The Real Purpose of Education
Education---like democracy, free markets, freedom of the press, and "universal
human rights" --- is one of those subjects whose virtue is considered self-evident.
So is the superiority of the industrially advanced countries in attaining them.
Consequently, any package that arrives with one of these magic labels on it, automatically
qualifies for the "green channel" at our entry ports. No questions asked. This
uncritical acceptance has severely crippled our discussion of all these vital topics. For
example in education most of our discussion centers around literacy statistics and the
need to have so many graduates, masters, Phds, and so many professionals ---
engineers, doctors, etc.--- in a given country based on the standards in the industrially
advanced countries. The central issue of curriculum, and even more fundamental issue of
the purpose of education normally do not attract our attention; they have already been
decided by the "advanced countries for us and our job is only to follow in
their footsteps to achieve their level of progress.
Indeed they have. In the "first" world, education has become an extension of
the capitalist system. Its purpose is to provide qualified workforce for its machinery of
production and eager consumers for its products. Stated in a more polished form, the
purpose of education is to provide for the economic prosperity of a country. Similarly on
a personal level today the purpose of education is to be able to earn a respectable
While earning halal living and providing for the economic well being of a country are
certainly important Islamic goals as well, the linking of education to financial goals is
extremely unfortunate. It turns the centers of learning into mere vocational centers in
their outlook and spirit. It degrades education and through it the society.
To bring home the pivotal but forgotten role of education we need to recall that there
is a fundamental difference between human beings and animals. Instincts and physical needs
alone can bring ants, bees, or herds of beasts together to live in a perfectly functioning
animal society. Human beings do not function that way. They are not constrained by nature
to follow only those ways that are necessary for the harmonious operation of their
society. If they are to form a viable, thriving society, they must chose to do so. What
drives that choice is the sharing of common goals, beliefs, values and outlook on life.
Without a common framework binding its members, a human society cannot continue to exist;
it will disintegrate and be absorbed by other societies. Further, the society must ensure
that the common ground will continue to hold from generation to generation. This is the real
purpose of education. The education system of a society produces the citizens and leaders
needed for the smooth operation of that society, now and into the future. Its state of
health or sickness translates directly into the health or sickness of the society that it
is meant to serve.
Today we find many internal problems --- corruption, injustice, oppression, crippling
poverty --- everywhere we turn in the Muslim world. If we think about it, we may realize
that most of these problems are man-made. Which is another way of saying that they are
largely traceable, directly or indirectly, to the education system that produced the
people who perpetuate the problems. The rulers who sell out to foreign powers and
subjugate their people; the bureaucrats who enforce laws based on injustice; the generals
who wage war against their own people; the businessmen who exploit and cheat; the
journalists who lie, sensationalize, and promote indecencies, they are all educated
people, in many cases "highly" educated people. Their education was meant to
prepare them for the roles they are playing in real life. And it has, although in a very
The problem plagues all layers of society. Why are Muslim communities in the grip of so
much materialism today? What should we expect when our entire education system is
preaching the gospel of materialism? Why have we effectively relegated Islam to a small
inconsequential quarter in our public life? Because that is precisely where our secular
education system has put it. Why in our behavior toward each other we see so little
display of Islamic manners and morals? Because our imported education system is devoid of
all moral training. Why our societies are sick? Because our education system is sick.
This is the real crisis of education. Before we got into this mess by
importing from the Colonial powers what was current and popular, education in our
societies was always the means of nurturing the human being. Moral training, tarbiya,
was always an inalienable part of it. The ustaz,(teacher), was not
just a lecturer or mere professional, but a mentor and moral guide. We remembered the
hadith then, "No father has given a greater gift to his children than good moral
training." [Tirmidhi]. Our education system was informed by this hadith. Our
darul-ulooms still maintain that tradition but the number of students who pass through
their gates is minuscule compared to the secular schools.
In the U.S. and Europe, the schools were started by the church. Later as forces of
capitalism overtook them, they molded them into their image. Moral training was a casualty
of that takeover. But capitalism and their political economy did need people trained to
work under these systems. So citizenship training was retained as an important, though
diminishing, component of the curriculum--- a religion-free subset of the moral training
it displaced. Whatever civility we see here is largely a result of that leftover
component. The imported versions in the Muslim countries, though, had even that component
filtered out. And the results are visible.
We can solve our problem once we realize our mistakes. The first purpose of our
education system must be to produce qualified citizens and leaders for the Islamic
society. Tarbiya, real Islamic moral training, must be an integral part of it. This
must be the soul of our education, not a ceremonial husk. All plans for improving
our education will be totally useless unless they are based on a full understanding of
this key fact. This requires revamping our curricula, rewriting our textbooks, retraining
our teachers, and realizing that we must do all this ourselves. We do have a rich history
of doing it. Are we finally willing to turn to our own in-house treasures to redo
education the way it should always have been?