Mar 31, 2007

San Diego - Seaport Village

San Diego - Seaport Village
Originally uploaded by arrabi.
We took an incredible roadtrip to San Diego - my first vacation in a very long time. Behind the convention center, they have a very nice little shopping area called Seaport Village. They have very interesting looking trees there. The sky colors in san diego are amazing - for the 3 days we stayed there, the sky looked so surreal.
Ah... it's nice to go to San Diego again.

Mar 14, 2007

The problem of education in Jordan

I wrote this article awhile ago, and it has been put aside for a long time now. It really reflects my own opinions on the problem - a non-expert on education. I was hoping I would be able to expand this into a real paper under an education professor, but that didn't go through. I hope that by sharing it on the internet, I can get enough constructive feedback to refine and review the ideas here.

I know it's rather long. I will try to write up a shorter summary for a future blog entry.

Please be kind and provide feedback.

The problem of imported educational systems
in Jordan

(edited, first draft)

1 Introduction

1.1 Abstract

In this article, I argue that most of the educational system in Jordan was copied mainly during the colonial era. This system, by virtue of being conceived in a different society, prepares the Jordanian graduates to participate and solve the problems of the originating societies instead of the local one. This phenomenon has resulted in a disconnected educational system from the society it resides in. The latter situation, I argue, is one of the root causes for many of the educational problems that exist today in Jordan, the Arab & Muslim world, and possibly many other third-world countries; furthermore, it extends to affect other areas like industry, culture, and the overall progress of civilization. The article explains that there is no fixed ready-to-use solution. The solution is in the process of rethinking the educational system and designing it with the needs of the local society in mind, thus providing a creative, dynamic framework to evolve the system over time as necessity dictates.

1.2 Motivation

“You must start right from the beginning, letting your buildings grow from the daily lives of the people who will live in them, shaping the houses to the measure of the people’s songs, weaving the patterns of a village as if on the village looms, mindful of the trees and the crops that will grow there, respectful to the skyline and humble before the seasons. There must be neither faked tradition nor faked modernity, but an architecture that will be the visible and permanent expression of the character of a community. But this would mean nothing less than a whole new architecture.”

Hassan Fathy

“Architecture for the poor” p.p. 45

This article desires the same, but for education.

In the beginning of the 20th century, most, if not all, Arab & Muslim countries faced the problem of populace illiteracy[1]. Since then, many of these countries have done a great job in providing public education and raising the knowledge levels within the people[2]. These educational systems put in place, have been catching up with the modern technology of the world. Indeed, some individuals raised through these systems were able to join high-standing intellectual circles and participate in the advancement of the world[3].

Today, however, Jordan needs to move to the next phase, and change the educational system from playing the role of imitation to that of creativity and participation. The old educational system might have worked to overcome the first challenges, but now a new system is needed to solve new problems and advance in the new century. And let us keep in mind that, he who follows the crowd, is unlikely to reach further than the crowd.

2 Understanding the Problem

2.1 Education as part of the society

All human communities, big or small, aim to provide its members with the needs of life[4]. However, as societies evolve and grow through time, they develop systems and institutions to support their growth and to participate in the process of expansion[5]. While primitive tribes require each individual to take part in the basic needs of life like food collection, fighting, and producing goods, larger societies organize their members in specialized areas, like agriculture, military, and industry, to increase efficiency and thus allow further expansion.

Each specialized area is made of institutions, like schools and universities, and a governing system, like the educational system. For a second example take the military. The infantry, the air force and the navy constitute the institutions, and the overall system is the offense-defense power of the country.

The main condition for advancing a society is to maintain the synergy between its different sectors[6]. A man would not agree to spend all his day working in a farm if he cannot count on another making and selling him some clothes to wear. In addition to covering the main aspects of life, the different sectors should work in harmony and feed into each other constructively. For example, farming cotton, in the agriculture system, feeds into the clothes manufacturing, in the industry system. As societies expand, the relationships between the systems grow deeper and more interrelated.

If we are to choose the most connected system, in terms of its dependencies to and from the other systems, it has to be education. All the other systems depend on education to provide the necessary workforce, and to advance the efficiency and state of technology used in each. On the other hand, the components of the educational system are highly dependent on the needs of the other systems. If the goal of education is to provide workers and advance the other sectors, it obviously follows that education has to adapt to the needs of the other sectors. If we allow a society to grow on its own, we’ll notice how the educational system is deeply rooted in the society, just like the roots of a tree hold fast to the ground around it.

2.2 Educational Systems through lineage of knowledge

Education is the most explicit form of passing the society’s collective knowledge across generations. This knowledge is much more than dry facts and abstract information. It incorporates generations’ worth of experience in how these facts evolved and came to be known. It includes a rich history of the people who discovered them and their stories. It contains the morals in which these facts should be used. In other words, collective knowledge is the society’s memory through time.

Such knowledge can only be transferred by human interaction within the boundaries of the society. For example, studying Newton’s book, one can learn about the laws of physics. But studying under Newton, the students would also learn how to setup the experiments to induce Newton’s laws. They will learn some about managing scientific institutions (since Newton served also as the President of the Royal Scientific Society). They will even subconsciously gather some of Newton’s personal characteristics, like extraordinary dedication and openness. A student who read Newton’s book learns the laws of Physics. A student who studied with Newton learns to be a physicist. And there is a wealth of difference between the two.

Chains of teacher-student relationships form lineage of knowledge. These lines, in addition to transferring the basic knowledge between generations, they also insure compatibility with the other society’s systems. Teachers teach their students how to make their knowledge relevant to the surrounding sectors in society, because they know, through the lineage of knowledge, how discoveries were made and what they served. The purpose of the educational system is indirectly well-taught through the lines of knowledge.

2.3 Colonialism and importing the educational system

Unfortunately, in the past several hundred years, most of the Arab and Muslims countries went through the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the European colonialism. Both of these periods destroyed much of the societies’ systems, especially education.[7] Lineages of knowledge were brutally cut because teachers represented a threat to the governing bodies at the time. Opposition was not welcomed. Furthermore, to ensure streamlining the new generations thought and thus controlling the other systems, whole educational systems were wiped and replaced by imported ones from the west. Due to the scientific advancement of these powers, the imported educational systems fascinated the colonized populations and caused a reactionary movement to cherish these new sciences and reject almost all of the traditional disciplines.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon has continued even after the independence era, and it is still the norm in the present time. Today, new generations are born into the Jordanian society, but they are totally disconnected with almost all their society’s collective knowledge that has evolved and expanded over hundreds, even thousands of years. Even worse, the new imported educational system is so disconnected with the rest of the society’s sectors, to the point they almost do not contribute to one another, and that is not seen as abnormal.

3 Analyzing the Impact

3.1 An incompatible system that has lost its sensors

An educational system that has evolved within the society and grew with its different sectors, such a system would eventually develop its own two-way communication channels: to sense the changes and needs of the society, and then to react and exert the necessary change and development in the society. Healthy educational systems develop very complicated institutions and channels to act as sensors on the society.

For example, in the US educational system, the research grants, both public and private, act as a great catalyst for sensing the society’s needs and directing the large research body towards the necessary fields. Scientists come up with many research proposals, and the grants system, mainly driven by the government and large companies, fund the relevant and promising proposals. While the industry usually funds research with short-term results, the government balances that by investing in long-term research and humanities. For a specific example of the promptness, let us look at the Artificial Neural Network research between 1950 and 1990[8]. Perceptrons, the earliest form of Artificial Neural Networks, was first advised in 1943 by McCulloch and Pitt and then first implemented in hardware by Minsky in 1951. They are logical mathematical methods that imitate the brain neurons in analyzing data. They showed great success at the beginning in simple shapes recognition. This promising success directed many grants to further study them.

In 1969, Minsky and Papert wrote a book called “Perceptrons” that proved that they have great limitations in solving non-linear problems. Within a year, most of the grants money was redirected away from any Neural Networks research. This shows a great example of how the educational system reacted swiftly to the fact that Perceptrons research was inadequate to the society. However, some government grants kept few research projects going for long-term exploration. In 1986, a book titled “Parallel Distributed Processing” was published by McClelland et al, re-introducing a modified version of Neural Networks that overcame the challenges previously presented by Minsky. This new system showed a lot of promise to the industry, and so it became one of the well-funded research areas until today. Many of the new handwriting recognition programs use some form of Neural Networks. This is another clear example of how a healthy educational system has channels to present new ideas to the industry and exert changes to it.

These communication channels between the educational system and the other sectors in society, do not only help the overall growth, but they also act as a continuous reminder to the personnel in the educational system of its main duty. That is twofold, to provide the necessary work force and to help enhance the other sectors in society.

Now let us think about an imported educational system. Theoretically, if a system is copied, these channels should also get copied as is. However, a channel, by definition, is a connection between two points. While one end is connected to the educational system, the other end should connect with some other systems in the society. The imported educational system did not evolve within the society with the other sectors, and thus it does not know where to hook these channels. Without these channels, people running the educational system work independently and they seem to forget the main aim of education. They become a disconnected body that strives to live on its own. And these channels die. They die not because they do not exist, but also because people forget that they should exist.

3.2 Producing unsuitable graduates and researching unneeded technologies

With the communication channels dead, the imported educational system in Jordan started acting on its own, not using feedback from society and not worrying much about the changes it can bring to society. An educational system prepares the students to participate and functions in its society. In Jordan, the imported educational system prepares students to function, not in Jordanian society, but rather the societies this system was imported from. Graduates come out of the universities feeling that they are out of place. The educational system did not prepare them to function in where they are living. It’s absurd that in many cases in Jordan, the less a student pays attention to the educational system, the more he can succeed in his own society. On the other hand, a top notch graduate is usually most efficient when put in the originating country of the educational system. Take, as an example, the success of Moroccan students in France, the Egyptian graduates in England, or the Jordanian graduates in United States.

While the high unemployment rate in Jordan has many reasons, one of the main ones is that the universities pour unsuitable graduates into the job market. It’s not that there are not enough job openings. Imports are extremely high, and many of these goods can be manufactured locally. For example, Jordan exports raw phosphate and imports agriculture fertilizers made of that very same phosphate. It is just that the graduates were not trained to work and develop in the local industry.

The disconnected state of the educational system also shows in the areas of research in many of the Jordanian universities. Much of the research done is unrelated to any needs in these societies, but is usually a solution to problems found in the originating countries of the educational system. . Even when research papers are done about relevant areas in society, we find that there is a great lack in a mechanism to leverage the results of this research in the other sectors of society.

3.3 Education for missing reasons and the problem of blind memorization

Another very big consequence of losing the communication channels between the educational system and the rest of society, is that the people working in it forget the main aim of this system. Students ask “Why are we studying this?” The teachers wonder “why are we teaching this?” However, the teachers do recognize the general importance of Education. And thus, they start looking for ways to justify going through the educational system from within the educational system itself. They start coming up with reasons like “We educate for the sake of education.” “You have to study to get high grades in the end of the year.” “You get high grades to get recognized and rewarded with gifts.” “You study to be called an Engineer or a Doctor.”

As education starts justifying itself by itself, measuring the success of students gets harder. A praise-worthy student becomes not the one who can implement his knowledge in society, since that channel is missing. The only way to measure students’ performance becomes the literal reverberation of the studied material. And today, looking at the high school certificates, and even university exams in Jordan, we see memorization as the main tool for grading students’ performance.

Education for the sake of education can be useful sometimes in long-term-return disciplines that are very broad, mainly theoretical sciences and math. On the other hand, it’s disastrous in practical and industry-related fields, like business and management. Looking at the current state of Jordanian graduate students in Western universities, they almost all observe that they are much stronger in theoretical analysis but are much weaker in practical sciences compared to students who went through the western system.

3.4 Great imbalance in specialization and majoring for the wrong reasons

With the vague understanding of the reasons for education, students are deprived from their main tool for choosing their higher education major. That absence gives place to minor reasons, like the socio-economic reputation of careers, as the main criteria for specialization. Unfortunately, this process is self-feeding and grows in cycles. If some students with high grades choose a major, its reputation grows, and thus more high-standing students are inclined to pick that major.[9]

This cycle has taken place in Jordan for so long, the reputation and status of each major is rather fixed now. Everybody wants to be a Doctor. If not, then an Engineer. If not, then in some science college. Law school and Business come next. And then towards the end we see Education, Literature, Humanities (Economics, Philosophy, Sociology, etc.) and Religious studies. Jordan & other countries>

All top students end up measuring in Medicine or Engineering because of social pressure rather than their own choice. In a study done in 1990 (?), Dr. Fathi Jarwan of University of Jordan, found that during the period 1980 to 1990, 80% (?) of the top ten high school certificate performers in Jordan are not happy in their careers, and would definitely choose a different path if they go back in time. A realization came too late.

With almost all top students going to Medicine and Engineering colleges, it follows that the weaker students end up filling the Management, Humanities and Economics seats. This great imbalance results in overwhelming lack of entrepreneurial sense in the society. All the smart students learn how to be excellent employees, and the weaker ones are supposed to impress them, rally them, and lead them as managers. The first step, impressing the engineers, usually fails and the whole process falls. Sciences that are supposed to diagnose these social problems and to come up with creative solutions, these sciences receive the least attention from the educational system, and thus end up not performing their job. And the problem spirals deeper with time.

3.5 Two fields that seem to be less affected

Jordan: because this science is directly useful in Jordan.>

3.6 The situation: stalemate

As the educational system communication channels fade away, the other sectors also lose track of these channels and they become indifferent to the changes in education. This kills off any mechanism of incorporating educational system recommendations in these sectors, thus making the future change even harder. For example, researchers who see the effect of industry-research feedback cycle in the west, usually blame the industries in Jordan for not supporting research in local universities. On the other hand, the local industries complain that the universities’ research is so “advanced” it does not relate to their problems. With each side blaming the other, communication channels never take off – not even to learn from their mistakes. Relations are halted, and the situation is a stalemate.

Change is not going to come “eventually.” Calculated and brave steps need to be taken.

4 Proposed Solutions

We must start right from the beginning, letting our education grow from the daily lives of the people who will go through it, shaping the institutions to the measure of the people’s works, weaving the patterns of a university as if on the society looms, mindful of the shops and the factories that will grow there, respectful to the moral values and humble before the heritage. There must be neither faked tradition nor faked modernity, but an educational system that will be the visible and permanent expression of the character of a community. But this would mean nothing less than a whole new system… If I may borrow the words of Hassan Fathy…

4.1 Admit the problem and analyze the situation LOCALLY

If I can only deliver one message from this article, it’s that one-size-fits-all does not work with Education. Furthermore, not just Education, but it does not work for all core systems in the society. The gravest mistake is to try to look for the solution in the “advanced countries” or ask the “foreign experts.” There is no standard solution to this problem. The most able people to solve the problem of education in a country are those who live in it. Our best experts are us, not just that, but we are even the only ones who can help ourselves.

Using foreign minds to solve core local problems is doomed to fail. One of the most famous manifestations of this statement is what happened between Indonesia and Dr. Hjalmar Schacht in 1951[10]. Schacht was the main economic architect for Germany after the First World War. His plans were able to take Germany from a tremendously devastated country deep in inflation to one of the leading industrial nations in the world. Nonetheless, Schacht’s plans in Indonesia ended in total failure[11], simply because he tried to plant the German Economic system in Indonesia; but just like trees planted in unsuitable weather, Schacht’s plans crumbled and died.

After admitting to the problem, and fully realizing that we are the ones who have to figure it out and solve it, we should hire local creative minds and let them study the problem to its details. The effort should be directed towards understanding the intricate characteristics of the local society and finding its areas of strength and weakness. The extent and nature of the problems should be well defined and analyzed.

No assumptions should be left unquestioned. Statements like “it has always been this way” or “the whole world does it this way” should never be used. Basic practices should be thought over and over, like “why do we need 12 years of elementary and secondary education?” “Why do we admit students to school only at age 6?” “Why university departments are divided this way?” “Why do students advance through classes by age instead of speed of learning?” Remember that many of the norms today were not so in the original educational institutions that evolved in the Muslim world. For example, students were admitted to the “Kuttab” as soon as their parents sent them and they did not disturb the teachers. Students advanced based on their speed in learning reading and writing and memorizing Quran. The student-teacher relationship was very close and broad, and beyond mere facts, it covered practice, morals and social understanding.

Before rushing to giving recommendations and proposing solutions, the results of the problem analysis should be circulated. A solution plan should be advised by involving people from all the different sectors of society, not just to get their advice, but also to build commitment. This plan should be flexible to react to unexpected outcomes, in the same time it should be firm since traditional societies, by nature, tend to resist social change, especially on such large-scale. Once the plan is ready, its purpose should be widely circulated amongst people, and it should be carried out in full scale with support from many of the society’s powers.

4.2 Refocus the purpose of education on society’s needs

As the misalignment between education and society is analyzed, sectors like industry will recognize many areas of research that will seem embarrassingly simple or backward. For example, one of the most relevant industrial engineering challenges might be “optimizing work in Shawerma and Falafel shops.” An industrial engineer learning how to optimize big factories might find such an “area of research” rather demeaning and unworthy. Such feelings should be overcome. The heavenly towers of advanced societies are built one block at a time.

While the overall change needed is general to the society, universities today can take many steps to bring this change closer:

1- Industrial advisories: Universities can form advisory boards from the industry to help steer its direction. Such relationship should also create a degree of commitment in the industry to watch research results more closely.

2- Focus on local research problems: Researchers in the universities can be required to keep about 80% of their research areas relevant to local society. Note that it’s important to keep in mind that we will always be part of the world and that generic-world-problems should also get their share.

3- Reverse Balance Majors: Since it will take relatively long time to teach students how to choose the right majors, more emphasis should be put on diversifying popular curricula like Engineering. This is somewhat similar to double-majoring, where students get the engineering title for social pressure, in the same time they get to study what they like and can be creative in.

4- Entrepreneurial & Economic emphasis: Creating companies and businesses requires a certain degree of intelligence, creativity, initiative, and management. Encouraging students from all majors, especially engineering, to take more administration and economics courses would help the overall change spirit and would eventually create more companies and job openings in society. This can translate to requiring engineering students to take more business and enterprise classes, a trend which is already taking place even in Western education – mainly because of the historic narrow focus of Engineering curricula.[12]

5- Discouraging literal memorization: While memorization is a useful skill in education, using it as the sole measure for students causes many unwanted side effects as explained earlier. Dissuading teachers and students from this practice can prove very useful.

4.3 Revive the old systems & institutions, and reconnect

As mentioned earlier, much of the society’s collective knowledge have been lost in the Jordanian culture, mainly because of the cut lineages of knowledge. There is almost complete ignorance today of the achievements and research of historic local thinkers[13]. (?) About 95% of all pre-1900 Arabic and Muslim manuscripts are still not in print yet (i.e. few copies exist in hand writing). While scientific facts in there compositions are likely not to be of added value, they contain much of generations experiences and practical findings that would help consume local resources more efficiently and successfully. They would also enhance the confidence of local students by showing them great examples of their own history and tradition. I am sure that many “first discoverer” claims will be found upon studying works of traditional scientists.

The process of reconnecting the lineages of knowledge would benefit humanities and social sciences much in recognizing the state of ideas that was reached at one point, and it will help drive these ideas forward, providing answers to the society’s moral and organizational questions. For example, take the debate of forming leadership and practicing “shura”.

Using old methods with modern technologies can result in great solutions to some of today’s problems. For example, take the success of the Hassan Fathy, an Egyptian architect who studied the old methods of building houses in Egypt to provide natural air circulation and desired temperature using some local building materials[14].

4.4 Benefiting from other society’s advances

While the message of this article stresses independence of thinking, it does not claim that societies cannot benefit from the knowledge and experience of others. On the contrary, the global dialogue plays an important role in enriching thought, diversifying points of view, in addition to speeding up the process of testing hypotheses and drawing conclusions. However, a system or knowledge should not be blindly copied from one society to another, since it might not fit, or even if it did, it won’t be well-integrated.

The main point to make here, is that knowledge from other societies should be brought to the context of the local society before implementing it. The untold assumptions, that might be too common in other societies to the point they are rarely explicitly stated, should be brought up and studied. It is also important to understand how that knowledge fits within its originating society before importing it to the local society – since difference in perception can easily render the knowledge useless or even harmful. As a light example, celebrating the mothers day (?) as the second Sunday in May in some western societies should not be copied blindly to Jordan, chiefly because Sunday is a work day over there. Western nations really celebrate Mother’s day on the “second weekend holiday of May” and not really “Sunday” specifically. After understanding that untold assumption, that Sunday is a day off, the celebration can take place on a Friday instead.

While the example discussed above is rather light and simple, many abstract social sciences, like Economics, hide so many assumptions behind them, and make so broad of generalizations, to the point they may seem transferable. However, experience and deep examination of such theories show that they treat a society like black box, and many of their grand generalizations are based on experimental data that is usually tied closely to the subject societies. Such sciences with little objective basis should be taken with lots of salt. Most of the time, they should be developed from ground up inside the society.

Some might advance the argument that universities should always focus on teaching advanced sciences in order to urge the industry to follow and develop. I agree with this statement with adding “in small steps.” Making inventions will always mean that universities will be ahead of the industry. However, these steps should be small enough to allow the industry to catch up. If the industry fall way back, the channel will be lost and the two bodies will stop the feedback cycle between them, resulting in the disconnected problem we’ve discussed above. This is just like the persons two legs. Each should alternate taking a step to stay in tune. One should not try to keep walking while the other has stopped, or else that person will seize to be.

5 Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate my main points. Societies are made of systems within it, like Education, Economics, Industry, etc. These systems grow only through a feedback cycle between them. They can never be treated as independent bodies, but rather can have a healthy existence only by keeping relations to the other systems. These systems transfer across generations in a society through lineage of knowledge, chains of teacher-student who keep them alive in their full meaning.

Losing much of the lineage of knowledge during the end of the Ottoman Empire and the Colonial age destroyed much of these systems. Further, importing the Educational system from colonial empires to Arab and Muslim countries has made sure to alienate this system from the rest of the society. Today, Jordan lives many of the results of this disconnected state of the educational system, like blind memorization performance measures, unsuitable graduates, unneeded research, and disintegration from the rest of the society like the industry and the culture.

To solve this problem, big changes in society should take place, and the whole educational system should be re-thought and re-implemented with the local society in mind. This process is not easy and not short, but let us remember that the journey of 1000 miles starts with a step.

5.1 Revisions




Started writing it. Second attempt (previous one grew to be too complicated and long). Wrote the “Defining the problem” section.


Wrote the “analyzing the problem” section.

Wrote the “the solution” section. Still have the abstract, the conclusion, and parts of the solution to write.

Wrote the rest of solution and the conclusion. Abstract to go.


Wrote the Abstract and the Motivation & Introduction.


Completed many sections. Incorporated Kanji’s comments.


Corrected typos


Edited to narrow the research topic on Jordan


Fixed few references

[1] UNHD report on Arab World, part 1 (TBD get pp)

[2] Same (TBD pp)

[3] Albert Hourani, Arab Thought in the Liberal Age (TBD pp)

[4] A bit too generic. Rephrase and make the purpose of the paragraph more obvious.

[5] Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (TBD pp)

[6] Same reference (TBD pp)

[7] Look for “Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West” by George Makdisi (or any other works) on Traditional Education and its decline under the late Ottoman period & the colonial era.

[8] History based on AI A Modern Approach 2nd edition 2002 by Russell & Norvig, p.p. 757

[9] Provide material proofs on this point.

[10] Malik bin Nabi, “Economics” – look for other references

[11] I need proof – a study of this. Nabi’s book is very generic in presenting the results

[12] Read about Fredrick Terman, the dean of engineering of Stanford in the 1930s, who had pretty much started the great relationship between Stanford and the industry, which has come back to help Stanford much in recent days.

[13] Need references to support this point.

[14] Get a reference on this work