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Education and the Management of Populations
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Wild Fanatics and Impostors

But a second police concern was far more serious than the commission of petty crimes by children, or even jealous murders in Egypt's isolated villages. This was the question of political uprisings, often associated with religious zealotry. The Mahdist rebellion in the Sudan in 1881, and Colonel Ahmed ‘Urabi's army revolt shortly afterward had sensitized the British to the ease with which Egyptians could be mobilized around a charismatic leader. A permanent solution to the possibility of revolt was clearly not to be found solely in an expensive increase of the British garrison, so foreign officials sought ways to immunize the masses against political or religious excitement. Writing to the earl of Granville in February 1883, Lord Dufferin noted that the villages of Egypt “have more than once been the birthplace of wild fanatics and impostors, who have passed themselves off upon the simple population as endowed with supernatural mission.” [87] Consistent with Adam Smith's charge, ignorance increased susceptibility to political enthusiasms. A year later, the earl of Northbrook expressed similar feelings to Granville, adding that “Mahomedans who are instructed in the tenets of their religion have always looked upon [the Mahdi] as an impostor; any feeling in his favour was confined to the lower classes.” [88] But even the landowning classes could not be trusted, in their natural state of ignorance, with the new representative institutions to be introduced to Egypt in place of the terror of the courbash and the scourge of arbitrary rule. Dufferin feared that a local body modeled on the House of Commons “would simply prove an uninstructed and unmanageable mob, with a very low level both of character and intelligence, incapable of discussing public business or of understanding finance, and to which it would be dangerous to accord anything but the most restricted privileges.” [89] Even were such classes to benefit from some sort of higher education, India had taught the British that an unregulated native intelligentsia was a potential political liability, and that higher education could essentially act as a system for manufacturing indigenous leaders (always referred to in contemporary records as “demagogues”) who would contest foreign influence.

By the mid-1890s officials were beginning to express unease that, “year by year, as higher education increases, the intellectual breach between the upper and lower classes of Egyptian society becomes wider.” [90] The political danger inherent in such a gap, together with the hope that the spread of basic education would hasten the success of economic development projects, created pressure for a rational program of popular schooling, “so that the people may be rendered accessible to ideas other than those sanctioned by tradition.” [91]

The time seems now to have come for the introduction of practical measures which would aim at bringing the great mass of the people within the range of the influence of the Public Instruction Department.…In particular, the little private schools (“kuttabs”) attached to almost all the mosques in Egypt, might, by means of the Grant-in-Aid system, be made instrumental in disseminating a sound education, however elementary, among the poorer classes.[92]

Noting the limited scope of the kuttabs and the lack of formal training and certification of their teachers, Cromer yet concluded that “it is more to the point to bear in mind that these little schools have proved their utility by their continuous survival in spite of the neglect, contempt, and other adverse circumstances to which they have for centuries been exposed.” [93] The grant-in-aid system, used both in England and in India for decades, would not provide financial aid for each school that applied, but would bring inspected schools into competition with each other for available money, and thus, it was assumed, improve their standards with the incentive of possible future reward. Through this program, the country's multitude of isolated kuttabs would be changed into “an organization of cheap but efficient elementary schools, in which is given an essential but limited amount of religious instruction, together with a course of secular instruction designed merely to equip the pupil with sufficient knowledge to take care of his own interests in his own station of life.” [94]

In April of 1895 the Department of Public Instruction began its experiment with the subvention of kuttabs, having forty-six of the schools transferred to its administration from the Ministry of Religious Endowments, and publishing, the following September, a set of regulations and a syllabus for study. Agreeing to open their schools to monthly inspection by the department, “fiqis” (fuqaha’, sing. fiqhi; literally “jurist/theologian,” but used popularly to refer to a Qur’an reciter and teacher) became eligible to receive small grants based on enrollment, provided that they concentrated on reading, writing, and arithmetic, and that no foreign language instruction was attempted.[95] Inspectors were to be drawn, “to command the confidence of the native community, and to be in full sympathy with the teachers,…from the class who have received at least part of their education in the El-Azhar or some other mosque school.” [96]

One of the more sensitive issues to confront the reformers of the kuttab was the question of what to do—or not to do—about the actual content of instruction. It was decided early on not to interfere with the primarily religious focus of the kuttab, the British assuming that to do so would “inflame public opinion.” “It is hardly necessary to point out,” Cromer wrote, “how much tact, prudence, and caution are called for in making any attempt to direct or encourage these indigenous schools. There must, of course, be an entire abstinence from interference with religious instruction.” [97] Fortunately, along with the systematization of the scattered rural institutions came the mania for regulation and record- keeping so characteristic of the British, and passed by them to the professional classes of their foreign territories. Consuls general soon found that they could use regulations and statistics as rhetorical weapons against any who might claim that the extension of ministerial control to the kuttabs undermined their original mission.

There cannot, in fact, be a doubt that, far from the introduction of any process of deterioration, religious instruction has shared in the general improvement which has taken place in the schools under Government control. I may mention that, in order to qualify for the post of head-teacher in a Mohamedan “kuttab,” a thorough knowledge of the Koran and of the principles of Islam is required.[98]

Three years later, in 1906, Cromer elaborated on the improvement, explaining that

a scheme of practical instruction in the principles and religious history of Islam has been introduced into these schools, and an endeavor has been made generally to improve and vitalize the religious instruction.…If we take as a test facility for repeating the Koran by heart—a point to which the Moslem inhabitants of this country attach great importance—the following figures speak for themselves. At the last annual inspection of the Kuttabs, no less than 4,531 of the pupils were able to recite the whole of the Koran from memory, 3,538 were able to recite more than three-quarters, 4,180 more than a half, and 6,212 more than a quarter. The remainder of the scholars, being of very tender years, were at the spelling stage, or were learning the earlier chapters of the Koran.[99]

Despite this happy state of affairs, there were those who criticized the continued predominance of religious instruction as a misdirection of effort for schools that were intended to draw the peasantry into modern—albeit still local—pursuits and practical states of mind. Less than a decade after the grant-in-aid program got under way, complaints were surfacing that the inspected kuttabs were failing in their new role as “useful village and district schools” to produce useful village and district citizens. In 1904, of the 124,486 pupils in inspected kuttabs, “81,000 had received no instruction in writing, 70,000 had not commenced to learn arithmetic, and 54,000 had not even begun to learn to read”;[100] at the following year's inspection these figures stood at 94,000, 87,000, and 68,000, respectively, out of 145,694 students, slightly worse on the whole than the previous year.[101]

At the same time, there was unease about the school's response to changes in the economy. With indigenous manufactures rapidly declining and the demand for European-style wares increasing, it became clear that some of the previously agricultural population would have to be shifted to other productive pursuits. Products of the kuttab, however, seemed not to be interested. Writing in the context of a new movement to bring simple industrial education into the rural kuttabs through a system of “supervised apprenticeship” (an idea championed by a former missionary and long-time advisor to the Ministry of Education), the consul general explained that the current system of kuttab education was being abused to the detriment both of its clients and the wider society.

The influence of the “Kuttabs” has hitherto tended to divert the children of the poor from their natural avocations in the fields, or in the family workshops, and to embark them upon a career generally lapsing into mendicancy. The children flock to the “Kuttabs,” not to receive instruction, which will fit them for their position in life, but to commit to memory the whole of the Koran, and thereby, as reputed “fikis,” to escape from liability to military conscription. And, in Egypt, a “fiki,” unless he be attached [as] a reader to a “Kuttab,” and, except for casual employment in reciting the Koran at funerals and festivals, is virtually a beggar.[102]

Despite appreciable gains, Egyptians seemed not to be utilizing their new intellectual resource for the intended purpose, and their persistence in having habits and ideas the British wished them not to, earned them repeated criticism for “credulity.” In 1909 Sir Eldon Gorst castigated the Cairene press for trying to “arouse the passions of the mass of the people, who are, and must remain for years to come, far too ignorant to appreciate the absurdities and the falseness of the diatribes which are read out to them daily in the villages.” [103] Clearly, voluntary education would not suffice for the eradication of a dangerous political innocence. More intensive measures were necessary. But it was not until near the end of the First World War that the Egyptian minister of education, Adly Yeghen (a member of the old Turco-Circassian political elite), charged a committee of experts with studying the systematic universal extension of elementary schooling throughout the country. The commission was appointed at the end of May 1917, and consisted of six Egyptians, functionaries in various ministries, educators, and provincial officials; and five Englishmen employed in the Egyptian civil service. It was under the presidency of Isma‘il Hassanein Pasha, the under secretary of state in the Ministry of Education.[104] In their preface outlining the need for universal elementary education, the authors quoted liberally from the works of contemporary reformers on the vital interest of new nations in the eradication of illiteracy and the spread of modern skills. But they also pointed out the political dangers inherent in allowing the continued ignorance of large populations, using examples from India, Russia, and America.

Inevitably, the commission relied heavily on Lord Cromer's experience in Egypt, as expressed in his memoir of the period, Modern Egypt. In discussing the political ramifications of educational policy, the committee selected a passage from Cromer that first referred approvingly to Macaulay's policy in India, and then explained,

If [higher education] is to be carried on without danger to the State, the ignorance of the masses should be tempered pari passu with the intellectual advance of those who are destined to be their leaders. It is neither wise nor just that the people should be left intellectually defenceless in the presence of the hare-brained and empirical projects which the political charlatan, himself but half-educated, will not fail to pour into their credulous ears. In this early part of the twentieth century, there is no possible general remedy against the demagogue except that which consists in educating those who are his natural prey to such an extent that they may, at all events, have some chance of discerning the imposture which but too often lurks beneath his perfervid eloquence and political quackery.[105]

The commission, writing in 1919, added ominously that “the recent history of Russia supplies a tragic illustration of this danger in actual operation.” The frequent identity of rural crime and political protest in Egypt was not recognized by the British administration.[106] But the connection between the “perfervid eloquence” of the demagogue and the mobilization of popular unrest certainly was. Paradoxically, their solution to the problem was not to quarantine the infectious enthusiasm of the “political quack,” but rather to inoculate the populace against his harangues. Through education, the public could not only be convinced of the value of order and stability, but could, through the inculcation of new skills and habits of thought, be drawn into a new set of social relationships that would give them a vested interest in the maintenance of a new system of class relations.

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