Dr. Khaled Batarfi
Every time I hear one more businessman or corporate manager complaining about his young Saudi recruits, I know before he finishes his first sentence it is going to be a complaint about qualifications and discipline. I don’t exactly know why, but so many graduates go to the marketplace with little patience, work ethics and discipline, not to mention other shortcomings in training and skills.
We must admit that our education system has problems. For one, it tends to focus more on theory and ideology than practicality and job related skills. Some thirty-five years ago our schools taught English and French. Now, we are still debating whether English should be taught in elementary schools. Worse, English teachers need better training themselves. My son had to convince his teacher that “is” doesn’t have to be capitalized and some university students were confused about where to use “is” and “are”.
Computers in many schools and colleges still use DOS. Laps are rarely well equipped and handicraft workshops are not part of the curriculum. Libraries are stuffed mostly with religion, history and Arabic literature books. Academic libraries are heavily censored and rarely updated and lack many resources. Public libraries can be counted on one hand, and only in the major cities—please forget about smaller towns and villages.
Still, the educational system is not the only problem our youth have. The way we raise them is another. We teach them at an early age to follow the official line without any questioning. They are supposed to read only textbooks. Independent research is not encouraged. They are told exactly where in textbooks to study — or memorize — for exams. When they reach university, they expect — and get — the same treatment. After all, most of their teachers either gave up on them or are trained that way themselves — garbage in, garbage out.
Wherever they go, our young are not encouraged to think, search and invent. Following the set rules is the norm. Few dare to break them.
This explains why our graduates are underskilled. But the train doesn’t stop here. We have work ethic and attitude problems, as well. Somehow, this generation is worse than the previous. A couple of generations ago we were OK. Our fathers and grandfathers worked harder, produced more, and had a much better attitude towards work and higher ethical standards. Is there a turning point when our workforce started to deteriorate? If so, when and how? If not, where did we go wrong and why?
I would say the economic boom of 1975-82 had a lot to do with it. Along that way, we got used to having easy money and an easy life. A whole generation was brought up in such a corrupting environment. Then came the conservative change of the curriculum around 1982. For the next 23 years the curriculum guardians kept the books almost untouched. They probably feared that any change would make them less conservative. The focus in this system is on teaching not inspiring, memorizing not understanding, directing not exploring.
Why am I going back to the problem of education? Because in the absence of family, school is the most influential institution left in our kids’ upbringing.
But why is the family is absent? It is the economic boom again. It made parents leave the most tasking and vital duties of their children’s’ upbringing to domestic helpers, if not to the street. Fathers go home to rest before leaving again for more work, or to join friends to play cards, smoke shisha, and watch sports.
Mothers go from family and friend’s gatherings to parties, from shopping to social outings. The kids are left in the care of Filipino and Sir Lankan maids. Older kids are given freedom to play, shop, and chase girls.
There are other culprits, too. What have the media done to educate and enlighten? What has the corporate world done to train and retrain? Aramco, SABIC, banks and Saudi Arabian Airlines, and Abdullatif Jameel have achieved a lot by their focus on training, but what have the rest of our private sector been doing?
All the above are mere shots at the truth. I do know claim to know all the answers, but I do know that we need to talk. We need dialogue forums compromising experts, specialists, public and private decision makers, parents, and representatives of the new generation. We must discuss all issues in an open-minded format. No one group should censor, control or program our debate. It must be inclusive of all strands and stands — men and women, Sunni and Shia, liberal and conservative, and every shade of color in between.
Let’s do this, and answers will come rolling. Actions should immediately follow.