Friday, August 15, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Our Failed Education System

Nothing of significance can be revealed when I say that here in Egypt we are artistically and culturally challenged. Anyone who has caught a glimpse of the kind of mainstream art we’re presented with can admit to that. Anyone who has met an average westerner who has been taught something or another about art, or can play an instrument or at the very least have some musical or artistic background information will acknowledge how far behind we are.
With that being said, I have nothing up my sleeve but a simple attempt to express that which we all already know. We have art deficiency and those of us who are trying or have overcome this horrid state of ignorance deserve a salutation for their hard work, for it is undoubtedly hard work in this day, age and country that we live in to appreciate art much more create it.
We don’t need ‘No Education’
In an event in Al Sawy, independent film maker and war photographer Ibrahim El Batout while on the stage was asked a by someone in the audience what we need to produce good independent films. Do we need more freedom? More resources? Less oppression?
El Batout spoke up immediately and said, “I know that they say oppression is good for art, but there’s an amount of freedom that an artist needs so as to create, without this freedom he will not be able to create.”
But then after a moment’s pause, he contemplated; and then added, “But even places like Iran face great oppression and yet they manage to produce good films.” He went on to think out loud saying that artists who face oppression around the world can create good art and at the same time artists without problems and lots of freedom also produce. He concluded, “I don’t really know why we’re not making any good films or what it would take.”

El Batout’s answer reasoned that oppression alone cannot cause us to be in this dismal state we’re in and he was right. There’s something more other than oppression that hinders us from producing art, and it’s something more subtle and more dangerous. It’s something more intricately intertwined with our culture and something more permanent and more robust; it’s our education.
Lost in Translation
Something has been lost in the translation of the word education from English to Arabic. The meaning of the word education in the dictionary is the act or process of imparting general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing others intellectually for mature life.

The word education in Arabic is Ta’leem, and the word for Science is E’lm which is the root of the word Ta’leem. The trouble is that the word ‘education’ in Arabic will therefore literally mean “the act of imparting scientific knowledge”… end of transmission. The remainder of the definition found in the English dictionary has been totally discarded and even its simple beginning damaged. The word knowledge has been replaced by the word ‘Science’ and the most important parts of the definition, such as developing of powers of reasoning and judgment or being prepared intellectually for a mature life have all been eliminated. You see, in the reality that most of the Arab world does not perceive, education is not just a matter of stuffing information into a human’s mind, but something far more delicate and complex, something so less direct than just facts and information that can easily be looked up on the internet; and in Egypt we have none of it.
In the British School that I went to briefly somewhere in the gulf I was taught to bake, draw and swim, all that just coming out of kindergarten. In an interview with Alaa Al Aswany for the art review he commented, “In France I was taken to two schools to meet the students because part of the French education is to meet writers. In France you can't complete your primary education unless you meet writers.”

Children are taught to have direct interaction with artists and art, to have an opinion on the work of someone and to even have an opinion on their character. What are Egyptians taught?

A Negative Bias
The emphasis on the knowledge of science rather than arts, history or politics deprives the average student of having a well rounded personality. In effect, education destroys our children rather than build them up. Education impedes our students rather than help them advance.
The fact of the matter is that Egyptian education does not teach its victims how to reason, and eventually they end up having no means to reach an opinion of their own; it does not teach its victims how to judge, and so they have clue as to how the process of forming an opinions works. They’re taught how to go with the flow, and effectively how to end up down the drain. They’re taught how to be led and how to follow the blind. Simply, they’re taught how not to learn. That is why when confronted by something artistic that might have an element of originality and creativity in it we don’t have enough education to understand it or judge it or like it. We only learn to reject what we have not been spoon fed.
Sarah Mokhtar, a young college student coming just out of high school says, “The strange things is that I’ve always loved art, and I believe I could have been good at it if I was able to develop it or if someone helped me out, but in School there weren’t any classes.” Sarah and many others like her are faced with the problem that art is not socially valued. In some schools art classes are elective, and rarely anyone picks them because of the social stance on the value of art, and because even if they do pick it, they won’t learn much.
Most of our children are told to first pursue a scientific career and perhaps think about art afterwards. Unfortunately creating art is viewed as doing nothing by our society, that despite the process of art production being an act of creation which is the most sublime form of activity.
Many I’ve known were very talented artists but were pressured by their parents to follow a scientific career like engineering or medicine, like my friend Mina. The social pressure is almost unbearable and the dependent youth succumb and by the time they’re done their 7 year sentence for medical school, all the passion that comes with young age would have been drained. But even those that manage to go to art school end up dissatisfied (see Learn Art or Die Trying article published in Issue x)
In an earlier interview with Alaa Al Aswany for the Art Review, he had remarked, “Our problem with the educational system is not that it’s neutral towards culture, but that it is in fact against any culture. That is why I give credit to the new generations that are interested in reading because they’ve had to do everything on their own. Everything in the Egyptian government’s education system detaches us from culture.”
One Taste
This negatively biased stance of our education system is the main reason that our taste in art has declined greatly. While sophists may argue that no one has the right to judge that a taste has declined since art is a matter of preference, no one can argue that such a lack of variety in tastes can be viewed as anything else but a sign of decline.
Looking at popular music these days, the majority of songs have very similar arrangements, very similar structure and almost always talking about love and heartbreak. The movies that are being produced are either mostly silly or with story lines taken from almost culturally irrelevant foreign films.
There always seems to be one mainstream taste manipulated by forces with enough power to turn us all into zombies, blindly heading towards an irrational common goal or idea. We’ve learnt to judge art superficially and to choke artists that are trying to break away from the mold.
Regarding the bias against people being cultured or thinking for themselves, Dr. Alaa Al Aswany remarks, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence and that this is intentional. Someone in command is clever enough to know that if people have enough information, people will turn against the government.”

Joseph Brodsky the Russian poet and Nobel prize winner was sent to prison for five years on charges of 'parasitism' in Russia because he claimed his job was writing. In Russia all able bodied people were to be employed until the age of retirement, otherwise they would be considered as ‘parasites’. What's intriguing is that the government considered poetry and writing so useless that they didn't consider it a job at all… unless it served their own interests.
The rejection of things that are not suitable to government tastes that we’re facing is very similar to the indoctrination of culture and art in the communist era where only art that praised the regime was accepted and all else was rejected. The permission to air only that which pleases the government in combination with the power of censorship (which might be carried out indirectly) is an adult targeting extension to the flawed education provided to youth.
Meanwhile Egyptian TV floods us with mindless series that talk about absolutely nothing, showing off expensive cars and villas and presenting drama that doesn’t reflect much of reality.
People who attempt to produce art with different ideas are put down even when they have creativity and originality. The recipient masses don’t help either, for with their deficient education and culture they cannot support something new. Effectively, nothing artistically valuable and original is produced and nothing is demanded either and we enter a vicious cycle of decline.
How could art ever work out if there are no proper channels in the country for anything much less art. No matter how brilliant your art is, it has no legal channel for seeing the light. The way that the Unknown Soldier (Algundy Almaghool) relic in Nasr City was built is almost sad. It was a design that won an award and upon president Sadat’s chance encounter with the news, he asked why is this not being built, let’s build it. That the only channel for a work of art to see the light is a presidential order upon a chance encounter provides a very bleak outlook on what’s to come.
Fear Factor
But perhaps the most forceful impediment implanted within our children through their education is fear. I know we’re not in the gruesome times of Nasser where people were imprisoned for making any comment that was against the regime, but even with all that gone, there’s a bitter residue that still won’t part.
We’re taught that politics is dangerous and we’re forbidden from expressing any ideas that seem to be political, but since most things in life are related to politics, we end up with a fear of expressing almost everything we feel in our lives. The only things we’re allowed to express are things that don’t matter. Perhaps that’s why everyone has learnt to sing shallow songs and produce and watch lusty clips.
Yes, this sort of immorality is safe, it’s safe for the decision makers and our children have to pay the cost of their safety. I’ve always thought that the government had a duty to take risks and sacrifice for the safety of its children, but it appears that I had it figured wrong.
A while back, I recall there was a news story on an Egyptian student asked to write composition along with her class. Unlike the rest of her school mates she chose to express herself genuinely and in effect criticized the government for a reality she experiences every day. The poor girl was failed and she was reprimanded. She was failed for expressing something she believes is true. What kind of education would have her fail for expressing her thoughts, is that how our children are judged? What happened to grading her on style, grammar, idea development?
She got off the hook eventually through yet another presidential intervention but only after appealing to the press and this horrid injustice was exposed. One cannot but wonder what her fate may have been had she not gone to the press, and whether there are others like her who were not lucky enough to have their voices heard.
Al Batout also confirmed fear instilled in people by the government, when asked by someone what must you do to create an independent film in Egypt, he remarked that the bottom line is that to create films you have be ready to get arrested and be imprisoned, pragmatically speaking.
Is there hope?
We live in a system that claims to know best, and rather than disowning culture and arts altogether, it embraces them in its own monocratic way. We might have been better off without the fake interest in art that serves their purpose alone, but this indoctrination presents one of the biggest and most hidden obstacles to art.
I have no conclusion as a result of what I expressed. That art has suffered a great blow and that our general public has become programmed to follow the media’s premeditated agenda is an inescapable fact. But, that the amount of youth that are trying hard to get involved in the art scene, open their eyes and break the mold is also undeniable.
Our world is full of Sarahs seeking art without having been given a chance and full of Minas who are talented but cannot put their talent to use, and many others who have not chosen to study elective art subjects, and those who have but gained nothing. But on the other hand we have artists who are trying hard to make it and present something original from within them.

So is there any hope?

First Published in The Art Review