The Fajita Farce, and the Face of Education

Happy New Year, and if you’re in Egypt then you’ve started the year trying to make sense of who Auntie Fajita is, and whether the puppet really is an agent of sabotage and subversion.

This is the stuff conspiracy thrillers are made of. It’s Jim Henson meets Stephen King meets Dan Brown, in a new epic of paranoia, horror and incredulity that would give the Bride of Chucky a run for her money.

But enough of that. What caught my attention though was the number of comments on social media making fun of the education system and attributing Zpider’s paranoid assumptions, and the fact that the public prosecutor’s office took him seriously, with the poor level of education in the country.

That association between political neurosis and education sent my mind reeling in another direction. Is there really a link between both?

Much has been said about the quality of education in Egypt. In reality, Egypt ranks quite well on a number of indicators, mostly those to do with levels of enrollment in primary education, and average years spent in school relative to the average GDP per capita. But its the quality of education that falters, and the problems often cited are that the system does not match the needs of the labour market, that there is little attention given to vocational training as well as social stigma linked to that particular course of education, and finally that the system focusses on rote learning and does not allow for critical thinking.

And it’s this critical thinking aspect that I find most pertinent to Fajita Files. 

It is no epiphany to say that the educational system inhibits interpretive and critical modes of inquiry, but it must be acknowledged that this was exactly what the educational system was intended for. It was made to produce civil servants who had a certain panache in carrying out orders with minimal questions asked. It also intended to cultivate young minds with the arts of obedience, arse-kissing, and covering up malicious intent as long as necessary until a certain level of authority is reached on the bureaucratic ladder. The whole idea behind education, it seemed, was to create a generation upon generation of Uriah Heeps, and the more slithering you are as a student around your teachers the more likely you will rise in the service of King and country.

"Salute; march; obey!". Words heard as much in schools as in camps.

“Salute. March. Obey!”  Words heard as much in schools as in barracks.

 

The problem intensified with the rise of the military ethos within the civilian government. Following military coups, or military backed revolutions (here is not the venue for this mundane debate), the powers to be would often install military governors and directors in every nook and cranny within the civil service, not only because this facilitates the military’s full control over the state, but also because there exists a genuine belief that officers are best at administrating, well, anything.

The education system of Egypt is thus perfect for the purpose it was intended for. It is also perfect for the purpose of perpetuating the current new wave of authoritarianism. Government officials are likely to pay lip service to the need for educational reform, but they will readily suppress any critical inquiry among students if it is aimed at the Armed Forces or any of its commanders, or if it questions the sagacity of their politics.

Suppressing critical thinking, and deliberately quelling student curiousity also abets the state in its quest to control information, and propagate official narratives. The parallel purpose of state education is to clone citizens who have no desire for reading beyond what is handed to them in prepackaged curricula containing all the necessary answers and handed down by an authoritative figure within a classroom, a lecture hall, on a podium, or a television screen.

steve biko quoteMy contention is that those currently governing Egypt have a stake in maintaining the levels of  authoritarianism currently permeating the educational system, even if this means lowering the country’s competitiveness internationally, or decreasing chances of individual employability anywhere beyond state institutions.

Tying educational standards to the needs of the civil-service nourishes that desperate attachment between citizen and state in a way that facilitates the further entrenchment of authoritarianism. There is a deliberate intention by the government not to reform education in order to keep citizens tethered to whatever hash-baked truths and misinformation they are delivered by state-sanctioned politico-religious pundits.

Hows that for a conspiracy?

Paolo Freire emphatically observed that the problem with such an educational system is that it breeds two types of students. The first type is prone to “adopt rebellious positions defiant of any limit, discipline or authority”. These are the students we’ve seen unrelenting in their demonstrations across Egypt’s public universities in the past few months. We’ve also seen them in students of primary and secondary education who often commit crimes of physical assault against their teachers. Such students are the fodder of criminal networks, insurgencies and subversive activities. They work directly against the interests of the state.

The second type is one lent to “apathy, excessive obedience, uncritical conformity, self-abnegation, and fear of freedom”. They are the kind who are a hindrance to any hope for development, and who can never take roles as leaders, entrepreneurs, or innovators. They are the direct result of an educational system that breeds the personality of the oppressed, and they limit the prospects for the survival of the state.

I leave you with this talk given by Sugata Mitra. Mitra, famous for many things in a different number of fields, calls for a complete overhaul of the way we think about education, and advocates the “school in the cloud” which does away with the very notion of fixed curricula and state-sponsored education. I enjoyed listening to this talk, partly because the thesis proposed undermines one of the most sacrosanct state-institutions (and I’m a fan of anything that undermines the state, in case you haven’t noticed). But I also enjoyed it because it reinstills a belief in the innate curiousity of children and their natural propensity for learning, even when social and economic odds are against them. It is inherently a message of hope. One that I would like to start the new year with.

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