Thursday, February 2, 2012

Society in Transition--The Role of Education (Part III)

There has been a steady decline in the level of Egyptian school teachers and university professors since they have become state employees. Once a member of an elite corps of scientists and learned men, a professor today is just one of thousands of government employees. The drop in teaching standards parallels the general decline in the level of public services in Egypt, a phenomenon that has grown out of the frightful imbalance between people's growing sense of rights and their diminishing sense of duties. This phenomenon is common in socialist countries. Things cannot be otherwise in an environment where workers are cushioned by a plethora of promises and freed from the constraints of such basic economic laws as that linking salary to production and the law of rewarding excellence and punishing error, and where labor laws encourage slothfulness and idleness while discouraging initiative, creativity, competition and motivation.

I am confident that if we were to liberate teachers and university professors from the fetters of the civil service, we would break the heavy bonds that tie them to the present situation of education in our country and allow them to concentrate on improving the quality of their work rather than their chances for promotion.

There has also been an alarming decline in our cultural life since it came under the thumb of politics. Education and culture are two sides of the same coin: if one declines, the other will follow. To understand what politics have done to culture in Egypt, it is enough to see the works of artists and writers in the 60s, or radio and television programs of the time, when politicization was at its peak.

Last is the indiscriminate expansion of the system. Education in Egypt is like a train: once a child reaches the age of six he or she can hop on board and remain there until the very last stop—the university degree. Not one country, either in the socialist or the capitalist worlds, provides education free of charge to every citizen wishing to benefit from that constitu­tional right. The fact is that no state, whatever its political orientation, can afford to provide free education from primary school through university. The only difference between socialist and capitalist countries in this respect is that while outstanding students enjoy this right in both cases, in the latter students who can afford to pay are allowed to continue studying even when they are not exceptional.

With such an indiscriminate expansion of education as that which took place in Egypt, it becomes impossible to maintain a balance between quality and quantity. Education is, after all, a service like any other, and the largesse of the Egyptian state in extending this service unreservedly to its citizens was, in­evitably, at the expense of quality. The damage could have been minimized with proper planning. However, the state did not prepare for increasing the number of public, technical and commercial schools, nor for the necessary boost in the number of teachers needed, nor for ways to generate productive and useful employment for the flood of future graduates. In fact, the expansion of education, like so many other things in Egypt, was a haphazard process born of a vague slogan about education being “the right of every citizen”. But noble slogans and good intentions never have and never will achieve success at any level.

To make matters worse, several factors combined to make Egyptians come to regard university degrees, and the government jobs that could be secured with them, with excessive respect, even reverence. At the same time, people began looking with disdain at technical and specialized vocational de­grees, which limits the social standing of its bearer. In addition to a shrinking private sector and the fact that most citizens are civil servants, and since all high public positions are held by university graduates, not to obtain a degree puts one in a category of social inferiority.

There was a time when a professor was the symbol of society's respect for itself. Venerated for his wisdom and his mission to society, a professor was someone who dedicated his life to teaching and educating the young. In return, society gave him the appropriate material and moral appreciation to enable him to pursue his mission. When the university and academic life in general was made subservient to political considerations, the professor's chair became just another form of government employ­ment. The vocation of professor lost its essence and mystique. The situation was even worse for school teachers, who were tossed around by the storms of political expediency on the one hand, and those of economic need, on the other, since the state could not afford to pay them salaries that met the increasingly heavy burdens of daily life. Teachers also suffered from the intellectual vacuum that affected their profession, as it did all other aspects of life in Egypt. It was no longer possible to expect a teacher to be a symbol of self-respect and knowledge, and to be a conduit for knowledge. The values and the status of the professor and teacher had been shaken, and with them the very foundations of education in Egypt.

Is there a cure?

Before probing ways and means of reforming education in Egypt, we should be aware that the success of any attempts at reform hinges on the readiness of Egyptians in general and the authorities in particular to admit that the problem of education has reached crisis proportions and that radical reform is a must.

Part IV will examine recommendations for educational reform.

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