The Saudi Education Ministry recently announced that, starting next school year, it would gradually introduce new curricula in the country's elementary and middle schools for both boys and girls. According to reports, the new curricula will be modern in their outlook and will raise the level of education, providing pupils with necessary academic and social skills and encouraging thought and creativity.
In response to reports on the introduction of new curricula, Saudi columnists argued that while the proposed curricula are a step in the right direction, more comprehensive reform in the educational system is needed. One columnist took the opportunity to criticize the discrimination against women that still pervades the country's schoolbooks.
Following are excerpts from a report on the new curricula, and from some of the reactions in the press:
Saudi Education Ministry: The New Curricula Will Meet the Requirements of the Modern Age
The Saudi daily Al-Watan reported that the new curricula would be introduced starting next September, and that they are meant to be more compatible with pupils' needs and with the requirements of the modern labor market. At this preliminary stage, the new program will be implemented in grades one through four in the country's elementary schools and in grade seven in the middle schools.
According to Al-Watan, the draft of the new program notes that the current curricula, formulated years ago, are not suited to the circumstances of Saudi society and the spirit of the modern age. Therefore, in light of economic, social, technological, and cultural developments in Saudi Arabia and worldwide, and in light of the general openness that characterizes our world today, the Saudi education system must be reassessed and developed, though in a manner that respects the unique character of Islam and its roots and values. The draft states further that the new curricula will inculcate skills necessary for learning, as well as values of good citizenship and productivity. They will address issues of human rights, develop the pupils' thinking, problem-solving, and information-finding skills, and include both individual and group learning.
Ayed Al-Qarni, director of educational programs and projects in the Saudi Education Ministry and project supervisor at the education administration in Jeddah, told Al-Watan that the new curricula are meant to improve the level of education in elementary and middle schools and meet the pupils' cognitive, psychological, and physical needs. He explained that the new curricula are based on modern trends, studies, and experiments in education, and that senior teachers and educators would be trained to implement the new program, which would be introduced in all grades within two years. On April 21, the Saudi daily Al-Medina reported that the new program had achieved significant success in trial runs at four schools, thus encouraging the Saudi Education Ministry to continue with its implementation.
Senior Saudi Cleric: Yes to Curricula Reform, No to Social Schism and Foreign Pressure
Dr. Salman Al-Odeh, a senior Saudi cleric and general supervisor of the website Islamtoday.net, also spoke in favor of curricula reform, but stressed that this reform should be in response to internal needs rather than foreign dictates. Speaking on an MBC talk show, he said that the Saudis must follow the global changes that demand an understanding of the modern era, and called to improve and develop the teaching of mathematics, natural sciences, and language, and to refrain from teaching things that are "detached from reality." About religious studies, he said they should be taught in an atmosphere of dialogue and with emphasis on moral values. He also said that school curricula should be informed by values of tolerance, coexistence, good manners, respect for human life, and the rejection of violence, killing, and takfir (accusations of heresy).
At the same time, he cautioned against letting the matter of curricula reform cause schism and polarization in Saudi society, which would likely undermine any program for reform. In addition, he questioned the claim that the current curricula were responsible for violence and terrorism in the Arab and Muslim world.
Saudi Columnists: The School Curricula Must Be Revolutionized
In response to the reports on the new curricula, Saudi columnists emphasized that what was needed was not limited reform but comprehensive reform. In an Al-Watan article, journalist Turki Al-Dakhil called for a "revolution" in school curricula, cautioning that they must not be considered sacred and unchangeable: "I have said over and over that the school curricula are not sacred. They are [just] ordinary books, like any other in the library, and their authors are paid by the Ministry of Education… One must not treat as sacred ordinary books [that were written] by human beings with ink on paper... One must realize that the only sacred [texts] are the Koran and true hadiths. As for the school curricula, their authors are known, and include Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians...
"We need a comprehensive revolution in the school curricula of our young boys and girls, to free us from the shackles of the sanctity that has [been attributed to] these curricula for a long time... It is unreasonable to fear all change or innovation. I have seen the colorful [covers] of the [new] textbooks, and they are intriguing... I hope [their] content will be intriguing [as well]."
"Our Curricula Are Not [Just] in Need of an Omission Here or an Addition There"
Columnist 'Abdallah 'Abd Al-Karim Al-Sa'adoun likewise stressed that the curricula requires comprehensive overhaul. He wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh: "There is no argument that the school curricula are flawed. They are repetitive and rely on rote learning and memorization, without applying [the material being taught] or engaging [the student]. This keeps minds closed, bodies lazy and passive, and aptitudes suppressed.
"The reason for this is the lack of the following: a focus on subjects [requiring] creative, critical, and analytical thinking and problem-solving [skills]; the involvement of the student in expressing opinions; the strengthening of higher values and their application in reality, [as opposed to the teaching] of expressions whose content the student does not understand...
"The instilling of values such as love, tolerance, justice, honesty, cooperation, moderation, and dialogue may permanently rid us of extremism, misguided thinking, and violence in the schools, homes, and streets. [Another thing lacking is an emphasis on sports], which is considered a first line of defense against physical as well as mental illness.
"Our curricula are not [just] in need of an omission here or an addition there. They are in need of comprehensive reassessment... a larger sphere of application [of the material being taught], [student] participation, and greater interest in additional important educational materials... This requires [us to] base the school curricula upon scientific foundations; to utilize the assistance of people with a broad approach and perspective and experts in education and social science, and to benefit from the experience of other countries [that have succeeded in education reform]. The writing of [these curricula] must not be left to teachers alone..."
Shaker Al-Nabulsi: The New Curricula Indicate a Determination to Bring Change
Jordanian-American liberal intellectual Shaker Al-Nabulsi welcomed the changes being made in the Saudi Education Ministry, saying that they indicate a sincere desire on the part of the Saudi authorities to bring change to the kingdom: "What has happened in the Education Ministry – namely the appointment of a new minister and the appointment, for the first time in Saudi history, of a woman deputy minister – is not just a personnel reshuffle. It is a courageous cultural move towards transforming the philosophy and curricula of Saudi education, based on the belief that the quality of learning has a direct impact on the quality of individuals [in society]... The [problems] inherited by the new leadership of the education ministry are considerable and weighty... The ministry is slow and cumbersome... The ministry's new leadership faces an important and sensitive task. It knows that one of the reasons for the failure of Arab education is the discrepancy between the reality of the Arab world and what is learned by most students [around the globe]...
"We must refrain from disdaining or underestimating the preliminary step that the Education Ministry has taken by publishing 277 new school books. The publication of new books does not just mean a change in the topics [of study], the introduction of new material, and the substitution of old content for new. It constitutes a clear and obvious indication and clear proof that [the Saudi authorities] are determined to bring change...
"For half a century or more, there has been a need to reform the curricula several times over, [and this is] especially [true] in Saudi Arabia, where life has developed and changed. [Only reform will] allow this country to board the fast-moving train of civilization. The program for curricula reform recognizes this fact, namely that the old curricula are incompatible with social circumstances and with the spirit of the modern age."
The Ministry of Education Is Taking a Step in the Right Direction
Fares bin Hazzam, an Al-Arabiya TV analyst for Islamic organizations, wrote in the daily Al-Riyadh that in recent years, the Ministry of Education has been working to discharge employees affiliated with extremist streams whose beliefs have influenced the education system: "Many are unaware of the extensive purging [taking place] in the school administrations. Over the past five years, they have been undergoing a quiet change, which continues to this day, [especially in] regions [heretofore] managed by administrators ideologically associated with Islamic movements, such as Al-Surouriyya and the Muslim Brotherhood.
"The good thing about this quiet process is that it distinguishes between the religious [employees] and those with [extremist] ideology, who were competing for positions, which was reflected in the teaching [materials]. No one can deny the struggle between the two big adversaries – the Surouriyya and the Muslim Brotherhood – that have taken place from the 80s until recently. For example, [at one point] a Muslim Brotherhood member was appointed head of the teachers' affairs administration [in the Education Ministry], and teachers from his movement [then] got the largest [piece of the] pie when they were posted throughout the school [system]... This was [also] the situation in the rest of the administrations. The resulting struggles in the schools are aimed at controlling as many students as possible...
"The Ministry [of Education] woke up [only] after the schools were dominated by [teachers] with [extremist] ideology, who, with the help of education administrations, managed for a quarter of a century to influence the education [system] in accordance with their [ideological] orientation. In order to deal with this crisis, it was necessary to launch a long-range program that will by no means be completed for at least another decade. However, the initial results are commendable, and demonstrate sincerity and perseverance in improving [the situation]..."
Saudi Textbooks Present Women as Inferior
Badria Al-Bashar, columnist for the daily Al-Hayat, wrote that discrimination against women is reflected not only in Saudi laws and family customs, in the policy of government ministries and in the makeup of delegations to foreign countries, but also in the message conveyed by Saudi school textbooks. As an example, she quoted the following passage, from the chapter on women's rights in a high school textbook titled "Islamic Culture": "Women are weak by nature, and left unsupervised, they become corrupt and corrupting." Al-Bashar pointed out that if anyone said this to her in a public place, she would have regarded it as a flagrant insult. Therefore, she stated, when it appears in a school book published by the Education Ministry and studied by 2.5 million pupils it is tantamount to 2.5 million insults.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 30, 2010.
 Al-Medina (Saudi Arabia), April 21, 2010.
 www.islamtoday.net, April 17, 2010. It should be noted that this is not the first time Al-Odeh has come out against terrorism. He recently spoke against Al-Qaeda, calling on Ayman Al-Zawahiri to reconsider his organization's extremist ideology. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2915, "Senior Saudi Cleric Calls for Moderation, Criticizes Al-Qaeda and the Terrorism Perpetrated in Islam's Name," April 19, 2010, Senior Saudi Cleric Calls for Moderation, Criticizes Al-Qaeda and the Terrorism Perpetrated in Islam's Name.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 1, 2010.
 Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), April 6, 2010.
 This refers to the appointment, on February 2009, of Noura Al-Fayez to the role of deputy minster of education. She is the first woman to hold this ministerial appointment in Saudi Arabia.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 17, 2010.
 "Al-Surouriyya" is a religious-political movement in Saudi Arabia, so called after its founder Muhammad Surour Zayn Al-'Abidin, which combines the thought of Sayyed Qutb with Saudi-style Wahhabism.
 Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), April 6, 2010.
 Al-Hayat (London), March 27, 2010.