Tuesday, August 18, 2009
What direction are Muslim Schools heading?
Education has a host of meanings for those involved in the schooling of the next generation – but none should include dividing them into self-possessed winners or disaffected losers. But this is exactly what is happening as one school system in the Muslim community
drives students to compete in an artificial environment which generally does not consider their real aspirations, instead creating an Ivy league – or more appropriately perhaps – a Castle League of graduates. They are the ‘winners’ in the community’s eyes as opposed to their competitors in the public system and those that never made the final race – denied permission to continue in these schools earlier on.
This begs the question – what is the ultimate aim of schooling? The answer to this question depends on who is being asked. Students of all backgrounds look forward to the long years of school ending with enough of a qualification to get them to further study or a job. Many Muslim students struggle to survive the bullying, class disruptions, peer pressures and teacher misunderstandings – in order to survive a childhood as a marginalised identity. But in many Muslim schools there is an added pressure – to stay in the school by competitively achieving high marks in the subjects allocated. Time and again I have heard from young graduates of these schools that although they were interested in the Arts, or Humanities subjects, they were given no choice - having to study the Sciences and higher Maths subjects in order to achieve a mark far higher than they needed to enter the University subjects of their choice. In other words, these schools do not exist for the welfare of their students, but for the high marks and associated prestige that such students supply for the school’s reputation. Maintaining such a high standard is costly – in terms of student wastage and pressure on the students who manage to continue in the school. The immediate benefits are an enviable reputation within the Muslim community that clamours to put their children in such high status schools.
There are huge repercussions for such an agenda however. What is seldom considered is the price for both the students who succeed and those who do not. Invariably the students who survive such a system are hot housed – often being forced to study long hours in after hours tutoring schools, sacrificing most of their social life, as well as their own aspirations to study alternative subjects including the creative arts or Information Technology, as well as the Humanities of History and Geography amongst many others. Whereas they may have comfortably graduated with sufficient marks to enter University while enjoying the many other highlights of life as a teenager – sport, community activities, family life and so on, they are required to study long hours in order to achieve high marks in subjects that they may not enjoy. At the same time they are told that they are the ‘winners’ – the clever ones, with their marks paraded and celebrated throughout the community – ultimately breeding a league of often arrogant graduates from the closed off Castle of their existence, a 'Castle League' alongside the wealthy ivy covered GPS schools who graduate an Ivy League.
Many of these students are then encouraged by their status seeking families to choose the prestigious courses of Medicine, Dentistry, and sometimes Law, struggling at University with subjects that, once again, they may not really be interested in, and without the ‘spoon feeding’ that occurred in their schooling. Many of these students fail in their first year at University, exhausted due to the strain of continual study from their school years and the distractions of being able to develop their social lives - for many for the first time.
But for the ‘losers’ the cost is much higher. Not able to gain entry to such demanding schools, or being part of the annual wastage of students who did not achieve the high marks necessary to continue, or not having the funds to pay the fees – still small in comparison with their Ivy League competitors – they can be defiant in demonstrating their worth. Schools receiving these ‘reject’ students often struggle with the psychological results of students carrying such labels, and their resulting behavioural, social and academic consequences. Successful students from public schools in contrast can be dominant and almost aggressive in restoring self-dignity, often behaving loudly or rudely in compensation for their lack of school status, while those students who did not succeed work hard to demonstrate just how little they care. These latter are potentially the most concerning for all of society – marginalised both within their community and externally as Muslims or immigrant Arabs and South Asians, these students often show little sign of social civility, the behavioural norms of respect and patience that are the hallmarks of a civilised community. Instead they have a chip on their shoulder, respond quickly to conspiracy theories, and react angrily and defiantly to any perceived injustice. These are the members of a growing number of ‘Muslim’ bikie gangs and the young semi-professionals who flock to the speeches of equally angry young Imams and defiant organisations such as Hizb Tahrir.
It is unfortunate that the purveyors of this type of education are not in the minority. This drive for ‘high marks’ at all costs originates in the national body politically representing all Muslims in Australia – the Federation of Islamic Councils. Having acquired the largest assets of any institution in the Muslim community - through halal meat, overseas donations and business - they have managed to build at least one school in 4 States of Australia, and currently have the largest combined student population of any of the Muslim independent schools. Their financial and ‘educational’ success has encouraged smaller schools to move directly under their influence, while competing Muslim schools are forced to adopt similar drastic policies in order to compete in both keeping their academically capable students (who are regularly petitioned to join these Castle League schools) and achieve results that will ensure parental support and therefore financially necessary enrolments.
It is almost impossible financially for a comprehensive school to survive in such a climate, or a school that offers a wide range of activities and choice in subjects and extra curricular activities, elements of learning that are the hallmark of the modern education system. Historically education in the Muslim community was not seen as the means to an elevated social status, but worthy for its own sake, for developing the skills and academic discourse of the whole community. Life saving skills of literacy and numeracy as well as running, horse-riding, swimming and archery were encouraged. During the Golden Era of Islam scholars were feted by the wealthy who collected vast libraries from earlier literary works and international sources to be translated and further interpreted by the scholars employed by them.
However, the young people in our Muslim schools today are not encouraged into creative new thinking or interpreting and solving the problems facing their world, their society. Instead, the contribution and the worth of these young people throughout their schooling ultimately comes down to a single annual mark and its resulting effect on their admission to these inwardly focussed, self-serving Castle League schools.
It’s time we wake up to the potential consequences of this status seeking education - it's time for a change in direction.