Although education systems around the world seek to produce “good citizens”, schools in Arab countries have the additional function of teaching students to obey – and fear – the regime.
“The curricula taught in Arab countries seem to encourage submission, obedience, subordination and compliance, rather than free critical thinking,” the Arab Human Development Report complained in 2003.
While few would dispute that Arab state schools try to inculcate subservience, it appears no one bothered to ask whether they were succeeding. But now, research by Hania Sobhy at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London suggests that in Egypt, at least, this most central exercise in promoting conformity and obedience has been deftly subverted and disobeyed by pupils, and to a lesser extent by teachers.
In addition to certain school subjects with an overtly “patriotic” focus that exalt the “achievements” of the state and effectively equate the Egyptian regime with the nation, the school day itself starts with the highly regimented morning assembly. “The central ritual of Egyptian schools is the taboor (line up),” Sobhy said.
The taboor is supposedly a time for pupils to connect with their nation and express patriotism by saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. In a telling indication of where the former regime’s priorities lay, what many would regard as a hollow ritual is so hallowed by the ministry of education that it is “decreed and carefully delineated”, Sobhy pointed out.
Yet, “more often than not, taboor is not in fact prepared nor performed,” she said. “More importantly, most secondary school students do not attend.”
When the taboor does take place, most youngsters fail to salute the flag or sing alternative – usually obscene – versions of the national anthem which, according to Sobhy, are “typically variations on themes of abuse by the nation, disentitlement and failure, of being violated or raped by the nation, or the nation being a ‘prostitute’.”
This rebellion and disaffection is hardly surprising, given that outside the official curriculum school provides pupils with harsh lessons on class, youth exclusion, arbitrary punishment and the importance of connections. “The school gives very practical and concrete citizenship lessons to children – lessons about their differentiated entitlement to rights,” Sobhy said.
This is a far cry from the 1952 revolution’s promise to provide free and equitable education for all Egyptians. In Egypt today, anything approaching quality education is provided only in the private sphere.
In addition to a plethora of private schools of varying quality and cost for those who can afford them, the dysfunctional state system itself is also largely stratified and class-based, with middle-class children going to general secondary schools, while the bulk of poorer pupils attend the marginalised and chronically underfunded technical schools.
Moreover, the state system has gone through a de facto privatisation in which underpaid teachers are unable or unwilling to teach in the classroom and coerce pupils – often using corporal punishment, even though it is banned – into taking private lessons if they want to pass their exams. This failure has transformed state schools into breeding grounds for disaffection.
“The level of boldness and opposition voiced point to how deep the resentment [and] anger … runs among large segments of the population,” Sobhy said. “There was a surprising level of ‘politicised’ and highly oppositional discourses given the stereotypes of apathy and submissiveness.”
And despite the best attempts of the state and teachers to beat pupils down, the youngsters interviewed by Sobhy demonstrated political awareness and voiced a powerful note of defiance similar to that expressed by millions on the streets of Egypt this year. “We don’t have belonging. We are growing up in an age when the country doesn’t give us anything,” one girl told her.
In this regard, Sobhy views schools as a weather vane of the mood in Egypt as a whole: they highlighted “the themes and content of the grievances that fuelled the popular movement that deposed Mubarak”.
“Would we be like this if we did not have all this theft and corruption?” one boy told her, while another insisted: “To fix things, everyone has to be removed … We need all new people.”
Less than a month before revolutionary fever gripped the country, pupils at semi-private state schools known as national institutes went on strike, organising sit-ins and marches in opposition to a ministerial decree they believed threatened their schools. “The demonstrations and chants – and the security presence and threats – were really similar to many of the scenes we saw in January,” Sobhy said.
The experience of young Egyptians in state schools shows that coming generations are both politically aware and are no longer willing to accept the scraps that fall from the regime’s table. Providing them with quality education and decent job prospects is not only good for them and good for Egypt, it will also be good for any future government’s survival.
This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 10 September 2011. Read the related discussion.