. Other countries distribute free bicycles to children living far from their schools and also provide them with school meals. The countries that do that are not necessarily rich countries. They simply took the decision to do all that was necessary to provide quality basic education to all children, especially poor children. Whether deliberately or not, it is a grave mistake for a State to be biased, against poor children, against girls or against the inhabitants of remote rural areas. In fact, if the State must have a bias, it should be in favour of these segments of society, not just for the sake of social justice, but because such a bias has been shown to have an optimal impact on economic development.
7. We must unify the general curriculum of basic education in all schools, whether public, private, secular or religious, in order to avoid dualities in education at this critical stage of a student’s education. Private and religious schools could be allowed to introduce additional programs, but only in later stages of the educational process. This would allow education to play its essential role in preserving social cohesion and fostering the spirit of solidarity and brotherhood, which existed in Egyptian society for thousands of years. All children at this early age should follow the same basic curriculum thus strengthening their sense of belonging to Egypt and solidifying their identity as Egyptian citizens, regardless of any religious or other difference.
8. Prioritizing basic education entails a large increase in spending, not only on more school buildings, but also on curriculum reform, printing new books, and providing more libraries; but, most important of all, on training teachers. A 1989 study found that only 42% of primary school teachers in Egypt had been trained in teacher training schools; and a later study found that in 1990/1991, 57% of teachers only had a secondary school certificate. Needless to say, this impacts the level of the teaching they provide. Prioritizing basic education necessitates prioritizing training teachers and compensating them sufficiently to allow them to lead a dignified life.
9. We must eradicate adult illiteracy through a national program spanning over five years. We should not neglect this matter any further. It should be given high priority and should be provided with a special budget allocation even if we have to fund it through additional taxes. As an Egyptian citizen, I would consider any further delay in the eradication of the scourge of illiteracy to be an act of high treason to our nation.
10. After making sure all possible means have been allocated to the eradication of child and adult illiteracy and to the provision of quality basic education to all, we should direct public resources to raising the quality of secondary and higher education (including the provision of scholarships and low interest loans to needy students). A large proportion of these resources should be directed to technical education and training. This matter raises two questions that need to be discussed in detail: the first is the reform of technical education, and the second is the reform of university education.
The late Dr. Ibrahim Shihata, was Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the World Bank (1981-1999)