GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
The Challenge of Cultural Autonomy in GCC Education
Paper Proposal Text :
Education in GCC countries is fraught with challenges. There are capacity issues arising from rapidly growing populations, skills shortages, gender imbalances (the 'problem' of too many women in HE), subject imbalances ('too many' humanities students) and pedagogical practices in need of reform. Many of these issues arise from the distinctive cultures of the Arabian peninsula. The assistance of Europe and America is often sought, but the imposition of European and American models of education may not be appropriate to the GCC context. Indeed, one might ask whether the West has any right to take a view on the need for educational reform in GCC countries. The cultural differences between the GCC and the West give rise to a whole series of awkward questions. Is, for example, teaching through the medium of English a form of cultural colonisation that threatens Arabic or Islamic values, or is English a world language in which an increasingly internationalised GCC has to be immersed? And what is the cost of that immersion? Conversely, there are difficult questions arising out of the huge numbers of expats working in some parts of the GCC. In these areas foreign residents create an Anglophone culture, often in the workplace. I recall watching a Saudi family struggling to check into a hotel in Riyadh; the struggle was occasioned by the fact that all the front desk staff were foreigners, and none spoke Arabic. Saudis had become strangers in their own land. Is that the cost of remaining properly Arabic?
These are difficult questions, and I do not propose to offer glib answers. I should like instead to offer some comparative comments on education in the West and in Arabia, and on ways in which we might learn from each other and on areas in which we should be content with difference for cultural or religious reasons. The centrality of the Qur’ān in every aspect of Arabic civilization has inevitably shaped the pedagogy of the region, and indeed of the wider Islamic world. In this talk I should like to examine four elements in that pedagogy: (1) rote learning and place of memory (2) the standing of the teacher (3) the comparatively cerebral nature of knowledge in the Islamic world (4) the success of the Islamic world in producing applied scientists, but the failure to produce comparable numbers of world-class biologists and physicists. I should then like to examine the extent to which Western and GCC education systems meet the needs of their very different societies, and that of course raises difficult questions about the purposes of universities: are they engines of the economy, existing primarily to produce trained people for the job market? Or is their primary purpose to educate rather than train, to produce a thinking citizenry? And what do these purposes mean for our pedagogy? The fact that academics still read lectures to students, for example, might be taken to imply that universities have never noticed the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Why should we read to students when they are perfectly capable of reading for themselves, and indeed prefer to look to the electronic page rather than the printed page for information. I have no clear answers to any of these questions, but persist in thinking that we should reflect on them. That will be the purpose of my talk.