Egypt is the “capital of the world,” in the words of the late Egyptian geographer Gamal Hamdan.
So, it is not strange for a country like Egypt to stage an enlightenment revolution. Going hand in hand with its efforts to erect a new capital city, Egypt is now in the process of rebuilding its people’s minds in a revolution of the mind it is carrying out with a reform of religious dialogue.
The first to call for such reform was President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, and it includes the overall development of the country’s educational system to cope with non-stop technological progress.
Implementing this enlightenment revolution in Egypt will help us to overcome violence and terrorism, with the new generation acting as the revolution’s leaders. By learning computer languages and how to deal with information, this generation will be confident in its dealings with the present age, including in the exploration of outer space. We are betting on this new generation to take part in making a better future, and thanks to its commitment to science, it will be able to carry out such a mission.
According to statistics, Egypt’s population in the middle of the 20th century stood at 30 million people. At the beginning of the 21st century, this number was estimated at 80 million. Today, it has exceeded 100 million. Such numbers constitute a power that should not be underestimated. In other words, if Egypt were to face any kind of political or economic instability, then thanks to these numbers the whole region would be negatively affected.
It is from here that comes the importance of education, which is the first step towards rebuilding the minds of the Middle East. But who are these new citizens, and how can we rebuild them? Time passes, ideas get developed and new inventions and innovations are unstoppable. Even the language itself has had to change in order to cope with the industrial age and now the space age.
The British philosopher and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell wrote a lot on the future of humanity and how human intellects could be developed. For him, technical and cultural education should have special attention when preparing school curricula, as this would allow students to become good citizens, he said.
Russell believed that mixing cultural and technical education was like mixing knowledge with wisdom. It would act as a shield protecting societies from fanaticism, he thought, since this was based on short-sighted views. The main target of education was to prepare people to be good citizens, Russell held, which meant teaching them technology and culture together.
In Egypt, the government is applying a new strategy to educate 20 million pre-university students in the most up-to-date techniques by 2030. Education Minister Tarek Shawki has said that the new educational system will differ in its targets and techniques from the current one. He has stressed the need to modernise curricula to cope with the latest developments, adding that digital knowledge will have a key role to play in such a system.
In the new system, students in all Egyptian schools will be taught English as a compulsory subject until grade 12. Maths and science will also be taught in English.
The new education system has stirred wide debate among specialists, with these being divided into two conflicting groups, one backing the new ideas and the second opposing them. Teachers and parents have started to ask about the chances of success of the new system. How much will it cost? How will the teachers be trained? How will the schools be prepared, they have asked.
For writer Abbas Al-Tarabili, the minister should be given the chance to carry out his ideas. He should be allowed to remain in his post and should be given enough time to reap the benefits of his project, Al-Tarabili has said. I agree with him completely. For me, this project is the last opportunity we have to save our education system. It will enable Egyptian students to restore their academic status, making Egyptian students welcome in universities worldwide.
However, education expert Hossam Badrawi says that any such strategy is in need of certain complementary steps in order for it to be successfully carried out. Such steps include careful planning and a timetable for the implementation of the plans along with clearly defined bodies funding the project. Systems to assess performance, to define responsibilities and to respond to questions should also be included.
But rebuilding the Egyptian character through reforming education has become a necessity. Our role is to back such courageous experiments and at the same time to rectify anything wrong that may appear during their implementation. Funding the project should top the priorities of the government. The World Bank may be asked to participate in this funding, and any halting in the middle of the road may be enough to kill the idea.
Political activist and physician Mohamed Abul-Ghar hopes that the plans will be first applied in a limited number of schools before being generalised. We do not know if the Internet will be available at a suitable speed to download all the material required to all Egyptian schools, he says. We have to be sure that the teachers have enough training to use the tablets they are issued with effectively and that these are of good quality.
Education is a priority for all Egyptian families, regardless of their social and economic origins. To provide their children with a good education, many families are prepared to pay very large sums. For this reason and others, I believe that the issue of educational reform should be the subject of serious societal dialogue. Certain weak points marring the proposed new educational system may emerge. The minister may then have his attention drawn to these defects and be given the opportunity to amend them before starting the experiments.
Is the intelligence of Egyptian children in danger? The answer may be found in research conducted by psychologist Ahmed Okasha. Okasha said that there have been many attempts at a definition of intelligence. However, all agree that it is an ability people acquire at birth that lasts a lifetime.
Psychologists have tried to define intelligence in a few words. It is the ability of the individual to understand, innovate, self-criticise and direct behaviour onto the right track, they say. It is also the ability to think, learn and act properly. There are several kinds of intelligence, such as linguistic intelligence, which means the ability to write and speak. There is mathematical intelligence, or the ability to solve logical problems. Musical intelligence is the ability to understand aural patterns. Physical intelligence is the ability to control the body’s movements. Environmental intelligence enables people to balance duty and private affairs.
Egyptian students do not lack intelligence on any of these definitions. So, what do we really lack? My answer is “an awakening of the conscience” and a sense of real belonging to our country. If we had these two traits along with what we already have, we could achieve the impossible.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.