This week’s topic was education, which made me really happy, since that’s the topic I’m best able to talk about in Arabic! And from bottom to top, the problems in the education system in Egypt are exactly the same as Jordan’s: enormous class sizes, under-valued teachers, unhealthy focus on all-important exam results, and every parent’s insistence that his children will be doctors and engineers, leading to wide-spread cheating in school and beyond. These are the problems everyone can agree on.
Then there are the more controversial problems, controversy aggravated by the role of American politics and money in these issues. There is genuine concern by many – both Arabs and Westerners – about the role education plays in religious extremism. The American solution, backed by American money, is to increase secularization and critical thinking in Arab national curricula, but these are touch topics in a constitutionally Islamic nation like Egypt or Jordan. Islam calls for government to be guided by religious principles, and to direct its citizens on the right path and protect them from sin. That’s why, for example, alcohol is illegal in Saudi and proselytizing religions other than Islam is illegal in many Muslim countries. And as for critical thinking, well, that’s okay in secular subjects – the sciences and social sciences – but it makes many conservative religious scholars nervous. It smacks of criticism, paternalism, and even neo-imperialism that belittles Egyptian character, values and history.
Meanwhile, of course, Egyptian kids are sitting 60 or 90 kids to a classroom (this is in grade schools!) with underqualified, grossly underpaid teachers who probably wanted to be doctors or engineers, but were forced into teaching because their exam scores weren’t quite high enough. And it’s just so hard to see a way out!