To school or not to school?

Zafer Iqbal argues that the current education system prepares children to be "subservient workers"

Father and ex-school teacher, Zafer Iqbal, questions whether the UK schooling system is beneficial for Muslim children.

Most of us have only known and experienced a state funded education system that has its origins in the late nineteenth century. How was education delivered prior to this and more importantly, how should we educate our children? This is a very important question, as a lot of parents worry that they aren’t educating their children properly. For example, should you make them do those online courses to help with their schooling, or would that not help them? Education is important to everyone in the world so it’s a good idea to do what is best for you and your children.

Historically, education in Europe and the Muslim world was left to families to educate their children. Most children were educated through being socialised as they grew up, living and moving amongst adults, learning social norms and values through play and imitation.

Parents would teach their children the literacy and numeracy skills they would practically require with the emphasis on language and memory. The famous Muslims jurist, Imam Shafi’i (rh) memorised the Quran by the age of seven with his mother, not an uncommon phenomenon of the time. Wealthier families would engage tutors for a more formal education, typically for medicine, law or theology.

The state would provide formal education for those entering their bureaucracies. Between seven and puberty, children would be taught about the world, both the natural and social, and their place in it. They would understand the purpose of their lives and learn how to fulfil it. European churches and mosques across the Muslim world would often be the venue for teaching this, with instructors teaching voluntarily as a religious duty.

“Old school” system

Around puberty, children would typically learn the family trade ensuring tightly knit families and communities. With the advent of secular states post seventeenth century, social forces atomised institutions like the family, the community and religious institutions, the state appropriating education and welfare functions, exerting ever tighter control over the populace.

Parents were ultimately left with little familial role apart from that of “wage slaves”. The point of education used to be one of understanding the world – its nature, structure and purpose – and one’s role in it and how one should fulfil one’s purpose. It was a lifelong endeavour of learning and applying, opening the mind.

It had flexibility allowing pupils to enter and exit depending on need, choosing which teachers with whom to study subjects of their choice – Imam Abu Hanifa (rh) famously returned to study at the age of 20, becoming a leading jurist, benefiting from hundreds of teachers whilst Imam Malik (rh) studied with nearly 100 teachers specialising in prophetic narrations.

Secular education system

This was all replaced by a system where secular education was taught in secular institutions, front loaded into the first 20 years of a child’s life, few returning to it after that. Most studied atomised subjects that made little sense and emerging alienated from the subjects they studied and the world around them – lost and confused.

The hidden curriculum ensured they were ready to enter the workforce as subservient, compliant and dependent employees. So how should you educate your children? The aim of education should firstly be clear – ensure the child understands the world around them and their place in it. Learning without a clear aim makes “learning” difficult and whatever is being learnt to be forgotten quickly – as repetition and application cannot occur.

Many teachers notice this phenomenon in schools where children can’t remember what they studied in the previous year and importantly, complain that they don’t know why they are studying most of their subjects. Whilst they are young, they learn naturally through playing and imitation. Language should be a focus, a mediating device, through which they will think and develop meanings throughout their lives. If this is weak, thinking and learning will subsequently be weak.

Formalised learning can start from around the seventh year, as their brains are now biologically ready for conceptual ideas. As the famous child psychologist, Jerome Bruner said: “Any idea can be taught to a child of any age so long it is packaged correctly and appropriately.” Large classrooms are inappropriate – smaller groups of around several children are better – learning happening at an appropriate pace and level for each unique child, vertically with the teacher and horizontally with their peers. Home schooling would be better over the production line schooling system.

Young adults

By puberty they should know and understand their role in the world and be able to perform it. An understanding of key aspects of science is needed to understand the nature of the world and figure out that it is preceded by an eternal Creator. An understanding of the social world is needed, its structure, laws, norms and values so they can live within it or correct it where it may be wrong. An understanding of key ideas in the arts is needed to determine how they should live their lives, how society should be organised and how to correct things if they go wrong.

This approach ensures that a broad education is provided, that doesn’t focus on making them into “wage slaves” and passive participants in the world, but individuals who understand the world and become active participants. By the time the child hits puberty, they are now young adults. Their learning can now move to a new level as they are now required to apply everything and convey it (dawah).

These processes help add a level of meaning, understanding and rhetoric that pre-pubescents can’t or don’t have. At this stage they should also be taught how to earn a living – whether it’s taught through a family business or some other means is not important. A teenager around the age of 14-16, according to research in over 100 cultures by the American psychologist Dr Epstein, is at a peak in thinking, creativity and flexibility. He argues that most teenage problems occur in the West because we treat young adults as children in a socially constructed “adolescence” phase, where we deprive them of adult rights and responsibilities, something not seen in many cultures around the world where they are genuinely treated as young adults.

Giving increased responsibility through learning a trade has been an important part in most societies. Following this, it then becomes a lifelong endeavour to continue living one’s life in this vein.

Add your comments below