Carnegie’s recent publication of a report on education, titled “Innovation and New Directions: Searching for Novel Paths in Arab Education Reform,” acts as a reminder that for the past decade, observers of Arab societies have faced oddly dissonant images. The closer one places the political realm at the center of analysis and understanding, the more one cannot help but see conflict, repression, stagnation, and a spectrum of maladies from entrenched authoritarianism to destructive disorder. But by focusing more on other areas and keeping younger generations in view, one can also often find bursts of creativity—innovative entrepreneurs, imaginative artists, inspired writers, and ingenious deployments of technologies in new ways.

Over more than a decade I have sometimes looked into education and found a growing disconnect there as well. Looking at educational systems from the top, one often finds overburdened facilities, authoritarian patterns, concern with control, and reliance on routine. However, when one speaks with teachers, education specialists, and sometimes even students, large and even growing islands of creativity, idealism, and energy appear.

The conflict between stultifying politics and creative societies is often quite clear: entrepreneurs complaining about restrictive environments for their ideas; artists pushing the boundaries beyond what cautious regimes like to allow; patrolled public spaces in which new ideas intrude in imaginative but jarring (and sometimes fleeting) forms of street art.

In the field of education, the tension is less obvious, but it is quite real.

There are two blatant sources of tensions between rulers and diverse reform-minded educated forces. I have become convinced both operate a bit more subtly than is often realized and that the most significant, and more widespread, problem lies in a third, rarely recognized, source of tension.

The first obvious source is that regimes emphasize order and security and often view youth as a potential source of threat, or a channel for threatening ideas. These regimes are accused of responding with regimentation and control, borne of a security mindset. That problem is likely real but more is at work here than crude and repressive regimes. Suspicion of change often reflects not simply political concerns but generational gaps (which are striking in many Arab societies), expressed in cultural conservatism and expectations of deference running against youthful exuberance and experimentation.

In addition, while concerns about regime security loom large in many societies, there is a different kind of security that may constrain reform: expectations by parents and students of economic security for the rising generation, seeing the task of education as placement in materially rewarding improvement. (I often joke that when I ask college students in the Arab world why they chose their current course of study, their reply always begins with the two words “My parents…”).

The second obvious source of tension is budgetary. Many states in the region operate under sharp fiscal constraints and feel stretched beyond their means with demands for new schools, better equipped classrooms, and more teachers. Reformers, for their part, often complain that the problem is more one of fiscal priorities, with regimes spending far more freely in the military and security realms than in education. Again, I also find something more subtle at work, namely leaders who focus on quantitative demands rather than on the quality of what is required. For instance, there is more emphasis on hiring teachers and making certain that they are credentialed appropriately than on professional development; more counting of numbers of classrooms constructed than consideration of how those rooms are structured; more focus on making certain than certain subjects are covered than on developing pedagogy. Listening to a political leader’s speech, one hears a very different sense of how to think of educational processes than when one speaks with teachers and students.

And that leads to the much less noticed tension—but perhaps the most important one. Leaders are increasingly aware of the need for educational reform and may speak publicly about it. But, perhaps like many parents, they tend to focus on the preparation of entrants into the workforce and search for the best model to improve their own system. American universities, Singaporean science and mathematics education, and Finnish test scores have all made deep impressions. And there is a strong temptation to search for ways to import such models or replicate them domestically.

However, many educators fear that the result is a lifeless system, as skeletons are replicated but the vital organs forgotten. They tend to see test scores as indicators of varying utility rather than ends in themselves. Even those who helped build the models held out for emulation often warn that they were developed organically in the societies in which they arose. While there are some consistent elements—a focus on teachers; a culture of innovation; a respect for the educational process—fashionable global models are worthy subjects for study and brainstorming but not mechanical replication.

Four years ago, a team organized as part of the Arab Horizons project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace entered the debate with a report, “Engaging Society to Reform Arab Education: From Schooling to Learning,” that attempted to bring together insights from those engaged in educational reform in the Middle East and North Africa. I served as a facilitator for that process, and the resulting recommendations are worth repeating:

  • School: Engaging students and teachers in order place the skills of constructive citizenship at the center of the educational system;
  • State: Reinventing ministries of education to be less service providers and more vision/standards setters and process facilitators;
  • Society: Instead of viewing educational institutions as discrete bodies assigned the task of education, they need to be anchored in communities, allowing for a conversion of the educational apparatus from one that is asked to instruct children to one that turns them into learners;
  • Building a new educational vision, based not simply on producing the expected number of skilled workers, but on producing good learners and good citizens.

Those ideas were cogent but general, so this past year a new group was convened to examine practical experiences. In October, Carnegie published “Innovation and New Directions: Searching for Novel Paths in Arab Education Reform.” Serving again as facilitator, I listened as a clear finding emerged: The search for a single model as an appropriate alternative for Arab educational systems is likely to be chimerical. There is no such model at present, nor should there be.

Our earlier report stressed the need to anchor educational systems more fully in the societies in which they operated, and successful initiatives are therefore ones that will vary according to the nature of each society. There is no single “Arab society.” All educational experiences carry valuable lessons, and one of the most valuable is the need to avoid imposing a single vision that responds to generic problems rather than a specific context. The secret to reform is innovation and experimentation rather than the imposition of a single national or international model or set of standards.

If there is no single solution, there are still lessons and methods that can work elsewhere. The purpose of our new report is, therefore, not to offer a single model or example but to explore efforts at experimentation and reform from the Arab world. The aim is to understand which approaches are useful and what might be learned from them—in the hope that publics, educators, and senior officials will embrace a spirit of experimentation and allow the energy and idealism that still grows at the base of many educational systems to be fostered rather than frustrated.

A decade ago, I visited a classroom in a Gaza camp for a class introduced by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency on human rights. I expected—and found—an unimposing and somewhat crowded setting. But I also saw not only interesting material but also creative pedagogy and deeply engaged students grappling with how they would react if they were aware of a violation of human rights. There is much to be cheerless about. Ten years later, those students are likely not simply encountering the problems in a classroom setting but in their daily lives and are unlikely to be encountering many happy results with any strategy for dealing with them. I do not suggest that disheartening realities be denied or ignored. But I am emotionally affected to this day—in a positive way—by what I saw at the time, not because I saw a positive outcome in that classroom but because of the unexpected positive human spirit of the students and the teacher.

The ideas, hopes, and ambitions at that level should drive and inspire those who have been entrusted with the rising generation. Those leaders should come to see their role not as shaping that generation but guiding members of that generation to find tools to shape their own lives.