Is Lebanon’s boom in technology-focused universities at the expense of literature and the arts? TRENDS investigates.
Lebanon has, in recent years, spawned a multitude of new private universities based on technology and business studies, and which claim, in return for hefty fees, to offer a route to lucrative employment.
One promises “the Active Learning Method (sic) which is more compatible for (sic) the modern workplace than traditional methods” and boasts that “students make use of computers, Internet and other technological innovations in their studies and can function effectively in the new millennium business environment”.
According to the latest government statistics, released in May, business studies was, in 2010, the most popular undergraduate course in Lebanon. This seems to please officials, as a new government strategy document, leaked in April to magazine Lebanon Opportunities, speaks of the need to “align higher education with the demands of the job market, and promote and strengthen vocational training”.
This should come by further reducing literature and the arts, say many. In a survey of women and employment opportunities in May, the Lebanon correspondent of the Financial Times cited “analysts” who believe that “over-reliance on the public sector has encouraged a mismatch to develop between skills and the labour market, with many women graduating from humanities programmes that are of limited use outside of the public sector”.
But there is a minority of skeptics who argue that downgrading literature and the arts in pursuit of a brave world of technology and work will bring only frustration and disappointment, while doing little or nothing to reduce Lebanon’s youth unemployment of 19 percent.
Their skepticism is rooted in part in economic reality. While the government has talked of building a “knowledge economy”, the reality facing many graduates is that Lebanon, with its emphasis on sectors like banking and real estate that offer relatively low levels of employment, cannot offer enough work for business graduates. Many emigrate.
But skeptics also believe the purpose of education is not just to train young people for the market place, but rather to foster broad human development and produce students who can think for themselves, goals they believe are undermined by the current direction of education in Lebanon.
Dallal Abbas lectures in Arabic literature at the Lebanese university, but she can hardly be dismissed as an ivory-tower academic. She was for approximately 20 years the principal of the Nabatieh secondary school for girls, in south Lebanon, taking up the post in 1984 when Nabatieh was under Israeli military occupation.
Abbas believes education is in decline to the extent that Lebanon is producing “illiterate” graduates, partly because of changes to the curriculum and partly because of the misuse of technology.
“To take one example, in secondary education they [the education ministry] cancelled many sessions in literature, no longer requiring students to learn by heart poetry and important literary texts,” she says.
“The result is a weakness in students’ vocabulary, in forming phrases, and spelling. We end up with graduates who do not know Arabic.”
Overuse of the Internet has, she says, compounded the problem. “Rather than reading books, university students copy and paste from information they find on the Internet. This may be quick, but the information is likely to be superficial and simplified. More importantly, students adopt others’ thinking without their own reflection or creativity.”
Rouham Yamout worked for 20 years as a doctor in general practice in Tyr, south Lebanon, before becoming a researcher in public health at the American University of Beirut and is now program coordinator in Lebanon for the non-profit Boston-based public-health organization, the International Health Organization. She was also associate editor for the ground-breaking book, Public Health in the Arab World, recently published by Cambridge university press.
Yamout has long taken a holistic approach to child development, and established and ran for many years a ballet school for girls in Tyre, a radical innovation in a socially conservative area.
“From a health point of view, children keep whatever habits they acquire at school,” she says. “Unfortunately, schools in Lebanon are more and more focusing on technical and scientific subjects, giving less importance to sports, literature and arts.
“This deprives students of the kind of education that could help them become successful and happy Human beings can’t develop spiritually without a general culture.”
When it comes to her own children’s university education, Yamout is a realist. “I will not encourage my children to study literature as they won’t find decent work afterwards – a teaching career, for example, is not as respected in the Arab countries as it is in Europe and the income it offers is low.
«So while I would encourage my children to read literature in order to educate themselves, I would advise them to study something else.”
The high fees charged by private schools and universities in Lebanon have added to the pressure for courses ostensibly related to future employment.
“Given the level of fees, many families cannot afford to have all their children in higher education,” says Pierre Azoury, professor of mechanical engineering at the American University of Beirut (AUB). “But for me, the purpose of education is not necessarily to get a job.”
Azoury advocates a rounded approach, which he himself embodies. When not lecturing on engineering, he gives courses on musical appreciation. As well as being an accomplished pianist and composer, he has written a book on the life of Frederic Chopin
Azoury periodically organizes extra-curricula music recitals by his engineering students, but his music appreciation classes are within the official curriculum at AUB. “Within the faculty of engineering there are a number of humanities options open to students,” he says. “Nothing is imposed, although they receive credits for them. Likewise I believe humanities students should study some science in order to round up their education.”
Azoury argues it is inevitable that developments in technology will shape and affect education. He points out the two institutions where he personally studied – the Royal College of Science and Technology, in Glasgow, and Imperial College, London – were the products of an earlier explosion of scientific advance.
“If we go back to, say, the 13th century, then perhaps a simple love of knowledge led a student to go to university,” he says. “But advances in science, linked particularly to the Industrial Revolution, led to the establishment of these great technical schools in the UK in order to give students the ability to work in the [new] technology. Similarly, scientific advancement today is bound to change education.”
But such changes should not downplay literature, says Leila Eid, a Lebanese poet who attributes her own love of language in part to a teacher in intermediate school.
“Poetry and literature in early years create and open a door to make us learn about life, as do the rest of the subjects we learn at school.
“Myself, I found that the means through which I could express myself was poetry, and reading literature was a means to develop this.
“The teacher who taught me literature was a big influence – I fell in love with the Arabic language and it became my very breath.”
For Eid, poetry is part of very fabric of being Arab and Lebanese. “Our Arabic language is very beautiful – we were born in this miserable Orient and yet we have this treasure, Arabic, and we need to protect it.
“Our language is a part of loving our country, our home, our land.”