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“The Four R's”

The first paragraph of Article 1 of the Elementary Education Commission's 1919 Draft Law for the Better Provision of Elementary Education in Egypt set out the minimum curricular requirements of a projected program of mass education:

The term “Elementary School” means a school in which suitable education is provided exclusively in Arabic for Egyptian children between the ages of six to eleven years in accordance with a syllabus prescribed or approved by the Ministry of Education. This syllabus shall include, at least, instruction in religion, reading, writing and arithmetic, and such other subjects as the Ministry of Education may determine.[21]

These subjects, “the four R's,” were already the backbone of the Egyptian elementary school program for children between five and thirteen years of age, which the proposed Draft Law meant to extend and provide with public monies. Elementary schooling had been growing rapidly during the first two decades of the twentieth century. In 1905, for example, there were more than a hundred kuttabs administered directly by the Ministry of Education, with nearly seventy-five hundred pupils. Over twenty-five hundred schools and seventy-six thousand students were under inspection. By 1906 the number of inspected kuttabs had jumped 70 percent, and the number of students had more than doubled. Article 19 of the Egyptian Constitution of 1923 declared elementary education compulsory for all seven- to twelve-year-old children within two miles of an elementary school. And despite the vital role played by the Coptic community in the Egyptian nationalist movement, with its secular political ideology, the Constitution also formalized Islam as the religion of the Egyptian state, reinforcing its presence in the curriculum.[22] General subjects were added to the curriculum, as was physical education for boys, and “Home and Health Information” for girls (which took the place of half of their Qur’anic studies in the final three years of the elementary curriculum; see table 1).

1. Relative Time Devoted to Subjects—Elementary Schools
  1903 1933
Qur’an 31% 33%
Religion 11 7
Arabic 29 31
Arithmetic 14 19
Calligraphy 14
General 8
Physical Education 2

The growth of the school population was slower through the First World War, but picked up explosively in the 1920s. The largest increases by far were in the kuttabs administered directly by the government, effecting a centralization of authority. In 1922, one hundred forty-five administered schools served over twenty-three thousand students, but by 1930, thirteen times as many kuttabs served eleven times as many students. The number of schools under the provincial councils declined nearly 30 percent during that period, and fewer than five hundred schools remained under inspection.[23]

In the more prestigious primary schools, whose graduates—unlike those of the elementary schools—could continue on to higher education, the program of study looked quite different. The four-year program was identical for boys and girls, stressing Arabic, foreign language, and arithmetic, relegating religion to a tiny corner of the program. For the elite children paying to attend primary schools, the imperative of class control was absent, and even religious instruction was to be “secular,” forming a part of the cultural background of the cultivated individual, and nothing more. In a discussion of secularism in Egypt, Professor Ibrahim Salama of Dar al-‘Ulum (originally a teacher-training college) described the new attitude in 1939:

If one means by secularization the scientific study of reality as reality, setting aside every a priori idea and every religious idea, the Egyptian system—excepting al-Azhar, of course—can perhaps be regarded as secular. Religious education does figure in the programs of the State schools, it is true, but always in the form of moral precepts, no more no less. For the student in the current programs of the State primary schools, whether those of girls or boys, we are able to discover evidence of this sort of secularization. The goal of the Qur’anic recitation is before all else a linguistic goal. The Ministry of Public Instruction advises the masters to read without rocking, and in a very simple manner, paying attention to Arabic phonetics, whatever Qur’anic verses figure in the syllabus.[24]

As befitting a “modern” and middle-class habitus, the stigmatized rocking of kuttab children was eliminated, and in fact the Qur’an itself seems to have been disconnected almost completely from the idea of “religious” instruction, constituting instead a source of linguistic exercises.

But these middle-class primary school students, as important as they were for the construction of the modern state, were not the sole concern of the Ministry of Education. Reports and plans for educational reform throughout the 1930s still hinged upon the concept that “Egyptian prosperity depends in the last analysis upon the existence of a pre-eminently large class of industrious, contented and intelligent agricultural workers.” [25] Although British civil servants continued to fill important positions in a number of Egyptian ministries, and the British Ministry of Education continued to provide consultants to the Egyptian government, another trend in educational planning and administration concerned the growth of new interest groups based in the schools and universities themselves. Professional educators influenced by the work of John Dewey and other popular school reformers moved strongly against the highly centralized and test-driven school organization developed by the French and the British to feed the ranks of the colonial government. Far from heralding a new era of decentralized local control of educational institutions, though, they in fact solidified the international linkages now growing between professional educators in the developed and developing worlds, continually transferring the latest pedagogical theories into an area that was still working to adjust itself to the idea of mass schooling.[26]

Three of these reformers, whose writings on the Egyptian school system were particularly influential in framing Egypt as a case study of the failures and successes of educational policy in modernizing countries, were Amir Boktor and Russell Galt, of the American University in Cairo, and Abu al-Futouh Ahmad Radwan, who taught at Ibrahim Pasha University (now the University of ‘Ain Shams). All three studied at the Teachers' College at Columbia University, foreshadowing the growth of American influence in Egypt's development during the latter part of the century. Though they wrote in English, their academic standing gave their writings an air of disinterest—all three felt free to criticize colonial education policies—even though in many respects they perpetuated educational trends like “secularization” and the use of schooling as an instrument of social planning that were begun during the Occupation.

Continuing to characterize the content of the elementary curriculum as “exceedingly bookish and academic for a peasant people,” educators of the 1930s repeated the call for new teaching methods and more attention to sound thinking, rather than test-driven memorization of government-issue subject matter textbooks. In the elementary school,

the absence of games, play, activities, and physical education, the heart of the modern elementary school, is conspicuous. Even the printed outline reveals that almost the entire time of the child in the school is given to a bookish type of study, with from one-half to two-thirds of the program devoted to memorization of the Qur’an, religious instruction, and the study of the classical Arabic language.[27]

The result, Galt wrote, was “an emphasis on the acquisition of irrelevant knowledge, formal learning, discipline by punishments, reverence for tradition, and the acceptance of authority.” [28] These problems were not confined to the elementary schools, but spread in various degrees to the primary and higher schools in the “Europeanized” system as well. Mere literacy was no longer enough, particularly if restricted to “the sacredness of the printed word in the Ministry's books.” [29] It was only by challenging its own traditions that Egypt could move beyond “[t]he invariable outcome of Oriental education [which] is a social order which possesses stability, but lacks progressiveness.” [30] But even as they championed secular learning and criticized “outdated” worldviews, educators were unwilling to call for the elimination of religious study. Merely the method and goal of that study would change. The traditional study of the Qur’an, whose purpose had been to learn how to use the sacred word in appropriate contexts,[31] now became the study of Islam as a moral system, a study removed from its living context and placed on the same level as other secular categories of knowledge.

Such subjects as hygiene, civics, ethics, and religion should be definitely planned to develop habits, build attitudes, and such a frame of mind as will bring home to the child the practical ways of living ethically, religiously, and so forth. This should not prevent the school from requiring advanced students to memorize certain sections of the Koran in connection with the study of Arabic literature. Owing to the mervellous [sic] beauty of the Koranic style, students of all religions should be offered this opportunity.[32]

This was much closer to the goal of religious study in the British school system, which mined divine writ for lessons (which can be evaluated rationally, and ignored if modified or contradicted by new evidence, as opposed to the furud of Islamic law, requirements or duties which are, in theory, eternal and compelling). This new manner of presenting religious subjects pleased professional educational theorists, who saw their adversary in the type of learning fostered by al-Azhar.[33] The future lay in the creation of a new secular Egypt in which agriculturalists would devote increasing amounts of time to the study of nature, farming, and physical fitness in elementary schools, while the elite would study science, literature, and history in the primary schools. Religious instruction would remain for both, but for different reasons.

Landowners and some Egyptian educators feared the advent of universal instruction in rural areas without a corresponding boost for higher education, claiming that it might mobilize “a formidable army of half- educated, third-educated and fourth-educated citizens who see things not in the way they ought to be seen.” [34] But religious education seems partially to have escaped the stigma of misapplication to the rural masses. At least one large landowner wrote in an Egyptian newspaper that the fellahin (peasants), with their limited needs, were happier than other Egyptians, “and that the most urgent reform in the countryside was the diffusion of religious instruction,” [35] an echo of the Reverend Wilson's sentiments a century before. If technical education might tempt cultivators to leave the fields for more lucrative employment, an emphasis on more traditional forms of instruction might dissuade them from leaving the land, either through reinforcing older loyalties, or merely by depriving them of the skills necessary to acquire alternative occupations.

Even the violence of the Second World War only gave further impetus to the faith that inculcating “moral precepts” through the school would be the foundation of a postwar internationalism based on liberal democratic ideals. Not long after Rommel's defeat in the western desert, the Egyptian minister of education, His Excellency Neguib el-Hilali Pasha, wrote of the faith of “all free nations” that “intellectual development coupled with moral reinforcement are of greater import than material reconstruction…the education which strengthens faith and fortifies character is the most solid bulwark against the vicissitudes of life.” [36] Arguing in favor of extending the period of compulsory schooling and instituting continuing education requirements for graduates, the Muslim Egyptian minister cited—on the authority of the archbishop of Canterbury himself—the vital importance of educating children in late adolescence. If the age of compulsory school attendance was not raised, el-Hilali feared, “they are apt to forget all or most of what they have learnt at school and are exposed to moral, mental and physical decadence.” [37] By now entirely dependent on foreign models of schooling, el-Hilali even found himself incapable of justifying religious education in the Egyptian school without citing a British model:

The British Government has declared in both Houses of Parliament that it is its intention to pay more care to religious education. The White Paper… acknowledges the importance of this sort of education in school life and claims for it a more prominent place in the syllabus, together with religious practices. It behooves our country to follow this example and to give to religious teaching and practice their due place in the school curriculum. The Ministry of Education on its part promises to bear this in mind in its intended educational reform.[38]

Moral education in the new Egypt would operate along several lines, at once “arous[ing] in…pupils an interest in the responsibilities of citizens towards their own country and the world at large,” [39] and, in rural areas, avoiding the alienation of children from the land. Schools here would “link education with agriculture and…rural industries,” so that boys could “gain an enlightened insight into the defects and shortcomings of their homes and villages, and visualise the measures of reform to be introduced,” while at the same time preparing them “for village communal life in a way that makes the work that awaits them in their surroundings appeal to them.” [40] Even religious instruction “should be of a practical rather than of a theoretical nature,” dealing with rural or industrial subjects in village and urban schools, respectively, and including “domestic studies” for girls.[41]

Religious education was conceived explicitly as just one more part of a comprehensive system of social planning operating through the school, rather than the mastery of a body of spiritual literature. “All present or proposed post-war reforms lay great stress on religious teaching,” the minister explained:

Spiritual education and moral uplift are essential factors in education, and many of the calamities that beset the world at present are due to lack of spiritual education. But religious teaching should not be confined to the memorisation of religious precepts; it should rather take a practical trend. A service should be regularly held in school with an Imam leading the boys in prayer. Sermons should be preached on simple subjects bearing on everyday life, within the comprehension of the young. The ulemas or students of religion should inculcate into the boys the habits of cleanliness and the elements of co-operation of which every Egyptian village is in great need. In the sphere of physical culture village games and sports should take a prominent place.[42]

By placing “spiritual education and moral uplift” on the same level as habits of cleanliness and cooperation-enhancing village games, the functionalization of Egypt's Islamic heritage was completed, so that what counted as real religion could now be defined by its social utility. Practices outside the sphere of planning thus became “superstition,” targeted, like ophthalmia or bilharzia, for elimination through centralized programs of scientific modernization.

This ever-growing faith in the power of mass education came at the same time as a revolution in the theory of teaching methodology that was drawn from the writings of European and American educators and applied at first in two small Egyptian experimental primary schools beginning in 1932. Responding to criticisms of the bookishness of elementary education generally, theoretical education was to take a back seat to active participation in projects revolving around practical application of ideas and skills. This was not the same as technical training; in fact, specific marketable skills were not in question. Rather, children were to learn by investigating natural, material, and social phenomena in small groups. Studying the production of milk products, collecting butterflies (for which students constructed their own display boxes), beekeeping, firefighting, and printing were all included in the “project method,” as were projects in which children played employees of the post office, acted out a historical episode dressed up as ancient Egyptians, or pretended to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca.[43] Advocates of this manner of instruction argued that the school, after all, was merely a “miniature society” in which children “inevitably soak up the values and moral criteria that prevail in their practical lives, whatever the ideas and principles offered them theoretically in lessons.” [44]

If we want to give the school a spiritual mission, we need to work towards establishing its life and its various interpersonal relations on a high plane. More than this, we need to provide for the student the opportunity to experience social life in accordance with the values we wish them to apply in their future lives. In order to prepare the student for a democratic spiritual life, he should practice the modes of this life in the school. Some educational philosophers—like the great American philosopher John Dewey—have gone on to say that the student should discover social and moral values for himself experimentally within the milieu of the school, because these values will not have the desired effect in the direction of his life unless they are the outcome of experience and personal experiment.[45]

The experimental method never caught on widely in Egypt because of the high level of teacher training and small class size it demanded, although aspects of its underlying philosophy became part of everyday educational planning and curriculum design. The project method, in making the study of Islam into an activity like chemistry and nature study, removed it further than ever from its textual roots in the name of making it practical, easily accessible, and fun. The methodology of practicing or modeling religious duties was to rationalize religious study and bring it into line with the secular subjects.

But secularism, “the scientific study of reality,” and the cultivation of a modern mentality on a large scale proved to be more difficult to inculcate in Egypt than its new intellectual classes anticipated. Fees for the primary schools were eliminated entirely in 1949, effectively creating a unified school system at the primary level, with a single curriculum that could allow more and more Egyptians, even those not from the wealthiest and most Europeanized families, to enter higher stages of education. The changing class composition of the schools, in concert with the pervasive idea that Egypt was in the process of catching up with the developed world, meant that long after the Second World War, Egyptian educators would continue to complain that their countrymen still placed entirely too much emphasis on “antiquated traditions” in looking for the solution to social problems, rather than relying on “a frank examination of the consequences that follow from [their] various social practices.” [46]

Abd al-Futouh Ahmad Radwan's work at the Teacher's College at Columbia University had made him impatient with “the mode of thinking of the average Egyptian [which] is far removed from that pattern which we call scientific.” Belittling popular belief in the intercession of saints and the cult surrounding such shrines as Cairo's tomb of Imam al-Shafi‘i, Radwan wrote that

The conflict between the old and the new is quite apparent in those who engage in these superstitious practices. Many go to consult a modern trained doctor, but they also carry a charm in their pocket or on the aching spot in their bodies, and if they recover they do not know whether it was the doctor's prescription or the charm that brought about their recovery.… Some University students even visit the shrine of al-Husayn or Al-Sayida Zaynab before they undertake their examination in science. The new modes of thinking are gaining ground, but the strength of old beliefs persists and hinders the development of a scientific mentality.[47]

Schools were to be the primary weapons against “the problem of superstitions and harmful customs,” such as “whether a Dhikr [a technique for drawing the individual into mystical contact with God] is a real religious experience, or whether a visit to a shrine really helps a person to recover from sickness, or whether growing a vine in one's home actually causes misfortune”; and they should not just “take a negative attitude toward such issues or be content with casual reference to their false or harmful nature, but should take an explicit attitude against them and try to uproot them altogether from the minds of the young.” [48] In response to the experimental and progressive schools founded in the 1930s, Radwan called for a still more critical approach to the curriculum, asserting that merely encouraging active emulation of social patterns rather than theoretical study of them did not achieve the goal of helping children “to examine the social experiences behind these activities, so as to gain insights into social affairs.” He criticized the Pilgrimage project in particular, for not having students interview a pilgrim

in order to ask him what problems…he discusses with the Muslims from other lands when they meet in Mecca. Nor do they ask…why he gave the little saving he had to the rich steamship company instead of using it to buy a mechanical plow to improve his business. Nor are they led to see that an action of this sort is not in line with the original principles of the tradition of pilgrimage according to which it is supposed to be reserved for those who can afford to undertake such a costly journey.[49]

Radwan's view of education as a key to social progress, in which “the curriculum of schools should reflect [the] needs of the nation in both a qualitative and a quantitative sense,” [50] and in which religious scholars are seen as useful primarily insofar as they can issue rulings consonant with national advancement, underlines the sense that Egyptian educators were coming to share that religious instruction in public schools should serve primarily national political and economic ends rather than purely personal, spiritual, or communal ones.

What proved frustrating to intellectuals and administrators was precisely the stubbornly personal and local nature of popular concerns. Villagers were far more interested in religious specialists acting as “religious literates, not…spiritual guides,” [51] to the chagrin both of professional educators and private organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood (which had never been very successful in rural recruiting). If peasants were resigned—within limits—to the appropriation of their labor and their surplus production, they more actively resisted the appropriation of their loyalty or attention to national political projects except insofar as these had direct local impact.[52] In meetings with visiting ‘ulama from urban areas, rural Egyptians were primarily concerned with questions of

whether one lifts his hand up to his shoulder or up to his ears [during prayer], how one sits on after prostration, what one might say before and after prayers. Other questions that arose were queries about whether certain sayings or deeds were considered to be religiously approved or disapproved, how and to whom one would make a sacrifice oath, whether visiting saints' tombs is a good thing or not, and so forth.[53]

On the ground, in remote villages like Silwa in far southern Aswan Province, the changing educational landscape at the national level was marked physically by the simultaneous existence of kuttabs as well as an elementary and a primary school. Studied in the early 1950s by native son anthropologist Hamed Ammar, Silwa provided a concise portrait of the difficult process of adapting national pedagogical goals to local structures of expectation. The kuttab, which transmitted respect for the patriarchal village authority structure as well as the text of the Qur’an, “fulfill[ed] the task demanded of it by the people in maintaining the standards of Islamic learning in which the memorizing of the Koran comes first and foremost.” [54] The compulsory elementary school, on the other hand, stationed at the north end of the village along with the police station and post office, had been a failure since its founding in 1925, as it neither maintained a properly religious atmosphere nor provided for advancement into the civil service. Instead, along with reading and writing it taught arithmetic, drawing, singing, and “rhythmic movements,” subjects either of little practical use to villagers or which were assumed to be transmitted in the course of daily life itself. As a result, literacy skills learned in the school were quickly lost by graduates, and both parents and children ridiculed the school and took pains to avoid compulsory attendance, until a free lunch program was implemented in the late 1940s.

The primary school, on the other hand—built just as Ammar left the field in 1951—proved a huge success with its promise of wealth and prestige through possible government employment. Student comments on the school emphasized that “we shall become government officials when we pass our examinations,” and “we like the new school, as we wear [European] suits, which are much nicer than the gallabiahs we used to wear in the elementary school. The former is better than the latter in its lessons, order, and cleanliness.” [55] In fact, Ammar's presentation of the three schools fits them neatly into an evolutionary sequence that shows the village opening into a new national structure of incentive and prestige. The exotic and ambiguous elementary school, which did a poor job of preparing either religious literates who could serve local goals or potential bureaucrats who could serve national goals, occupied a space of transition. Unlike the alternately confident and jittery officials in Cairo, local parents knew their children did not need to attend school in order to fill their place in the rural social order. The economic rationality of a policy that sought to confine peasants to the fields seems partially to have given way to one that recognized the necessity of giving local communities an incentive for study in return for the promise of translocal loyalties.

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