I was talking to my students about the Second World War and its impact on Gulf society. We wondered how people managed then with very little resources compared with what they enjoy today. One of the students asked: Was there a First World War since you are talking about the second? At first I thought he was joking, but I realised he was dead serious.
Incidents such as these are not uncommon in university classrooms nowadays. On visiting high schools, I realise how our public education system is deteriorating. With almost 40 years of experience in education, I can say with no hesitation that our new generation is lost, education-wise. This is not my observation alone. Talk to anybody involved in education today and you will hear the same comments, accompanied by anger and some frustration.
Who is to blame? Who should we point a finger at? There are many reasons, but probably it is society as a whole that is responsible. Yes, we in the Gulf provided free education to everyone right from the cradle to the university so to speak. We expected this to create productive generations, but for the most part, free education has become just a means to spend time between childhood and finding a job, nothing more or less.
When you ask your students at the university what kind of books they read outside the curriculum, the answer is — almost always — none. They insist on taking very brief notes even during regular studies of class material. Reading something outside class notes is like an insult to today’s students.
The new generation has totally surrendered to the values of the oil era — consumerism. They want everything immediate — quick and light study courses — exactly like a hamburger meal or a quick coffee.
Education today is of great and essential importance worldwide, it imparts knowledge, skills and positive attitudes. Knowledge is relative and can be obtained even through the internet, a magical tool that can provide almost any information one needs at the click of a mouse.
However, the other two elements, skills and positive attitudes are rare in our educational system. One could argue that our educational system, because of a lack of positive philosophy, teaches students negative attitudes, mostly myths and fiction.
The modern media has a lot to do with that through SMS and emails. I read out two messages I received recently to my students; one came as an SMS and read: “If you have had a bad dream, call us and we can explain it to you in a few minutes ... the call costs 1KD per minute”!
The other message — an email — said: “If you are bald and need your hair to grow or if you have back pain or a deficiency in your monthly period or even if you are still unmarried, we have the cure for all that. Just reply to this mail, give us your specifics and we will take care of all what you complain about.”
I mention only two examples among tens of messages coming through my phone or emails. This kind of unsolicited, shady information is compounded by nonsensical talk shows on TV, which unfortunately appeal to the ignorant in our society. The surprising thing is that a good number of students believe them. Lots of negative information leaves an impression on young minds that have no tools of resistance. They end up thinking that what they see or hear is beyond doubt!
In fact, the educational system has not armed students with methods to think and question information. Mostly, we teach our students using the same methods adopted by Aristotle, from mouth to ear, to the extent that I have come up with the phrase ‘learning through the ears’, as most of my students do not bother to bring even a pen and paper to class.
The oil wealth and subsequent welfare system the state has created has led to a vacuum of values. Our generation remembers their first day at school when there were no proper facilities. The teacher was a mullah with limited knowledge, who took it upon himself to teach youngsters how to read and write. At that time there was a well-known saying among parents when they took their children to the mullah. They would say, “For you the meat, and for us the bones”. This meant, you have to discipline the youngsters, even if you beat them to the extent that they might lose some of their weight!
That kind of philosophy has disappeared in modern schooling. Of course, while nobody is trying to bring that primitive philosophy to life, there is a need for some sort of focus and seriousness.
This is why we should seriously rethink the education system in our Gulf societies. I fear that this lost generation will be good for nothing, especially since we are witnessing a wave of change around us and simply treating our new generation as if nothing will change. This is the biggest mistake because things and situations are bound to change even beyond our imagination. It looks like the 21st century is the century of learning and we are mostly missing the message from our experiences. We are so deeply involved in the present that we wrongly presume that this present will last forever when it simply won’t.
Mohammad Alrumaihi is a professor of political sociology at Kuwait University.