NON-ISLAMIC CULTURES NOT PORTRAYED IN SAUDI ARABIAN SCHOOL TEXTBOOKS
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Elementary and secondary school students in Saudi Arabia learn almost nothing about non-Islamic cultures in school, unlike their Syrian and Jordanian counterparts, says a University of Arkansas professor. This absence of knowledge could lead to escalating hostilities between people of different cultures.
"When you don’t know enough about the cultures of other people, it’s easy to stereotype and to have misunderstanding," said Mounir Farah, professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education and Health Profession and of Middle East Studies at the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies. He will present his findings today at a symposium at the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C.
The workshop, called "Teaching the Other: Muslims, Non-Muslims and the Stories They Teach," focuses on how different societies instruct their children about other cultures and is sponsored by the Library’s Office of Scholarly Programs and the African Middle Eastern Division. Farah will discuss how non-Islamic and non-Arabic cultures and civilizations are portrayed in Saudi, Jordanian, and Syrian school textbooks and curricula. He has done extensive research on education in both Syria and Saudi Arabia and directed a World Bank project for rewriting history, geography, and civics school textbooks in Jordan, so he has a familiarity with the educational systems in all three countries.
Examining the portrayal of other cultures in schoolbooks is important, Farah said, because for many people it is the only source of cross-cultural information they get besides what they see in the media. In the United States, educators have examined textbooks to determine how they depict Asian, Middle Eastern, and African cultures, and this symposium offers an opportunity for scholars to do the same sort of evaluation of the cross-cultural information contained in textbooks from Muslim countries.
In Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, attendance at elementary and secondary school is compulsory through ninth or tenth grade and free through grade 12. In Saudi Arabia, college education is free with subsidies given to students to defray some of their expenses.
"High school is the last chance for many of these people to learn about cultures other than their own," Farah said.
Farah examined about 60 textbooks, curricula and teacher’s manuals from the three countries, covering topics such as geography, history, civics, religious studies and social studies for grades kindergarten through 12. He looked at how the textbooks from those countries portrayed non-Middle Eastern and non-Islamic cultures and civilizations including Western civilization and those of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
He found that Jordan and Syria both depicted Western civilization in their textbooks, but that other non-Western, non-Middle Eastern, non-Islamic countries were not well represented. In Saudi Arabia, however, he found a different story.
"There is a very evident lack of coverage of the world beyond Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and Islamic Civilization," he said.
Farah attributes this lack of coverage in part to the amount of time Saudi Arabian children spend in religious education-about three times more than school children in Jordan or Syria.
"Religious education takes a good portion of their day and crowds out other areas of history and geography," Farah said.
Jordan and Syria both appear open to curriculum modification. Jordan underwent a major reform movement in education from 1989-1999, and has embarked on another five-year plan to continue its progress. And Farah has met several times with the minister of education in Syria, and said that country appears to be open and willing to make significant changes.
In Saudi Arabia, however, curriculum change remains political. Education reform would require either adding to the school day or reducing the time for other subjects, such as mathematics, science or Islamic education.
"In Saudi Arabia, they will have to make some tough decisions," Farah said.
He sees education reform as inevitable and necessary in Saudi Arabia. The desire to change and to revamp the Saudi education system has the support of leading government officials and within the educational institutions.
"We live in a world with so many different religious movements, trends and ideologies. I think it’s important that students learn something about the beliefs of other peoples," Farah said.
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