Last week signaled the rolling launch of an effort to fundamentally reform the Palestinian education sector. This reform effort is taking place in the context of a wider effort initiated one year ago by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to build the institutions of future Palestinian statehood.
In a series of recent speeches, Prime Minister Fayyad has started laying out his vision of the education sector. He spelled out some of the infrastructural investments planned for that sector, emphasized areas of priority including Arabic language and IT education, linked these and other priorities to developmental needs of Palestine, and repeatedly stressed the need for promoting critical thinking. He also courageously criticized the ever-increasing trends within educational institutions towards rigid social practices - many of which are alien to Palestinian culture - particularly in relation to interactions between male and female students.
Reforming the education sector and promoting a culture of peace has obvious vital implications for the nature and viability of a future Palestinian state. As noted in the 2003 UNDP Arab Human Development Report, "the knowledge gap, rather than the income gap, determines the prospects of countries in today's world economy." But the significance of this effort goes beyond Palestine.
From a reform point of view, this effort will be a microcosm of what to expect if (and hopefully when) other Arab governments decide to initiate their own sorely needed educational reform processes. From a political point of view, education is one of the major areas where fundamentalist Islamist ideology and humanistic secular ideology vie for ownership and definition of the public discourse - and ultimately political power - in the Arab world.
There is little doubt that the education sector in Palestine, along with most if not all Arab states, is long overdue for fundamental reform. Some of the challenges are quantitative and related to access and resources. These issues can and should be dealt with through further investment in schools, labs, IT tools, libraries and other infrastructural projects.
In addition to quantitative development, however, there is also a need for fundamental qualitative reform. Overall educational policies and the quality of education continue to pose serious challenges. Education in the Arab world is widely seen by experts as emphasizing unquestioning rote learning rather than inquisitive analytical thinking.
This is partly a function of outdated curricula that need to be brought up to speed with modern educational best practices and the new demands of a global economy.
But it is also a function of politics. The 2003 UNDP Arab Human Development Report suggests that "curricula taught in Arab countries seem to encourage submission, obedience, subordination and compliance, rather than free critical thinking. In many cases, the contents of these curricula do not stimulate students to criticize political or social axioms." Changing this approach to education is an integral component of democratization.
Equally, educational reform is one of the major areas where Islamist trends and the ruling establishment vie for dominance over the public discourse. Traditionally, while taking a zero-tolerance approach to Islamist opposition in the political sphere, many Arab governments (including successive PA governments) have allowed for a creeping influence of orthodox Islamist thought within the education process. Some did this as a tactic to co-opt elements of the Islamists' support base, while others did it to compete against the opposition and establish their own Islamic credentials. The Islamic interpretation that has permeated many of the Arab educational systems tends to emphasize orthodoxy and tradition rather than the rich Islamic history of creativity, diversity and innovation. As a result, the education sector has inched slowly but surely towards an atmosphere of close minded rigidity in both thought and behavior and away from alinquisitive and analytical thinking.
In a region where the youth represent a disproportionate majority, this has resulted in a highly volatile situation. The educational system annually produces large numbers of graduates who are ill-equipped to deal with the ever-changing needs of the current global market, with its emphasis on adaptability and transferrable skills. Many of these same graduates also tend to be indoctrinated in the same fundamentalist Islamist ideology that is trying to take over the Arab political establishment.
Arab leaders now have to face the implications of this reality. Some choose to continue to ignore it. Others offer partial solutions like the introduction of new subjects (such as IT education) without dealing with the underlying structural problems. However, by choosing to avoid the short terms risks inherent in cultural reform, Arab leaders leave themselves vulnerable to the inevitable long-term consequences of neglect of that vital sector. These consequences include perpetual stunted development, as well as creeping dominance of the radical discourse and instability.
To be sure, structural changes are turbulent. The education sector, which is predominantly government-run in the Arab world, employs a large number of civil servants. Retraining or restructuring this sector, particularly in view of the limited employment opportunities elsewhere in the economy, is bound to be disruptive. In addition, advocating changes to the curricula, teaching critical thinking, and encouraging further creativity and self-expression in the classroom would leave the reformists vulnerable to attack from conservative elements and to accusations of anti-Islamism.
By choosing to confront this issue, the Palestinian Authority has entered a long, difficult, uncertain yet necessary battle. It is not surprising that Prime Minister Fayyad has just been accused by Hamas spokesmen of encouraging promiscuity, corrupting the youth, importing Western concepts, and serving foreign agendas.
While not a principal actor, the United States has a vested interest in the outcome of educational reform in both Palestine and the wider Arab world. Under-development in the Arab World, which stems in part from inadequate education sectors, leads to ongoing volatility in that region and - until addressed - will continue to consume American diplomatic, financial and military assets. Failure of secular ideology to reclaim the public discourse will not only pave the way to a transfer of power to anti-American forces, but will also impede the effort to promote democracy, pluralism, equality, human rights and other universal values compatible with a culture of peace.
The US cannot own the cultural and educational process of change. In Palestine, it is a home-grown product that is already taking shape. But the US can and should support the efforts of those engaged in the fight. Whether financially, politically or through the transfer of experience and expertise, American assistance can prove vital in ensuring the success of reformers and in advancing development, global values, and furthering peace across the whole region.
Ziad Asali, MD
American Charities for Palestine
1634 Eye Street NW, Suite 725
Washington, DC 20006
O. 202-887-0177, M. 202-345-0435