Madrasahs, like Nadwa, Deoband, Islah and others, which have been active in service of the Muslim community for the best part of 150 years, now face a hard choice. They are under pressure to shift from the objectives for which they were originally founded towards curricula primarily oriented to preparing students for the current job market. It is said that, if they do not move in this direction, they will not attract students in sufficient numbers to remain viable, meaning that they will eventually become irrelevant and close. As an alumnus and former teacher at Nadwa, this prospect is one that concerns and troubles me greatly.
To think clearly about what could and should be done we need to revisit first principles to remind ourselves about what education is, and what it is for. Then we need to think about how and where institutions like Nadwa can make the right changes in the right way. I have always believed that the purpose of education is to enable human beings to live a good life and find out more in the world to excite and satisfy the appetite for knowledge and understanding. To strive for excellence in whatever they have undertaken to do. That purpose necessarily includes learning from and with others, during formal education and afterwards. It therefore also includes learning the virtues that improve human relationships: so that we can distinguish private and common goods; short and long term goals; and act together with others, for what benefits others as well as oneself, and the natural and cultural environment, in whatever condition we leave them in.
The acquisition of economic resources is unavoidable, even if one wished to avoid it (most people do not wish to), but this is a much narrower purpose. However much wealth an individual or a society has accrued, other human needs persist that cannot be expressed in commodity terms and so cannot be satisfied by spending money – such as the need for meaning, the need to know more, the need to improve things, not just get by. Much more so than in the past, the training required to equip students for paid employment overlaps with those parts of the general education of mind and heart which must also train skills and competencies – how to collect relevant information, analyse and interpret it, how to challenge the accuracy, coherence, and usefulness of the analyses and interpretations of others. Because of the sheer volume of information that must be covered for an occupational qualification, and the sheer importance given to securing a well-paid job after qualification, many students do not want their time to be burdened with too much general preparation. They prefer institutions to focus on raising their ability to get the best grade possible in their final examination. The weakness of this narrow aim of qualifying professionally is that it teaches very little that is directly related to proficiency in the occupation. Such proficiency is in fact acquired through practice, through actually doing the job, and being able to learn.
Only a few attain real excellence, or push the boundaries of knowledge and skill, in their profession. Even fewer have the moral courage to challenge their profession or the way it is done. Most just do enough to hold on to their job;, they do not learn much while doing it, and they do it the way they are told to do it, because keeping the job is what matters to them. In sum, the broader purpose of what they are doing, whether it is doing good or doing harm, is not something they care to think about too much. There are rules of procedure; so long as they follow the rules, they know they cannot be charged with professional incompetence or negligence, and so they will keep their job. What they have missed by cutting down on general education is the moral training that strengthens the will and character so that they could decide to do the right thing, to work so that the purpose of the effort is realised in the best way possible, to the advantage of those who are receiving the goods and services they are providing.
What Nadwa and the madrasas like it can offer is an education that equips their students to lead a good life generally; what is being asked of them is various specialist training programmes that will qualify their students to get the better-paid jobs. Because of the demands on adults to provide for the economic necessities of life for their families and themselves, it is hard for people to see what they lose by taking the narrower option. It may be easier to see if we look to the early years of life, when those demands are not pressing, when children are just growing up. In fact, in terms of information and skills, human beings learn more in these years than in the rest of their lives.
A child’s early education comprises a number of distinct inputs. Most of these inputs have to do with the kind of education we just call “growing up”, learning the responsibilities and behaviours expected of an adult: such things as how to distinguish social status and how to adjust one’s speech, dress and manners in different situations, not to mention basic skills like walking and talking. Most of these matters are taken care of by parents, near kin (siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts, grandparents), and the local neighbourhood community. All sorts of idioms and accents of speech and behaviour are calibrated in the very earliest years and persist throughout life. Learning and teaching are largely informal and part of the general haphazard of life, its rough and tumble, and give and take.
This is how most children pick up the practical skills of being human: how to manage strong emotions; how to give and receive help; how to share their belongings and their time; how to distinguish and value true and false; how to ask for and give attention; how to prioritise one responsibility or desire over another, to give up a lower, short-term pleasure for one higher and more lasting. These are the primary skills that underpin human will, actions and relations. They are not learnt in the manner of lessons from a book, but imbibed through interactions with other individual human beings, and then refined and personalised through experience. These are life-skills that the child cannot learn without contact with real people, real games played in real, physical surroundings, anecdotes and stories heard from real people that the child knows and trusts. If they are not learnt naturally, in the way that walking and talking are learnt, the child may not develop a stable personality and character or even a strong will. The rudiments of how to count, and read and write, whether learnt at home or at school, are acquired in much the same spirit.
Unfortunately, in contemporary life-styles modelled on the affluent, urbanised West, these inputs are often presented to children in audio-visual screen versions: their content is heavily pre-formatted, and much more attractive, colourful, engrossing, and (especially for parents) much easier than un-formatted real-life play and learning. In real-life play children can fall and get hurt; some get left behind and the older ones have to return and encourage them to keep up; the game is never the same from one occasion to the next; it is continually adjusting, stopping and re-starting, sometimes just because of the weather; its rules are liable to much revision, and objects and places in the game signify very different things at different stages of the play.
The ease and attractiveness of screen games is thus purchased at the high cost of very much narrower input: hand–eye coordination is improved, but coordination of larger muscle groups with mental and emotional effort is not learnt, nor how to relate to others playing the same game or a different game in the same general space. At the present time in the UK, when children come to attend primary school, many are not emotionally prepared, sometimes not even physically fit, for what they face. They have not acquired the life-skills that their peers in less affluent ages brought with them into school: they do not know how to pay attention, how to collaborate, how to sit still, how to lead, how to follow: they do not know how to behave with each other, the teacher, or with the classroom situation generally. They are, to put it bluntly, stressed, hyper-active or passive, disoriented, unruly.
My purpose in making that comparison is to point to the apparent and obvious gain in narrow efficiency on the one hand (hand-held video-games; stories shown on screen) and, on the other, the massive loss of value in general life-skills (real-life games in a real environment with other children; stories personally told to the child).
In the best schools in the best zones of a city, there are few evident problems of the discipline-failure that plagues the schools in poorer zones. The reason is that more affluent parents are (1) much assiduous in forcing on their children video-games that are “educational” (i.e., oriented to what they will have to do at school); and (2) demand that their children work for the good grades without which they will not get a good job later in life. And the teachers oblige the parents by instructing the children in precisely and only what they need to know to get those grades. Standardised testing from the earliest age-levels exemplifies this approach: it is a convenient way for administrators, teachers and parents to measure and prove “success”.
But it is precisely in this way that children learn how not to be curious; they learn only how to pass a test, to get the grade. The information and skills they acquire are specific, not general. If a question is asked that they have not been prepared for, or if the job market changes, many find that they do not have the elasticity of mind or the strength of character to cope, to adapt. If this is how the early years of schooling are directed, it is not surprising if (1) parents and students demand that higher level education is oriented to getting professional qualifications, or (2) the qualified professional are mostly interested in following the set procedures and keeping their jobs, not in advancing knowledge or improving services, etc. I should add here that, what is wanted from professional-training providers (themselves qualified professionals) is that they follow the set course and achieve a high pass rate for their students. That is their job, the whole of it. They are not required to take any direct interest in the moral well-being of their students, nor are they required to serve as a role model for their students. The contrast with teachers in any religiously oriented institution is obvious; their highest duty is to be a good example of devotion and high moral purpose while also imparting knowledge and skills to their students.
So, we need to ask, about Nadwa and the madrasas like it, is their objective to achieve a narrow efficiency of instruction, or to achieve an education that is of general value, relevant and worthwhile in all situations because it aims to improve the whole person, especially in self-discipline and the willingness to take responsibility for the outcomes of what they do, whether paid or unpaid? Originally, these institutions were set up because, in the mid-nineteenth century, the British took over government in India and stopped the patronage and support of the former ruling classes for Muslim educational institutions. Concerned scholars wanted to preserve their intellectual and religious tradition. In the Islamic world personal training by eminent scholars in the disciplines of the faith, ande methodology and history of the Islamic sciences, were considered essential qualifications for high office in the government or judiciary or the military. Training in logic and mathematics, engineering and agriculture, in reason and writing skills were also taught in the better madrasas, but always as subsidiaries to the main purpose, which was to produce good men to whom high responsibilities could be entrusted. (The concept of a liberal education in Western societies is similar: almost all of the high civil service posts and many of the military elite in British India had been trained in such apparently useless subjects as ancient political and cultural history and the dead languages, Greek and Latin, in which that history was recorded.
Most of the religious elite who had been through a seminary education also followed much the same curriculum.) But over the last century societies everywhere have undergone a profound change, in the West no less than in the Islamic world, which has alienated people from their religious-cultural traditions and forced them into a highly stressful, life-destructive competitiveness for the things of this world, which produces anxiety and dissatisfaction, not contentment. People are unable to make even simple judgements like, “Do I need to buy the latest iPhone, do I even use all the capacities of the iPhone I already have? No? Well then, I will keep the one I have and spend my money on something I have cultivated a real need and taste for.” Instead, they find they are unable to resist having the latest or the most recently advertised version of whatever is “trending”, for fear of being left behind. This state of mind is deeply irreligious, self-centred, selfish, short-sighted, incapable of stable, steady commitment to the common good. If the alumni of Nadwa and other madrasas prefer for their own children the kind of education that gives them an advantage in getting well-paid jobs, rather than builds their moral character and deepens their spiritual insight, then their children’s children are even less likely to favour an education which prioritises the purposes of madrasas like Nadwa.
Evidently this is a self-perpetuating downward spiral. So why does it matter if such madrasas gradually disappear? People will get the education they want from other institutions. The principal reason is that a Nadwa-style education is about precisely that wanting, it is about enabling students to think more deeply about what they want, and to want what is right for the common good (which includes themselves) in the longer term. Education, even of the most secular, technically-oriented kind depends in the end on the ability of the students to discipline themselves to study, and to be curious and to push the boundaries of knowledge and know-how. Self-discipline cannot by definition come from outside the self, from external pressures. The fear of teachers, the terror of never getting a job are not strong enough to motivate young minds early enough to make them ambitions for knowledge for its own sake. That is why in officially secular societies all the schooling has to be impregnated with values favoured by the ruling financial elites: these values inculcate a strong motivation to be a team-player, but willing to break the rules if it serves the one high purpose, which is efficiency in producing what is most desired: the empowerment of wealth. In most Western societies among the ruling elites there is no feeling of belonging to the neighbourhood or the nation, which used to support loyalty to people and place. Now people belong to peer style-groups, across national and cultural boundaries – one of the pernicious fruits of globalisation – they identify with those who have similar wealth and spend it on similar brands of “trending” goods.
What is missing in the preparation of children for schooling is a properly conscientious upbringing by the parents. Instead, the parents teach, directly or by their own behaviour, that the only things of dependable value are money and social status. Since social status is now mostly determined by money, the only value is how much you can earn and the style with which you spend it. That is why, in much of India, a boy with less promise (meaning less financial promise) is urged to go into religious studies and become an imam. The promising children are steered away from religious learning towards professional careers in business, entertainment, software engineering, where the big money is, or, failing that, in law or medicine where the money and status are high enough. Evidently, being an imam or religious teacher is of little value and not an important enough social function for the best minds to be commended to pursue the training for that.
The only way out of this downward spiral is a religious understanding of the value of living a fully, richly human life in harmony with the guidance of the Qur’an and Sunnah. My hope and prayer is that my alma mater will remain steadfast in holding to its original purpose, and resist demands to be “successful” by attracting more students who (along with their parents) do not believe enough in that purpose to make the necessary sacrifices. The Qur’an and Sunnah make it very clear, to those willing to hear, who among mankind are the truly successful.