Modernity & Compulsory Schooling: the Theft of Children’s Minds? | The Humble I Knowing, Doing, Becoming | 8 Dec 2021
‘We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the class room
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey teachers leave them kids alone!
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.’
[Pink Floyd, Brick in the Wall]
IN 1800 ONLY five percent of Britain had any formal primary education. By 1900, that figure was ninety percent. Across Britain and Europe, children between the ages of five and ten were summoned to sit in classrooms to learn basic reading, writing and arithmetic. The reason why children were being sent to school was the same as why, for thousands of years, they had been kept at home: work and productivity. 1
In pre-modern societies it was a given that, at the earliest possible time or opportunity, children would best help their family by going out to work in the fields, markets, workshops or factories. Modern societies, equally as interested in children’s earning power, legislated that compulsory state schooling would be the best guarantor of that power of productivity in the long run. Modern state education’s focus would be on functional literacy: teaching students just enough to make them economically productive; no more, and no less. ‘So much,’ as the educationalist John Taylor Gatto says, ‘for making boys and girls their personal best.’ 2
This explains why children in schools are so often bored, unconcerned and unfocused. They wonder why on earth are they being taught most of these subjects? What is it for? Most of what our children learn is school will not equip them for life in the actual world. ‘Given the extent on the emphasis on utility in the education system, it remains surprising for many modern citizens to reach middle age (or earlier) to discover that rather a lot appears to have been missed out in the curriculum. Despite the years of dedication and examination, the modern citizen is apt to look back and wonder with a mixture of irritation and sorrow why so much of what they needed to know was never taught to them at school.’ 3
And yet: ‘In all advanced nations, until a human is twenty-one or so, there is little else to do other than study. In sensible households, homework has a close to holy status. An army of teachers and educators, colleges and pedagogical bureaucrats is set us to feed industrial quanities of the young through the school machine.’ 4
What children are taught in no way reflect the trials of life: issues of relationships, the sorrows of a meaningless job, coping with the tension of family, dealing with damaged but well intended parents, existential anxiety, the trauma of mortality, or the meaning of life and its struggles. Instead, we educate our children as if the greatest requirement of adulthood is a set of vocational or technical skills to help them earn money. To suggest that we ought to help educate them in their emotional dimensions – learning to understand themselves, empathise with others, nurture a self-confidence that isn’t narcissistic or self-damaging, or to get a handle on calm and self-compassion – would be to suggest an educational blasphemy of sorts. Yet it’s this kind of omission or failure that ensures the repeated betrayal of children’s education, and what some see as the theft of children’s minds.
RESTORE MEANING INTO EDUCATION
While modernity is interested in ‘useful’ learning, in the pre-modern world, those who were educated at a school or college were taught two things in particular: a holy text, and learning of high culture and dignity. Here in the West it meant the Bible and the classics, and in the Muslim East and West it meant the Qur’an and comportment (adab). Pre-modern education was about pursuing truth and wisdom, not money. Meaning and a sense of the sacred where at the centre of pre-modern education.
But when an educational system is designed chiefly for functionality, not imparting wisdom and meaning, its pretty much flawed from the ground up. For the modern world demanded that children learn the skills needed to keep the economy and productivity expanding. Kids had to be prepared to keep the machinery of modernity ticking over. That is what mattered the most; not learning for learning’s sake, or for deeper wisdom, or to become cultured and a cultivated human being. So when children in the twentieth century were encouraged in school to make things out of clay, or play with coloured bricks, or to put on plays – it may all have seemed progressive to the parents, but these move were only responses to demands by employers for new sets of skills required by new types of commerce and industry. And the same is the case today. Without imparting practical wisdom, or rooting education in meaning, our children’s learning will continue to be exploited by economic and corporate agendas where: ‘wealth takes precedence over family, image over substance, acquisition of apparent goods over real goods, gall over shame, and pleasure over happiness.’ 6
‘Sadly,’ said Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, ‘the tragic victims of this state of affairs are our children. They come into this world capable of greatness and instead are fed to the false god of appetite, resentment, and amusement. They suffer from obesity, sexual laxity, and a loss of family and community that en-genders anger towards their parents and society. They are indoctrinated into the false belief that life is for amusement and the best things in life come easily. Few are allowed to discover life’s greatest pleasure, which is self-knowledge and mastery of the soul that leads to an ethical life for the sake of God. For many, it’s not until they reach “maturity” that they realize they have been cheated out of nothing less than a life of meaning.’ 7
ROOT ISLAMIC EDUCATION & MUSLIM SCHOOLS
In the traditional Muslim world, education was always about learning how to carry ourselves; of how to dispose our souls to God, and to others. It was about comportment – or what in the Islamic world is called adab.
‘Pious character, refined manners and moderation constitute a twenty-fifth parts of prophethood,’ said the Prophet, peace be upon him.8 The idea of beautiful conduct or cultivated behaviour – in contrast to that seen as crass, vulgar or ugly – is gathered in that genre of knowledge termed adab. The Arabs say: adaba ila ta‘amihi – ‘He invited [others] to his banqueting feast.’ From it comes the idea of adab being an ‘invitation’ to partake of what is praiseworthy and virtuous. In its religious sense, adab is a call to acquire virtuous qualities. Adab carries with it the sense of civility, courtesy, refined manners, and cultured breeding or upbringing. Throughout the ages of Islam, adab was that type of learning acquired for the sake of living beautifully. For adab relates to what a person should know, should be, and should do – so as to perfect the art of living.
Again, in the Islamic tradition, the two words for education are: tarbiyah and ta‘lim. Tarbiyah is from the word, raba – to ‘grow’, ‘increase’, ‘flourish’. For education is about imparting learning to a student allowing him or her to grow and flourish as a human being.
The other word, ta‘lim, is from the root word, ‘alamah, which means ‘sign’ or ‘imprint’. In other words, to make an impression or a mark. The earliest form of writing, Cuneiform, first used about five and a half thousand years ago, was done by pushing a wedge into soft clay to create an impression or sign. That is what ta‘lim is about. It’s about creating a beautuful, cultured mark or impression on the student’s heart, mind and character.
So all in all, Islamic education – at its root – is about growing in beauty as a person; as a believer; as a worshipper of God. At its heart is the imparting of meaning. Both Muslim parents, and Muslim teachers in Muslim schools, must understand that if home-schooling or Muslims schools are to be real alternatives to state schools, they cannot follow the very same paradigm of schooling chiefly in terms of job prospects. It can’t be mainly about tests, grades, targets, and schooling for the sake of functional literacy.
1. Cf. How to Survive the Modern World (London: School of Life, 2021), 213-14.
2. ‘A Short Angry History of Compulsory Schooling,’ in Gatto, Hanson & Sayers, Educating Your Child in Modern Times (California: Alhambra Productions, 2003), 16.
3. How to Survive the Modern World, 214.
4. The School of Life, What They Forgot to Teach You at School (London: The School of Life, 2021), 7.
5. This, and what follows, is based upon Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s lecture: The School System.
6. Hamza Yusuf, ‘New Lamps for Old’, in Educating Your Child in Modern Times, 48.
7. ibid., 48.
8. Abu Dawud, no.4776. It was graded hasan in al-Albani, Sahih Sunan Abu Dawud (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1998), 3:174.
In recent years, Fatima al-Fihri, may Allah be pleased with her, has acquired a mythological, folklore-like status as the “founder of the world’s oldest university.”  The magazine Girlboss credits her with “establishing the university as we know it today.”  Oxford Reference and UNESCO recognize University of al-Qarawiyyin as “the oldest operating university in the world.”   Blog posts and news sources alike continue to embellish parts of her story, crediting her institution as the first to grant “academic degrees.”  
But what does that actually mean? The lack of primary sources make it difficult to substantiate the above, but enough gaps in these narratives have been noted that, at the very least, it sheds doubt on embellishments such as “oldest university” and “degree-awarding.” An ijazah is different from a degree, and degree-awarding systems are a relatively modern phenomenon compared to the pedagogy of madrasas. Many institutions in French-occupied countries like Morocco and Tunisia were not given weight until modernization programs were introduced during colonization.  Al-Qarawiyyin was first a mosque, and like many mosques, may have housed a madrasa or served as a space for teachers to teach students.
So my question is, who’s doing the recognizing of our contributions, what purpose does it serve, and ultimately, how do we measure the progress and contributions of Muslims, especially Muslim women? To speak of Al-Fihri’s contributions in the manner cited above is convenient — not because Muslim women weren’t great — but because it is likely a symptom of an eagerness to signal a Muslim woman’s place in the world. Unfortunately, in a context that has a secular, material measure of contribution and success, we speak of Muslim women accordingly.
When fact and fiction become muddied, we not only undermine the living, breathing legacy of such women, may Allah be pleased with them all, but we also become complicit in a system that values contributions to society by a measure that is not ours. One may argue that critiquing the mythologizing of Al-Fihri has no benefit, since it only plays into the hands of Islamophobes. Or that there’s no harm in perpetuating an untruth, because the general idea — that Muslim women were vital to society’s growth and often go unacknowledged by both Muslims and non-Muslims — is true.
Yes, the itch to debunk, for some, arises from an impulse to further malign Muslim women, or Muslims as a whole. A link to an article critiquing the popular perception of Al-Fihri’s founding of a university even made its way to a Council of Ex-Muslims forum.  But my argument is this: clinging on to exaggerations of kernels of truth undermines the truth of our history. Not only do falsities cast skepticism on truth, but as Muslims our tongues should be far from lies.
Myths serve the collective consciousness in trying to actualize ideals. What one views as greatness or value is evidenced by one’s shaping of history. Audiences hearing these stories will likely leave with the same biases they arrived with. Even if convinced that Muslim women had a fundamental role to play in families, communities, societies, successes will be considered anomalies: arising from some extraneous factors or luck or the presence of ideas outside of Islam i.e. accomplishments despite Islamic doctrine, not because of it.
This as symptomatic of the “women and Islam” fervor that has characterized US imperialism and politics for at least the last two decades. Its opposing form, that of the maligned and subjugated Muslim woman in dire need, has similarly been used in India to justify its occupation of Kashmir, in Israel to continue its violence against Palestine, and in the backlash against the U.S. decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. This is likely nothing new to the average critical reader, but its “positive” form, the continuous insistence on contributions of the modern variety, accompanies a similar pretext: measuring a Muslim woman against the powerhouse of a Western woman.
Founding a university is worthy of praise. But must it be a university? Does the building of a masjid not stand on its own? What is emphasized in our history and the basis for which we laud different figures shifts with time and motivations. For example, one group can highlight Khadeeja’s (RA) obedience as a wife and her domesticity for one end, and another can speak of her running a business and history as divorcee for another end. Both are attempts to make sense of a pre-modern pious woman in relation to our reality today as modern subjects. This is the fundamental problem with our approach to female figures in history — in trying to make sense of them using imperfect lens, we lose sight of who they actually were and the legacies they left for us.