The world continues to be blighted by extremist ideologies. It is commonly argued that one possible solution is more educational opportunity. But the picture may be more complicated. A large number of violent extremists are graduates. A disproportionate number hold degrees in engineering and other technical subjects.

Martin Rose, a Visiting Fellow at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, and British Council consultant on the Middle East has written a new working paper examining existing research on the issue in the region. Intended to provoke discussion, the paper suggests there may be links between the teaching of certain subjects and the closed mind-set of extremists who study them. The paper arguably demonstrates that changing the way some subjects are taught and encouraging questioning and alternative viewpoints, along with better education in the humanities and social sciences, could help immunise minds against extremism. If this argument is true it may have some implications for education policy.  

One study from 2007 found that 48.5% of jihadis recruited in MENA were university graduates, and 44% of those had studied engineering

Far from being uneducated, a large number of violent extremists are highly qualified. One study from 2007 found that 48.5% of jihadis recruited in Middle East and North Africa ('MENA') were university graduates, and 44% of those had studied engineering . Furthermore, from Islamists Osama Bin Laden, Mohammed Atta and Sousse killer Seifeddine Rezgui (all engineering graduates) to ‘Unabomber’ Theodore Kaczynski (a PHD and lecturer in Mathematics), anecdotal evidence suggests prominent terrorists of some ideologies particularly perhaps those that could be characterised as being on the extreme right of the political spectrum, disproportionately studied technical subjects rather than graduating from religious or political courses.

Two cultures: teaching how to think not what to think

In ‘Immunising the Mind’, a new working paper, Martin Rose reviews the existing research and counsels against simplistic views of the complex factors which lead individuals to be radicalised. But the paper’s provisional conclusion is that their education may be an important factor. 

Although it should be stressed that this problem could be explored in other regions, the paper suggests there may be a particular problem in MENA which historically spent about 20% of government budgets on education (higher than the world average) without always seeing high levels of attainment, creativity, or the critical analytical skills that equip people to challenge simplistic ideologies.

Firstly, Rose notes that the philosophy of education in many MENA countries draws from a tradition of rote learning and exam-passing rather than creative and critical thinking. Furthermore, engineering, medicine and other technical subjects are traditionally viewed as superior, with the arts and social sciences relatively neglected.  Finally, graduates are not equipped with soft skills to increase their employability. Indeed, the educated middle classes in MENA experience high graduate unemployment and frustrated upward mobility. 

These factors on their own, though, cannot fully explain radicalisation, as technical subjects seem not to be over-represented to the same degree amongst non-violent radicals. Rose thinks this suggests the further step of embracing violence may be connected to education in certain subjects failing to encourage questioning received ideas or alternative arguments and points of view. Rose follows other studies in proposing that there may be a particular mind-set which is attracted to the simple solutions and lack of ambiguity, nuance or debate sometimes seen in technical subjects - and that is vulnerable to radicalisation for similar reasons. 

People with such mind-sets may perhaps be attracted to certain subjects in the first place, but it also seems likely to Rose that such mind-sets are re-enforced by the way that those subjects are taught. Rose suggests that teaching of social sciences and humanities, despite its relative neglect in MENA, appears to be having a positive effect in reducing radicalisation amongst its graduates, even though they are more likely to face graduate unemployment. Indeed one understanding of the threat that free study of the humanities can pose to extremism may be concluded by the fact that ISIL recently eliminated law, fine arts, archaeology, philosophy and political science, amongst others, from curricula in areas it controls. 

Young people need to be taught how to think to immunise their minds against ideologies that seek to teach them what to think

If this is the case then Rose suggests that one solution might be to increase the exposure of ‘STEM’ students (those studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) – both in MENA and elsewhere – to debate, critical thinking, creativity, the questioning of doctrine and authority, and to the moral and philosophical uncertainties associated with social sciences and the humanities.  In other words young people need to be taught how to think to immunise their minds against ideologies that seek to teach them what to think. 

Engineering open minds

There may be several ways this can be done, whether by moving away from rote learning in schools, by encouraging STEM students to take some papers in humanities subjects - as many do in American and some UK universities - by encouraging less binary ‘right or wrong’ fact-based teaching methodologies into STEM subjects themselves, and by exposing students to extra-curricular activities such as debating or active citizenship programmes that encourage critical thinking and the discussion of social issues. Rose argues that the UK has relevant experience in these regards which it could build on as it teaches both its domestic and international students (many from countries affected by radicalisation) and help to export through its extensive educational links to other countries. 

Rose feels that this is particularly pertinent - at a time when STEM subjects are attracting more encouragement and funding than other subjects in many countries - and because of the UK’s position as a leading exporter of higher education through international students (including likely future leaders) and through the growing engagement of its higher education sector with those in other countries, including in MENA. 

There are already important links between the education sectors in the UK and MENA countries and valuable initiatives aimed at increasing the exposure of students in the MENA region to debate and alternative narratives, including the British Council’s Young Arab Voices programme that has already involved more than 90,000 young people in debating activities. Yet Rose argues that much more could and should be done.

Although Rose stresses his thesis is at most just one part of a bigger picture, he argues that - if correct - this issue has potentially important security and policy implications for the UK and the Middle East. He proposes further research into radicalisation to inform policymaking possibly including the establishment of an international, inter-disciplinary body to focus on radicalisation and co-ordinate, review and act on such findings. Given what is at stake, it is hoped this new working paper will provoke further discussion and debate about the causes of radicalisation and the role of education in preventing it. 

The opinions expressed in the paper are those of Martin Rose and not necessarily those of the British Council.