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The Education Dilemma in Saudi Arabia


I eventually found a comfortable place to sit. After searching aimlessly for 20 minutes, there it was: a quaint little corner desk in the far-end of the main library room. I immediately dumped the 10 or so books I had checked out of the library earlier that day and sat down on my hard wooden chair, ready for a night full of fun and revelry writing my paper about globalization in the Middle East. I was surrounded by dozens of students; all I could hear was incessant typing, the clicking of pens, and on occasion, the creak of some old dusty chairs. As I began to procrastinate, anticipating an endless night at Lamont Library, it saddened me to think how quickly time has passed during my two years here. Although I am in the middle of my third year at Harvard, it still feels like it was yesterday when I was sitting awkwardly and confused in the “Saudi National Education” class back in my high school in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia—a class that, to this day, I do not understand.

I had always gone to an all-Arabic school in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, and only moved to the U.S. for my college education. My transition from the Saudi educational system to that of the United States has been far from easy. This is a result of the conflicting approaches to education adopted in the U.S. and in my native country.

One of the fundamental drawbacks of the Saudi academic system is its imposition of a national curriculum that does not vary across any public or private high school. The system requires that every student study identical academic material in the sciences, literature, and math regardless of where a student’s interest lies. Additionally, the material offered in many of these subjects is extremely lacking; history topics only cover the Islamic era, honors classes are nonexistent, and English classes are only available after the seventh grade at public high schools.

But more regrettable is the academic approach promoted at these Saudi schools; teachers encourage a system of ineffective memorization and a superficial understanding of facts for the sole purpose of passing a test. This type of education extends far beyond high school to the college and university levels. Students are continuously taught of ways to pass an exam rather than the proper approaches to learning.

Conversely, American educational methods require one to fully immerse oneself in the subject at hand and to wrestle with concepts that extend further beyond the subject material. Throughout my time here at school in the U.S., never once was I given information to automatically digest without truly understanding the subject matter properly. The education system in the U.S. pushes one to follow his or her passion and truly pursue areas that one has never explored before. My beliefs and thoughts have continuously been challenged to help nurture and stimulate my intellectual ability. U.S. higher education helps students express their opinions, regardless of what stance students take or contrasting argument they might make.

However, to criticize a teacher’s arguments in a Saudi school is unimaginable. It is not uncommon in Saudi Arabia for students to be completely silenced if they question the validity of a professor’s argument. I personally have been dismissed from the classroom countless times during high school for simply challenging the teacher’s line of reasoning.

Educational systems in the U.S. have adopted a system where students are encouraged to contemplate conflicting opinions to strengthen and reinforce the quality of debates that might arise in the classroom.

Critical thinking is essential to a healthy and progressive education. Unfortunately, this type of instruction is not employed within the borders of Saudi Arabia at the high school or college level. Saudi schools do not emphasize the importance of independent thinking, opting instead to conveniently spoon-feed students information that does not test their mental capabilities.

My native country’s lack of an education that encourages critical thinking is the main reason that I decided to further pursue my education abroad. The liberal education environment that universities in the U.S. offer is truly unmatched. Flexibility among courses and tracks of study cultivate a stronger and healthier environment for the student regardless of the field he or she decides to practice. At a university in the U.S., I am able to widen my intellectual horizons, to follow my true passions, and most importantly, I am able to work alongside my fellow students to achieve my full potential. As a student of Harvard I have gained the knowledge, skills, and wisdom necessary to improve Saudi Arabia’s approach to education as I head back home after graduation.

Talal M. Alhammad ’11 is a government concentrator in Quincy House.

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