The Difference in Education

Dr Faysal Mikdadi

It is always interesting to note how different cultures view education in different ways. It is also alarming to see that what is good in one culture is a definite ‘no no’ in another.

In Britain, we like to think that we teach our students how to be independent, how to think critically and how to exercise their innate democratic right to challenge everything in sight – especially our slippery politicians. We do not always succeed but, by and large, we do a creditable job in producing well rounded citizens – often against the most horrendous odds of over fond and often child like parents.

I have been involved in education in the Arab World almost all my life. Initially I was the product of an Arab education for the first nineteen disastrous years of my life. I was successfully taught an exaggerated respect of ‘the word’ which led to an undying love of literature. I was also taught to be dependent on a less than democratic state, rarely to question anything that happened within a strongly fatalistic culture and to have a deep suspicion of all matters religious.

I came to Britain at nineteen and received a liberal Western education which turned me into what I could call ‘being a true Renaissance man’. As a result I now have an abiding love of literature, I question everything that happens (and in Britain, aptly, no one listens) and I am deeply suspicious of all matters religious.

So, no change there then. Yet, an Arab education is fundamentally different to a Western one.

Maybe it was not my education but, rather, the wisdom of advancing years that freed my mind and let it roam the vast open spaces of the mountains of truth and the valleys of life long learning.

In recent years I have been involved in education in the United Arab Emirates as well, at a distance, in Lebanon, Palestine, Libya, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries that, to date, can hardly describe themselves as remotely democratic.

Dubai has changed out of all recognition over the last forty years. It has gone from being a backwater in an arid and hostile desert to becoming a buzzing, hustling and bustling modern metropolis that puts major Western cities to shame. It has done so, in my view, by importing all things Western. Its current cultural and practical infrastructure is made up of Western models bought wholesale and proudly displayed everywhere.

I like Dubai for that very reason. It is New York, Paris and London rolled into one with the added advantage of the best service in the world. Many regard it as artificial and insincere. That is patronising to say the least. It is not for us visitors to be critical of what Dabawis choose to do with their country. Best of luck to them in everything that they do and usually succeed in doing.

Dubai’s education system is firmly rooted in the Islamic model predicated on much rote learning and relative unquestioning of anything traditional or habitual.

However, in recent years Dubai has also picked up all things Western in education. Its 20/20 vision statement aspires to create the best education system in the world in order to build a knowledge based economy maintained by risk taking entrepreneurs. So far so good.

However, as ever, Dubai has bought into the Western model lock, stock and barrel. In other words, its education system has bought into the educational trappings of democracy such as questioning, thinking critically, hypothesising and expressing personal opinions supported by evidence, logical and otherwise.

Aye, there’s the rub. Wholesale importation of Western models does not fully work. What we mean by the following learning imperatives is not not necessarily the same as what Emiratees might mean by them: questioning, thinking critically, hypothesising and expressing personal opinions supported by evidence, logical and otherwise.

I observed an Islamic Studies lesson in a girls’ school in one of the seven Emirates. The theme was marriage. The teacher’s lesson plan included all the ‘right’ targets of differentiation, critical thinking, questioning, analysing …

I sat back feeling quite excited by the prospect of seeing young women thinking critically. After all, these were conventional Muslim girls whose main purpose was not to ask why, but simply to obey and play shy.

The teacher postulated a scenario. If a girl fell in love with Ali and her father told her to marry Mohammed, what should she do?

In almost all religions, obedience of parents is required by God. It is no different in Islam than it is in Christianity. You WILL obey your parents – no matter what.

All the girls chose Mohammed. Well, almost all. Except for one frightened and hesitant girl who broke the thousand plus year old tradition and whispered “Ali, Miss! Because I love him.”

The silence in the room was electrifying. My old terror of ever disagreeing with anything an adult said, let alone a teacher, returned. And I sat cowering in the back waiting for the thunderbolt to strike.

It was a whimper – nonetheless terrifying for its virtual silence.

“Wrong!” whispered the teacher glowering at the girl whilst eyeing me with a hint of a smile of satisfaction – uncomfortable but secure in her closed world.

So much for critical thinking.

I met the girl in the playground later on and we stood under a pretty tree talking conspiratorially. She told me that she was going to University to study law and become a human rights lawyer specialising in woman’s affairs.

Later on, her teacher told me that she was slated to marry after high school. And the University, I naively asked.

Oh, came the reply, she had a kind husband who would allow her to study further and, maybe, even have a career.

So much for the entrepreneurial spirit then.

Educational aspirations mean different things in different cultures. Western so-called ‘liberalism’ (to many for ‘liberalism’ read ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘double standards’) does not fit wholesale in a Muslim society or, alternatively, in a non democratic or closed society – not that Islam is any more closed or open than any other faith. The terms of such ‘liberal’ education have to be redefined to suit a particular society’s distinct aspirations. Consequently, ‘critical thinking’ means something different in China to what it means in France.

That is not to say that I, as an educationalist and as a writer, disapprove of the teacher expecting all the girls to choose Mohammed over Ali (although the choice is already made for them by the very nomenclature so cleverly used and which is rich with Islamic history as well as schisms). On the contrary, my nicely split personality warms up in a positive glow for all things Muslim whilst my Western personality says that I am not going to obey my parent if his / her request is unreasonable.

At sixty four, I still shudder to think of the time my father told me not to call my daughter Catherine but to give her an Arabic name. I told him to mind his own damn business and stop interfering in what did not concern him. I still feel guilty over thirty five years later and, despite still disagreeing with a father I disliked, I still regret disobeying him.

Who says that education, whatever its essence or rationale, does not affect one for life despite all the Renaissance Man stuff you can throw at the student in older age. Traditions die hard!

Dr Faysal Mikdadi is Head of Education at Facilitate Global. He can be contacted at

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