In an important new move, the Palestinian Authority has recently begun highlighting education as one of the main centerpieces in the next phase of the state and institution building program. Under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, the PA understands that an effective and progressive educational system is essential for economic and social development, building a functional state, and laying the groundwork for peace with Israel.
On August 8, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad gave a speech emphasizing the importance of improved education in combating fanaticism, promoting culture, and developing analytical capabilities in Palestinian society. He called educational improvement a “key priority” of the state and institution building program and “one of the most important criteria for measuring its success.”
In his speech, Fayyad singled out three essential aspects of education that need special attention. These were bold observations that are striking, not only in the Palestinian context, but in the Arab context at large.
First is the crucial need to respond to the decline of language skills and competency, particularly in Arabic. What this rightly suggests is that while in the early decades after 1948 much of Palestinian society responded to their predicament and the creation of the refugee problem by turning to education, the level of education among Palestinians has been in a kind of freefall in the last couple of decades, especially in the Occupied Territories. The turning point was probably the outbreak of the first Intifada in which energies began to be channeled away from education in favor of political activism.
Second, the PA believes there is an “urgent need” to promote analytical capabilities and critical thinking among Palestinian youths and students. Palestinian education, as with much of the rest of the Arab world, relies too much on the rote memorization and the simple ingestion of raw data or received wisdom rather than the cultivation of critical thinking and analytical skills. The PA is clearly concerned about the need for the future Palestinian state to focus on its human capital as a key resource for development and prosperity.
Without analytical and critical abilities promoted by an effective educational system, human capital is reduced simply to highly structured labor rather than a modern, creative, dynamic society that can thrive without major natural resources or luxurious arable lands for agriculture.
In his third and closely related point, Fayyad spoke about the need to use education to combat the growing prevalence of narrow-minded rigidity, enforcement through spurious appeals to supposed religious or cultural traditions, in both Palestinian thinking and social conduct. As an example he cited the increasingly widespread practice of avoiding handshaking between men and women which he said was not related to any real religious doctrine or traditional mores but nonetheless was becoming “not only accepted but expected.” Obviously, this handshaking taboo is only one example of many manifestations of the kind of reactionary tendencies he wants Palestinian education to combat and is a symptom of the overall constriction in Palestinian culture and attitudes he rightly finds alarming.
Hamas, the primary enforcer of such attitudes among Palestinians, was predictably enraged and said Fayyad was seeking to corrupt the youth of Palestine and destroy its culture.
Obviously the education sector is of key strategic and political importance. It not only helps shape social attitudes, it’s an essential function of government that must be carried out as effectively as possible. And, of course, it is precisely through providing education and health services over the years that extremist groups like Hamas in Gaza have won political support and spread its ideology among people who need those services. The Palestinian leadership seems well aware that it must urgently do more to provide these services themselves, and more importantly do it in the right way to create a Palestinian society that can thrive in the modern world.
This new plan for intervention is exceptionally important to lay healthy foundations for a successful, viable Palestinian state that could live in peace with Israel.
But more importantly, it is impressive and unusual in the Arab context to find a serving prime minister, with the support of the president, openly attacking what might be called the closing of the Arab mind, and to find a government proposing concrete plans to combat reactionary trends and promoting analytical skills and critical thinking. It’s not just the Palestinians who need to learn such lessons, it’s the entire Arab world.