If, in his choice of heroes, a youth tells the world what sort of man he would be if only he had more money, more time, more talent, half the Arab world would be filled with Haroun al-Rashids, Saladins, Omar Sharifs and similar statesmen, warriors and movie actors. Remarkably though, the other half would be occupied by Ibn Khalduns, Avicennas, Averroes, Ibn Battutas, and other legendary Arab historians, scientists, physicians and wise travelers, for the Arabs have always regarded scholarship with almost mystical reverence.
There was a time, in the golden age of Muslim science and letters, when reality approached the ideal. Aspiring scholars from Italy, England and France journeyed through hostile forests and across uncharted seas to sit at the feet of Arab savants in Cordova and Granada in Spain, Kairouan in Tunisia, Salerno in Sicily, and in Baghdad, where the great Muslim university, Al-Nizamiyah, was established the year before William the Bastard's conquest of England. Even Oxford University in its early days supported a Chair of Arabic, and well-educated Europeans read Arabic along with their Latin and Greek.
With the Turkish subjugation of the Arab East, however, this brilliant era, already declining, ended. In five centuries of Ottoman rule no public national universities were opened in the empire's Arab provinces. As late as the 1940's when France and England reluctantly gave true independence to most of the Arab countries, there were only six modern universities in the whole Arab world.
Since then, there has been a phenomenal change. As if reaching back to their illustrious past, the Arab nations in less than 20 years have constructed 18 universities and boosted enrollment in some cases by 1,000 per cent.
Mere numbers, of course, don't tell the story, and—statistics in the Middle East being still more art than science—figures are not always up to date. Nevertheless, even conservative estimates are impressive.
In 1945, a mere 15,000 students were receiving university education in Egypt. By 1964 that figure had leaped to 150,000. In Iraq during the same period enrollment soared from less than 2,000 to over 20,000, and in Syria it jumped from just over 2,000 in 1949 to more than 34,000 in 1964. One recognized authority puts the 1968 enrollment at Arab universities at about 300,000 students, with another 25,000 studying abroad. It is estimated that one out of every 330 Arabs is now a university graduate, as compared, for example, with one out of every 200 Englishmen. About one in five students is a woman.
The size of the various universities is also impressive: Cairo University has 57,500 students, for example, Alexandria University 38,000, Damascus University 27,300, the University of Baghdad 24,000.
It goes without saying that such explosive growth would create problems. One is overcrowding. Another is the extension of an already questionable system.
Overcrowding is a result of two characteristics of university life in the Arab world: the belief by governments that Arab universities should provide undergraduate instruction for the greatest possible number, on the reasonable grounds that the Arab world of today is in greater need of many competent men and women in many fields than an elite of narrow specialists; the belief by families and students that a university education is at once the birthright of bright young citizens of all classes and a passport to either high-paying jobs or the security of government civil service.
As a result, classrooms and lecture halls are crammed beyond their capacity; admission and graduation standards must constantly struggle against popular and political pressures; and the teacher shortage worsens. The student-teacher ratio in the U.A.R. university system, not the worst in the area by any means, stands at an unsatisfactory average of about 36 to 1.
As to the system, the custom is for the professor to enter the lecture hall, deliver without interruption a set speech from notes, and leave immediately when the bell rings. The old chestnut about a lecture being "the process by which the contents of a professor's notebook is transferred to a student's notebook without passing through the heads of either" is still no laughing matter in many Arab faculties: it is the tragic reality. It is also commonly thought that if students copy professors' lectures as nearly verbatim as possible and memorize great chunks of textbooks they can rest secure in the knowledge that it is on this material and no other that the final examination will be based. Seminars in the American fashion, with give and take between professors and students, are the exception.
Professors have problems too. Although the prestige of a professorial appointment in the Arab world is great, pay is low. Many moonlight to make ends meet and some, especially in engineering and sciences, flee to the sanctuary of government service and private industry or follow their students abroad. The resulting chronic shortage of teachers of pure and applied science leaves many new students no choice but to enroll in the humanities, law, or social science faculties even though there is a crying need in some Middle East countries for doctors, engineers, research scientists and agriculturists.
One young Arab physicist has listed what he feels will be the four major challenges for the Arab academic world in the decade of the 1970's: (1) medical education with the focus on the problems of public health as well as traditional patient-centered care, (2) scientific research to develop petrochemical industries commensurate with the Arab world's oil resources, (3) social research to help ease the strains of urbanization and the emergence of the Arab women, and (4) increased graduate-level work to train the faculties needed to staff the booming undergraduate colleges.
At the present rate of growth, educational experts say, there could be a 100 per cent increase in enrollment during these next ten years. This means that by 1979 there might be an additional 300,000 young men and women studying at Arab undergraduate institutions. (Most of the anticipated growth will be in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where in recent years there has been a significant expansion of secondary education.)
Almost certainly the demand for advanced level studies will be greatest in the UAR (where already there is one graduate student per seven undergraduates), but it will also probably be felt in Lebanon, Iraq, and even Jordan. To meet these demands, experts say, will require an estimated 30,000 new faculty members and a financial investment of an additional $1 billion yearly.
Despite the expansion at home, there are also thousands of young Arabs who study outside their own countries. In Lebanon, for example, where education is almost a national resource, out of a total enrollment of some 27,000 in its universities and other institutions of higher learning, fully 12,000 come from neighboring countries. The national Lebanese University, now with 6,500 students crowded into temporary buildings, has already started to build a totally new campus that planners estimate will eventually cost $60 million and accommodate 15,000. Yet Lebanese students themselves still go abroad in large numbers, particularly for graduate studies.
In all, about 25,000 students from the Arab world study outside the Middle East each year, principally in the United States and Western Europe. Last year Saudi Arabia had about 2,000 young people abroad, in nine Arab countries plus Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, and in 10 countries in the West. Of these, about 120 were girls and 260 were post-graduates.
Years ago, Daniel Bliss, first president of the Syrian Protestant College (later AUB), gave two reasons why he had wanted to establish his institution in the Middle East. For one, the practical missionary wrote in his Reminiscences, sending students overseas in large numbers "would require more money than the people could pay and more than the benevolent would furnish." Secondly, and more important, he explained, education abroad "unfits" students by taking them "out of sympathy with their own people."
Most Arab educators today would agree. Depending on foreign universities for nearly all of one's graduate-level education, for example, could be unsatisfactory if the resulting Ph.D's become trained experts in the needs and problems of other countries rather than their own. One would hope that a graduate school in an Arab national university would be more closely attuned to Arab problems than, for example, a graduate school in Wisconsin. One education expert believes that the present relationship of Arab universities to the outside world can be compared to the situation in the United States between, say, 1866 and 1896. Then tens of thousands of Americans went to Europe for specialization. When they returned they helped to found a new breed of institutions like Johns Hopkins, Chicago, Michigan and Cornell, and the United States was on its way to becoming self-sufficient in higher education.
Such signs of change are present throughout Arab education. Where demonstrations, textbooks and lectures are used in place of actual laboratory experience, administrators recognize (even if they can't always do anything about it) the urgent need for a more experimental approach to the sciences. Younger faculty members think in terms of making their institutions "research worthy." While massive on-campus research in the American style (controversial and top secret—or otherwise) is still unheard of, the direction is clear. At the first UAR Physics Conference held in Alexandria in April, 1968, for example, some 180 Arab scientists contributed 157 papers in ten areas of physics, pure and applied, theoretical and experimental.
Today, Arab countries spend up to 20 per cent of their national incomes on education, an allotment of priorities clearly visible in the new generation of colleges and universities rising in the Middle East: institutions like the University of Jordan, Kuwait University, Riyadh University and the College of Petroleum and Minerals.
One of the new breed, Kuwait University, was inaugurated in 1966 with two distinctions for a Middle Eastern university: there was no shortage of money, so that from the first the highest quality in instruction was the order of the day; and with few exceptions the original administration and faculty were all Arabs.
Kuwait University has four faculties already functioning: the Faculty of Science, Arts and Education; the University College for Women; the Faculty of Law and Shari'a; and the Faculty of Commerce, Economics and Political Science. Plans are being made to add faculties of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and engineering in the near future. During its formative years the university occupies the handsome brand new Khalidia Secondary School for Girls in Kuwait City, but architects are already at work on plans to spread a new complex of buildings across 1,200 acres at nearby Massilla.
This is a new concept in the Middle East where even the few public supported universities in existence were housed in a collection of cheerless old buildings originally designed as offices or apartments and where the student body was exposed to political currents, as well as dry lectures, to crowded streets rather than spacious campuses, to the acrid smoke of coffee houses instead of the heady fragrance of campus rally bonfires.
In its curricula, the university covers quite a bit of ground too. In the first three years it has established full-fledged departments in disciplines as diverse as accounting and auditing, geography, English language and literature, penal law, and social and financial legislation. Four-year courses in these and other subjects follow prescribed class structure with no latitude for electives. In its early years, especially, the emphasis will be to graduate as many well-prepared, well-rounded students with a bent for teaching as possible, so that they may be sent abroad to specialize before returning to take posts at the university itself. Until then, Kuwait University must rely entirely on professors from other Arab countries, principally Egypt. But a more highly qualified faculty would be hard to find in the Arab world. Every member of the professorial staff must hold the Ph.D. degree and their publications in half a dozen languages fill several library shelves.
Kuwait University has embarked on a program perhaps unique in the annals of education. It is nothing less than to raise the national standard of education, barely at the stage of literacy before the discovery of oil, to that of a modern nation capable of producing its own engineers, physicians and administrators—all in a generation. The excellence of its staff and its physical plant, which despite its temporary nature includes such innovations as a modern language laboratory, and one of the first planned libraries in the Middle East (it now has 115,000 volumes, 800 periodicals), gives promise that the university will live up to its ambition.
Equally devoid of academic ivy is Saudi Arabia's Riyadh University, founded in 1957, which has faculties of engineering, education, arts, science, commerce, pharmacy and agriculture, and a School of Medicine scheduled to open, with the collaboration of the University of London, this year. The newest university of all, however, is Jiddah's King 'Abd al-'Aziz University, which a group of citizens bravely opened only two years ago—with a one-year "Orientation Class" for about 90 students. The regular freshman program began last year.
Another institution, semi-autonomous but founded after considerable more planning and with governmental support, is the College of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran.
The Petroleum College opened its doors September 23, 1964 with 69 students, nine professors, and, sure enough, in premises originally designed as offices. There, however, the resemblance to older Arab institutions of higher learning ended. For one thing, the college is largely independent; for another, English, the language of international 20th-century technology, is the language of instruction; for a third, the curriculum is highly technical. All freshmen, for instance, in addition to five hours daily of English instruction, take chemistry, physics, mathematics, and shop work-graphics, plus non-credit courses in library usage and typing.
As its name implies, the College of Petroleum and Minerals is Saudi Arabia's West Point in producing a field army to help wrest the nation's riches from its soil. Fittingly enough, the new campus, now-being built to accommodate an expected 1985 enrollment of 2,800, is located atop a prominence of the Dammam Dome, one of the world's historic oilfields. The school this fall expanded its original English Orientation Program and Junior College to include a College of Applied Engineering with chemical, civil, electric and mechanical engineering departments. The unusual five-year course of study (leading to the Bachelor of Applied Learning degree) is made up of a three-year program, plus a year of preparatory study on one end and a year of industrial experience on the other.
A year from now a four-year College of .Engineering Sciences and two years from now a College of Sciences will be inaugurated, both leading to Bachelors degrees in their fields. At that time all undergraduate science and engineering studies now being pursued by CPM students abroad will be offered at Dhahran. Foreign study will be reserved for those going after Masters' and Doctoral degrees.
Students at the Petroleum College currently come from nearly all the Arab and many non-Arab Muslim countries, and few could find circumstances more congenial to serious scholarship. All receive tuition and living-cost grants. Most get generous pocket-money allowances as well. Classes are small, the international cadre of teachers is highly professional and well-paid, and the college community is so close-knit that students must often wonder whether after-hours activity—play-reading, foreign language clubs, book discussion groups, swimming and tennis—all shared with the faculty, can really be educational when it is obviously so much fun.
Just as Arab higher education in general-has years to go before it comes of age, the College of Petroleum and Minerals needs a while yet before it becomes a little M.I.T. of the Middle East. But it is already an exciting place to study for the future of their nation is not only figuratively in the students' hands, but literally beneath their feet.
Daniel da Cruz is a free-lance writer mho has written for the National Review, the Reader's Digest, and Business Week.