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Religion and Society

A Reform against Violence and the Loss of Meaning

The heavy challenges that the Algerian school system has to face:the quality of teaching, the harmonious development of society, economic growth. On the one hand it is necessary to ‘educate the educators’ and, on the other, to generate in young people a critical spirit, a taste for questioning and a capacity to understand vital questions.

In a context of moral crisis, of the marginalisation of monotheistic-Abrahamic values, of the dictatorship of the market, of unemployment, of a desire to return to the religious in exaggerated forms, and of wild violence, everywhere in the world reference is made to an ‘educational crisis.’ In Algeria, a country which aspires to be a ‘median community,’ education is the principal problem.

 

 

Nobody, or almost nobody, is satisfied with the condition of schools and universities, not least because as regards the defence of its own sovereignty a country depends on its capacity to produce and assimilate knowledge, foster development, and consolidate its identity. Since independence, beginning with a policy that was attentive to social justice, emphasis has been placed on the democratisation of teaching. During the dark night of colonialism, 95% of Algerians were deprived of any form of education and the ancestral values of society, based principally upon Islam, were contradicted. Before 1830, the date of the colonial aggression, more than a third of Algerians knew how to read and write in Arabic. At a quantitative level, after 1962, the year of independence, convincing advances were registered.

 

 

Today 85% of Algerians of the school age receive education on the basis of an obligatory cycle of six to sixteen years, and illiteracy, reduced to 30%, has undergone a major regression. Eight million children out of thirty-five million inhabitants receive schooling, and more than a million students are enrolled at university. These are substantial results which consume a third of the state budget. However, the evolution of the educational system has taken place conditioned by the political system. From 1962 to 1988 the one-party authoritarian regime offered an ideologically based form of teaching. Despite this, Algeria achieved a good quantitative performance and trained thousands of functionaries within the economy and the nation’s institutions. From the 1980s onwards, the stage has been in large measure dominated by a cultural question: that of Arabisation, a fundamental element in the personality and the sovereignty of the country which has led to the closure of the few private schools and in particular of Catholic schools.

 

 

Despite this, some teaching experts and politicians have believed that the method employed to make Arabic a general reality was inadequate, and a part of public opinion believes today that it would have been possible to follow a bilingual pathway. In a context where priority is given to the quantitative aspect, an absence of openness and an Arabisation of the problematic related questions, Algerian schools, despite the major efforts that have been made, have experienced a collapse of standards. Some analysts even affirm that schools are partly responsible for the tragic negative tendency that darkened Algeria in the 1990s. It is true that the weakness of programmes as regards culture and the historical memory, and the narrow space given to them, did not allow the formation of critical and vigilant spirits at a deep level. In this sense, the influence of retrograde imported ideologies, which emphasis a rigorous and mimetic approach, can in part explain certain deviant forms of behaviour. In such a situation the challenges that education has to address are of three kinds.

 

 

First of all the scientific level and the level of quality of teaching which are essential to the creation of a knowledge-based, responsible, creative and effective society. Secondly, there are the questions which emerge from society: how can we respond to a project for society in which duties and rights, unity and plurality, universality and specificity, authenticity and modernity, are joined? Thirdly, there is the economic question: what should be done to achieve the equation education/employment and adapt to the evolution of the professions without reducing the scientific and educational institutions to appurtenances of capitalist companies whose only goal is profit? In this context, numerous more specific problems are raised in Algeria: given the character of the programmes, what number of hours and which disciplines should be attributed to each level of instruction? Faced with the lack of grounding at a linguistic level of our students, starting with which age should one teach a foreign language or foreign languages? Given the poverty of the current public debate, what role should be given to civil society in the undertaking of education? Taking into account the practices of ‘religion as a refuge’ and the narrowness of a return to the past, on the one hand, and the weakening of social ties and customs, on the other, how should one teach civil education and education? Given the need to emphasise co-existence and the culture of peace, how should we respond to the concern to make Islam known about in a correct way – Islam is the religion of 90% of the Algerian people – and at the same time form an open and tolerant spirit, which in particular is linked to respect for diversity and an Islam-Christian dialogue, this last having a consolidated tradition in Algeria?

 

 

Some Algerians know that the Koran and the Prophet invoke respect for the ‘Peoples of the Book’ and religious freedom and often quote the verse ‘no compulsion is there in religion’ [Koran 2:256] and the majority of the population is in favour of action involving dialogue and inter-religious drawing together. They also know that one of the greatest of Christian theologians of all times was an Algerian – St. Augustine. They know that Emir Abdelqader, a shaykh of sufism, a thinker and the leader of the Algerian resistance to colonialism from 1830 to 1847, practised humanitarian law during the war and saved thousands of Christian during his exile in Damascus. They also know that during the struggle for national liberation (1954-1962) the Archbishop of Algiers, Cardinal Duval, and a large number of priests supported the Algerian people. However, these reference points run the risk of being lost from view if they are not handed down through teaching.

 

 

Vigilant and Attentive Personalities

 

 

Algerian schools await deep reform in order to generate in young people of all the stages of learning wonder, questioning, creativity and discovery. It is important for young people to learn to pose questions and identify the decisive questions of their existence. The goal is to form vigilant personalities and personalities that are open to reasoning. The question of the educability of children in its psychological, ethical and sociological dimensions depends on the method that is used. Algeria and the Arab world are beginning to become aware of the fact that in the absence of a profound reform of the educational system and an appreciation of the teaching professions the future is compromised right away. This reform must concern the education of educators, the status of teachers, programmes, teaching methods, the rhythm and realities of promotions, the school charter [1] and the means that are employed to achieve the goals that have been established. Schools must be able to help children to become students and one day citizens as well, and to acquire the bases of morally suitable behaviour.

 

 

Let us now address the contents of the Algerian school system. The national language is the official language and it is taught on average eight hours every week, but the method employed is not very appealing. Reading is not practised enough and yet reading is essential for the development of a critical spirit and dialogue between different ideas, as well as to avoid closure involving exclusion. Those young Algerians who, by way of the trials that have been experienced by Algerian society down the centuries, have reached a certain maturity as regards their lives could attain a good standard if different methods were applied. It is better for heads to be ‘well made’ than to be ‘full.’ As regards the humanities, history, geography and civic education, the curriculum is harsh. An introduction to the history of art, although indispensable, is rare. But learning about the beautiful is essential for the creativity, the civilisation and the development of children and young people.

 

 

The teaching of history, of philosophy and of languages is fundamental in forming young people who are proud of their past and directed towards the future. Students do not learn sufficiently to memorise and comment on events that have contributed to the formation of identity and human values – the great events, important dates and the figures of the history of their country and the world. Students are rarely aware of the ways of living of their ancestors and of humanity. And there is no future without a collective memory. In addition to the classical disciplines, education in the environment is one of the new subjects which in the school programmes should not be absent. Useful experiences have begun to be registered in this field.

 

 

The teaching of religion, and not only about the fact of religion, is indispensable. It is its contents that determine whether one wants to educate young people who are open or young people who are closed. In Europe, schooling has had as an outcome the marginalisation of the study of religions despite the results that have been achieved as regards a certain healthy development of a critical spirit. This has produced religious ignorance, a void, and a loss of meaning. The teaching of religion remains ineluctable in Algeria and the Muslim world. But the messages and the values that are taught must correspond to an open, reasonable and measured understanding of spirituality as a common good and not something reduced to a rigid formalism. The programmes of civic and ethical education must in addition include the teaching of morality, knowledge about the symbols of the state and society, a study of the elementary rules of the organisation of public life and democracy, and knowledge about the constituent traits of the nation which are at the basis of patriotism, of citizenship and of sociability. In the Arab world schools are called, that is to say, to rediscover the ‘median’ society.

 

 

Excellence and the Brain Drain

 

 

What do we want? Where do we want to go? What model of society do we want to construct? If we are not able to produce elites, a wealth of ideas and techno-scientific innovation that is suited to our needs we will always fall prey to uncertainty. Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey and Qatar, which are some of the few Muslim countries that have engaged in thoughtful decisions in this field, have implemented courageous and strategic policies. Higher education in Algeria and the Arab world today faces the challenge of the tandem of democratisation and excellence.

 

 

This is not a matter of elitism but of high specialisation. Without doubt, as was envisaged by the creation in1989 of the university of ongoing education, the Algerian Open University, information and communications technology can assure greater access and constitute instruments for enriched pedagogic experiences, in particular for distance educators and students constrained by limits of space and time. Distance teaching, being suited for every life phase, is a pathway that should be followed in the future and cross-boundary education will be an important element in the globalisation of the higher education of tomorrow.

 

 

Knowledge has become a weapon of domination and not only a commodity, subject like any other to the rules of exchange. Food, health-care and scientific dependence transforms every country into a colonised area in new forms. Algerian and Arab universities and all the sectors that are involved must mobilise themselves to transform this bitter reality. Higher education in the West attracts capital investments, stimulates competition and generates profits which are at times higher than in other fields, and thus it participates in the internationalisation of the economy. But in these countries the educational system cannot provide the required number of highly qualified professionals, a fact that encourages a brain drain, the migration of intellectuals with higher qualifications from the South to the North. International competition to attract qualified people and the ‘brain war’ have become incandescent.

 

 

Peoples, for good or evil, attempt to resist the negative tendencies of the hegemonic world and those of internal despotism. Muslims figure amongst the dissidents who reject the depersonalisation, the injustices and the dehumanisation imposed by the world of markets. But without enlightened knowledge their resistance will remain blind and hopeless. After the triumphant approach of liberalism – the outcome of the fall of the Berlin Wall – we are witnessing today a kind of general failure, a crisis of knowledge, which undermines the world system. How can we speak about progress, rebirth, dialogue between civilisations, if schools do not take responsibility for their mission and the debate is almost non-existent? ‘Unauthentic’ Muslims usurp the name of Islam, shut themselves up in a rigorous approach, in a folding in on themselves and in the rejection of discussion and self-criticism; others denigrate their roots and blindly imitate the West. Two cultural and geopolitical challenges are urgent: debate with the West and internal debate, and universities must become the yeast and the crossroads of both these debates.

 

 

The Path

 

 

In the Muslim world there are evident failings: the weakness of internal debate, a tendency to folding in on oneself, a system based on the rentier approach, and a low level of participation on the part of elites. And yet freedom of expression and conscience is a principle guaranteed by Islam. Society falls between the anvil and the hammer: there are the ignorant who censor society and level it downwards and there are groups that practise a mimetic approach based on immoral modernism. We should work to construct a path that permits an exit from false dilemmas and false questions that force people to choose between sclerotic tradition and a perverted modernity at a time when both face an impasse.

 

 

The most objective intellectuals know that this path is made up of a symbiosis between authenticity and progress, with inter-religious dialogue contributing to peoples knowing each other and knowing about each other. At a cultural level, Muslims are invited to engage in a new exegesis, a reflection on their sources: a re-reading of history, an interpretation of the Koran adapted to our times. Indeed, we should return to a reasonable, creative and inventive reason but at the same time be careful about an overall imitation of the West, which is also blocked by an impasse. From Tabarî to Tahar ben Achour we have had great exegetes. It is now the task of schools and universities to renew this interpretation at the service of our epoch and to bring forth new hermeneutics. Some people suggest that this should be done with reference to the analyses that Westerners have engaged in since the last century.

 

 

Others wish for the use of a methodology that is linked to the so-called human sciences at the very moment when these encounter difficulty. To deconstruct our view of tradition and progress is one of the conditions for an in-depth reform, above all if one takes into account that the problems are first of all of a political character and linked to the question of the relationship between the state and society. In Algeria, the aspiration to renewal can be explored through a reform of the educational system. The complexity of the problems and the fragility of the results that have been achieved hitherto lead us to enlarge dialogue and participation, above all beginning with university campuses. A future remains where conjoining authenticity and progress can be attempted.

 

 


 

[1] The school charter is a system for the allocation of students to schools in the geographical area where they live.

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