The Real Problem With Arab Education

You've probably heard of Madrassas. The word, which means "schools" in Arabic, took on ominous overtones after 9/11, when Western pundits and politicians warned that extremist Saudi-financed religious schools were filling the education gap throughout the Muslim world but sending youngsters straight into the arms of Al Qaeda.

If anything, you'd think the problem would have gotten worse since then, thanks to the global financial crisis. But it turns out that the madrassa storyline was never so stark—and the real problem with education in the Muslim world is more complicated. The good news is that religious madrassas have never been for the masses; even the infamous ones in Pakistan educate less than 3 percent of the total student population in the country, and the numbers are equally negligible in the Arab world. Yet that's little cause for celebration. Government schools that do educate the masses are mind-numbing and anachronistic, utterly useless for helping graduates face global competition. And their failures are far more dangerous.

This wound is largely self-inflicted. "Generations have been raised not to question authority" or think critically, says a leading Arab reform advocate, who asked not to be named because of the political sensitivities involved. "This was on the premise that by doing so you raise a docile population—but the results have been just the opposite."

A major report issued by the World Bank last year documents the problem. Arab public schools, which educate roughly 80 percent of the population, are often designed to turn out minimally skilled bureaucrats who are not even guaranteed government jobs any longer. And good luck finding work in the private sector. The result, says Marwan Muasher, who was previously an architect of Jordan's long-term development strategy, "is a huge number of young people who are unemployed, frustrated, and may be subject to radical ideologies."

Muasher's warning is frightening; throughout modern history, revolutions have started among people whose aspirations were raised and then crushed. The total population of the Muslim Middle East and North Africa has almost quadrupled since 1950, and more than 65 percent of its people are under the age of 25. Mass media have given them a view of the wider world, but their schools haven't given them the tools to access it. While there have been recent improvements in some areas like literacy, the massive youth bulge is creating a huge burden for state education systems.

Parents who hope for better have turned increasingly to private institutions—but not just Saudi-run madrassas. Two good examples are the Choueifat Schools, founded in Lebanon way back in 1886, and Global Education Managements Systems, which originated in Dubai in the 1980s. Both have grown rapidly throughout the region, offering secular education by skilled professionals. In Qatar, 72 percent of primary-school students now go to private schools, and in the United Arab Emirates it's 58 percent. (The numbers drop dramatically in the bigger Arab states.)

But private schools are a lousy fix, as they risk perpetuating elites and heightening class divisions that are already a source of enormous tensions. What is needed is a complete rethink of Arab education, giving local communities a greater say in what and how their children are taught and helping the system respond to the marketplace. But don't count on such a change being made soon. In the meantime, madrassas may not be filling the gap. But that's cold consolation for the poorly served kids of the greater Middle East.