Let them eat pencils

‘What is the role of the historian in society?’ asks the interviewer, in this week’s TelQuel, and Maati Monjib replies, “He studies it, understands it in order for it to transform itself, to change.”

Monjib is one of Morocco’s leading historians, an editor of the IRRHM’s monumental Histoire du Maroc, réactualisation et synthèse, recently published (or at least recently printed) in Rabat. He is also a ‘scientific adviser’ to Zamane, the excellent two-year old magazine of Moroccan history. His most famous work is his thesis, La monarchie marocaine et la lutte pour le pouvoir, and he has written an acclaimed biography of Ben Barka. He spent eighteen years outside Morocco (1982-2000) of which seven were at university in Senegal, where he enjoyed what he describes as a society “much more liberal than our own, a real democracy where people are prepared to listen to every point of view.”

His definition of the role of a historian and his focus on modern, often contemporary history, suggest why he has not always been allowed to feel comfortable in Morocco. The social sciences – amongst which historiography can for this purpose be numbered – are both vital to the intellectual and moral health of a society, and deeply suspect to any ruler who does not wish society “to transform itself, to change.” Autocratic rulers do not wish to see the endoskeleton of society laid bare, the raw mechanisms of power and patronage, the struggles for influence and control of resources explained. Obscurity and the sanction of tradition serve them well. In his TelQuel article Monjib talks of the marginalisation of historians in the 1970s, the tacit bargain between universities and the régime to sidestep research on the period after independence, the removal of ‘difficult’ historians from teaching roles and the attempts to take away even the title of historian from contemporary historians like Monjib. The contemporary historian is in this sense the conscience of society, its psycho-analyst and its Cassandra.

March is Professor Monjib’s month: he also has an article in Zamane, a substantial reflection on Hassan II’s fight against the intellectuals. It’s entitled Haro sur les intellectuels, which you might translate loosely as Open season on the Intellectuals. The pull-quote on the first page gives the flavour: “Hassan II considered the cultural modernisation of the country, especially through academia, as a danger to his regime. To guarantee the durability of his throne he made the control of the intelligentsia an affair of the state.” This article picks up where the other left off, and seems to me to be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the intellectual and educational condition of modern Morocco – which is to say the shaky foundations on which its present and future prosperity are built. And – because Morocco’s is still a far from hopeless situation – just what needs most urgently to be done to redress the omissions of more than half a century.

He explores the late King’s ambivalence towards intellectuals – his personal pleasure in his own reading and conversations in history and politics, and his youthful sympathies with the reformist nationalists – contrasting this with his growing suspicion of the tendency of liberal education to undermine the foundations of the monarchy. The Casablanca demonstrations of March 1965 and their suppression were a turning-point, when the king’s fascination definitively began to be outweighed by his scorn. As Monjib puts it, he seems from this point on “to sacrifice his own subjective preferences on the altar of his régime’s objective interests.”

After 1965, the haro turned to full cry. What Monjib makes clear is that this was part of a conscious strategy to base the monarchy in the countryside, to co-opt the rural populations at every level through tax exemptions and to bolster the traditional channels of religiosity and allegiance by subsidising moussems and zaouiyas. This meant ditching the urban intelligentsia, the “couches instruites et politicisées de la societé,” resisting the massification of education at all levels, and attacking subjects like philosophy and history in the universities. This process deliberately marginalised researchers like Monjib who investigated the structure of power and the history of the immediate post-independence years. The universities entered a period of back-pedalling and obscurantism as student numbers were held down to spare a saturated public service and avoid the corrosive graduate unemployment which by May 1968 was fanning the flames of student revolt in France. “If no one wants to till the soil, if we all become intellectuals, we shall have to eat pencils,” as the King put it.

If this had a destructive impact on Higher Education, it was also disastrous for the vast majority of the population who never saw the inside of a university but who depended on the Moroccan public school system for their education, skills, language and upward mobility.  Modern education had been a rallying cry for the nationalists, “a fundamental tool for the liberation of the nation and the individual.” At the King’s instance now, education was retraditionalised, with new emphasis on Islamic Studies and m’sid quranic schools, which latter Monjib quotes the Director of the Collège Royale as calling, in 1968, “one of the principal causes of our civilisational retardation.” Arabisation, in the botched form in which it was implemented across the public school system, was a disaster: in a box alongside the main article there is printed a long extract from comments made to Economia by Mohamed Chafik, the same Director of the Collège Royale, in which he calls it “a treason by a minority of the political class,” and draws a devastating analogy with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. “One is tempted to believe,” he writes, “that they intended to create an impoverished Beta class of the masses, and a privileged Alpha class for themselves and their children.”

That’s quite a knot to untangle today. This weekend I was at an event for young policy analysts at Casablanca, and over coffee a serious young man said to me that in his view, education is not just one of the many policy questions facing Morocco, but the key question. I wondered if he was consciously echoing Mehdi Ben Barka, quoted by Monjib: “Education isn’t a fundamental question, it’s the fundamental question.” Or whether it’s just so obvious that any thinking person must come to the same conclusion.


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