Education and Culture

The clash of two cultures is no where more evident than in the post-secondary educational institutions.  In the UAE, the umbrella educational body, HCT, goes to considerable expense to attract and hire well-qualified instructors from industrialized, english-speaking parts of the world. 

The premise, one assumes, is to hire qualified people to a) improve the students’ ability to speak English  and, b)  bring a western economic and technological expertise to the classroom. This premise is reinforced in the course outlines and the instructions to teachers.  The recently-arrived teacher, armed with this information, enters the classroom fully expecting to deliver to his students a better understanding of and ability to practice those two objectives.

But the theory does not translate readily into practice.  On the contrary, the premise or theory crashes hard on the rocks of Arab culture.   In fact, it could be argued, the theory doesn’t work at all.

What the teacher encounters in the classroom is a student whose educational background has equipped him with one predominant talent – the ability to memorize.   For too many, it is their onlyskill.  It is not that they are stupid.  Quite the contrary.  Nor is it that they are lazy.  Some of them may but certainly in a percentage not unlike that found in any country.  But they find it difficult to think for themselves, to reason.  They have been given no skills with which to do this.  They prefer to memorize and to feed back exactly what they have been told.  If you explain something and are confident it is understood and then come back with a question that deals with the subject from a slightly different perspective, most students will flounder.  Making a thinking adjustment to find the correct answer is not in their repertoire.    Some teachers claim this is not entirely true, that the student can exercise discretionary judgement when called upon.   But most teachers claim it is an ongoing struggle to uncover this ability. 

The majority of students do not like to be left on their own to solve a problem.  They want to be guided through it.   If a teacher persists in his methods to the point of eventually creating an unhappy student, matters can become tragic.  

In a worst case scenario (and one that has been repeated in fact many times in recent years), the students rebel and complain to department heads that they are being unfairly treated, that the class is too hard.  If the situation is allowed to fester and the students take their complaints to well-connected families, the complaints will eventually find their way back to the school’s governing body.  In the UAE, power arises from wealth and proximity to the ruling sheikhs without whose approval nothing happens in the country.  This is no meritocracy.  The arabs have a term for ‘influence’ or ‘pull’ and it is wusta.  If a student’s family has wusta with the sheikh, his complaints had better be heeded.  School officials are now faced with an awkward situation in which the educational premises butts heads with the cultural reality.  And cultural reality will win.

Sadly, teachers finding themselves in this situation are likely to be summarily fired and given a one-way ticket back to their homeland.  There is no fuss or any ripple in the teaching ranks.  It’s just the way it is. 

No one is right or wrong in this assessment. It simply is.   It is a world of teaching while walking a tight-rope.  The teacher pretends to be imparting western values and the students pretend to be hearing them.

This clash of cultures in the classroom is an ongoing struggle composed of a great many elements.  The sheer lure of western economic values is a siren’s song heard loud and clear in the emirates.  The zeal to acquire and display material wealth is powerful. So, too, is the influence of a religion that forms an integral part of daily life.  As well, the western teacher is reminded that the shift from a nomadic, fishing culture to a industrialized nation has taken place in something less than thirty years.  The clash between the new and the traditional is vivid and inescapable. The responsibility for guiding the nation through these uncharted waters falls to a ruling Sheikhdom and their ambivalence is perhaps understandable.  How does a country move into the same economic stratosphere as Europe and North America without losing its identity?   It is a situation that calls for a healthy dose of  wisdom and, as has been seen in other countries, is a situation that too often defaults into avarice.  One sympathizes with the Emirates ruling elite.  And, in the classroom, we keep our heads down. [2002]

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