- like democracy, free markets, freedom of the press, and
"universal human rights" - is one of those subjects whose virtue
is considered self-evident. So is the superiority of the
industrially advanced countries in attaining them. Consequently,
any package that arrives with one of these magic labels on it,
automatically qualifies for the "green channel" at our entry
ports. No questions asked. This uncritical acceptance has severely
crippled our discussion of all these vital topics. For example in
education most of our discussion centers around literacy
statistics and the need to have so many graduates, masters, Ph.D's,
and so many professionals in a given country based on the
standards in the industrially advanced countries. The central
issue of curriculum, and even more fundamental issue of the
purpose of education normally do not attract our attention; they
have already been decided by the "advanced" countries for us and
our job is only to follow in their footsteps to achieve their
level of progress.
Indeed they have. In the "First World", education has become an
extension of the capitalist system. Its purpose is to provide
qualified workforce for its machinery of production and eager
consumers for its products. Stated in a more polished form, the
purpose of education is to provide for the economic prosperity of
a country. Similarly on a personal level today the purpose of
education is to be able to earn a respectable living.
While earning halal living and providing for the economic
well being of a country are certainly important Islamic goals as
well, the linking of education to financial goals is extremely
unfortunate. It turns the centers of learning into mere vocational
centers in their outlook and spirit. It degrades education and
through it the society.
To bring home the pivotal but forgotten role of education we need
to recall that there is a fundamental difference between human
beings and animals. Instincts and physical needs alone can bring
ants, bees, or herds of beasts together to live in a perfectly
functioning animal society. Human beings do not function that way.
They are not constrained by nature to follow only those ways that
are necessary for the harmonious operation of their society. If
they are to form a viable, thriving society, they must chose to do
so. What drives that choice is the sharing of common goals,
beliefs, values and outlook on life. Without a common framework
binding its members, a human society cannot continue to exist; it
will disintegrate and be absorbed by other societies. Further, the
society must ensure that the common ground will continue to hold
from generation to generation. This is the real purpose of
education. The education system of a society produces the citizens
and leaders needed for the smooth operation of that society, now
and into the future. Its state of health or sickness translates
directly into the health or sickness of the society that it is
meant to serve.
Today we find many internal problems - corruption, injustice,
oppression, crippling poverty - everywhere we turn in the Muslim
world. If we think about it, we may realize that most of these
problems are man-made. Which is another way of saying that they
are largely traceable, directly or indirectly, to the education
system that produced the people who perpetuate the problems. The
rulers who sell out to foreign powers and subjugate their people;
the bureaucrats who enforce laws based on injustice; the generals
who wage war against their own people; the businessmen who exploit
and cheat; the journalists who lie, sensationalize, and promote
indecencies, they are all educated people, in many cases "highly"
educated people. Their education was meant to prepare them for the
roles they are playing in real life. And it has, although in a
very unexpected way!
The problem plagues all layers of society. Why are Muslim
communities in the grip of so much materialism today? What should
we expect when our entire education system is preaching the gospel
of materialism? Why have we effectively relegated Islam to a small
inconsequential quarter in our public life? Because that is
precisely where our secular education system has put it. Why in
our behavior toward each other we see so little display of Islamic
manners and morals? Because our imported education system is
devoid of all moral training. Why our societies are sick? Because
our education system is sick.
This is the real crisis of education. Before we got into this mess
by importing from the colonial powers what was current and
popular, education in our societies was always the means of
nurturing the human being. Moral training, tarbiyyah, was
always an inalienable part of it. The ustaad (teacher) was
not just a lecturer or mere professional, but a mentor and
moral guide. We remembered the hadith then, "No father has
given a greater gift to his children than good moral training" [Tirmidhi].
Our education system was informed by this hadith. Our
dar-ul-ulooms (institutes of learning) still maintain that
tradition but the number of students who pass through their gates
is minuscule compared to the secular schools.
In the U.S. and Europe, the schools were started by the church.
Later as forces of capitalism overtook them, they molded them into
their image. Moral training was a casualty of that takeover. But
capitalism and their political economy did need people trained to
work under these systems. So citizenship training was retained as
an important, though diminishing, component of the curriculum - a
religion-free subset of the moral training it displaced. Whatever
civility we see here is largely a result of that leftover
component. The imported versions in the Muslim countries, though,
had even that component filtered out. And the results are visible.
We can solve our problem once we realize our mistakes. The first
purpose of our education system must be to produce qualified
citizens and leaders for the Islamic society. Tarbiyyah,
real Islamic moral training, must be an integral part of it. This
must be the soul of our education, not a ceremonial husk. All
plans for improving our education will be totally useless unless
they are based on a full understanding of this key fact. This
requires revamping our curricula, rewriting our textbooks,
retraining our teachers, and realizing that we must do all this
ourselves. We do have a rich history of doing it. Are we finally
willing to turn to our own in-house treasures to redo education
the way it should always have been?