Voices in Education

Who Is Educating the Nation? How the New Media Landscape Is Changing the Middle East
Schools once served as focal points of youth citizenship education, but for the wired generation of Internet-savvy youth this is no longer the case. From North America to North Africa, youth are coming of age in an increasingly more plugged-in, digital, and new media era. As a result, young people are learning and exercising citizenship in fundamentally different ways from past generations.

I came to the stark realization of the diminished role of schools in “educating the nation” while on a research trip to North Africa in 2006. During one site visit in Egypt I was shocked to see that, although it was a regular school day, not a single student was in the building—which was otherwise fully staffed by teachers. The educators and administrators I engaged with explained to me that, with end-of-year exams approaching in two months, most students preferred to spend their time in private lessons and exam preparation centers. As I began making inquiries, it became evident that from middle school onwards, many students were disengaging from the physical and social world of traditional schools. I wondered how this generation of young Egyptians was developing citizenship dispositions if not inside of schools.

To answer this question I switched from my usual research mode of studying political culture and cultural politics through school ethnographies and began a series of “learning and communication biographies” with Egyptian youth. I soon came to understand that when it came to learning and exercising citizenship, young people were more influenced and empowered by media than by schools. The media youth engaged with spanned a wide spectrum ranging from print, radio, and television to social network sites and other Internet-based tools.

When it became known that the call for the January 25 Egyptian Revolution of 2011 originated from a Facebook page, many thought that the wired generation had found the means to steer society on a path towards more dignity, democracy, rights, and livelihoods. But nearly two years later, with the cloud of mass youth unemployment and oppression still hovering over society, the resolve of this group of motivated young people is still being tested.

The challenge for scholars, educators, and activists now is to ask ourselves the following question: what role can formal and informal education—including media education—play in addressing the pressing needs of a generation that again finds itself politically and economically marginalized but digitally empowered?

About the Author: Linda Herrera is a social anthropologist with regional specialization in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).  She is the author of "Youth and Citizenship in the Digital Age: A View from Egypt" (Harvard Educational Review, Fall 2012).