Tuesday, January 20, 2004


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The following editorial appeared in The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut this week. It should be essential reading for everyone with an interest in the Middle East.

Reform efforts are in the air throughout the Arab world. Two of the most serious endeavors to reform the Arab League and the education systems of this region would do well to come together in a practical and meaningful way. The moribund state of the Arab League and the often dysfunctional condition of public education in Arab countries remind us that in both cases what is urgently needed to fix a bad situation is not necessarily an infusion of money, but rather an infusion of vision and ideas.

Several Arab countries have started serious reforms of their education curricula, spurred by their own initiatives or pushed by American pressure. This trend has already generated some strong reactions in parts of the region, including Sunday’s lively Jordanian parliamentary session in which many MPs harshly criticized the education minister for the reforms under way in that country. Some parliamentarians were particularly opposed to such things as plans to teach peace-making and conflict-resolution at a time when Israel was continuing its colonization and killings in Palestine, and to confusing terrorism with legitimate resistance to occupation.

This home-grown hesitation about education reform is understandable yet unfortunate, at a time when the Arab world needs more than ever to re-examine its education and training system in order to achieve its full potential. The Arab League should have been the natural and logical place from where to start serious education reform efforts, including diagnostic studies and strategic plans. But the Arab League is a blunted instrument that has failed to contribute anything of serious value to such huge regional issues as the war in Iraq, the conflict in Palestine, terrorism, weapons proliferation, good governance, or human rights.

One of the reasons that Western armies routinely march into this region to reshape it in various ways is that we who comprise the Middle East and the Arab world have allowed despondency and neglect to define both our education and governance systems. The education systems perpetuate ignorance and rigid traditionalism to a large degree, and the political systems institutionalize these in tandem. The Arab League hovers above the stagnation, decay, and widely fraying structures of learning, unable to break free from the bureaucratized state controls that have long relegated it to the realm of the irrelevant.

This is a double tragedy in a region heavily defined by the Islamic religion, whose first edict is “read.” If the Arab League is still looking for a mission with which to rehabilitate and re-invent itself, it might fruitfully consider playing a role in genuine education reform.