LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
Rutkowski on Salem's "Aid for education is our best weapon against militant Islam"
The core problem is not religious versus secular education. It is the poor quality of education across the board.
I support Paul Salem’s view that investing in education is extremely important to reduce poverty and foster economic development, but I challenge his argument that governments should use educational aid as a weapon to fight militant Islam. Some of Salem’s data, and his reasoning, must be re-examined.
Salem says the Arab world suffers from ‘educational poverty,’ yet he fails to mention that for the past three decades Arab countries have invested a large slice of their gross domestic product in education. Salem also claims that economic development in the Arab world has left the people under-educated and economically marginalised. The evidence, however, shows that Arab countries (with or without significant oil revenues) have made significant progress in human development in terms of the level of participation in education, gender parity and related social benefits such as life expectancy and infant mortality.
Salem’s assertions that educational poverty “creates an environment where radical and violent movements can find traction" and that education is the best protection against militant Islam both need to be examined in the light of history. Militant Islam is a relatively new phenomenon: it appeared in the 1950s and spread during the following decades, despite this being a period when investment in education and educational progress were very strong in the Arab world.
Another important issue which Salem only touches upon is the role that quality may play when looking at the links between education and extremism. As Salem notes, the Arab education system is supply driven, reliant on outdated technology and geared towards rote learning rather than problem solving. This is where the real challenge lies. More support for liberal education, or modernising religious schools to encourage critical thinking, certainly would help to make education more relevant to the evolving needs of the labor market. Recent evidence from South Asia suggested that when religious madrasas changed their curriculum to include modern subjects, like those taught at non-religious schools, students achieved similar test results to their counterparts in secular education.
The core problem, however, is not religious versus secular education. It is the poor quality of education across the board. Governments should attempt to find more innovative ways to link the substantial levels of public investment in education with improvements in numeracy and literacy. Hence I believe that it is critical for policymakers and countries to focus on improving the quality of education as they prepare children for the modern world.