Book review: A history of the Egyptian renaissance through education

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Thursday 18 Aug 2011

Ahmed Ezzat Abdel-Kerim's account of the history of education during the 19th and early 20th century reveals much about the foundations of the state of Egypt


Tareekh Al-Taleem fi masr (History of Education in Egypt) by Ahmed Ezzat Abdel-Kerim (two volumes), Cairo: The General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 2011. V1-pp798, V2-pp309.

Though it gets virtually no coverage, the Popular Series published regularly by the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces is an initiative of great importance: at a low price and in large quantities, it puts out-of-print books originally published by the private sector back on the market. Some of these are great works key to the development of social and intellectual life during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th: Nile Calendar by Amin Pasha Samy, History of Arabs before Islam by Gawad Aly, and Egypt in the early 19th century by Mohamed Fouad Shokry, among many others. In this context the new edition of professor Ahmed Ezzat-Kerim’s History of Education in Egypt, in over 1,000 pages, documents and analyses education in Egypt from the age of Muhammad Ali Pasha until the end of the reign of his grandson Ismail.

Abdel-Kerim, who passed away in August 1980, is regarded as the founder of scientific history. Trained under able professors, including great historian Mohamed Shafik Ghorbal, under whose supervision he earned his Masters in 1936 and PhD in 1941 under his supervision, Abdel-Kerim dedicated the following 30 years of his life to his scientific work as a professor, then head of the faculty, then finally as Dean for the University of Ain Shams in 1969. His works include Studies in the Modern Arab History, History of Egypt from the French Invasion to Ismail’s Era and Transformation in the structure of Cairene society in the first half of the 19th century, among many others.

The title of present tome hides the fact that the book includes a history of Egypt during the era under study; an era that has not received as much attention from historians, let alone analysts or even politicians and sociologists, as it requires. This is the era on which the modern state of Egypt and other states in the Arab region are founded, and at the heart of the incumbent transformation was the education system since its establishment in 1811. This able scholar does not rest content with studying the conditions of public, private and technical education including scholarships for studying outside Egypt; he explains to the reader how schooling functioned and every aspect of the life of students, principals and management; he never forgets that history is not only about citing facts and figures but also analysing and criticising, conclusions and visions.

This work benefits from a huge information base not available to any other, such as the Department of Historical Records at the National Library, with its published and unpublished material, in addition to the writings of travellers, contemporary international media records, the commentary of European ambassadors to Egypt as well as Turkish and international records. For five years Abdel-Kerim studied this material; he was careful to present as he learned them from his predecessors before questioning the validity of their conclusions: “We will try to show the truth, depending on whatever we have access to in the way of documents from the Department of Historical Records in the Diwan of His Majesty the King.” He investigates official and non-official stories before he settles on an opinion.

It is known for sure that the educational system is the mirror of any society and all its layers, that is why Abdel-Kerim records everything to do with girls’ schools, schools for the blind and deaf, education in Sudan, military and marine schools, schools of medicine and agriculture and studying abroad in addition to institutions outside the governmental system such as Al-Azhar and the foreign missionary schools. He is particularly keen on the link between this material and reform movements. For example, reforms and modernisation that took place under Ismail included also a new formulation of Egypt’s connection with the Ottoman state enabling Egypt to grow and prosper.

On another front, Abdel-Kerim traces reform from Muhammad Ali to Ismail, explaining that the Pasha was eager to build scientific strength, opening up new horizons to Egyptians joining the education system. His dream of building one state “to eliminate the distractions of the Sultan and unite the elements of this nation, pushing it towards building itself and opening the doors of science and western civilization to it,” as stated by the historian Ahmed Zakaria in the introduction to this edition, is fully documented. “Thus Muhammad Ali placed the foundations of reform efforts, but his aim of growing and establishing stability was not realised, while both Abbas and Said, his sons, took new paths and disregarded this foundation.”

First published 70 years ago, this book ends with analysis and criticism. Abdel-Kerim discusses the weakness of the system and the relation between that and society, and is thus able to appreciate the success achieved in creating a spirit of nationalism in Egypt and strengthening its leadership in the Arab world. Yet he also sheds light on the negative results, such as the failure of the education system to reach out to all levels of society, resulting in the formation of a privileged class while the masses continued to be ignorant, and contributing to the split of this society and loss of justice and equality, eventually leading to the degradation of manual labour. 


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