First the Land and then the Language: Linguistic Imperialism in Transjordan and Palestine

By Kate Pashby
Clocks and Clouds
2015, Vol. 6 No. 1 | pg. 2/2 |

Discourse II: The British Education System Was Superior to Ottoman and Arab Systems

The British very clearly believed that their systems of education in Palestine and Transjordan were better than anything the Ottoman Empire did or the Arabs could have done on their own. The British even looked down upon the private European schools in the area because, in teaching through European languages, the Arabs (according to the British) were unable to gain strong reading proficiency in either their native Arabic or the European language. The British endeavored to educate the ideal student, but in order to determine who was fit and unfit for higher education, the British needed to implement a system of quantification. In accepting British discourses about the superiority of their education, Palestinians and Transjordanians also implicitly accepted the inequality inherent in the system, in addition to the quantification required to support it.

At the beginning of the Mandate, the British primarily used quantification to gauge the situation of elementary education. This method of information gathering provided a means of gaining power over Palestinians and Transjordanians, as the British equated knowledge with power (Richards 1993). In 1924, schools administered "intelligence tests," which demonstrated that young Palestinian boys were less mentally developed than their British counterparts, although the gap seemed to diminish in secondary school (Jarman 1995, vol. 1). Tests like this soon overtook the land: in 1931, the Government created standardized literacy tests for students all over Palestine (Jarman 1995, vol. 3). A 1930-1932 survey of Arabic and arithmetic knowledge produced the following results: "Of the examinees educated in the Turkish time 53 per cent. failed in Arabic and 34 per cent. in arithmetic. Of those educated since the occupation 24 per cent. failed in Arabic and 18 per cent. in arithmetic, but if the Gaza and Hebron areas, which are backward, are excluded the failures in Arabic are only 16 per cent" (Jarman 1995, vol. 4, 118). There was certainly some grain of truth in Britain's imagined superiority over Ottoman education, which after all taught Arabs Arabic through the medium of Turkish. The quote does, however, beg the question of why the writers focused on the failures rather than the successes. The word choice was likely based in Orientalist ideas emphasizing what "Orientals" could not, rather than could, accomplish.

After the Mandate's early years, the primary method of quantification was the Palestine Matriculation Examination, which was offered in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. While the exam was not the only determinant of matriculation, it served as a major factor (Jarman 1995, vol. 2). It was not until 1935 that Transjordan's Education Department created a secondary-school matriculation exam, which was based on the Palestinian one. Students who passed were rewarded with automatic admittance to either the American University of Beirut or the Syrian University at Damascus, as they did not need to take the entrance examination like other applicants did (Jarman 1995, vol. 5). By passing the matriculation exam, these students were deemed worthy of higher education and eventual absorption into the Government.

In 1927, the Department of Education held for the first time an examination for post-matriculation students, i.e. those in upper-level Training classes, who wished to become teachers or learn at the university level. Initially, all exams were conducted through English, with the exception of language examinations (Jarman 1995, vol. 2). Yet the testing languages later switched: according to the 1941-1942 Department of Education report,

The candidates offering mathematical subjects chose to be examined through Arabic, while the arts candidates were examined through English. The results of the examination showed that Arabic can be a satisfactory medium for post-matriculation instruction in mathematics and physics. (Jarman 1995, vol. 9, 757)

English, according to the British, was the language of science, and thereby the most suited for positivist tests like the Palestine Intermediate Examination described above. The reversal of languages further indicates that the original language examinations focused on Arabic literature, while the later ones emphasized English literature. The fact that after 1937, literary students began learning Latin in addition to logic, philosophy, Arabic, and English (Jarman 1995, vols. 13, 14) demonstrates the extent of Britain's language colonization. In fact, students in one school regarded Latin as "unpatriotic" (Jarman 1995, vol. 14, 696), likely on account of its former status as the prestige language of Western intellect during the Renaissance era. These students preferred to honor Arab and Muslim intellect from Islam's golden age, a time known to Europeans as the Middle or Dark Ages.

The math candidates present still more intrigue. Here, Palestinians' struggle over language usage mirrors the Indians' in the 19th century. Historian Gyan Prakash has found that in colonial India, some Indians saw science as a "language of reform" and "superior knowledge" (Prakash 1999, 54, 57) that, with British colonialism, could modernize Indian society and save its people from ignorance and superstition. Yet in order to bring about this change, the Indian intelligentsia had to transform Hindi into a language of science, borrowing enough English words to be scientific but using enough Hindi equivalents to maintain the language's integrity (Prakash 1999). Indian schools did, however, teach English in addition to Western science, thereby constructing Western education as a symbol of imperial repression. While some members of the educated elite took pride in India's Westernization, Gandhi (1939) criticized Western education as irrelevant to many Indians and incapable of providing happiness, saying, "To give millions a knowledge of English is to enslave them" because regular English use facilitated British rule (79). Although Gandhi heavily romanticized pre-colonial India, he was not alone in his resentment of English. For example, modern Indian poet Vikram Seth (1994) has referred to English as "the conqueror's/Authoritarian seal" (64).

The Arabic-speaking world had already encountered the challenge of translation in the midand late-18th century, as the educated elite sought to synthesize in and eventually translate to Arabic the works of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and other Western scientists. Arab intellectuals, like their Indian counterparts, believed that many Arabs were hopelessly backward in their rejection of science, although it is worth mentioning that Western missionaries in the Arab world often opposed science in the same way (Elshakry 2013). Over half a century later, it appears that the Government Arab College's mathematical students wanted to reframe Arabic as a language of science capable of conveying positivism. Rather than wishing to discard Western intellect entirely, these students wanted to adapt their language to fit into Western science, thus creating a uniquely Arab version of modernity (see Sahlins 1998).

But, as Fanon (2004) pointed out, such organized resistance only represents the interests of a small group of elite, who owe their status to the imperial power. With such a vested interest in the imperial status quo, the resistance movement advocates a peaceful evolution and the retention of some ties with the imperial power. According to Fanon, the only way to satisfy the needs of peasants, who made up the majority of Algerian, Palestinian, and Transjordanian societies, was to bypass political parties and unions, violently resisting through guerilla warfare until the imperialized had ridded itself of every vestige of imperialism, including elementary school teachers (2004). While Fanon's overly simplistic view of peasant unity and calls for mass bloodshed are serious shortcomings, he was correct in saying that organized resistance is traditionally a vehicle for the elite. Resisting linguistic colonization in Palestine and Transjordan was only available to the intellectual elite in the Government Arab College, who could request Arabiclanguage materials from influential members of the Government. Most Palestinians and Transjordanians would not have had such access to influential Government employees as a result of their lower financial statuses. Indeed, many Palestinians and Transjordanians saw the English language as a means of improving their statuses, and therefore had less incentive to resist.

In the Mandate's later years, more students simultaneously adopted British positivism and accepted English as a scientific language by voluntarily taking international exams. The 1922 report is the first to mention students taking the University of London's Matriculation Examination in Jerusalem; both students failed (Jarman 1995, vol. 1). Two years later, the report writers stated that one candidate passed the University of London's Matriculation Examination and a second one passed the Intermediate Science Examination. In comparison, 24 students took the Palestine Matriculation Examination in 1924, of whom nine passed (Jarman 1995, vol. 1). Not all students who took these exams were Palestinian; some traveled to Jerusalem from Egypt and, in all likelihood, Transjordan. But in 1945, a total of 1,297 candidates took London University exams and 283 took other British exams, such as the Cambridge Proficiency in English, the London Association of Certified Accountants, and Pitman's Shorthand Institute. Only 398 candidates took the Palestine Matriculation Examination that year (Jarman 1995, vol. 14).

While all of the candidates for the Palestine Matriculation Examination would have been enrolled at a local college, thus making them part of the educated elite, candidates for exams with entities like Pitman's Shorthand Institute may only have completed some secondary schooling. These lesseducated individuals used British examinations to receive higher-paying jobs. In turn, their increased wealth may have enabled their children to receive collegeor university-level education. However, some private schools – typically run by Western missionaries – provided high levels of education through European languages. According to one report, students in these schools often had low proficiencies in written Arabic, and therefore preferred the English School Certificate examination to the Palestine Matriculation. In fact, there were three times as many students at the matriculation level in private schools in comparison to Government schools (Jarman 1995, vol. 13). These private school students would have comprised the bulk of the candidates for British exams.

By voluntarily taking British examinations, sometimes at the expense of Palestinian ones, the majority of Palestinian (and likely Transjordanian) students confirmed English, not Arabic, as the true language of positivism and science. The mathematics students at the Government Arab College had lost. Those who took professional British examinations further demonstrated that positivist thinking enabled financial success – even stenographers needed to nominally quantify themselves as either worthy or unworthy of employment. But as a consequence of adopting British positivism, Palestinians and Transjordanians implicitly accepted the inequality that positivism perpetuated. If some students were more intelligent, or better than others, why should they all receive an equal education? Thus Palestinians and Transjordanians not only accepted that English education was the best and that English was the prestige language of academia, but also that not everyone should have access to English. By sanctioning the unequal access to English, Palestinians and Transjordanians also accepted unequal access to social and economic opportunities.


Britain sought to strengthen control over its imperial possessions by increasing British knowledge of them. But since knowledge was power, these colonies, protectorates, spheres of influence, and mandates could on the other hand potentially improve their own relative power, provided that the British deigned to bestow knowledge upon them. In the event that the British spread technology in the form of railroads and telegraphs, dispelled superstition and replaced it with science, and created schools and provided scholarships for Western education, the imperial territory might consider itself modernized. Yet these territories were supposedly still far behind the continually advancing West. "Modernity" did not necessarily guarantee "power," and renegotiations of power seldom yielded significant ground to the imperialized.

If the subaltern spoke in their own language, did they ever speak at all? They could be heard, certainly, but if they were not using a language of science and modernity and enlightenment, were their words worth listening to? Even today in the intellectual realm, some languages are more equal than others – as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1987) once put it, "[O]ne might think of the status of a Shakespeare scholar who has read all of his Shakespeare in Bengali and a scholar of Bengali culture who has had a semester's Bengali in a U.S. graduate school" (126). Globally, the Western scholars studying the Oriental "other" are atop the hierarchy, followed by the Orientals who are scholars, followed by the uneducated Oriental masses.

Educated Palestinians and Transjordanians sought to improve their own statuses by differentiating themselves from uneducated Palestinians and Transjordanians. However, neither this group nor the minority elite who attempted to create an Arabic revival were responsive to the demands of less-educated Fellaheen and Bedouin, who knew little to no English. While the urban elite used English as a vehicle for advancement, this path to success was irrelevant to the rural poor. Instead of shifting the imperial balance of power in all of Palestine's and Transjordan's favor, the elite merely allowed the gap between themselves and the poor to widen, improving only the elite's status relative to Britain.

During their rule in Palestine and Transjordan, the British claimed to want equality by spreading education to "everyone" in the Mandates. Yet the Palestine and Transjordan administration reports seem to indicate that some Orientals were more Oriental than others. The British created a highly stratified and segregated education system based on religion, gender, dis/ability, location, and compliance with the new social order. This system constructed English as a prestige academic language and reinforced Palestinians' and Transjordanians' acceptance of the system. Education entailed a greater English proficiency, since English was the language of science and higher learning. And when Palestinians and Transjordanians accepted the British education system's superiority, they accepted the education system's language ideologies and social inequalities. Consequently, Palestinians and Transjordanians believed that people should be educated in the English language, through the English system of education, so they could become more scientific and therefore modern.

Despite now having a standardized curriculum that introduces English in kindergarten, the linguistic divide persists in present-day Jordan. At a souq in Amman, where merchants peddled jewelry, antiques, artwork, and other souvenirs to tourists, most of the male merchants addressed customers with varying degrees of spoken English proficiency. Often, the women who ran stalls spoke in Arabic, possibly a product of being taken out of schools at younger ages than their male counterparts. University-educated individuals, some of whom took courses only in English, speak English to Western tourists whenever possible, even if the tourists respond to them in Arabic. Taxi drivers, on the other hand, are frequently only able to communicate with tourists through Arabic and the occasional English-language phrase. And service industry positions that have a lot of contact with tourists, such as hotel concierges and hostesses at certain restaurants, are frequently staffed by female Asian immigrants who have a stronger command of English than nonuniversityeducated Jordanians. Future research must investigate how social and economic status continue to restrict access to education, and thereby future opportunities for social and economic improvement, in modern-day Jordan.

Perhaps the British desire to educate Palestinians and Transjordanians was less benign than the British implied. In Thomas Babington Macaulay's infamous 1835 "Minute on Indian Education," he wrote,

We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population. (qtd. in Spivak 2010, 36).

The British came, the British saw, and the British conquered, waging a clandestine intellectual war against the Oriental. They created a group of educated elite who then sought to widen the gap between the elite and the rest of the population. The civilizing mission was complete.


Kate Pashby is a student of International Studies. She graduates in May of 2017. School of International Service (SIS), American University.


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  1. "Transjordan" and "Palestine" refer to the British Mandates. "Jordan" refers to the post-Mandate Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

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