Blogs > Liberty and Power > Scientific Desert

Mar 8, 2004 8:47 am

Scientific Desert

It's been a couple of weeks since my last post at L&P. That's what happens when you're preparing the Spring 2004 issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. (Talk about shameless plugs...) Everything takes a back seat! My goodness! Even Spring Training has arrived, and the countdown has begun to the March 30th Opening Day in Tokyo between my New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

In the midst of all this, I've come upon an interesting article that I wanted to highlight here at L&P. The piece is available only to subscribers of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Written by Daniel Del Castillo,"The Arab World's Scientific Desert" tells the story of how the region was once a leader in research, but that now it"struggles to keep up." Del Castillo writes:

Eleven centuries ago an Islamic renaissance occurred in Baghdad, attracting the best scholars throughout the Muslim world. For the next five hundred years, Arabic was the lingua franca of science. Cutting-edge research was conducted in cities such as Cairo, Damascus, and Tunis. In the ninth century, algebra (al-jabr) was invented by a Muslim mathematician in Baghdad under the auspices of an imperial Arab court dedicated to scientific enrichment and discovery. Ibn Sina's monumental Canon of Medicine was translated into Latin in the 12th century and dominated the teaching of the subject in Europe for four centuries.
Today, no one looks to the Arab world for breakthroughs in scientific research, and for good reason. According to a number of highly self-critical reports that have come out in the past few years, the 21 countries that make up the region are struggling to teach even basic science at the university level. For poor countries, such as Yemen and Sudan, the problem is a lack of money and resources. For wealthier ones, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, complacency and a relatively new and underdeveloped university system have hampered progress.

One wonders how much more advanced the Saudi system would be, for example, if the Saudis spent as much money on science education as they do on Wahhabi indoctrination.

In any event, Del Castillo argues that many Arab universities are deeply"burdened with a bureaucracy that stifles innovation and bases promotion on cronyism, not research ... The lack of significant private industry throughout the region also means that universities are essentially dependent on governments to pay for research and provide jobs for their graduates." Moreover, the pedagogy is"outdated and archaic," and teacher morale is low.

Unfortunately, the appearance of specialized private universities has been met with suspicion by Arab scholars,"who question the quality and motives of for-profit institutions of higher education." What has resulted is a virtual brain drain, as"the most promising and successful Arab scientists and researchers end up in the West."

Del Castillo notes the presence of a vicious circle:"Without top-notch scientists, [the Arab region] cannot produce the research necessary to develop a strong private sector. But without a dynamic private sector, there is little money to invest in scientific research."

I have been saying for well over a year now that the Wilsonian"nation-building" project of the Bush administration is doomed to fail in the absence of a deeper movement from within the Arab world that would transform its intellectual and cultural milieu. (On related points, see today's New York Times' worthwhile editorial,"The Axis of Reconstruction.") New political institutions require new intellectual and cultural ones. These cannot simply be imposed."Democratic nation-building" is not feasible in a tribalist atmosphere that is stifling to human knowledge and freedom. We ignore these realities at our peril.

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