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A FEW weeks ago, I was in Amman, Jordan, talking with educators, when I met a young American woman with the most remarkable job description. Her name was Shaylyn Romney Garrett. She introduced herself by saying that she and her husband, James, were former Peace Corps volunteers in Jordan who had stayed on to start a nonprofit, Think Unlimited. It helps Jordanian schoolteachers learn how to “teach creative thinking and problem solving” in their classrooms. “Now that,” I said, “would be the real Arab Spring.”
Rote learning is still the dominant education method in most Arab public schools. The Garretts, with some backing from Queen Rania of Jordan’s school-reform initiative, designed a program to enable and inspire Jordanian teachers to adopt a much more creative approach to education. They also conduct summer “Brain Camps” for young students to hone their problem-solving skills by creating solutions for water shortage. Garrett told me one story, though, that really stuck in my mind.
“There was a 16-year-old girl in our Peace Corps village in Jordan,” she said. “She came from a very conservative family, always wearing Islamic dress. When you asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said ‘doctor,’ which is what they all say, because it is the most prestigious job. After completing our six-day summer camp, she realized, though, that she could do something else with her talent, that she could be a change-agent. So she started a girls’ club in the village. [At the camp,] we teach kids the concept of ‘brainstorming,’ and one day we were walking together and she was running ideas past me, and she said, ‘Miss Shaylyn, I stormed my brain last night to think of different ideas for what the theme of my club should be.’ She eventually made it a leadership club.” It was an example, said Garrett, of taking a specific creative-thinking skill — brainstorming — and applying it to her community.
The Arab awakenings may or may not succeed in ousting the dictators, but they will have no chance of really empowering the new generation without this kind of revolution in education. The Arab awakening — at its core — was a nonreligious event, led by young people frustrated that they lacked the space, job opportunities and educational tools to realize their full potential. That was the volcanic energy source that blew the lid off Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen and Libya. While Islamist parties have seized this opening to initially take power, if they don’t satisfy the aspirations of those youths who stormed their brains and then stormed the barricades, they will — sooner or later — get blown away just like the Mubaraks and Qaddafis.
Dalia Mogahed runs polling in the Arab world for Gallup. She would not predict if the Muslim Brotherhood candidate would win this weekend’s Egyptian presidential election, but she did note that, since January, support for the Brotherhood and Salafists in Egypt has fallen by 20 percent. Why? Because they misinterpreted their parliamentary victory as a religious/ideological mandate, she said, “and it wasn’t.” When a female parliamentarian from the Brotherhood’s party made statements suggesting that female genital mutilation no longer be criminalized, it triggered a backlash from Egyptians worried that this is what the Brotherhood’s priorities were.
In tracking polls, Gallup asked Egyptians which parties they supported and, at the same time, what their priorities were for the new government. No matter which party they voted for, said Mogahed, “there is no difference across the board — not the slightest — between liberals and conservatives on priorities for the next government. They are jobs — No. 1 — then economic development, security and stability and education, in that order. Take out security and stability, and they look just like American voters. If the Muslim Brotherhood misreads their win as a popular ideological mandate, rather than a practical vote for good governance, they will work on the wrong things and, therefore, lose power.”
According to the Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2012, “Earning a fair wage and owning a home are now the two highest priorities for young people in the Middle East — displacing living in a democracy as the greatest aspiration of regional youth.” Democracy is now third. And no wonder. If you are not properly educated, you can’t get a decent job and buy an apartment — and, without that, you can’t get married. Record numbers of Arab youth today are still living with their parents after college. Indeed, 25 percent of all young Arabs ages 15 to 24 are unemployed. What makes this cohort so dangerous, though, is that they are the educated unemployed — who are not really educated. Most Arab state public schools score very low on the international math/reading comparisons, thanks to a system that asks students to take notes, spew back what they learned and pay for private tutoring from the same teachers after school if they want anything remotely better.
The dominant trend in the Arab world today remains “education for unemployment” rather than “education for employment,” said Mona Mourshed, an Egyptian-American who leads McKinsey’s global education practice. “You have a teaching method that is centuries old and a curriculum that does not support students with the competencies they need.” It takes the average employer in the Arab world nine months to train a new worker to be proficient. The single most popular thing the U.S. could do right now to support the Arab Spring is to identify six or seven specific fields of work — in light manufacturing, textiles, services, word processing, etc. — and establish education programs that can impart real skills for those jobs.
I read the other day that a U.S. drone had killed “the No. 2 man” in Al Qaeda. I am sure the world is a better place. But I don’t think President Obama realizes how much U.S. drone strikes have become his signature policy in the Middle East today. President Obama needs to remember, said Mogahed, what a radical act his election was. Every Arab knew that could never happen in their societies, and it had a huge impact on their sense of the possible. “It was such a symbolic win for American values, for the idea that it doesn’t matter who your grandfather is, you can succeed on merit,” she added. But we’re drifting away from that story line. If we don’t storm our own brains and redirect our Arab foreign aid to education for employment, we’ll forever be killing the No. 2 man in Al Qaeda.