'Islam and Modern Schooling' - Live Dialogue

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Progler

Ramadan 14, 1424 2003-11-09

by Yusuf Progler

Subject:

Islam and Modern Schooling

Category:

Discussion

Guest Name:

Yusuf Progler

Profession:

Professor

Start Date/Time:

Sunday, November 9, 2003 12:00 ET

End Date/Time:

Sunday, November 9, 2003 1:00 ET

Dialog Description

"Islam and Modern Schooling"

What are schools for?
How has schooling replaced education?
What does the Islamic tradition offer for education?

Posted Questions and Responses

Name:

Somayyah

Question:

To encourage their children for school lessons, Muslim parents talk of the importance of seeking knowledge in Islam. But I have always questioned this reasoning. Is school lessons the knowledge that Islam invites human beings to achieve?

Answer:

Salam and thanks for the great question to get us started. You are referring to the oft-repeated hadith, like "See knowledge, even in China," or "Seeking knowledge is incumbent on every Muslim," and others. While I understand the reasoning of parents in using this as a prod for their children to do better in school, I agree with your suspicion that it is perhaps wrong-headed. At the core of understanding this sort of question is the confusion between schooling and education, so let's start with that. Schooling is a relatively new phenomenon in human history, really only extant for about a century in most of the world, less in some places and more in others, but relatively new. It is an institutional response to several social needs, such as the need for social order, the need for acquiring marketable skills, the need for passing down one or another state ideology or identity. As modern institutions, schools are akin to factories, hospitals, asylums, prisons and the military, and they all share a remarkable degree of uniformity in both form and content. What gets taught in these institutions is a narrow form of knowledge, and usually what is deemed necessary by the society at any give time. Schools in the industrial societies also served the purpose of removing children from the ardors of factory labor for a few more years. On the other hand, we have education, which, as I see it, is a much broader prospectus. Education can take place inside institutions like schools and universities, but to limit the concept of education that way, to equate education with schooling, is to do deep damage to a concept that I think is more akin to the Islamic notion of seeking knowledge. Education is about learning, discovering, experience things for oneself, and it can be lifelong and unique for each person. Education is organic, while schooling is mechanical. Education is conceptual, while schooling is technical. Education is lifelong, while schooling has specific termination points. Education existed before schooling and will likely outlive schooling. So to understand why some of us are suspicious of using the Islamic tradition in a way to encourage conformity to institutional schooling, one has to keep in mind this distinction between schooling and education. Having said that, we can also look at this from another perspective. Is schooling the same as seeking knowledge? The Islamic tradition urges seeking knowledge, but is that what really happens in school? If you really think about it, schools are not places where students seek knowledge, schools are places where knowledge is given to them, often forced on them, whether they like it or not. That is probably why parents have to resort to all sorts of tricks and enducements to get their children to conform, because many of them don't want to be there. They some how intuit what us adults often deny, or bury under verbiage, sort of like what I am doing here! If the Islamic way is to seek knowledge, then it means just that, to seek it out, not to wait for it to come to you. Of course, it can be argued that by attending school, one is seeking, but that feeling of truly seeking something often ends as soon as the student enters the school building. After that, it is is usually passive reception of whatever the teacher or the system or the state says you must learn. So, to me, there is a fundamental redefining of our Islamic tradition going on if the best we can do is equate seeking knowledge with attending school.

Name:

Mira

Question:

Salaam Ustad, What is the difference between schooling and education? Do we find education in school? Is school the right place for one to seek knowledge? I know I'm asking a lot of questions at the same time, forgive me :)

Answer:

Salam Mira, thanks for the question. I addressed some of what you are asking in my answer to the previous question, but let me develop that a little bit more here. The concept of "getting an education" has been radically altered in the past century to mean "getting a certificate." And getting a certificate, more often than not, means you have simply had the patience to sit through interminable lessons and follow the rules and regulations of the institution that grants the certificate. That is a completely radical reworking of the concept of education, in my mind, and it points to the hegemony of institutions in our lives today, that instutions have taken over and redefined basic aspects of social and cultural life, one of the most important of which is education. To elaborate on the differences, education is self-initiated and self-directed, schooling is initiated and directed by others. Education is situational and what you learn depends on the context, the time and place, and who you are asking, and what you already know and why you want to learn something else, whereas schooling depends on the simple fact of entering the institution, after which you turn all that over to some one else. Schooling is a form of consumerism, and like other aspects of modernity, such as health care and social services, it has become institutionalized to such a degree that we cannot even image life with out it. But is that so difficult? What was education like before schooling took it over? How did people learn before there were schools? I think everyone who really cares about education should meditate on these sorts of questions, to really think about it. And, if we are thinking like Americans, who are ferociously utilitarian, we can ask another question, shorn of all these theoretical meanderings. From a purely practical perspective, does schooling work? To answer that, one has to ask, what does schooling set out to do? One justification for spending billions of dollars on schooling is that it can provide job training. But in the United States and other industrialized nations, the are fewer and fewer jobs available to graduates of high school, which used to be enough to at least get a factory job. In fact, modern schooling was developed to provide just that: obedient factory workers. Now, all the facories are closed or sent abroad, and schooling is in a sort of crisis. The absurdity of this is multiplied when one looks at nations that never had an industrial economy, who have still chosen to adopt the factory model of schooling, just because it is what the West does.

Name:

Ali

Question:

In my country, Iran, before the adoption of modern schooling all children went to a traditional school, known as maktab, and learned Quran, Hadith, and Persian poems that were full of moral teachings. Then we can see people of that age, without any modern schooling, have enough knowledge of their religion for life. But in modern schooling, not only the students feel like their learnings is not related to their daily life, but also there is a big question on both moral and religious education. I hope in today's topic you can explain how this happened to us.

Answer:

Salam Ali, thanks for the thought-provoking question. Some of what you are asking I have answered above, but you add another dimension to this issue, that of moral education. I think to answer such a question, one has to ask, "What is necessary for a happy, prosperous and healthy life" and for people of religion, the added dimensions of caring for the after life. Schooling by definition cannot provide for most of this, since the goal of schooling is indoctrination into various forms of nationalism, social order and economic development. Morals and religion have no place in the schooled life, or at best they become just another subject to be "taken" along side math, science, language and history. Schooling envisions a very different outcome than the maktab. The maktab was intended to provide, as you say, the basic essentials for being a good Muslim. That was all, and the rest of what you needed for life was learned in various situations, depending on what you needed, whether it was further studies in things like theology and poetry, or whether it was something like learning to farm a plot of land of fix a pair shoes. You learned what you needed to learn to live life, and the maktab, and later the madrasa, provided a moral baseline for everyone in the society, who would then go off and live that life and seek their fortunes, or interests or whatever. Schooling redefined all that, and in most cases schooling was intended to eradicate the moral dimension of education, or at least that part of morality that did not conform to whatever type of nationalism or economic ideology was being promoted by the state via the school system. But you are asking a question beyond this, you are asking how this all happened. That has a long answer and it has a short answer. The short answer is that it happened with colonialism, the long answer would require looking at the particular circumstances of each case. I think Iran, Turkey, Egypt and many other countries in the Muslim world followed a similar pattern, more or less, which began in the 19th century in the face of Western military superiority. That begins with Napoleon's invasion and occupation of Egypt, after which kings and sultans in the Muslim world began to pay more attention to things like war and commerce. It was clear that the system of warfare and commerce developed in the West during the 16th-18th centuries was far more efficient at making money and killing people than anything that had come before. That system was in some ways immoral, and in other ways amoral, but never moral. Anyway, that is part of the long answer to your question of how this happened. A good place to begin studying this is Francis Bacon, who many consider to be the father of modernity. He conceived the dictum "knowledge is power," although no one who parrots that as a slogan today bothers to find out what he meant. Bacon meant knowledge in the form of science that could be used by the West to dominate and exploit other nations of the world and the natural environment.

Name:

A researcher

Question:

I am an educational researcher and in my studies I came to the point that Illich's "Deschooling Society" is the greatest idea ever given on educational issues. But the question is how today's institutionalized human beings in their "citizen" position can escape the prison of "institutions".

Answer:

The simple to your question is to just walk out. I was invited to a conference in India recently that was organized around the entire principle of walking out of institutional schooling. In fact, it has become such a potent force in India, attracting more and more people away from schooling that the Indian government has passed a new law the will level a fine on parents who do not submit their children to school. That, to me, shows the desperation and impoverishment of the whole system of compulsory schooling, which now has to resort to laws and fines to continue forcing people into institutions, the benefit of which they can no longer see, if there ever was a benefit. You can read more about this movement by finding the website of an organization known as Shikshantar, which sponsored that conference. Parents and students alike shared stories of rediscovering a wholesome life without schooling. Many asked, if there are no jobs with a diploma, then why should I or my child spend 12 or more years in school? What is the benefit? There is little benefit, these folks are realizing, but they problem is few people are brave enough to walk out, and so they continue submitting to the system. I'm glad you brought up Illich, since he envisioned a system of education for "deschooling society," and his book by that name is available on the web for those who wish to read it. Illich, in some ways, has only reconfigured for modern times the type of education that people had for most of human history, prior to institutionalized schooling. That type of education was informal, situational, context-specific and geared toward the interests and needs of self selecting individuals, families and communities. The fact the governments are mandating schooling means that, in the end, there needs to be a political struggle, and that means people have to find or develop alternatives, organize themselves and provide support for those who take those crucial first steps of walking out of the institution. Without those elements, the full weight of state power will clamp the lid even tighter onto the heads of children and parents who are beginning to awaken from the consumerist slumber of schooling. What alternatives are there, you might ask? Well, part of the problem with being addicted to institutional schooling is that we have become unable to even image alternatives. That is sad, but not terminal, and not inevitable. Since there are people here and there who are walking out and providing alternatives and support, the first step might be to find out who they are, what they are doing, and think about how that can be reconfigured in your own social and cultural context.

Name:

Student

Question:

I wonder if in early Islamic socity we can find any political social systematic education? I want to know if such functions modern schooling have, have been in that society in some ways or not?

Answer:

I think what you are asking is can we find institutional schooling in early Islamic history. The answer, as far as I know, is that institutional schooling as we know it today did not come around until the advent of modernity, and for the most part it is only a couple of hundred years old. Of course, in Islamic history, there are examples of creeping institutionalization, prior to colonization, so we can't blame it all on the West. For example, after the Ayyubis (or maybe it was the Seljuks, I get all those dynasties confused!) conquered Egypt, which at the time was under control of the Fatimids, they began to institutionalize education. Part of that was to force conformity to a particular school of thought in Islam, and part of it was to exert control over the masjids and madrasas, which were for the most part informally organized and not under state control. So they instituted things like salaries for teachers as a way to control who got in and out of the teaching masjids, like al-Azhar. Several books have been written about that, one that comes to mind is by Jonathan Berkey, and there are others that I can't think of right now. But in any case, this was nowhere near the early Islamic society, as was already in the age of the Muslim Empires, and of course empires like to control as much as they can, so a nominal type of institutionalization began with them, but it took the coming of the West for that process to be completed, for the shift from education to schooling to occur. The best place to look for clues as to the type of education there was in the early days of Islam would be the collections of hadith, and for this type of research, which is not for shariah purposes, but more or less for historical purposes, I think the student should look at any traditions they can get their hands on, irrespective of school of thought or chain of narration. You will find, for example, some very interesting things in the Shi'ah tradition, from the Shi'ah Imams, that are very relevant to this discussion. It is beyond the scope of this dialog to provide all the sources, but in general I encourage you to read widely to try to find out exactly what education was like in the days of early Islam. There is a lot more to the Islamic tradition with respect to educational wisdom than the oft-cited hadith like "seek knowledge, even in China." We also have to be careful, whatever we find in those early traditions, to not interpret those traditions to fit the whims of the present day. For example, I have seen that hadith about seeking knowledge even in China used to justify space exploration, the reasoning being that at the time of the Prophet, China was the farthest known geographical location, but today we know there are places a lot farther, so we should, by analogy, seek knowledge there, too. But if that really what the Prophet meant? If he made isra and miraj to the seven heavens, is it really possible that he could not envision a world beyond China! Maybe he meant, literally, go to China for knowledge, since China at the time was known as a great and wise civilization, and it still is in many ways today. Anyway, let me end this answer with one of my favorite hadith, which I will paraphrase in English for now. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, once entered a mosque and saw a group of people sitting around a man. "What is that?" he asked. His companions told him, "That is a very learned man." "What is a very learned man?" the Prophet asked. He was told, "That is some one who knows the exploits and geneologies of the Arab tribes, the pre-Islamic days, and Arabic poetry." Having heard that, the Prophet declared, "That is knowledge the possession of which is no benefit and the loss of which is no harm." He then continued, "Knowledge is of three kinds: the firm sign, the just duty, and the established practice. All else is superfluous." With that one statement, the Prophet of Islam, may Allah's benedictions be upon him, sundered the knowledge system<

Name:

Student

Question:

I wonder if in early Islamic socity we can find any political social systematic education? I want to know if such functions modern schooling have, have been in that society in some ways or not?

Answer:

This is a repeat question but let me take the opportunity to thank everyone for the thoughtful and stimulating questions, and I hope you all found this dialog session some how interesting and useful. If you want to know more about this topic, you might want to join the Multiversity Group, which is dedicated to critical discussions of modern schooling and to finding alternative knowledges and educational traditions among the different cultures and societies of the world. You can join it here: groups.msn.com/multiversity, and tell them Ustad sent you! Thanks again, and Ramadan Kareem!

Courtesy: www.masnet.org

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