April 27, 2001
The Real Purpose of Education
Education – like democracy, free markets, freedom of the press, and
“universal human rights” – is one of those subjects whose virtue
is considered self-evident. So is the superiority of the industrially advanced
countries in attaining them. Consequently, any package that arrives with one
of these magic labels on it, automatically qualifies for the “green
channel” at our entry ports. No questions asked. This uncritical
acceptance has severely crippled our discussion of all these vital topics. For
example in education most of our discussion centers around literacy statistics
and the need to have so many graduates, masters, Ph.D’s, and so many
professionals in a given country based on the
standards in the industrially advanced countries. The central issue of
curriculum, and even more fundamental issue of the purpose of education
normally do not attract our attention; they have already been decided by the
“advanced” countries for us and our job is only to follow in their
footsteps to achieve their level of progress.
Indeed they have. In the “First World”, education has become an
extension of the capitalist system. Its purpose is to provide qualified
workforce for its machinery of production and eager consumers for its
products. Stated in a more polished form, the purpose of education is to
provide for the economic prosperity of a country. Similarly on a personal
level today the purpose of education is to be able to earn a respectable
While earning halal living and providing for the economic well being of a
country are certainly important Islamic goals as well, the linking of
education to financial goals is extremely unfortunate. It turns the centers of
learning into mere vocational centers in their outlook and spirit. It degrades
education and through it the society.
To bring home the pivotal but forgotten role of education we need to recall
that there is a fundamental difference between human beings and animals.
Instincts and physical needs alone can bring ants, bees, or herds of beasts
together to live in a perfectly functioning animal society. Human beings do
not function that way. They are not constrained by nature to follow only those
ways that are necessary for the harmonious operation of their society. If they
are to form a viable, thriving society, they must chose to do so. What drives
that choice is the sharing of common goals, beliefs, values and outlook on
life. Without a common framework binding its members, a human society cannot
continue to exist; it will disintegrate and be absorbed by other societies.
Further, the society must ensure that the common ground will continue to hold
from generation to generation. This is the real purpose of education.
The education system of a society produces the citizens and leaders needed for
the smooth operation of that society, now and into the future. Its state of
health or sickness translates directly into the health or sickness of the
society that it is meant to serve.
Today we find many internal problems – corruption, injustice, oppression,
crippling poverty – everywhere we turn in the Muslim world. If we think
about it, we may realize that most of these problems are man-made. Which is
another way of saying that they are largely traceable, directly or indirectly,
to the education system that produced the people who perpetuate the problems.
The rulers who sell out to foreign powers and subjugate their people; the
bureaucrats who enforce laws based on injustice; the generals who wage war
against their own people; the businessmen who exploit and cheat; the
journalists who lie, sensationalize, and promote indecencies, they are all
educated people, in many cases “highly” educated people. Their
education was meant to prepare them for the roles they are playing in real
life. And it has, although in a very unexpected way!
The problem plagues all layers of society. Why are Muslim communities in
the grip of so much materialism today? What should we expect when our entire
education system is preaching the gospel of materialism? Why have we
effectively relegated Islam to a small inconsequential quarter in our public
life? Because that is precisely where our secular education system has put it.
Why in our behavior toward each other we see so little display of Islamic
manners and morals? Because our imported education system is devoid of all
moral training. Why our societies are sick? Because our education system is
This is the real crisis of education. Before we got into this
mess by importing from the colonial powers what was current and popular,
education in our societies was always the means of nurturing the human being.
Moral training, tarbiyyah, was always an inalienable part of it. The ustaad
was not just a lecturer or mere professional, but a mentor and
moral guide. We remembered the hadith then, “No father has given a
greater gift to his children than good moral training” [Tirmidhi].
Our education system was informed by this hadith. Our dar-ul-ulooms
(institutes of learning) still
maintain that tradition but the number of students who pass through their
gates is minuscule compared to the secular schools.
In the U.S. and Europe, the schools were started by the church. Later as
forces of capitalism overtook them, they molded them into their image. Moral
training was a casualty of that takeover. But capitalism and their political
economy did need people trained to work under these systems. So citizenship
training was retained as an important, though diminishing, component of the
curriculum – a religion-free subset of the moral training it displaced.
Whatever civility we see here is largely a result of that leftover component.
The imported versions in the Muslim countries, though, had even that component
filtered out. And the results are visible.
We can solve our problem once we realize our mistakes. The first purpose of
our education system must be to produce qualified citizens and leaders for the
Islamic society. Tarbiyyah, real Islamic moral training, must be an
integral part of it. This must be the soul of our education, not a
ceremonial husk. All plans for improving our education will be totally useless
unless they are based on a full understanding of this key fact. This requires
revamping our curricula, rewriting our textbooks, retraining our teachers, and
realizing that we must do all this ourselves. We do have a rich history of
doing it. Are we finally willing to turn to our own in-house treasures to redo
education the way it should always have been?
(courtesy of http://www.albalagh.net)