We are in a six-passenger compartment on the eight-hour train ride from Marrakesh to Fez. It is like a small ensemble theater company that will change characters as we move through the cities in between. As the packed train departs, we’re in the company of two Moroccan women, a young Moroccan girl, traveling alone, and a Saudi businessman.
There are at least three languages among us. After the initial glances and assessments of one another, the ice is broken, first in Arabic, then in French. The Saudi speaks no French, so we take turns updating him in English. The Moroccans are fluent in French and Arabic and speak a bit of English. Nada, the girl next to us, speaks all three languages with fluency. Most of the discussion is in French. This is all beyond the point though.
Nada, 18, tells us she spent a disappointing semester in a New England high school hoping to refine her English, math and sciences. Disappointing, she said, only because she was so far ahead of her American peers in everything but English. She liked America, but was surprised at how little Americans her age respected and valued their educational opportunities.
Our guide in Fez, is a woman named Saida. She’s an observant Sunni who does not wear the traditional veil, is literate in four languages and very well educated. She takes us to Karaouin University, started in the 9th century by a wealthy woman from Tunisia. It is the oldest University in the world. The central building can accommodate 20,000 people at once and has 14 entrance gates from the old city. We visit the Mek-Nes Mosque built by the Berbers in the 12th century and a madrassa in Fez.
Saida speaks thoughtfully about her beautiful religion and its deep commonality with and respect for Judaism and Christianity. I begin to understand my own deep misperceptions about Islam. Saida points out many commonalities among the three religions and one more enlightened one — the fundamentalists of all three who advocate killing one another will all go to the same hell.
At home in the U.S. we’ve grown arrogant and lazy. We no longer teach the languages and literature of other cultures in our schools. We’re reluctant to travel except in cruise ships or to island resorts where we meet only ourselves. As we lose our knowledge, we lose our relevance in the world. Islam teaches humility and gratitude for all things, while we believe ourselves unique.
We’ll never really fix our schools until we fix ourselves. Our schools and the standards they set are simply reflections of our own values. We talk about money and teachers, but say nothing about the children whom we’ve raised in our image. In many undeveloped countries, a family might sell their home to educate their children while we complain about taxes.
There is much we can do to improve our educational system, but first we must reflect in our own lives a respect for learning and a curiosity about the great world beyond our living rooms.