By Rania El-Badry
As I enter the lecture hall, a sea of anxious and curious faces greets me, listening attentively to the speaker as though their lives depend on it. It is not by any means far from the truth, for these are the faces of parents, parents worried about their children’s futures in a society and time that seems desperate to squander their dreams and natural talents. Today they are here to hear a possible solution to the nightmare that plagues them; many of them have never heard of it before and are full of questions and queries, while others are here for the verification that while others may call them crazy, they are not alone in thinking of this radical venture. Though the lecturer chooses to refer to what he talks about as “ta’aleem ma’ren,”— which translates as “flexible learning”—it is simply a way to avoid the social stigma associated with the original term: home schooling.
For those unfamiliar with the term, homeschooling is the term used to describe the education of one’s children outside of the school system, most likely at home. Parents or tutors take up the education of the child, following a curriculum—most probably chosen and designed by the parents— that caters to the child’s own needs and talents, and that is inline with the family’s values and principles. Over the past two years, I have heard of home schooling in Egypt more times than I did in all the earlier years of my life combined. True, there is a global movement towards improved and alternative education systems that has been going on for decades—one needs only to watch Sir Ken Robinson’s talk at TED on “How Schools Kill Creativity” to understand why the video has resonated with some 30 million viewers— but these changes in “developed” countries have strong waves of support even if they are criticized by some people; at the very least in many countries, home schooling is in fact, well, legal. Full fledged home schooling in Egypt is in fact illegal, and yet over the last year alone I’ve attended at least two lectures supporting it, have come across numerous acquaintances who have actually started the process of home schooling or are studying the option, and this past year have seen the publication of what is seemingly the first Egyptian book on the matter, Wafaa Rifaat Al-Bassiouny’s “Misr Bela Madaress,” or “An Egypt Without Schools”.
Parents, students and teachers alike often reflect a dismal view of the education system in Egypt. In a community that seems far more obsessed with the façade of an education than truly enlightening the minds of our children, we have turned our education system into a machine, where the larger the output, the better, regardless of quality. For though education is obligatory in its primary and preparatory phases, people who tutor through social work projects such as Resala or Sonaa’ el Hiya can attest to the fact that being in fifth or fourth grade does not mean that you are in fact literate; many governmental school students in fact do not even know how to write their own names. And how can that be surprising? Out of over ten million students in primary education, 90% are in public schools where the average class size is 59.43. But class size is far from the only problem: you have poorly educated teachers, ill equipped classrooms, an archaic syllabus in almost all subjects, and an education system that does not address various learning styles and stigmatizes mistakes and creativity. Most Egyptians, aged 5-18, spend nearly a third of their day in such a system, and then waste hours in traffic just to go home, head to their private classes (which I have been told by experts is a 5 billion pounds/year industry), do their homework and that is about it. The rest of their lives—depending on their social standard— is most likely comprised of work, hanging out with friends, or taking up activities pre-chosen by their parents. Then these people grow up, have kids, and the cycle continues.
But still, this may not be the worst of it. Of course there is the negative effect of peer pressure, the rising levels of sexual abuse in schools, the startling numbers of students who now die in school transportation, but what many people are concerned about today, in a post 25th of January world, is how much of a say school has in how their children see the world. Numerous developed countries do not have syllabuses set by the government or even books provided by it; what happens is the government allows for the availability of several curricula options by providing simple learning targets, i.e. such as “By the end of this year, students should be able to a, b, and c.” This allows schools the freedom to choose whatever source material they want while keeping the targets in mind. Not in Egypt, however, unless your child is in an international school which requires you to pay multiple thousands of pounds per year for your child’s education (the numbers vary greatly but are regardless hardly within the range of the average Egyptian household, plus your child will be subjected to interviews and social scrutiny in order to be deemed as a fit student for such schools). If you are stuck with public education for your child, your child is part of an educational system that is monopolized by the government, and one source of concern for many parents is how politicized education has become.
True, after the 30th of June coup, it seems several schools of Islamic methodology or leanings have faced some type or other of trouble, but the politicized nature of education seems to have reached beyond that. A post shared widely on Facebook at the beginning of the current school year showed how the current regime is using its position to write history in the schoolbooks. This year’s books make a point of referring to the 30th of June “revolution”, the ills of the brotherhood regime, and speak of controversial figures as heroes. This is not the first time this has happened in Egypt’s history, for in line with the idea that history is written by the “victors,” Mohamed Naguib in his autobiography speaks of the heartbreaking day when his son came home from school to tell him of the school syllabus that spoke of Gamal Abdel Nasser as the first president of Egypt. The fact is the government, through its syllabus and its setting of exams, and its ability to control whether a student fails or succeeds, is capable of forcing people’s hands at accepting certain values or ideas. This is, without a doubt, dangerous; when the government controls knowledge that is deemed acceptable, can one truly feel safe with his/her kids placed in such a system?
The educational system is Egypt has been corrupt for years, but the rise of alternative education, whether home schooling or otherwise, has gone parallel with the revolution. Much as political awareness is increasing, educational awareness is increasing as well; we have opened our eyes to the fact that the problems of our current age may have all started there, with the fact that we were never educated properly. And much as social media sparked the revolution, education is finding its way through there as well. Education initiatives such as Tahrir Academy, Nafham, Ihyaa Academy, and Al-Ta’aleem Al-Ma’ren are a few of many that are aiming to alter the map of education in Egypt by encouraging online learning, hands-on education, or home schooling. And while home schooling may have been an alien a few years ago, today groups are forming across the country in an attempt to find solidarity for the idea of taking up our children’s education in our own hands; the Al-Ta’aleem Al-Ma’ren group on Facebook has over 18 thousand members, and is dedicated to those who want to share resources, ideas or ask questions about home schooling.
In her book, Wafaa Rifaat Al-Bassiouny argues that home schooling is the future we need and she argues for a legalization of the process, one that even examines the parents to see if they are fit to take up such an endeavor. Of course there are many objections to this possible enterprise; the loopholes seem many and the results unsure. People in our society will say the same thing we say about everything else in our country, and which is perhaps the reason for how underdeveloped our society is: the devil we know better than the devil we don’t. Why put your kids through a system that will socially isolate them, may hinder their progress and may prevent them from entering good universities? These questions may seem valid, but when one researches the nature of home schooling and the vast possibilities it offers, one can discover that these concerns are not only invalid, but also stem from the wrong kind of mentality: what makes the “good” university, good in our society? It again connects to our very limited idea of education and preparing our children for the future.
As Ken Robinson so brilliantly states in his talk, we are preparing our children for a future we cannot yet grasp; we do not know what jobs will be in demand in 20 years time; we do not even know what the landscape of this country will look like in five years time! The purpose of education should be to equip our children with the creative and critical minds to face the future, no matter what that future may be. We know for a fact that the current education system does not provide this and in fact limits this. Are we to wait for the system itself to change? With the bureaucracy that this country is famous for, it seems unlikely that such a change, even if considered, will happen within the next generation. And as such, if we truly do want the best for our children, perhaps it is necessary to think out of the box, out of the “school box’ to be more accurate, and into the “home schooling box.”
The current dilemma of this country, as in probably any country, stems first and foremost from our education system. The way we learn and perceive the world is controlled by this system that dedicates almost everything we know, and controls our values and principles. It is clear that our current education system has not been serving us well, and it has brought this society to where it is today. It may be a long shot but I would like to believe that the problems that our generation has created can be changed by the next generation, but that cannot happen if they are educated in the same manner we were: the mind that is meant to fix a problem cannot be educated in the same manner as the mind that created the problem. They need a better, more creative education, and it is our job to ensure that they receive it, by any means possible, and if the system is not willing to provide it, perhaps it is time we have taken matters into our own hands.
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