Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Arab Education: Tradition, Growth and Reform

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Arab Education: Tradition, Growth and Reform

Article excerpt

In recent decades, Arab education has achieved substantial growth in quantitative terms, with enrollments and other indicators expanding dramatically, including for females. Arab students can choose from different educational systems. Yet a lively discussion about quality is taking place throughout the Arab world. Business leaders worry that university graduates are unprepared for the private sector, and that universities are not doing relevant research. Observers are questioning traditional rote learning and the absence of accreditation and objective evaluation, and considering reform measures.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks and the revelation by the US Government that the 19 hijackers were Muslim Arabs, mostly from Saudi Arabia, the editorial pages of American newspapers have been full of articles discussing Arab educational systems - and particularly Saudi schools. The writers declare that educational institutions in the Arab world nurture a mind-set of intolerance and even hostility to the West, so these institutions deserve much of the blame for fostering anti-US terrorism.1

At present, however, we lack sufficient information to make definitive statements about the effect of Arab schools on tendencies of graduates to become terrorists. Some organizations and individual researchers have made initial attempts to review Arab textbooks for political content, but no one has yet collected sufficient data in a systematic way, and analyzed it dispassionately, on what Arab textbooks actually say, or what goes on in Arab classrooms.2 This task remains to be done.

Meanwhile, there is a lively discussion taking place throughout the Arab world about several aspects of education and reform measures that are needed. This discussion, which has gone largely unnoticed in the West, has been generated by several developments in the region. Those developments include strong demand for education at all levels, the resulting pressure on educational facilities and budgets, and concern on the part of the private sector that the education system is not providing graduates with appropriate skills to deal with the challenge of globalization. Arab students have a variety of opportunities now, including private educational institutions, English-medium schools, religious-curriculum institutions, and study abroad. This article will first describe the fundamental attributes of educational systems in the Arab world and then it will review the main issues that are being discussed by Arab leaders in the private sector, government and academia, about areas that need reform.


Although there are differences among Arab countries in their educational systems, just as there are differences in their political systems, economic circumstances, and social customs, some common characteristics can be identified that apply for the most part. They are: a rapid growth of access to educational institutions, and significant growth in literacy, for females as well as males; governmental control and financing of most education, with a new trend to some privatization; the emergence of some Western-style educational institutions, and continuation of some religious-based ones; and limited study abroad. Each of these will be examined before looking at the reform debate.

Just as there has been little study of the impact of curricula, so also it should be noted that one of the problems in understanding Arab education generally is that fully reliable and up to date information on Arab schools and educational systems is not readily available for all countries, although UNESCO and others are making an effort to compile accurate material and some progress has been made recently.3


Arab education generally is characterized, first of all, by a dramatic increase in access to education during the past four decades. The numbers of schools, teachers and students have grown very rapidly. …

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