Facebook was the medium for spreading the word of rebellion in the Arab Spring, but it was school textbooks – the required reading from early childhood through the teen years that informs children of who they are and where they come from – that may have been the source of alienation that drove young people into the street.
That’s what some scholars meeting in Jerusalem said at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace in Jerusalem on Wednesday, as they reviewed the lessons students pick up from reading history, literature, civics and other subjects.
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"Arab school textbooks are unable to address inner diversities within societies," Falk Pingel, a consultant and research fellow at Germany’s Georg Eckert Institute, which researches textbooks, told The Media Line. "They convey a homogeneous image of society which doesn’t fit the reality."
School systems across the Arab world are usually faulted for their poor performance in creating graduates with the math, science and other skills needed for the modern job market. But a critical study of the region’s textbook reveal they are also failing in the much more basic function of creating informed and educated citizens.
Schools have an outside role in the Middle and North Africa, where some 60% of the region's population is under 30 years of age. Governments spend about 20% of their budgets on education, but drop-out rates are high, scores on international exams are low and some 30% of the region’s population can’t read or write.
Even from a young age, students easily see the discrepancy between what their history and civics classes teach and the reality around them, leading them initially to be skeptical of their teachers and school and eventually of their government and leaders.
"The growing divide between reality and the books is cited as one of the reasons for the Arab revolutions," Pingel said.
Syria, a dictatorship that has been wracked by unrest since the middle of March, is a potpourri of Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Druze and Christians. But the ruling Baath party is ideologically committed to pan-Arabism and fears the divides could undermine political stability.
As a result, said experts at the conference, Syrian history textbooks that make no mention of the country’s ethnic and religious divisions, even though every child knows his family’s identity.
Monika Bolliger, a researcher from the University of Zurich who studies Syrian textbooks, said the uprising in Syria displayed sectarian undertones that highlighted the failure of the state to create an inclusive Arab identity. The Syrian students she interviewed ridiculed their educational system.
"They think its nonsense," she told The Media Line. "Syrians often make jokes about their educational system, mocking the slogans and the propaganda."
Arab school curriculum is highly centralized, uniform, and focused on repetition rather than innovation, said Dr. Achim Rohde, a researcher at the German University of Marburg who studies Iraqi textbooks.
In an attempt to avoid dealing with politically contentious issues, Iraqi school curriculum ignores the country's history since 1958, when the Hashemite king was toppled in a violent rebellion. Since then it has been ruled by a succession of Baath rulers, the last of whom, Saddam Hussein, was ousted by allied forces in 2003.
The allies tried to solve Iraq’s problem of sectarian divisions by removing all references to minorities in textbook, including favorable mention of Shi'ite religious doctrine that Saddam had order inserted during the 1990s as he sought to curry their favor. That, said Rohde, erased a source of inter-communal understanding.
"Textbooks are part of the problem of sectarianism," Rohde said.
Textbooks can be turned into part of the solution but only if they included historical examples of inter-sectarian cooperation, he added. Even then, the transition is difficult and takes time. Although Tunisia had the most progressive and developed educational system, it was the first Arab country to experience a revolution because its reforms were insufficient
Bolliger of the University of Zurich said educated Syrians' skepticism of formal education was part of a broader cynicism towards official narratives perpetuated by governments about history and society, depicted as well in mainstream media.
But not everyone is convinced that textbooks play such a prominent role. Nathan Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University, said academic researchers are attracted to them as shapers of society and attitudes because they are readily available and universally read. But, he said, they aren't necessarily the best indicators of the nature of a given society.
Although politically and ideologically divided, Gaza and the West Bank use the same textbooks, said Brown. In the rigid Palestinian educational system, careful study of textbooks was more important for teachers than for students. "There is very little freedom [for teachers] in the classroom," he told The Media Line.
In Saudi Arabia, a highly conservative Islamic society, textbooks
portray the country as a part of the “global village” and women as
having rights and freedoms they lack in reality, Eleanor Doumato, a
retired researcher of Saudi textbooks at the Watson Institute for
International Studies at Brown University in the US told The Media Line.
But, she stressed, the problem isn’t textbooks, which nowhere in the
world show authentic representations of the societies they write about,
but what those in power would like their societies to be. The problem
isn’t the books but the governments that sponsor them.
"Civics textbooks portray an idealized version of society," Doumato told
The Media Line. "The problem is that in Saudi Arabia, although revered,
the educators themselves are uneducated."
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