The mental health toll of elitism in education and the job market in Arab culture by Tharwa Boulifi

One “funny” cliché about Arab people, which is often used in comedy sketches, is how Arab kids can’t be anything aside from a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. As funny as this cliché might sound, it is actually the tree that hides the forest. This forest is a culture that has been transmitted from a generation to another, based on elitism and supremacy.

From a young age, Arab children are conditioned to think that a certain hierarchy exists between the different professions. This “propaganda” is promoted by the different members of society (family, school, friends…). Even before entering school and during family reunions, adults begin to discuss the future of their child. Everyone but especially grandparents, as a form of showing love to their grandkids, will say things like: “my baby will be a great doctor and treat his nana.” Parents who appreciate this “affection” smile and approve of these sayings. Uncles and aunts, also participate in this “game” by giving children “glorifying” nicknames like “our genius engineer”, “our successful lawyer” or “ our renowned doctor”. Although this positive reinforcement on the surface sounds healthy, it limits the child’s horizons, by preventing them from imagining or discovering other perspectives. 

The indoctrination of children continues as they enter primary school. In Tunisia, there is a three-tier system of education: public, private, and foreign (non-Tunisian) schools. Parents generally prefer to enroll their children in the private sector to give them a high-quality education, considering the deterioration of public schools. Even though private educational institutions offer various and more diverse courses, the spirit there is based on perfectionism and competitiveness. The curriculum is heavy with an emphasis on learning three languages since the age of 5. From a young age, pupils find themselves with endless hours of homework to complete. As a Tunisian student who was enrolled in a private primary school, I felt enormous pressure. Aiming for excellence overshadowed the need for creative play and fostered a competitive, sometimes toxic attitude amongst my classmates. In elite institutions, pupils don’t solely aim for good grades, their goal is to be the first of their class. I’ll never forget how competitive my classmates (including myself) were when it came to who would be top of the class. This obsession with being first in everything originates from our parents’ constant reminder that we should be the best, so we can achieve the goals they set for us. 

Teachers often compared their students, with the belief that they were motivating them. But as a pupil who was often top of the class, I experienced preferential treatment along with other “brilliant” pupils in comparison to the rest of the class. On the first day of every school year, teachers would ask each of us about what we wanted to become when we grow up. Most of my classmates would give a stereotypical answer like: “I want to be a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, etc…” When asking about the reasons for their choices, either pupil didn’t have an  answer or they say they wanted to be like their parents or wanted to make them happy. The pressure to please one’s parents over pursuing individual dreams became instilled in primary school. 

Classism plays a huge role in how children are raised in Tunisian culture. Influencing children takes place during everyday life. As a young girl, when waiting in a supermarket line to pay the cashier for groceries, I remember seeing some parents looking at the worker with disdain, then bending down to their child who accompanied them to say: “that’s why you have to work very hard in school so you won’t become like them.” When seeing a street sweeper doing their job, these parents would point their fingers at the worker, as a bad example of someone who didn’t work hard enough in school. Children internalized these clichés and this culture of shaming. They would use it to insult a classmate or make fun of them because of their low grades, by predicting that such grades would lead to “bad” jobs. 

After finishing primary school, pupils are confronted with a selection process that impacts them for the rest of their lives. At the end of the six years of primary education, students from both public and private schools take a selective exam where the best can go to “pilot middle schools”. These educational public institutions aim to gather the best students in the country.  The educational elite is expected to study very hard, under pressure, and without complaining. The pressure to be accepted into a pilot middle school begins in primary school as parents want to maximize their children’s opportunity to attend a prestigious college. 

Although I was never a pilot school student, my friends who went there told me about the extreme pressure they endured. Most of them admitted that going to this type of school wasn’t even their choice, but their parents. Others who went through an identity crisis during their teenage years weren’t even sure that they wanted to be doctors/engineers/lawyers. Others said that they wanted to pursue a career in sports or arts, but their parents strongly disapproved of their choice and forced them to follow another path. This “propaganda” and indoctrination from a young age, leave teenagers full of doubts about themselves and what they want. They can’t be emotionally independent of their parents and thus can’t make their own life decisions. Studies have shown that many pilot school students suffer from depression before finishing high school and many undergo psychiatric treatment. Along with the pressure to prepare for the Baccalaureate exam, exhaustion, and mental illness many students repeat a grade. When parents live through their children and put pressure to achieve the goals they themselves couldn’t achieve, they destroy their children’s mental health. 

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us many lessons, two of the most important ones being the importance of mental health and the crucial role that essential workers played during this crisis. During this hardship, everyone regardless of their social or financial status was placed on a footing of equality and the world needed the efforts of all, in order to survive. Essential workers were on the front lines and put their lives and those of their loved ones at stake, to do their job and service the community. It’s time Arab culture sees the importance of investing in all types of careers and how this certain supremacy between jobs must end. We must acknowledge that a person’s value is never linked to their financial or social status and that we live in an interdependent world, where the most powerful depends on the least powerful.

Tharwa Boulifi is a 19-year old Tunisian freelancer. She writes in four languages (Arabic, French, English, and Spanish) about feminism, Arab and African women’s rights, culture, and LGBTQ+ rights. She has written for more than 12 magazines including Teen Vogue, Ms Magazine, Herizons, Newsweek.

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