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Language, Colonial Hangovers and Access to Higher Education

Art by Olivia Watson

Knowledge is power, and colonial elites knew it better than anyone. In particular, they knew how education can be used to empower some while disempowering others. Today, countries with colonial legacies have yet to escape the impacts of a system that sought to minimize or erase indigenous identities through imposed education systems and foreign languages of instruction. In response, some developing, ex-colony countries have aimed to reclaim their education systems as a means of reclaiming power. “Arabization” initiatives in post-independence Morocco and Algeria, for instance, have sought to reclaim Arabic as the language of education and with it a sense of nationalism.

In theory, the question of education reform initiatives, like Arabization, seems to be strictly one of national and political identity. But in practice, a family’s decision to send their child to a French-intensive school, for example, as opposed to a school that teaches in the country’s native tongue, comes with larger considerations that may very well impact their child’s future academic success. But for a Moroccan family, deciding whether or not to send their child to a French-intensive school invokes larger issues. The questions of classroom languages and post-colonial curricula come with huge repercussions for individual students’ futures and academic success.

For governments in the midst of the long and arduous process of reclaiming their own education systems — as well as for students in developing countries who hope to take advantage of their education as an opportunity to escape poverty — the ongoing search for a cure to colonial education hangovers is no small matter. Furthermore, it is one that often bears the burden of either limiting or expanding students’ access to higher education and future careers.

In Algeria, the Arabization movement, which served as a unifying factor against French colonial forces in the 1950s struggle for independence, was realized in part through a national language requirement. All French street and shop signs were taken down and rewritten in Arabic script, despite the fact that initially 60 percent of the population could not read them in their new lettering. Yet, qualified Arabic teachers were almost totally lacking and French continued to dominate as the language of government and professional life. Then in the 1960s, President Boumediene declared complete Arabization a national goal. The movement began in primary schools, where Arabic became the language of instruction for the social sciences and humanities. By the 1980s, Arabic was introduced as the language of instruction for higher grades and secondary school subjects, but French remained the language of instruction in universities, despite the demands of Arabists.

Just such a debate, weighing the merits of eliminating remnants of a colonial past with the practical costs of rapid Arabization, still remains relevant and contentious in Algeria. This debate includes a heated dispute over the benefits and legitimacy of Arabization by native Kabyle people who argue that the policy ignores Algeria’s pre-Arab, multi-lingual and indigenous roots. Others argue that complete Arabization could mean severing cultural, financial and political cooperation with France, which would in turn limit higher education or employment opportunities in France for Algerian students after graduation.

In Morocco, Arabization policies have been implemented gradually and somewhat unevenly across levels of education. After gaining independence, Morocco adopted the French education system, resulting in two parallel education tracks: the modern track and the original track. The majority of Moroccan students are enrolled in the modern track, which is essentially a continuation of the French system. The original track, on the other hand, emphasizes Arabic, Islamic law, history, Arab civilization, national identity and the sciences. Despite the smaller percentage of students enrolled in the original track, the government has consistently stressed its importance as a means of maintaining national and regional identity.

The two-track education system resulting from Morroco’s Arabization policies can make it difficult for students to transition from secondary to higher education. Based off of the French system, secondary education in Morocco culminates in the baccalauréat examination, at which time students must also decide whether they will apply to a postsecondary institution or not. If students do decide to pursue higher education, they must then decide their field of study, which also determines the language of instruction — generally Arabic for the humanities and social sciences, and French for scientific subjects. Although the secondary school system has been Arabized and Classical Arabic is the main language of instruction, French is the sole language of instruction at the postsecondary level of scientific subjects such as medicine and agriculture. French also continues to exert a strong presence in business, administration and media. This means that many students who during their younger years had been taught most everything in Arabic must transition to taking the same subjects in French once they reach higher education.

The question, then, of who can access higher education and who can be successful in postsecondary studies is still strongly connected to who has had the most exposure to French instruction prior to entering university. Interviews of Moroccan high school students revealed that their attitudes towards French education were divided, with French providing possible opportunities to move or work abroad, but also remaining fraught with the legacy of colonization. The argument that Arabization policies have created gaps between Moroccan students is ironic given that the implementation of Arabization policies originally aimed at re-Arabizing the well-educated, Francophile and elite members of Moroccan society. The political and economic elite in Morocco, even education ministry personnel, often send their children to French schools. Further, the system may be perpetuating French dominance. Students taught under the French system may hold more lucrative jobs or go abroad to continue their studies, while those taught under the Arabized system are often left with less well-paid positions.

If development strategies continue to focus on school enrollment as a primary means of advancing equality of opportunity across race, gender and class, it’s important to examine what opportunities a given education system actually offers students. Oftentimes, in the case of Morocco and Algeria, language of instruction plays a major role in determining those opportunities — the opportunities will not be the same for a rural public school student as for a child of an urban Moroccan bureaucrat who can afford to go to French school. The tradeoffs involved in undertaking educational and linguistic overhauls like those attempted by Arabization initiatives — particularly in their initial years of sometimes uneven implementation — bear huge consequences for students’ access to higher education and career options beyond graduation. In theory, reclaiming national identity through education and catering schooling to the needs of a country’s own students seems to be a noble goal, but in practice, there’s no easy cure-all to a colonial education hangover.

Art by Olivia Watson

About the Author

Katherine Lamb '16 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review, concentrating in International Relations and Middle East Studies.