This is about this week's signing of a contract between the government of Libya and the non-profit organization, The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), worth at least $250 million. The deal involves a 1.2 million computers, one laptop for every schoolchild in the country, a server in each school, wireless web connectivity, and technicians, managers and experts, etc. The $100 laptop is a brainchild of MIT and its Media Lab's honcho, Nicholas Negroponte.
On its face value, the contract seems to be visionary, progressive, scientific, and even charitable. Nothing can be said except appraise and a sac of applaud. After the first oohs, aahs and the accompanying deep sighs then the "but" starts wiggling its head from somewhere causing the brain to itch and the intellect to quiver. What is all about? Why a country that for all practical purposes still in the grip of bygone times and traditions suddenly decides to "burn the steps" and jumps into the fray of 21st century hoopla? Why a country peddling raw materials for commodities -through multinationals- wants to go high-tech in its schools? Any of the pertinent questions ever occurred to one or the other of the two sides to the contract? For instance, what's the relationship between education to technology and these to the economy in general? Does Libya have an economy, in the first place, and if so is it at the knowledge level to justify, or say demand, a widespread Internet connectivity? Once schools are connected then what? What's in there for the children to attract or requires them to take some time out of their ever shortened class periods (40minute/classes) to surf the Internet? Without English or any other of the so-called live languages, Arabic alone is comparable to a drop of water in the Pacific Ocean, as far as materials and websites available on the Net.
The deal came out of nowhere. When N. Negroponte flew to the desert and met the sage of Sirte in his tent -contradiction of terms or just oxymoronic slip!- to expatiate on the benefit of being connected to the global village. Libya, a country which is still, literally, made up mostly of villages and villagers, tribes and nomads, is making a leap of faith to merge such pre-modern social-cultural forms into the intricate and oftentimes labyrinthian web of post-modern globalization. The not so difficult persuasive encounter conclusive success demands for its description more than what Neil Armstrong spitted out on setting foot on the moon: "A small step for [a] man, a giant leap for mankind." Or, perhaps to suit the occasion, it's rather the phrase's clauses must be switched with the appropriate pronounces changed, in a game play where the actors take different names, if not roles, reminiscent of the theater of the absurd : " A giant step for [Libya], a small step for mankind?"
A rich government and a poor population are a skewed combination where paternalism and apathy find a fertile ground. When this condition lurks long enough, it creates its own distorted fantasies, some may call them dreams or illusions. If you add to the brew savvy salesmen, then the juggling, jingling, and jingoism thrive without limits or restrains. The imagination overtakes reality, the surreal is take for the real and the fantasy rules supreme. The land of sand dunes, dates, camels, and tents, turns by magic, as in an Arabian Nights's tale, to some sort of Ali Baba's flying on his carpet literally in the ether of the cyberspace! And they say miracles don't happen? Move around, leave some room, oh Tigers of Asia, a small wonder -midget- is waking up. As to whether the rise will come close to the phoenix or only to the sauntering of a drunkard is still in the realm of the unknown. Only God and those who're pulling the strings of the deal may have some idea of what are the expectations.
Methinks the beduin was suckered by the charms of the salesmen, par excellence, the Americans -remember what one of their Presidents's inspiring piece was:" the business of America is business"? The Porters shmooze with the strategery and the Negropontes dance with the technicalities. And the colonel was left aghast, enchanted by the mellifluous lollipops promising nirvana. All the magic and marvelousness of the most powerful and advanced nation are to be put to the help a reclusive itinerant -who still roving around the desert with his flying tent- into the cooool man! hip and hop of the 21st century with highly wired country into the Internet -even the USA itself has still miles to go match what petrodollars can do overnight! Way to go Moammer! Caveat emptor.
1.2 million $100 Laptops will be given to all the children of Libya. Sounds good. Even daring and adventurous. Until one puts this "contract" against the background of a country still in the grip of the Middle Ages. A country centered on tradition, cavorts with superstitions, and its social mainstay is tribal. Libya, with few other countries in the world, considers Religion the raison d'etre of the whole of life -its declared constitution supposedly is still the Qu'ran. The government, as if it doesn't have enough to do, holds competitions in the memorization and recitation of the Holy Book, sponsors preachers, and Sufis's fraternities; builds and maintains mosques, shrines, and mausoleums; promotes Fasting (by reducing the work schedule to 5-hours per day), ....
As to education! That's another matter. What's meant by education has not been figured out yet: it oscillates between alliteration and indoctrination? The country, since its modern coming to life, has been scavenging from its neighbors, particularly Egypt, their systems, curricula, textbooks, and even teachers. The problem would be less severe had these countries themselves have their own educational systems and philosophies. Instead, true to that saw, blind leading blind, the Egyptians had inherited their own system from colonial times; the crux of it was to train paper pushers and technocracies, and that's what Libyan education is still about, and not good at that to boot!
As to the rest of the educational infrastructure, let's see. Schools are merely stacks of barren rooms; labs, libraries, gyms, and the like are almost non-existing; special education: never heard of; art and the rest is a luxury worthy only for bourgeois and the infidels; languages are reduced to barely deciphering Arabic; and the teachers are either simi-illiterates in the best or functional-illiterates in actuality -most of them have no higher training than high-school level education. Classrooms are crowded with 30-to-40 pupils. Schools have to work double shifts to accommodate the always increasing numbers of the new crops. Attendance is merely a token, half-a-day! And the thread of the story get even blighter in the weave of the bureaucratic jam that keeps the mess getting messier.
If you think this is a bleak picture, wait, until you hear the rosy remedy. Spending some $250 million to buy some 1.2 million toys to whitewash the whole system and show it as one of the mots progressive and advanced in the world. Every child is connected to the Net! What's else is left to do?
The old Libyans used to have a saying capturing the gist of the moment. " 'eryan aTTaqa wa-feeduh khaatem," roughly translated: (walks with naked butt, wearing a ring on the finger). With a chronic -and structural- unemployment in the double-digits and those who're nominally occupied are underemployed, the last thing to do is to make the workplace more capital intensive, an act which, in addition to increase the labor costs and thus eliminating one of the advantages of a prospective reforming economy, will further reduce the need for workers. Out of all the priorities in the world, computers are the last Libyan kids and indeed the whole country need. If there's no economy to speak of nor a real social need for knowledge then the question becomes -assuming that kids are able and can get access to knowledge- what one does with access to knowledge? Is knowledge in the abstract good for its own sake? How could knowledge, which mostly comes in English and other vibrant languages, be accessed to with only Arabic at hand?
The questions can go on to infinitum. As example: is it better to buy computers or to build classrooms to alleviate the crowdedness and to increase the attendance time? Providing schools with the rest of the educational amenities and infrastructures such as, labs, libraries, auditoriums, gyms, special programs, etc. or buying computers? Training teachers, improving textbooks, and setting standards before thinking of the next step of getting connected to the Net. Et cetera, etc. etc....
Development as can be historically reconstituted is a patient, complex, arduous, and cross-generational work-in-progress. From Japan in the 19th century, to China, Korea, India, and the rest of the Asian Tigers in the 20th century, the lessons that can be learned range from the perceptive long term views accompanied with a good educational systems to a lot of austerity and tightening of belts, are a must. The founders of the modern states of these countries made sure their kids would receive the best education scarce money can buy. Nehru amidst the grinding poverty of India signed along the independence's papers the establishment of the "Indian Institute of Technology," today's India's pride and one of the top schools in the world. Moa Zedong' reformed the whole enterprise of education and demanded more sacrifices, and so did the other visionary leaders who saw that their countries, in order to erase past humiliations, must catch up with world and deserve its respect.
It's long been debated whether ethically and morally legitimate to ask few generations to sacrifice for the future of the country. For without curbing consumption to its lowest levels possible, reducing and slowing the rate of population growth, reducing the rate of dependency -workers to non-workers- producing as much as possible, there's no way for capital to accumulate to build the necessary infrastructures for a modern economy. There are no more gold and silver mines of the New World, or slaves and cheap labor, open free markets to grab, which historically have had helped the Western nations to accumulate the necessary capital for their take-off the through a relentless two-long-centuries of pure exploitations of almost every human who walked on this earth. Today, any country which wants to build an economy has to depend on its won efforts and savings of its sons and daughters. For, without such savings there'll never be a generation qualitatively different from the rest of the herds now living. A generation, almost as different from its predecessors as night is different from the day. Curious, analytical, and ambitious; trained in the arts of observation, reason, imagination, and invention. In other words, a generation(s) of rebellious, problem solvers instead of present paper-pushers, obsequious, and fatalist the current education system keeps turning out by the bushels every year.
So development is never a chance game nor a random event but a slow and painful process of changing the human agent from some sort of primate to real person with an intellect and consciousness to go with it. A country has first to set its long-range goals, its economic system, and the frame of mind, a weltanschauung through which it'll operate before getting into the fad and hype of spending money to buy gizmos that will only pollute the desert. And the starter is always the education system, which, by design, is at the frontier, has also to be flexible enough and modifiable to be compatible with the present stage of development as well as accommodates that broader view of the forward projected dreamed of future society. From the training of teachers, to the schools's layouts, to curricula, and the way all come together in the interaction between teacher-student-parent are all in need of guiding principles and paradigms without which the whole system will suffer from lack of will or better the fuel and the zing that makes it grind along. Without a compass or stars, keeping track of one's bearings, it'll almost be impossible to hit the target and win the jackpot. As Gogol had lamented: "without a gleam of light!...It's dull in this world, gentlemen!"