Moves to ‘reform’ education provide opportunity to escape Western-style factory schooling

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Ramadan 11, 1430 2009-09-01

Special Reports

by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 7, Ramadan, 1430)

There is an effort afoot in the world to ‘reform’ education. More specifically, many people in the West have realised that the factory-schooling system, in use for a hundred years, is now obsolete. There is growing uncertainty about education in the West: whether it should serve the old industrial order, or the new information order; whether it should continue to be a public trust or become a business venture. This means that there is an opportunity for us to escape the factory-schooling system, which came to the ‘third world’ via colonization, and put something else in its place that speaks more to the interests and needs of local cultures and societies. The question is not necessarily how the West will benefit from the new systems they are trying to impose; the question should really be, "why follow them again at all?"

Old-style colonialism ended with the dismantling of the British empire in the middle of the twentieth century. The new colonialism, led by America, tries to seem more benign, and uses things like education and the economy in preference to guns and cannons. But it is colonization all the same, and involves intruding upon different cultures and societies with a particular worldview and methodology, in this case liberal modernity. The colonial process has begun anew because the old-style colonial order is collapsing.

The West is more unsure of itself now than any time in recent history. Yet Westerners don’t want anybody to realise this. They want everyone to do two things: first, believe that the West is the sum total of all human ‘civilization’ and achievement; second, to follow them at all costs, no matter what harebrained scheme they think up. This uncertainty can be seen as an opportunity for the Muslim world and the ‘third world’ to regain a sense of purpose on their own terms, to rediscover the wisdom in their own traditions, and see how they help us all to respond to today’s challenges and prospects. This is less about reconstructing some elusive empire or golden age, and more about being honest with the current situation and seeing what those traditions have to say, and where they may point.

It is important to distinguish between education and schooling. Schooling is that form of education developed in Europe and America in the nineteenth century and spread about the world with Western colonialism. It is largely about social control, serving business interests (originally the factory system), and inculcating the values of Western modernity (things like materialism, competition, individualism, secularism, anthropocentrism, and so forth). Education, on the other hand, can be more open and have a flexible meaning that is culturally defined; nor need it be so institutionalized. Half the curriculum of modern schooling, after all, is in the structure of the school system itself, with its bells and whistles, daily drilling, desks in rows, six hours a day, five days a week, ten months out of the year, for at least twelve years: like a long jail-sentence or a career stint in the military, only for children instead of adults. The structure does half the teaching, and the subjects are often secondary. So colonized societies must ask themselves what kind of education they really need, and why.

Islamic education is hard to pin down nowadays. It can mean several different things. Sometimes it is simply modern schooling with separate cells for boys and girls. Or it grafts a simplistic set of Islamic heritage units onto a basically modern system. To be truly Islamic, Muslims need to rethink the whole enterprise in light of Islamic tradition, in terms of cosmology, epistemology and methodology.

Muslims have always paid a lot of attention to what can loosely be called education. Part of the problem of colonization is that the West has defined the limits of what can be considered education and what not. What do Islamic sources say about fundamental questions related to education? Cosmology (how human beings fit into the universe), epistemology (the nature of knowledge), and methodology (how people teach and learn): all of these have many possible answers, depending on which cultures we look at, and when. The West answers these questions by saying that humans are autonomous individuals living as economic beings in a materialistic world (cosmology); that knowledge is whatever can be proven or hypothesised by the methods of Western science (epistemology); and that human beings are essentially wild animals in need of control by promises of reward and threats of punishment (behaviourism), or that they are free-floating beings whose inner creativity needs to be released, which is constructivism (methodology).

These same three questions can be asked of other cultures, and a wide variety of answers found. Muslims can look to the Qur’an, hadith and seerah for their answers. For education, most Muslims cite the same few hadith over and over: "seek knowledge even in China"; "seeking knowledge is incumbent upon all Muslims, male or female"; and others that extol the virtues of seeking knowledge. These are useful because they describe a sort of methodology: Muslims should "seek after" knowledge and not wait for it to come to them, for instance. However, these hadith leave open the question of what knowledge is.

During colonization ‘ilm, the Arabic word for knowledge, became associated with science, which turned Muslims westward, toward Cartesian and Newtonian worldviews. But ‘ilm is much more than science in the Western sense. For instance, there is an important hadith that Muslims scholars used to cite often, great masters such as Imam Ghazzali, for example, but which in modern times seems to have been forgotten or deliberately overlooked. It goes something like this. The Prophet (saw) entered a mosque and saw a group of people sitting around a man. "What is this?" he asked; his companions replied, "a very great scholar," to which the Prophet said, "What is a great scholar?" They told him, "he is the most learned of people in Arab genealogies and their exploits, the days of Jahiliyyah, and Arabic poetry." The prophet said, "That is knowledge the knowing of which is no benefit and the ignorance of which is no harm." Then the Prophet (saw) declared: "Knowledge ‘(ilm) is of three kinds: the firm sign, the just duty and the established practice. All else is superfluous." Deep reflection on this hadith is an excellent place to begin our discussion of education and knowledge.

Western educator John Taylor Gatto has demolished what he calls compulsory schooling; his criticism is trenchant because he worked in the system for 25 years, and knows it well. His essay on the "seven lesson schoolteacher" is important for understanding the way in which modern schooling dumbs people down. To the extent that Muslims and other ‘third world’ peoples are following the same system, his criticism applies to them also. Teachers and educational activists in India, for example, are convinced that Gatto’s deconstruction applies to colonial education there. But it is important to remember who Gatto’s audience is: American Christians. Instead of following Gatto to the letter, what Muslims need to find are their own Gattos.

If one reads Gatto closely, one finds that he is doing two things: dismantling modern schooling and suggesting alternatives. However, some of his alternatives are too culture-specific for almost anyone but Americans. This is not to say that his work is not useful, but that in the end Muslims and ‘third world’ peoples will have to find their own way. Gatto is not a guide but a fellow traveller on the path toward a new practice of education. People like him should be studied carefully, but the study should not end there. If any more ideas must be taken from the West, then the ideas of people like Gatto are important, although the relevance of their solutions is limited.

One problem is that ‘modern schooling’ is virtually indistinguishable everywhere. For example, in Istanbul if you replace pictures of Ataturk with George Washington, the schools are amazingly similar to those in Brooklyn. The same is true in most other Muslim countries. What to do with this imposed system is a global problem. Muslims living in the birthplaces of this system have both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is living as a minority in a usually hostile environment, but the opportunity is that there is a fairly vigorous alternative-schooling movement, especially in America. So, if one can survive the hostility, there can at least be a feeling of comfort that there are millions of other people also trying to escape the same system.

Another global problem, found in America and elsewhere, is the relationship between education and the environmental crisis. Some American scholars have done good work on making these links, such as C. A. Bowers in Oregon. He describes how modern schooling is creating a cultural attitude wherever it goes that encourages people to tread heavily on the earth, to live an anthropocentric lifestyle, and to see consumerism as the epitome of individualism. He has nailed these people down in the US, but one can also find them all over the Muslim world. The problems are largely the same, although the solutions can differ. Gatto has some ideas, though oriented toward Congregationalist Christians, and Bowers has some ideas, though oriented toward native Americans and other indigenous peoples. Muslims have their own rich tradition to mine for answers to these same questions, and also to find new questions once Muslim thought and action have been reoriented toward the life of Islam.

Eventually the whole system of education may need to be eliminated to make way for another. Changes in the existing system are not likely to help much. Some Muslims, having tried to modify it, are realising that the result is still the same system, and that such modifications go nowhere. Yet it will be difficult to persuade parents to send their children to new schools that may or may not work; at least the colonial system ‘works’ (works at what is another question altogether). So there is need for some adult education too, as well as for redefinition of education so that it can de-institutionalized. This will take many bold and adventurous people at first, who are willing to move out of the system and build something else. Perhaps the existing system can be left as it is, to rot and fall apart, so that people see it for what it really is; in the mean time viable small-scale alternatives can be built elsewhere.

This is beginning to happen in pockets all over the world, out of sight of the global media. People are taking control of their lives, leaving modern schooling and doing something else. The details vary, but usually involve children spending less time in the artificial cells known as ‘classrooms’ and more time with parents, farmers, businessmen, artists, imams or whoever, to learn what it really means in practice to be human, to be Muslim, to work, to create, to have fun, and to learn in ways that are not even possible or imagined in the modern system.

All this can start small, locally and quietly, without building another system; it can try to rescue some people who may only be submitting their children to modern schooling because they have no choice, but who at the same time do want something better, something culturally relevant, ecologically sustainable, ethically and morally defensible, and spiritually calming and satisfying, for themselves, their children and their future.

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