Education in the twenty first century in MENA: Can we reverse the state of Failed Citizens

Malak Zaalouk, Professor | The American University in Cairo


Just like in ancient Greece, in the MENA region during the time of early Islamic thinkers and philosophers, the role of education was without doubt to create the just society and nurture the citizens that would build it.  Since those ancient times when philosophers had a lot to say in terms of how children and youth should be educated much has changed.   It is no longer the philosophers, the educators or reformers that have led the way for many years but the bankers and the financial community who have repeatedly hammered their vision at the global, regional and country levels.  The vision in simple terms is one that requires that education become responsible for the production of the labor force necessary for the functioning and maintenance of global capitalism and its markets.  Schools and Universities went through a number of strategies directed to comply with particular standards.  Some countries in the MENA region managed to meet those requirements quite well and hence were well positioned to compete for slightly more improved rankings in international testing and assessment, while others fell in the debris of chaos and created failed citizens.

The Concept of failed Citizens:

The concept of failed citizens is largely borrowed from the concept of failed and fragile states.  In political terms “fragile states” was used quite ambiguously at times to define a situation where particular weak states had lost their capacity to control their territory and or serve their citizens.  These are states whose very corrupt, centralized and weak structures have led to a situation of total decay on all levels including economic decline, strife, violence and an inability to provide goods, services and security to its citizens.  There are many causes for the development of failed states amongst which are: mounting demographic pressures, massive movements of refugees, uneven economic development, poverty and sharp economic decline, deterioration of public services, violation of rights, and questionable legitimacy of the state.

In the case of the concept I am proposing of failed citizens we are confronted with individuals who are unable to function as a community and are not capable of fulfilling their obligations to their compatriots.  They are often frustrated by their inability to have a voice whether it is caused by poor participatory systems or total disempowerment and/or the absence of the structure that would allow them to constructively build communities.  They therefore recur to brutal violence, total apathy or some form of atomized existence.

The MENA landscape

The MENA region is quite a diverse region with clear disparities in terms of wealth, population and level of human and economic development.  One thing the region shares at large is that it has advanced quite rapidly in the expansion of its education systems and has in the last few decades leap jumped in terms of enrollment rates. Another thing the region shares is the fact that its education systems are not meeting the desired level of quality despite the many attempts made.  Several reports have discussed the poor performance of reform and the meager returns from education in the region.  Most reports have of course alluded to poor returns in economic terms.  I believe the most serious setback however has been the human loss brought about by education in producing failed citizens.

At the school and pre university level the various educational systems produce and reproduce violence in schools.  Moreover the pedagogies adopted cultivate blind obedience, oppression and a weak ability to think critically.   At the university level the situation is no different.  Gone are the days where universities represented the ultimate beacon for new ideas and social transformation.  Today universities either mirror the hierarchies of the labor market with business, engineering and the medical school at the forefront or they fall into absolute chaos and violence.  Student bodies now mirror broader religious factions in society and the essence of learning and dialogue has almost disappeared.

Where did the Champions Go?

It is no wonder that the champions of causes are no longer produced and created in the university with the backing of systemic, knowledge, research, reflection, dialogue and information.  Revolutions and change movements are triggered and catalyzed by mobs, extremists and unemployed youth.  It is no longer the era of intellengencia   led revolutions and hence these movements have shown poor results.  It is the universities as we knew them in the sixties and seventies that fed international movements seeking rights and equity.  The champions of the various significant world movements were the outcome of the universities that existed.

Challenging the times and reversing the paradigm

It is vital we realize that schools and universities as well as other educational institutions are the prime responsible mobilizers of good citizenship.  If these institutions falter we are most likely to have failed citizens.  The educational institutions cannot rectify this condition alone.  In order to have a humane educational system that produces the foundations for sound citizenry the entire social formation in any given country needs to also be based on humane institutions.  The economy in particular will need to itself be transformed into a humane one with more focus on fulfilling human needs and less on maximizing profit.    This is the subject of the article I am presenting in the conference.