The Arab Education Revolution

The Arab Spring alone won't bring democracy to the Middle East. Without education reform, it will have all been for naught.

With the overthrow of autocratic leaders in the Arab world and protests continuing in neighboring countries, hopes are high that democracy will emerge in a new Middle East. Much attention focuses on elections and written constitutions, but democratic structures won’t thrive until education is reformed to teach freethinking, respect for other people's opinions and citizenship.

Traditionally, Arab education systems have been about control. Schools teach obedience to the regime instead of problem solving, critical thinking and freedom of expression. Students don't learn about political rights and are taught not to question authority.

Textbooks in Egypt emphasize tourist attractions much more than political participation, and it's easier to find the word "authority" than "citizen." In Jordan, reform initiatives in schools pay no attention to the need for people to become active in civil and civic society.

But democracies need open societies with cultures that embrace diversity, accept conflicting opinions, tolerate dissent and recognize that not all truths are absolute. Only with this kind of thinking will the necessary checks and balances in a democracy work.

While Arab countries have invested heavily in education, spending an average of 5 percent of GDP annually over the past forty years, the results are unimpressive. And the challenge is pressing. One in three people across the region are under the age of fifteen, and 70 percent of the population is under thirty.

Current reform efforts, where they exist, don't come close to fixing the problem. They are focused largely on building new schools, purchasing more computers, increasing enrollment rates and boosting test scores. While important, these improvements are not enough.

Better results have therefore not followed reforms. There are no tangible changes in teaching methods, and test scores remain low in reading, math and science. After recent educational changes were introduced in Tunisia, the average test scores of fourth graders actually fell between 2003 and 2007. And in Egypt, eighth graders' scores dropped in both math and science in the same period.

That suggests reforms should focus on the human factors. Students should learn how to think, question and innovate at a young age. This is what it takes in a competitive global economy.

The Arab world also needs more highly skilled teachers and classroom environments more conducive to learning. Teaching remains mostly didactic and lecture based, emphasizing rote memorization of facts. This doesn't provide for open discussion and active learning.

The kind of educational reform that empowers citizens is resisted, however, by an unspoken alliance between governments and religious institutions, which want to maintain their monopoly over school curricula and practices. Status-quo forces see independent, creative and well-educated students as threatening. Until this changes, democratic hopes will suffer.

Arab democracy isn’t likely to succeed without educational reforms. And yet serious reform efforts are conspicuously hard to find in the Arab world. It will take time to revamp schooling and instill values from the beginning of children's education. But that is the only way to prepare the ground for real change.

Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan.