Saja Mashgar, 8, sports a hijab while reading a workbook during Arabic language class at Masjid Al-Salaam, a mosque and Islamic community center in Dearborn, Michigan, US, November 13, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Brittany Greeson

“Seek knowledge, even if you have to go all the way to China,” is a saying often attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Whether or not the Prophet actually uttered those words, centuries later the Arab world has responded in an unexpected way, by launching Chinese-language programs across many schools in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Public response has been mixed. Some hailed it as a first for the region, while others questioned a move that could pose a further threat to the Arabic language for a generation already more comfortable with English.

The latter might have a point. While two-thirds of the 18-to-24-year-olds polled in the 2015 Arab Youth Survey said they were “concerned” about the declining use of Arabic, more than a third said they used English more than Arabic on a daily basis. The phenomenon was particularly prevalent in Gulf Cooperation Council nations, where 56% said they used English more than Arabic, versus 24% in non-GCC countries.

Why is that? Simple: They went to British or American schools in their home countries, then went on to study abroad in the UK, the US or Australia or at an English-language university elsewhere. English became the main language of their professional life.

It doesn’t help that Arabic classes tend to be outdated and downright boring. A 2013 study on the status of Arabic concluded that “methods of teaching Arabic and its curricula … should be revised, improved and modernized.” Classes in Arabic literature, history and heritage seem to be no more than an afterthought, with the core focus being on the British or American curriculum.

There are other factors at play too, some of which are awkward to acknowledge, such as a lack of confidence in the Arabic education system. Then there is uqdet el khawaja, which literally means “the foreigner complex.” It endures as a hangover from colonialism, where Arabs absorb Orientalist stereotypes about themselves and favor foreigners (usually Westerners) over their own people in work or commerce.

For decades it has been a widely accepted notion that if you want your child to have a brighter future, she or he must go to a private British or North American school that would make it easier for them to go abroad for higher education. This, however, is not entirely true.

But the old Arabic school system is far from second rate. When I was a student at a university in Canada, I found I had already covered the freshman math and science curriculum three years earlier at my private Arabic school in Saudi Arabia. We also received a thorough grounding in Arabic.

Typically, at an elementary school in 1990s Saudi Arabia, an average of nine periods a week were devoted to religious subjects. At middle school, it was eight per week. We also had nine periods of Arabic language and 12 periods for everything else – geography, history, mathematics, science, art and physical education (or home economics for girls) – all of which amounts to a very rigorous curriculum.

The Middle East tradition of seeking knowledge and fostering debate was reflected in the fact that Arabic was by no means the only language spoken and studied. The diversity of the Middle East meant that learning from other cultures was the norm

Dig a little deeper into the history of education in the region and we soon see that the Middle East tradition of seeking knowledge and fostering debate was reflected in the fact that Arabic was by no means the only language spoken and studied. The diversity of the Middle East meant that learning from other cultures was the norm.

The famous Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, founded in Baghdad in the 9th century, contained translations of works from a vast area of the world. The rich legacy of the Golden Age of Islamic civilization, from the mid-7th century to the 13th, included Arabs and non-Arabs alike, women as well as men.

The decimal point, algebra, tools to measure celestial bodies and medical advances are only some of the discoveries and inventions the world owes to the great minds of the age. Literature, music, art, architecture – every aspect of life was explored and developed.

Despite this centuries-old love of learning in the Middle East, study after study concludes that the region is lagging behind in education. A 2013 report by the Brookings Institution states that students are not “learning foundational skills.”

Finland and South Korea continue to top world lists for education, followed by Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore in the top five. The United States placed 17th and the UK sixth according to a 2014 global report by education firm Pearson.

What can we learn from that? Finland, Korea, Hong Kong and the rest in the top tier all have curricula that are different from one another. There is no pedagogical homogeneity; they are culturally specific.

Which, by the way, raises the question of the value served by British and American schools, overrepresented in the “international schools” sector here and elsewhere in the world, to local students in the Middle East and beyond. What we need is the confidence to build our own schools according to cultural norms that makes sense to our children so that they respond in the best possible way.

Indeed, “local” (as opposed to “international”) clearly is no hindrance to an overseas university career. For example, scholars from Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore are among the largest groups of non-EU foreign students at Cambridge University, despite their relatively small populations.

Given the diversity of the Arab world, with each country’s unique identity and history, a universal Arab curriculum perhaps is not feasible. But that should not prevent each country from carefully assessing what worked in the past and what didn’t, and starting afresh.

“Education is like a lantern that lights your way in a dark alley,” said the late Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the UAE. So, as we move forward into an increasingly globalized world, why not use a lantern that’s locally made?

This article was provided to Asia Times by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Rym Tina Ghazal

Rym Tina Ghazal, currently based in Saudi Arabia, is editor-in-chief of Ithraeyat Magazine, an art and culture publication.

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