Sunday, September 27, 2009

Delayed Reaction

Ahmed Zewail, a professor at Caltech, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, and recent appointee to President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, has a wonderful op-ed column in today's Boston Globe. The starting point of this essay is the recent speech given by President Obama in Cairo, Egypt, Mr. Zewail's homeland. Mr. Zewail returned to Egypt after that speech and checked into the Egyptian response to that speech. He discovered that the response was mostly positive, that the US president showed the right amount of respect for Egypt and for Islam, but that people there were still waiting for President Obama to make the first next move.

Mr. Zewail was clearly disappointed in the response because he felt that his former compatriots missed the point, a point he thinks is crucial to the revitalization of Egypt and other Muslim countries. In Mr. Zewail's view President Obama's speech was about education in its deepest sense.

Egypt should take its cue from the fact that the president chose to speak not before government officials, but before an audience of educated young people. As a scientist educated in both Egypt and America, I appreciate the president’s call for new education and science partnerships between Muslim nations and the West, for it is these areas that have the greatest potential to move a society forward.

Mr. Zewail detailed his education in Egypt, which occurred during the "Nasser Revolution" which emphasized education for all Egyptians, including women and non-Muslims. The result was a renaissance in both secular and religious learning, and the country reaped a bountiful harvest from that revolution.

This was the environment that propelled me to enroll at the University of Alexandria, excel in my science studies with outstanding professors, win a scholarship for graduate study at the University of Pennsylvania, and become a professor at the California Institute of Technology.

My experience was hardly unique, and it offers an instructive example of what a commitment to education, unfettered by religious orthodoxies, can accomplish. When optimists speak of cultivating a spirit of progress among Muslim nations, we need look no farther back than the Egypt of my childhood, when the country had the best universities and richest cultural milieu in the region, and was a center of secular and religious learning.

What struck me most about Mr. Zewail's essay is that his thesis is hardly limited to Egypt or even to Muslim countries. Change a few key words in the following extract and you'll see what I mean:

Today in Egypt and throughout much of the Muslim world, more than a quarter of the population is under the age of 30. Neither Muslim governments nor the West can afford to overlook this immense reservoir of human talent and potential.

The most effective way to tap it is through a revitalized educational system, from the elementary grades through college, that is willing to capitalize on the best of both Muslim and Western traditions of learning, with a new emphasis on science and technology, and a recognition that assimilating new ideas represents not a departure from an authentic Muslim heritage but a return to it. A sustained investment in education is what will ultimately lead to greater economic prosperity, enhanced quality of life, and true democratic reform.

There are many regions in the US which continue the battle against teaching certain parts of science (evolution) for religious reasons. Textbooks are still being bowdlerized in the name of orthodoxy. Children, as a result, are getting a third-rate education in a country which, when challenged by President Kennedy after the launch of Sputnik, responded with its own renaissance in scientific education. Yet now, the best the government can come up with is the "teach to the test" debacle of No Child Left Behind or high school exit exams.

President Obama was wise to go to Cairo to deliver his speech, and he was even wiser to appoint Professor Zewail to his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Now he would do well to make the same commitment to education in this country that he urged for Egypt. He has a full plate right now, but surely there is enough room to include a new education initiative, one that focuses on real learning for the real world.



Blogger ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Textbooks are still being bowdlerized in the name of orthodoxy.

I can see Texass from my window. And our wingnuts shriek when the President urges kids to go to class and do their homework.

2:58 PM  

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