Sometimes language is not specific enough. We talk about how wonderful Democracy is-without exploring the institutions that make democracy possible. Most of us think that voting is the most important thing-which we should question when we see elections in nations still trapped in feudalism. The recent elections in Afghanistan should have clued us in, not to mention Iran.
One of the most important aspects required in participatory government is literacy-and not just the literacy of the men, but the women as well. A literate woman will have literate sons and daughters whereas a literate man might not be as concerned with this. In traditional societies, men often specifically bar women from school precisely because they want no interference with their control over them. Afghanistan’s Taliban makes this a specific issue, which they demonstrate by destroying schools and throwing acid on little girl students and their teachers.
But even literacy should be reexamined. If we are not looking at what people read-what they study in school-we really do not appreciate that many such people are still abysmally ignorant even though they have gone to school.
Even the United States falls short in its effort to educate all its youth. Our own educational system is sometimes spotty-ranging from superb to inadequate, but the superb do provide for us.
What should we expect of an educational system? Being able to read and comprehend at least at daily newspaper level; knowing enough math for use in daily life in commerce and budget management; knowing enough history to put contemporary events in perspective; knowing enough science and technology to keep up with the rapid changes in these areas; and knowing the basics of our system of government. This is basic. Added to this would be inculcating a sense of eagerness to create a life-long learner and a critical thinker. In our culture’s past, everybody who was schooled (and that was never everybody) pretty much passed muster on all of the above. Consider the schooling available to President Abraham Lincoln-and yet remember how he could write!
But now comes the really critical issue. The Economist (October 17, 2009) had an article on “Education in the Arab World - Laggards Trying to Catch Up” that spelled out the problem of assuming that schooling or literacy are enough to consider the populations “educated.” They say that “one reason that too many Arabs are poor is rotten education.” For an example, the American journal Science printed articles about the newly discovered 4.4 million-year-old hominid species whose discovery helps us to understand more about human evolution.
This article was picked up and covered in the Arab world as a debunking of Darwin, which it was not. Such an analysis delighted letter writers from all over the Arab world as a blow to Western materialism and a triumph for Islam. This is not surprising since surveys in Egypt, the biggest if not most literate Arab Muslim country, show that barely one third of Egyptian adults have even heard of Charles Darwin and even science teachers teach evolution to dispute it. How do you produce world class scientists with such education? You don’t.
With all the money that Saudis spend on education, why have they so few competent modern professionals? They devote 31% of classroom time to religion and only 20% to math and science. More Saudi graduate students get degrees in Islamic Studies rather than in engineering, medicine, and science put together.
Such policies carry a cost that goes far beyond the classroom. Arab countries spend more today (says the Economist) than the world average and have eradicated illiteracy-but have not eradicated ignorance and incompetence in modern professional disciplines. This accounts for the high rate of youth unemployment and why these governments cannot lift populations out of poverty.
Is there any wonder that we have an enormous clash of civilizations with the Muslim world? This is a problem that will not easily yield to fixing until Islam is dislodged from governance and education. As one Harvard philosophy professor noted, they do not need a Luther to reform Islam; they need an Adam Smith to reform governments and economics.
By Laina Farhat-Holzman