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Education Is Development

A few days ago, thanks to Black Iris of Jordan, I learned about this report sponsored by the World Bank. According to a BBC summary of the report (I haven’t read the report—it’s 400 pages) Morocco has been ranked last for education reform among Arab nations, along with Djibouti, Yemen and Iraq.

Not only that, but Morocco is last in a failing region, because “the quality of education in the Arab world is falling behind other regions” and “the region had not witnessed the positive changes seen in Asia and Latin America, particularly in literacy rates and enrollments in secondary schools and universities.”

The BBC quotes Marwan Muasher, a World Bank official:

    “The time has come for countries to focus their energies on the quality of education and making sure that students are equipped with what they need for the labour market needs now—the ability to solve problems, critical thinking, innovation, and teacher retraining”….
    Mr. Muasher said educational reform went hand in hand with economic development, especially given the region’s extremely high youth population.

Black Iris mentions that his home country of Jordan, along with Kuwait, are ranked as the two nations in the Arab world that are most serious about education reform. But he adds:

    If Jordan is at the top of the bracket, then suffice to say, the Arab World is in big, big, big trouble. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: education is our only silver bullet.

If Jordan is in “big, big, big trouble” for being the best in the Arab world, what does that say about Morocco for being among the worst? The question is answered by this cry from the heart by Moroccan blogger Taha Balafrej. (I’m translating from French.)

    Living in a country that is ranked 126th on the human development index and next to last in the region for its educational system, can the citizens of Morocco continue to ignore the fact that their future is largely compromised? Can the citizens of this country be content with the idea that the Moroccan educational system is in the process of sacrificing whole generations?
    Can we allow the preparation and even the execution of this crime against an entire people to take place before our eyes? For whose benefit, for what purpose are the superhighways, the industrial zones, the ports, the redesigned cities, the TGV, if the majority of tomorrow’s Moroccans are unable to either read or write, and the educated minority has only one goal, to quit their country and live under other skies! […]
    Wouldn’t this be a good time to invite everyone, on a massive scale, to finally take the question of education seriously? In order to build a school system that provides a basic education with command of the language, and a civic-minded curriculum open to the world; that permits social integration, teaches rights and responsibilities, and prepares its charges for a world of creation and initiative?

Last week I finished reading Shah of Shahs by the brilliant Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, which deals with the Iranian revolution of 1979. Kapuscinski spent his entire career reporting on the Third World, and his portrait of Iran in the last days of the Shah shows striking parallels to the situation in Morocco today. The crisis in Morocco is not as extreme, but I think the parallels will be obvious to anyone who cares about Morocco. It would be nice if Morocco’s leaders would finally wake up to the importance of investing in the country’s human potential, its creativity and brainpower, along with the infrastructure development that is taking place. That will require far more intellectual honesty, openness and accountability in public life than we have seen so far.

Kapuscinski has this to say about the Shah’s attempts to rapidly modernize his country using oil wealth, a project the Shah called the Great Civilization:

    From a logical point of view, anyone who sets out to create a Great Civilization ought to begin with people, with training cadres of experts in order to form a native intelligentsia. But it was precisely that kind of thinking that was unacceptable. Open new universities and polytechnics, every one a hornets’ nest, every student a rebel, a good-for-nothing, a freethinker? Is it any wonder the Shah didn’t want to braid the whip that would flay his own skin? The monarch had a better way—he kept the majority of his students far from home. […] More than a hundred thousand young Iranians were studying in Europe and America. This policy cost much more than it would have taken to create national universities. But it guaranteed the regime a degree of calm and security. […] An Iranian at home could not read the books of the country’s best writers (because they came out only abroad), could not see the films of its outstanding directors (because they were not allowed to be shown in Iran), could not listen to the voices of its intellectuals (because they were condemned to silence). The Shah left people a choice between Savak and the mullahs.

Savak was the secret police. Wikipedia claims that “by the time the agency was finally dismantled in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution, as many as one third of all Iranian men had some sort of connection to Savak by way of being informants or actual agents.”

Towards the end of his book, Kapuscinski returns to the theme of education and development, and makes a pessimistic prediction about whether the Iranian Revolution will be able to improve people’s lives.

    The Shah thought that urbanization and industrialization are the keys to modernity, but this is a mistaken idea. The key to modernity is the village. The Shah got drunk on visions of atomic power plants, computerized production lines, and large-scale petrochemical complexes. But in an underdeveloped country, these are mere mirages of modernity. In that kind of country, most of the people live in poor villages from which they flee to the city. They form a young, energetic workforce that knows little (they are often illiterate) but possesses great ambitions and is ready to fight for everything. In the city they find an entrenched establishment linked in one way or another with the prevailing authorities. So they first learn the ropes, settle in a bit, occupy starting positions, and go on the attack. In the struggle they make use of whatever ideology they have brought from the village—usually this is religion. Since they are the ones who are truly determined to get ahead, they often succeed. Then authority passes into their hands. But what are they to do with it? They begin to debate, and they enter the spellbound circle of helplessness. […] What is the rule in all of this? That the newcomers invariably have more ambition than skill. As a result, with each upheaval, the country goes back to the starting point because the victorious new generation has to learn all over again what it cost the defeated generation so much toil to master.

As a final comment on the need for educational reform in Morocco, I invite you to go back and read my post from over a year ago, Waiting for the Rain. I’m reproducing the relevant part here in a somewhat condensed form.

    I asked Mohamed if the high percentage of unemployed young people in Morocco, who are torn between the excesses they see in the media and the grim reality of their daily lives, might produce an “explosion.” To my surprise, he said no. He explained that the monarchy is in a very strong position today because Hassan II played his hand so well. Overt repression is no longer needed because the population is now pacified. This allows Mohammed VI to work “against” the policies of his father. He can allow greater freedom of expression, or proclaim himself “king of the poor” without fear of unleashing demands for change that he can’t control.

    In Mohamed’s view, the state has consciously destroyed the quality of public education since the 1980s in order to leave young people politically passive, without the knowledge of history or the critical skills they need to interpret the world around them. As a result, they can be easily led by the children of the rich, whose private schools have not been destroyed in the same way. This is a shocking claim, which my friend Boumedian later endorsed from his own experience. When he was a university student in the early 1980s, students took their studies seriously and so did the professors, continuing discussions outside of class and inviting students into their own homes. My friends in college today tell a different story. University students feel a sense of hopelessness that what they are learning has any relevance to the modern workplace. And as abstract knowledge, it is hopelessly out of date. So they go mainly to socialize and kill time, for lack of anything better to do.

    A generation ago, Moroccan universities were known as centers of leftist agitation. The state encouraged the rise of an Islamist opposition, which gained control of the campuses and shut off the possibility for debate. Discussion got channeled into right-versus-left shouting matches, creating a stalemate that has continued for twenty years. Whether through intellectual laziness or fear of rocking the boat, professors avoid engaging their students in ways that will stimulate their thinking. Many students choose not to come to class at all, preferring to work independently and showing up only for exams. The effect is to kill initiative, instilling a sense of resignation through which young people can be easily led.
    As a young friend of mine put it, most people who know how to read might as well be illiterate, because they never learn to analyze the information they take in. Meanwhile, the rich send their children to private schools that do a far better job of preparing them for the complexities of the modern world. So why doesn’t the Moroccan government insist on the same high standards in its public schools? Mohamed’s answer is that this is the result of a deliberate political calculation. The rich are preparing their children to rule the country, and the children of the poor are being prepared for obedience. The media play a role by distracting young people with consumerism. Unable to understand the causes of their predicament or make meaningful plans for the future, they dream of escape to the land of abundance they see in the movies. For all these reasons, Mohamed doesn’t think there will be an “explosion.”

The Shah of Iran made a similar calculation in the 1970s, but it backfired. Modernization benefiting only the elite caused widespread resentment, leading directly to the Iranian Revolution. It’s possible that this same strategy is being pursued today by Mohammed VI in a less exaggerated and therefore more manageable form, but it still isn’t a recipe for long-term stability. It’s also possible that my friends are wrong, and this isn’t a strategy of the Moroccan state. In either case, Morocco’s lack of a decent educational system needs to be corrected as soon as possible. Moroccans deserve an investment in their human potential that is equivalent to the one being made in the nation’s roads and ports.

UPDATE: In response to the original appeal by Taha Belafrej, a petition is now online in Arabic and French, calling among other things “for the Moroccan state to make a radical change in its policies to guarantee education for all by 2015” and “for an academic revolution whose primary goal would be to restore the quality of primary and secondary education.” The petition was written by Mounir Bensalah with the participation of various Moroccan bloggers. It calls on ordinary citizens to get involved and concludes, “Moroccans have weathered worse crises and have always come through!”


Comment from Reb
Time: February 13, 2008, 00:31

I agree with your friends and this trend of “dumbing down” (I believe Chomsky coined the phrase) is going on everywhere. Soon we will not be able to process anything that is not in sound-byte form.

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