Nadya Sbaiti is an assistant professor of history at Smith College. She specializes in the social and cultural histories of the modern Middle East. Her research interests include spatial manifestations of colonial and national projects, colonial methods of social control through prisons and asylums, the production of history as both discursive and material practice, tourism and heritage, and contemporary popular culture (music, film, game shows and reality television).

Like others who have compiled reading lists for other topics in this series, I found it difficult to cull a long list of excellent works to the requisite dozen. This difficulty is a very welcome development in the field of the history of education in the Middle East: during my fieldwork, I could count on one hand the number of studies that used education as lens for historical inquiry. The field has since grown rapidly, not only in number of studies, but also in critical rigor, attention to archival sources, and nuanced analyses of gender and class. Within that growth, the question of what themes and topics scholarship on education conceivably covers is relevant: do we mean the content of education? Institutions? Policy? Does it include book printing, literacy, and language? In order to cover as much as possible, “Essential Readings on Education” has been divided into two parts: part one, here, includes historical works that examine the modern period (roughly nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries) through the lens of education, or for which education is the main framework. Part two (to be published in the coming weeks) will cover essential works on education in the contemporary period, mainly through the fields of sociology, anthropology, and education.

Scholarship on the history of education in the modern period has largely engaged with a number of relevant historical themes. Namely, the intersection of education and nationalism/nationalist movements; the role of education in women’s history(ies); the impact of Islam on educational content, institutions, pedagogy, and policies; the relationship between education and concepts of modernity; and education’s relationship to class hierarchies. It is important to note, then, that this Essential Readings list is by no means exhaustive of every essential text on either the main subject or the aforementioned themes. Nor is it a list of the “best” works. Rather, I selected them on the basis of the ways in which they capture methodological, thematic, or historical developments, or for how they exemplify shifts in the field. For reasons largely of facility, and to a lesser degree of output, most are English-language works, with two exceptions.

The publication of Roderic D. Matthews and Matta Akrawi, Education in Arab Countries of the Near East (American Council on Education, 1949), was the culmination of years of growing US interest in the role that Arab education could play in the post-WWII sociopolitical landscape. Matthews, at the time professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Akrawi, then-director general of higher education in Iraq, mapped the school systems in Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Transjordan, and Lebanon. While the focus is on the public schools, as reflective of a keen political interest in the potential of emerging independent Arab governments, the study does also include private schools. Less attention is paid to the impact of Islam, which they relegate a “cultural” category, on educational policy and organization. The study is chock full of figures and historical nuggets that are difficult to find without going back to the archives, and as such this text still stands as a vital resource for scholars of education history as well as those in other fields.

While Abdullatif Tibawi incorporated education, both in content and form, into nearly all of his scholarship, he offered one of his broadest and most in-depth analyses of the shifting landscape of education in Islamic Education: Its Tradition and Modernization into the Arab National Systems (Luzac, 1972). Tibawi had been a teacher and an education administrator in Jerusalem pre-1948, before becoming an academic historian. While somewhat outdated in its understanding and application of the concept of modernity, Islamic Education remains a foundational text. After Tibawi’s lucid treatment of the history of Islamic education, he delves into the ways in which elements of Islamic education were transmuted into various state education systems of Arab countries and stops at 1967; this book thus offers a helpful complement to the Matthews and Akrawi volume.

Benjamin C. Fortna, Imperial Classroom: Islam, the State, and Education in the Late Ottoman Empire (Oxford University Press, 2002) offers a foundational and nuanced reading of the Ottoman state’s investment of various resources–financial, administrative, and ideological–in modern education. He illustrates how the state’s attention to expanding public education is both an outgrowth of the Tanzimat while also revealing the impact of new policies and educational content as the state contended with ideas of Ottoman modernity. An added value of Fortna’s work is his access to student records, from which he gleans student perspectives on what and how they learned as well as how they were disciplined.

Given the centrality of education to women’s history, it is hard to select a text that delves even deeper into the crucial role education played in women’s shifting social and national position. Ela Greenberg and Ellen Fleischmann offer two ways of framing women’s history through education and illustrate the continuity over time of girls’ education as index of modernity. Ellen Fleischmann, “Evangelization or Education: American Protestant Missionaries, the American Board, and the Girls and Women of Syria (1830-1910),” illustrates how girls’ education was a flashpoint in the shifting relationship between the American Board of Foreign Missions and its Syria Mission, with consequences for both the content and form of girls’ schooling as well as the mission itself. In Preparing the Mothers of Tomorrow: Education and Islam in Mandate Palestine (University of Texas Press 2010), Ela Greenberg traces the development of Muslim girls’ education in Palestine from the late Ottoman era to 1948. In so doing, she additionally covers both the curricular content and form of education as well as the debates over teacher training. Using sources as varied as press, oral histories, private papers, and female travelogues, she shows in detail how education was crucial to the nationalist and modernist impact on women’s roles.

A central theme in scholarship on education, broadly speaking, has been the intersection with questions of (socioeconomic) class. In the course of their broader historical studies, scholars including Lisa Pollard, Elizabeth Thompson, Alain Messaoudi, and Marnia Lazreg have illustrated the ways in which colonial projects intended education to both create new comprador classes as well as reproduce existing class hierarchies. While work on the colonial and mandate periods has done an admirable job of this, there is room for continued rigorous historical analysis in the post-independence period on the ways that national education systems as well as private school networks were geared to maintaining class differences, upholding or challenging political and social systems. In terms of work on the mandates, my article, ‘If the Devil Spoke French’: Strategies of Language and Learning in French Mandate Beirut,” explores the centrality of language to the French colonial/mandatory project’s efforts to both imagine and forge class difference as a central component. It looks at the emergence of both public and private discourses about language and linguistic identity that were based on perceptions of the purported uses of Arabic, English, and French, and the political, social, and cultural capital contained within each. The issue of language instruction was but one corner of the larger and very dynamic conversation that was occurring around the meaning and purpose of education, and the roles of the teachers and students in carving out subjectivity, citizenship, and nation.

Education history in the colonial era also has a lot of potential for some thoughtful comparative work, as two key examples illustrate. David Kinsey’s 1971 article, Efforts for Educational Synthesis Under Colonial Rule: Egypt and Tunisia, offers an earlier approach to thinking through the impact of colonialism on indigenous education by studying Dar al-‘Ulum in Egypt and al-Khalduniyya in Tunisia during British and French rule, respectively. Kinsey argues that the notion of modernity through education ultimately comprised a synthesis of western and indigenous practices and models. More recently, Hilary Falb Kalisman, in her “Pedagogical Paradox: Education and Internationalization in the Mandates for Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq),” examines how international policies were harnessed differently in creating national education systems under two British mandates.

In relative terms, there are fewer monographs in English on North African education history. Spencer Segalla’s study, The Moroccan Soul: Education, Colonial Ethnography and Muslim Resistance 1912-1956 (University of Nebraska Press, 2009), represents an important category of colonial education history that traces the ways in which, during the course of educating the “natives,” colonial schooling simultaneously became a site for changing strategies of anti-colonial resistance and ultimately the growth of a nationalist movement. Segalla examines the history of the French education system in French Protectorate Morocco, showing how French notions of a “Moroccan soul” would affect their ideas of pedagogy, policy, and ultimately colonial and national politics.

Betty Anderson’s The American University of Beirut: Arab Nationalism and Liberal Education (University of Texas Press, 2012), traces the 150-year history of one of the premier institutions of higher education in the Middle East. Part institutional history and part social history, she begins with its origins as the Syrian Protestant College to its current iteration as AUB, she highlights signal moments of conflict, compromise and collaboration as founders, faculty and students contended with questions of Arabness, mission goals, religion, and questions of modernity nationalism. In so doing she illustrates the often-precarious relationship between American liberal education and changing tides of Arab nationalism.

More recently published monographs, by Farzin Vejdani and Hoda Yousef, focus on an element considered central to education–history writing and literacy, respectively–to connect education to larger national processes and stakes. In Making History in Iran: Education, Nationalism, and Print Culture (Stanford University Press, 2014), Farzin Vejdani traces the growth of new cultural institutions in late nineteenth-century Iran. He shows how, along with a growing public sphere, these institutions helped produce a more uniform national historical narrative out of the previous landscape of tribal lore, genealogies, stories and legends. Incorporating educational institutions allows him to situate schoolteachers and students alongside feminists, poets, and intellectuals, and use among other sources curricula and other pedagogical texts to illustrate how history writing transformed during this period with implications for Iranian nationalism.

Hoda Yousef’s Composing Egypt: Reading, Writing and the Emergence of a Modern Nation, 1870-1930 (Stanford University Press, 2016) shows how changing ideas of literacy shaped the notion of what constituted modern Egypt itself. One of Yousef’s contributions lies in her expansion of the definition of literacy to include what she calls “public literacies,” which is the way in which people “read” news by listening to a newspaper in a coffee house, or how they “wrote” by going to a scribe to compose a letter, but which did not necessarily mean that they could themselves read or write words. Yousef argues that private schools and religious education had big stakes in the language and literacy debates of the era. She shows how the whittling down of “literacy” to a measure of social progress involved a long process by nationalists, Islamic modernists, bureaucrats, journalists, and feminists to change reading and writing habits, as well as an often contentious debate around the Arabic language itself at a time of rising anti-British nationalist sentiments.

In addition to these longer studies, two edited volumes with substantial sections on education history are worth mentioning quickly and, while uneven, perusing in their entireties. Julia Hauser, Christine B. Lindner, and Esther Möller, eds., Entangled Education: Foreign and Local Schools in Ottoman Syria and Mandate Lebanon (OIB, 2016) brings together Arabic-, English-, French- and German-language scholars in a fruitful collaboration across academic circuits and their foci, sources, and methodologies. It includes a chapter by Jamila Qusti, “Al-Nahda al-Nisa’iyya al-Bayrutiyya: Mussahamat al-Mu’assasat al-Tarbawiya al-Thaqafiya,” [The Women’s Awakening in Beirut: The Role of Educational and Cultural Institutions] as a rare Arabic-language texts to be included in an academic volume. Esther Möller, one of the volume editors, also published a book-length German version of her contribution, Orte Der Zivilisierungsmission: Franzosische Schulen Im Libanon 1909-1943 [Sites of the Civilizating Mission: French Schools In Lebanon, 1909-1943] (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Gmbh & Co, 2013). The other edited volume, edited by Osama Abi-Mershed, Trajectories of Education in the Arab World: Legacies and Challenges (Routledge, 2010), comprises a broad sweep of analyses of education, from the classical Islamic and colonial eras, to policies of the contemporary period, focusing on the role of education in state formation and the reproduction of socio-political hierarchies.

Last but certainly not least, a number of excellent dissertations focusing on various aspects of the history of education have recently been–or soon will be–completed. They are welcome contributions to this field, the future of which is particularly promising and exciting.


[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Email us at for any inquiries.]