Sunday, November 05, 2006

On Saudi Educational Reforms

Retired diplomat John Burgess reports in detail on the 15th Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference held in D.C. last week:

Dr. Khalil Al-Khalil, Member of the Majlis Al-Shoura and Professor at Imam Mohammed ibn Saud Univ. spoke next about educational reform in the Kingdom. He gave a history of education in the KSA, noting that its first curriculum and textbooks were Egyptian (this in the 1920s and 30s) and provided statistics about the numbers of schools and students in the KSA. He pointed out that the United States remains the first choice for Saudi students who wish to study abroad, even with the hassles over visas.

Education reforms are real and they are really taking place, he said. But reforms take time; they don't happen overnight. He said that it would take 3, 4, even 5 years before their effect is felt.

Dr. Eleanor Abdella Doumato spoke next on "Teaching Islam". She noted that there are still problems in the texts used in teaching religion. Curiously, though, she said, the textbooks used to teach "civics" (oddly, only to male students), is far more global in its lessons, telling students that they need to work on cooperative behavior, they need to work hard, and they need to work with kindness. Textbooks used in the 10th Grade discuss relations between countries and the need for tolerance. She found these texts to be a strength upon which the Ministry of Education could build and certainly should be teaching in the girls' schools as well.

Dr. Doumato took exception to some of the widely published reports on Saudi education that have run through the American media, singling out the Freedom House report of 2005 (recently rehashed in 2006). She found misreprentation and factually false statements, as when the report said that Saudi texts don't recognize Israel when, in fact, they do. On the same page the report criticized, she found both caption to a map and text on the page that acknowledged Israel.

It is striking that five years after 9-11 Saudi educators are still concentrating their discussions on reforms at the high-school textbook stage. Was any feedback or studies of the effects of reform presented? Any reports from students about the differences reforms have made? Did no one point out that the weak emphasis on global "civics" only comes after 10 years of an education known to promote a highly negative view of non-Muslims? Is the plan is for younger children to keep receiving such biased instruction? By the time such children reach high school any other form of instruction may fall on deaf ears.

I note that in 2004 TashMaTash broadcast an episode that poked fun at the reforms, showing that at the highest levels of the educational establishment the reforms were intended to be ignored. This episode of TashMaTash was NOT condemned by the clergy. The implication is that "reforms" are mere window dressing intended to stifle Western or reformist criticism. Did Doumato's presentation do anything to dispel such fears? The examples Doumato cited of Freedom House errors seem too minor to matter.

Finally, Saudi Arabia exports or subsidizes religious instruction and textbooks to many Arab and non-Arab Muslim schools around the world. Are there steps to revise these curricula as well or will the "hate lessons" within them remain unchanged?

Linked to Carnival of the Insanities

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