Just a few days ago I had the opportunity to meet up with a Peace Corps volunteer and fellow blogger, Mike Greer, who has been living and working in a small village on the northern Jordanian border. After being in the country for only two weeks, it was eye-opening for me to talk with someone who has been here for nearly two years and who has had both the time and language skills necessary to ask some of the questions and engage in some of the discussions that I’ve been hoping to. Notes on our conversation below the fold.
Living in a small village on the Syrian-Jordanian village is almost like living in another world when compared with metropolitan ‘Amman. Apparently there is next to no interaction between the sexes outside of the home. School is segregated from the lowest grades through high-school graduation, it is absolutely impossible for men and women to walk and talk together on the streets, and unheard of for them to move in the same social settings and circles. Contrast that with ‘Amman where co-eds can be seen walking and talking together in the streets, occasionally even holding hands, and also gathering together for coffee and a smoke in one of the many streetside cafes. As we discussed these differences, Mike just shook his head in what seemed like despair and gave a cynical chuckle; apparently moving from complete gender isolation for the first eighteen years of your life and then heading off to a co-ed university apparently has all sorts of cultural and interpersonal ramifications that can’t necessarily be described as positive.
Christians in Jordan are a tiny minority of people; making Egypt’s 10% look like a booming center of Christianity. About 2% or 3% of Jordanians are officially Christian, and that includes ever branch of Christianity from Orthodox, to Catholic, to Protestant. Mike’s village of a few thousand people has no church at all, so he has to travel to a nearby city in order to meet up with other Christians. However, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the lack of any very noticeable Christian presence in Jordan, Mike says that it is fairly easy to turn conversations to religion. I suppose in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, Christianity can be seen as something of a novelty since it certainly isn’t large enough to be seen as much of a really dangerous threat.
Our discussion also turned to education (how could it not, considering my background with the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University). I learned that many of the school teachers in the Jordanian villages are opposed to what they term “Western-style education”—things like group projects, hands-on activities, and developing critical thinking skills. The teachers prefer a method that depends largely on rote memorization and makes a lot of use of lecture-style teaching (or even simply reading aloud from the textbook). The classroom environment is just the opposite of the ideal Western classroom—full of warm colors, pretty pictures, and nurturing, non-threatening teacher/explorer figures—making liberal use of corporal punishment to whip the class into shape. I have heard much about the contest between Western and non-Western styles and philosophies of education, often with more than a hint of condescension and dispargement of Western education and its single-mindedness and rather self-congratulatory bent, but if this is the practical difference between Western and non-Western education, I think it is fairly obvious which is superior.
The entire education system is geared towards preparing students for the national exam they take before graduating from highschool. A student’s score on this test will determine what university they can get into, what degree programs they will be allowed to enter, the jobs they will be able to get after graduation, and the income they will earn. With so much riding on this one test, it is no wonder that the schools teach the test. Yet, it strikes me as tragic that education has been reduced to supporting utilitarian ends and is seen as nothing more than the means for developing competent technocrati. With little to no education geared towards developing virtue, moral character, and critical thinking, Jordan’s future looks rather bleak. Certainly they will have a society of able workers who most likely will be able to create some level of wealth and prosperity, but I doubt that the Jordanian people are being supplied with the means to create and pursue a truly unique and national vision for the future.
Other posts on my travels in Jordan: