Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

In Arab lands, a revolution in education. Oil money, independence have spurred rise of educated class. This article is based on the author's visits to 20 institutions of higher learning in the Arab world.

(Page 2 of 2)

More surprising, perhaps, is that the new Yarmouk University in the relatively poor country of Jordan is building a new campus for 20,000 students at a cost of over $500 million. Begun in 1977, Yarmouk already has 9,000 students. This, along with the 20,000 at the University of Jordan at Amman and (according to the president of Yarmouk University, Dr. Adnan Bedram) an equal number of Jordanians studying overseas, adds up to perhaps 60,000 students in a poor country of only 2 million people. This university is paid for by student fees; part of the national import taxes on commodities is assigned to new construction.

Skip to next paragraph

Brick and mortar may indicate the dedication of a country but they do not make a university. The men and women of the faculty and the students who study under them are the real foundation. The universities of northern Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the West Bank are most fortunate in this respect. For some decades students from these countries have been coming to the West to be educated, creating a large pool of scholars who could return home to become faculty members. For example, Dr. Ali Nafeh left Virginia Polytechnic and State University, where he had served with distinction, to take a position as dean of Yarmouk University.

Other Western-educated Arabs have taken well-paid positions in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. The physics faculty of the University of Kuwait consists of 20 persons, of which only three are Kuwaiti citizens. Others come from Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, and the Sudan.

Students there were eager and attentive, though the young women appeared reluctant to ask questions. Much emphasis is placed on the physics undergraduate laboratory. It is here, that the students learn the techniques of simple measurement and uses of mechanical and electrical equipment. But they learn fast, and it is an interesting sight to see a young woman, dressed in a chuddar, using a soldering iron and drill press to make equipment.

Even in Western-oriented Tunisia, university education is a recent phenomenon. Before gaining independence from France in 1958, eager Tunisians attended French universities. The University of Tunis was founded immediately upon independence, and has grown to 30,000 students.

One of the complaints made by Palestinians against King Hussein of Jordan is that from 1948 to 1967, when he governed the West Bank, he built no institutions of higher learning there. He expected all students to go to the University of Jordan in Amman instead. In the last 15 years the Palestinians of the West Bank have been on their own, and several universities have sprung up in the West Bank. The best known, perhaps, is Birzeit University, 20 miles north of Jerusalem. This was started as a high school under the British in 1922 but became a university in 1973 and now has 2,500 students. Bethlehem University has 1,500 students; Najah University at Nablus has over 2,000, and there are Islamic universities at Hebron and Gaza. These and other institutions are financed primarily by student fees, but much new building is paid by generous donors now living in the Gulf states.

The effect of all of this education is unclear. Those educated in engineering and the sciences will be able to find jobs anywhere in the world. No doubt they will travel and spread Arab culture widely.

Richard Wilson is Mallinckrodt professor of physics at Harvard University.