Lebanon in denial with educational objectives

On January 27, The Times Higher Education Supplement published a ranking of the 15 leading universities in the Middle East. According to the new charts, Saudi Arabia apparently offers the finest post-secondary education in the region, with three schools in the top five: the King Abdulaziz University, which took the No 1 spot; the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals which came in at No 3 and the King Saud University, which was No 4.

The United Arab Emirates University came in at No 5, with the remaining 10 schools coming from Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, Oman and Morocco. The only Lebanese seat of learning to make the top 15 was the American University of Beirut (AUB), which took No 2.

I remembered this when I came across “We are not Arabs”, a hate-filled online sermon from Father Theodoros Daoud of St Mary’s Greek Orthodox church in Baltimore, Maryland, who is seeking to distance what he believes are the more civilised Levantines from what he dubs the true “sons of Arabia”, a people he holds in the lowest esteem. They had not, unlike his own ilk, given the world the “epics, science and glory” and a tradition that had “educated [the “Arabs”] and built [their] cities, hospitals and universities.”

This is all very sad. The Lebanese have a tragic habit of living in the past. Father Theo may be right on one level: there was a time when Lebanon ruled edu­cation in the region, a time when AUB was peerless and its list of alumni a roll call of the most illustrious minds and achievers (not to mention radicals) of the past 70 years. And yes, our engineers and doctors were the most respected in the Middle East and, yes, Beirut was on the jet-set itinerary and the Lebanese pound was virtually a hard currency.

So yes, we had the world at our feet but we blew it, undone by sectarian hatred, regional clientism and economic mayhem at a time when the GCC used its wealth to create economies that will sustain it long after the oil has gone. That it cannot claim to have invented the alphabet or mathematics matters not one jot and begs the question: if we Lebanese are so smart, why did we throw it all away?

When it came to education, it was only a matter of time before the GCC caught up. It had a vision and it had the resources. It clearly wasn’t going to rely on a country tearing itself apart or send its kids to Europe or America where they might pick up all sorts of nasty habits. Far better to bring the teaching talent to them.

Back in Lebanon, we remain in a state of denial. At last count, we have more than 40 “universities”, a sizeable number for a country with a population of 4 million, of which only a dozen are in any way respectable. Many have the word “American” or “US” in their name, hinting at international credentials, but most are created to feed off the nation’s appetite for respectability.

You see the Lebanese are obsessed with education. They spend a whopping $2.3 billion (8 per cent of GDP) on it, with at least 40 per cent of household earnings going on ensuring kids can take their place in society. For more often than not, an eligible Lebanese man or woman will be described as “educated and from a good family”, the two criteria on which a potential suitor is judged. To not have a degree is a badge of shame and these days, not having an MA will often arch an eyebrow. In fact, best have a doctorate, just in case. I have met secretaries who are engineers and yet can’t see the absurdity of their situation. It’s bonkers.

Bottom line, Lebanon needs more plumbers and fewer brain surgeons if it is to be a balanced society. It also needs more chefs, dental assistants, firemen, carpenters, air-traffic controllers and so on. It needs more students studying humanities who don’t carry the burden of doing a “woman’s degree”.

Someone should also tell ­Father Theo that the world and the region has moved on and that he should leave his petty bigotry at home.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.


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