In my last blog post for improvinglives.org, I wrote about Transnational Students & Youth Citizenship in America. I found that schools in the U.S. are important sites to promote inclusion for transnational youth. During the same period, I also continued my study of how educational policies and reforms are often framed as avenues of national development in Jordan and the broader Middle East.
I started my research by getting to know high school students in Jordan in 2007. I’ve been following up since then, re-connecting with some of the original participants from the study. I have tried to answer the question: is education delivering the security and stability students have been taught it would?
Investments in education seek to spur youth empowerment, encourage greater civic participation and promote economic growth in Jordan. These investments are often rationalized on claims that there is a widening youth crisis in Jordan and the wider region. Though education is held up as the most viable path towards socioeconomic mobility, it doesn’t always fulfill those promises.
Many states across the Middle East have undergone significant political upheaval and continue to confront social and political uncertainty. The work that I have done indicates the need for a more critical engagement with the economic and political structures that are in place.
A Changing Economy and Demographic in Jordan
When I started this study, there were two big changes already underway in Jordan. Starting in 1999, Jordan embarked on a series of economic reforms trying to encourage the growth of the private sector. One way of doing that was to promote greater use and instruction in Information Technology through the school curriculum. Jordan sought to make that a focal point of the educational system at the secondary and post-secondary level.
At the same time Jordan made these reforms as part of a larger investment in successfully competing in a global knowledge economy, they also began trying to communicate a new conception of national identity.
Jordan is a country with a significant population of displaced Palestinians following the establishment of the state of Israel. Many Palestinians were forced off their land and fled to Jordan. This created a diverse population – there were many citizens of Palestinian origin, refugees from countries such as Iraq, and those that have been in Jordan prior to the establishment of Israel.
Through these new initiatives, the government hoped to create an educational system producing tech-savvy young citizens who primarily identified with Jordan – rather than identifying with Palestine, or as part of a larger pan-Arab nationalism.
I found that students were generally ambivalent about this effort. Many students and teachers weren’t entirely convinced that education would really serve as a platform for social mobility or enhancing democratic politics in Jordan. Rather, they looked at education as something that had to be done – feeling the need to complete a degree in order to get a job. Several youths and teachers in my study also expressed some skepticism about the ability to get opportunities through an educational credential alone.
To make matters more complicated, these efforts to create a new kind of Jordanian citizen were implemented amid the U.S. led War on Terror. The Bush Administration’s “democracy promotion” efforts were in full swing in the Middle East, so many of the reforms encouraging more democratic youth policies and enhancing civic participation were linked with an external counter-radicalization effort. This linkage between combatting youth radicalization and promoting democracy contributed to the skepticism towards government reform agendas being enacted in the name of democratization.
Following up with Jordanian High Schoolers
When I recently spoke to the participants who are now in their mid- to late-20s, many of those adults felt that education was vital for building a viable future, and yet their experiences of higher education left them feeling that their degrees were merely credentials required to be employable. These follow-up conversations with my participants showed the limits of government discourses of reform that tell youth that opportunities they desire will be created through their hard work and education.
Many people said jobs they could get with their degrees weren’t stable or well-paying enough to give them the quality of life they desired. This generated a strong sense of improvisation, frustration and, sometimes, resignation.
As my research illustrated, there was no shortage of youth working hard in the service of creating a desirable future – several were working full time while also attending school. Even though people are willing to give up weekends, take on additional jobs and short-term projects to get by, it still isn’t enough to secure the life they aspire to have. In other words, social mobility in Jordan (and arguably this is a far wider spread phenomenon) demands more than education and hard work – people are going far beyond the minimum and they’re still coming up short.
In many ways young people in Jordan and the United States face similar problems. Education’s ability to produce a sense of socioeconomic mobility is increasingly questioned. Ultimately, my research shows the need for larger critical examinations of how broader political and economic factors themselves are implicated in what kind of futures schooling can bring into view.
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