The season to analyze and dissect constitutional drafts has descended upon us once again. Much like last year, it is accompanied by cold weather and heated debate. While the majority of controversial articles have already been fleshed out, little attention has been paid to the articles concerning education.
Many of the few venturing into the subject have praised the education-related articles for their contribution to social justice. But what does the constitution tell us about basic education exactly?
There are definitely a number of positive developments if compared to previous Egyptian constitutions. Article 19 of the draft constitution forces the state to allocate a proportion of government spending of no less than 4 percent of the Gross National Product (GNP) on basic education.
While it may have been more efficient — and less confusing — to use overall government spending as a reference point instead of the GNP, one has to nonetheless acknowledge the fact that such a commitment — if translated into actual projects and specific programs — could mean the beginning of an improved education system. If the constitution passes, it would be imperative for the Ministry of Education and all other authorities dealing with the issue of education to come up with specific and concrete plans for the newly allocated funds.
Another positive improvement is the inclusion of an article on the importance of teachers and their role within the education system. Article 22 essentially advocates for intellectual, scientific, professional and economic teacher development and recognizes the pivotal role they are meant to play within the system.
This particular article is also significant in that it symbolizes a partial victory for the teachers’ movement by laying the groundwork to legally challenge issues including poor salaries, lack of training, lack of acknowledgment and maltreatment.
It would have been equally positive, nonetheless, to add an article about student and parent rights, as they too must bare the burden of Egypt’s troubled education system and are often overlooked in the conversation.
Alongside such positive developments, however, there are a few articles that are problematic. Lets begin by looking at Article 19 of the draft constitution, which raises a number of concerns.
“Education is a right for every citizen. It is aimed at building the Egyptian character, preserving the national identity, establishing scientific methods of thinking, developing talent, encouraging innovation, the inculcation of civilized and spiritual values, and the establishment of concepts of citizenship, tolerance and non-discrimination. The State is committed to consider these objectives within curricula and other tools. It is also committed to providing quality education according to international standards.
Education is compulsory until the end of high school or its equivalent, and the state guarantees free education in state institutions in its various stages according to the law.”
The interesting development here is the fact that education has been linked to a “higher purpose.” Unlike other social rights specified in the constitution, education is attached to a specific set of objectives that must be fulfilled. This development marks a departure from previous Egyptian constitutions, which have tended to list education as a right for its own sake.
Article 18 of the 1971 constitution for example stipulates: “Education is a right provided by the State. It is compulsory at the primary level and the state is committed to making it compulsory on other levels (…).” Even the highly contested constitution of 2012 did not attach a higher goal to the right to education, stating quite plainly in Article 58: “Every citizen has a right to high quality education. It is free at all levels in all government institutions and compulsory at the basic level (…).”
In fact, many of the world’s countries praised for their “successful education models” have been equally concise in terms of constitutional phrasing. Finland’s constitution simply states: “Everyone has the right to basic education free of charge. Provisions on the duty to receive education are laid down by an Act (…).”
So why is it that we now find ourselves with a fairly detailed and meticulously articulated vision for the role of education in our society?
Recent public hysteria regarding the “hijacking of Egyptian identity” and the “Islamization of the state” provide an obvious starting point for our inquiry. The question to ask ourselves, however, is whether the use of phrases such as “the Egyptian character” or “the preservation of national identity” really do solve the issue or whether they open the door to discrimination against content that reflects Egypt’s rich cultural heritage and diversity within schools. Stating openly that the purpose of education is to “build the Egyptian character” and to preserve “national identity” leaves us with more questions than answers. Coupled with other articles from the draft constitution, such as Article 24, which emphasizes Arabic, national history and religious instruction as mandatory subjects*, we are left to wonder about possible far-reaching implications. Is there such a thing as a national identity? What does the constitution tell us about the use of other languages in the classroom such as Nubian? What, according to the constitution, is the ‘Egyptian character’? What isn’t? What about other marginalized regions such as Sinai?
Other areas of the constitution have celebrated diversity for the first time, including Article 47. Why is this not clearly reflected in the education articles then?
The Brazilian constitution, for example, prescribes Portuguese as the official language of instruction in elementary schools, but it ensures that Indian communities have the right to use their native languages and their own learning methods in parallel (Article 209).
Article 19’s emphasis on the “role of education” also taps into other fears related to the quality of Egyptian education. Clearly, those drafting it were deeply concerned about the system’s inability to inspire critical thinking, its inculcation of intolerance for the other and its lack of creativity. But what is lacking is an acknowledgement of education’s role in the process of self-discovery, its potential to preserve communal ties, its possible contribution to understanding the world, and its potential to instil love for learning and art.
The point here is that trying to pin down a set of goals for an education system may be noble, but it is not necessarily sustainable. Every generation, every parent and every student has their own ideas about what the goals of education should be. At best, we can put general guidelines in place, merely to ensure quality, equal and free access and openness in manner that allows each to carve out their own vision.
The rather rigid understanding of the role of education within society prescribed in Article 19 stands in stark contrast to other constitutions that have demonstrated a far more lenient approach to education, whether by completely omitting “a higher purpose” for education, or by adhering to a set of broad, dynamic principles as found in Article 206 of the Brazilian constitution:
“Education shall be provided on the basis of the following principles:
2. Freedom to learn, teach, research and express thought, art and knowledge
3. Pluralism of pedagogic ideas and conceptions and coexistence of public and private teaching institutions
There is no doubt that education can be improved in Egypt if sufficient funding is allocated and if teachers are well trained and happy. But first, let us free ourselves from the constraints we have put on our education system. Education is a dynamic, overarching, fun, broad and challenging process. We should not try to pin it down to a handful of goals, however well intentioned these may be.
*A somewhat similar version of this Article is found in the 2012 constitution stipulating the importance and mandatory nature of these subjects. Interestingly, the 1971 constitution only tackles religious instruction.