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Modern education vs. the madrasas

This year, millions of children throughout Afghanistan will again be deprived of an education. Most are deprived due to the ban on girls’ and women’s education beyond grade six, while many others are deprived due to poverty. A significant number of children do not go to school due to their families’ lack of awareness of the importance of education. 

Some, including mullahs, are not aware of the importance of modern education, therefore they do not understand the gravity of excluding huge numbers of people from the education system or the dangers inherent in Talibanizing the curriculum. They overlook the difference in the form and content of modern schools versus madrasas. They believe that reading and writing are the core of any education and that the rest is merely to help young people in the job market. 

In fact, modern education is more than mere reading and writing – if done correctly, 12 years of studying in modern schools has profound educational, political, and cultural effects on graduates. If mass education isn’t interrupted, it can completely transform society in a few generations. Yet, some non-Taliban politicians ignore the profound importance of the modern education system as they appease the Taliban’s antagonism toward modern education. We all have a responsibility to stand against such darkness and tyranny as the main objective of struggle is enlightenment, freedom, prosperity, and modern education. 

The Taliban are openly at war against all forms of modern education. During their nearly three years in power, they have worked hard to destroy the modern education system of Afghanistan. One such strategy has been to introduce alternative education by which they can replace modern schools with madrasas and “reform” the curriculum along the models of those taught in madrasas. Some accept those deceptions, choosing to believe that only the form and method of education have been changed. But that is not so. There are profound structural and substantial differences between modern education and madrasa education.

The modern education system, like most modern things, is an import. It was introduced in Afghanistan in the early 20th century and a copy of what existed in much of the industrial world. It was introduced to create change, and develop industry, services and culture. In contrast to the existing madrasa system, which is afraid of change and committed to maintaining the rules of the past. The fundamental difference between these two educational systems is rooted in their view of the path that society should take. The goal of the modern education system is to create and manage change. 

I will elaborate on the three political, economic, and cultural elements of this general objective.  

1. Political goal: The modern education system is a political tool for nation-building. Children in a country usually learn from a single curriculum in which specific political and cultural identities are promoted, common criteria of citizenship are introduced, and a national-political language is promoted and reinforced. On the other hand, efforts are being made to improve a country’s population capacity toward global standards for work, business and politics. The educational curriculum is a tool for assimilating people at both national and global levels. 

2. Economic goal: Modern education curricula see people as a labour force. The foundation of the modern education curriculum was laid in the West in the 18th and 19th centuries, in response to the needs of the new industrial economy. Before the industrialization of Europe, there was no mass education. Formal education was exclusive to the elite. With changes in the social and economic system, the new economy required a trained, and disciplined workforce, as well as professional administrators. The modern educational system helped pull people out of the common rural mode of life and prepare them to work in factories and new markets. This educational system was not necessarily designed for people’s welfare; therefore, raising awareness, and improving people’s organizing capacity to struggle for their rights was not its objective. 

The founders of the modern education system saw pupils and youth as future workers and soldiers. Therefore, discipline, integration, cultural assimilation, and skills development according to the needs of the market were considered to be the main aims of the modern educational system. With the passage of time, especially after the Second World War, education became more widespread and helped the foundation of a global culture and market. Now literacy has become a basic condition for active and effective living around the globe, and communities without literacy cannot provide their own basic needs and cannot find a place in regional and global competitions.

3. Scientific and cultural goal: In the two goals discussed above, the pupil is an instrument, and the state uses the curriculum to manipulate their minds. Even if such a manipulation is for nation-building and economic growth, how much of it has been for the good of humanity is debatable. However, the curriculum of the modern education system contains scientific and cultural content accumulated over thousands of years of efforts of scholars, scientists, and human societies. These aspects of the curriculum equip minds with tools for learning, thinking and knowing. It helps them to know themselves, their societies, and nature. Introduction to history, philosophy, mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, art, literature, etc., are taught to pupils in 12 years of school.

UNESCO defines literacy as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials.” In this definition, literacy has several levels. First, a literate person can recognize written signs (letters, numbers, shapes, and graphs). One must also understand and interpret those signs. In addition, a literate person should be able to create written texts with the help of those signs. This text should be understandable to others. Generally, a literate person is expected to convey ideas, teachings, and messages to others in a standard and clear manner.

Equipping children and teenagers with these abilities has scientific and cultural results beyond the plans of governments and businesses. Because the madrasa curriculum has fundamentally different content and structural differences, its graduates aren’t equipped with those same literary capabilities. 

Differences in the structure of modern education and madrasa education

The modern school curriculum is organized to teach what educators believe is a minimum of literacy. Therefore, education up to high school is free in most countries, and even compulsory in some. People must be literate to live in a modern society. 

The curriculum is divided into various branches and themes, but in general, these twelve years of education can be categorized into three main sections: reading and writing letters and their combinations (words, sentences, paragraphs, and articles); reading and writing lines and shapes and their combination (images, graphs, geometric shapes, and non-numeric and non-alphabetic conventional symbols); and arithmetic and math.

Humans have communicated and exchanged information in these three ways in the past, but only in the modern era and with the modern curriculum has education been systematized to make sure the population can use, understand, and apply those principles. Now we need minimum literacy in letters, numbers, geometry, and images in all areas of life. 

From the first year of school, pupils gradually learn the complex forms of these three ways and use them.

In contrast, the madrasa curriculum is based only on letters. There is no mention of the following phrases in madrasa textbooks: fill in the table below; draw graph of following equation; solve the question below; calculate the profit and loss of this transaction; measure the slope of that surface.

In madrasas, education is limited to knowing letters and words. And there is also a substantial difference between the madrasa and modern education in that area.  In madrasa, learning is focused on rote memorization of the text. Rewriting and expressing in writing is not common practice at the mid and lower levels but is only expected at the highest levels of madrasa education. 

In modern education, both oral and written expression are given importance, with more weight usually put on writing. Among graduates of modern education, eloquent people who cannot write are not accepted as literate. A student in the modern education system is expected to reproduce what they have learned in writing. Therefore, exams in the modern school system are more often based on writing. In contrast, madrasa’s emphasis is on oral skills. The madrasa system is built for the training of religious orators. There is no place for dialogue or enhancing human capacity, unlike the modern education system, designed to equip common people with productive labour and communication skills.

At the same time, modern school students are expected to write essays. But madrasa students are expected to learn by parroting and rote learning of “infallible” texts. 

Differences in the substance of modern education and madrasa education  

The modern education system places a lot of emphasis on the ability to express one’s thoughts and ideas, not just to repeat what is learned from books or teachers. An educated person should be able to express their sensory, rational, and intellectual perceptions in three written forms (letters, numbers, geometric shapes). In the madrasa system, even senior clerics, let alone novice students, are not allowed to express thoughts and observations that go beyond the limits set out in their texts. 

In madrasa education, pupils are part of a system that sanctifies the past. In that system, change is condemned, and students are taught skills to combat that transformation, differences, or diversity. In that educational system, it is assumed that the main mission of humanity is to learn to worship and imitate the ways of life from the past. Science in madrasa is considered finalized, transhuman, and the exclusive domain of the chosen ones. The rest of society, including mullahs, are tasked to carry out the instructions of selected theologians who lived in the past “golden” ages or are now occupying exceptionally divine positions. In that system, questions and learning are only to acquire the skills of servitude and obedience. The central role of imitation and worship in the madrasa system has resulted in generations of rulers who do not understand the necessity of an education based on experience and research. They do not realize the importance of modern general education for building a state. Therefore, having tens of thousands of mullahs in charge of administrative, political, and educational sectors can have disastrous consequences. 

In nearly three years of rule, the Taliban have handed out academic certificates to thousands of mullahs who have graduated from madrasas. So, clerics who openly talk about being at war with modern education are getting bachelor’s and master’s degree credentials through Taliban-orchestrated exams, and then formally becoming eligible for important government posts. For instance, this year, about 51,000 graduates of madrasas took part in a so-called public exam organized by Taliban, for master’s degrees. That means they already have a bachelor’s degree of madrasa quality. The graduates of madrasas who claim to have such degrees are like players of buzkashi who want to play soccer. They will either fail badly or, if they usurp the management of the game, effectively turn a soccer match into a buzkashi.  

The average person who went through modern education is different from the average person who attended a madrasa like they are people of two eras. In modern education, pupils are equipped with methods of experiment and research, while in a madrasa, obedience and imitation are taught to pupils. In the modern education system, knowledge is measured, corrected, and developed based on discoveries, while students are encouraged to think, innovate, create, and change. In the madrasa system, creativity is called heresy and any deviation from original texts is punished. But in the modern education system, critically engaging with the primary texts is the main mission of successful students and scholars, and anyone who challenges the old hypotheses and scientific principles to develop new science is praised and applauded.

Younus Negah is a researcher and essayist from Afghanistan who is currently in exile in Turkey.