Longing For Literacy

It has become something of a cliché. Serving at St Mark’s College has reinforced my impression that the average Coptic family leans very heavily indeed towards the sciences, educationally speaking. You know what I mean: Maths and Science are the real subjects, and other, humanities type subjects are Mickey Mouse material. The same seems to go for choosing a career. Many Coptic parents will do all they can to convince their children to follow a career in one of the “big four”: Medicine, Pharmacy, Dentistry or Engineering. All very much Science based. It seems that in the world of the Diasporic Copt, Science reigns supreme.

Well, I am going to question that perception.

You see, another thing I have noticed over the years is that so many of our youth are actually extremely literate, if not downright eloquent.

When you think about it, is that really so surprising, given that we are a Church headed by a Pope whose primary talents were literary ones? HH Pope Shenouda III was an historian, educator and journalist before entering the monastery. I don’t think anyone would ever think that he chose a career in the Humanities because he did not have the intelligence to do something like Medicine! His Holiness surely possesses one of the brightest most incisive minds in the world today. Why don’t more young Copts follow in his footsteps? Where do will the next generation of effective and inspiring servants come from? Where will they learn the art of communication, which is essential to sharing God’s Word?

What is more, Arabic literacy is generally highly valued in the Coptic community. How often we hear the older generation lamenting the fact that young people these days don’t seem to read books like they do. And yet, when a popular novel comes out, the same people will jump on the youth for reading it, because of its questionable morality or example.

These critics, well intentioned as they are, are missing something important here: our youth are not that stupid. The Harry Potter series is a case in point. There was (and still is in some quarters) an outcry calling for these books to be banned from our children at all costs. The general impression given is that once one of these evil tomes falls into the hands of a youth, the youth will immediately don their witch’s hat and cape and take off for the Headquarters of Wicca to go over to the dark side. Personally, I confess that my response when asked whether one should read Harry Potter has always been, “Are you aware that in reality witchcraft is a rejection of basic Christian principles and can never be compatible with Christianity? If you know this, and are able to tell the difference between fiction and reality, then by all means read it.” To date, I have not encountered one single case of conversion to the occult caused by reading Harry Potter. But I have seen many young people strengthen their reading habit because they found a story that engaged them. Some have even managed to read a strong Christian message into the Harry Potter saga!


Here are some common myths that are demonstrably false:

You can’t get a good tertiary entrance mark doing soft humanities subjects.

Actually, just have a look at the subjects that were studied by the top Year 12 students in the state each year. You get the best results by doing subjects in which you are interested, and at which you are naturally gifted. You also have a much more pleasant life and a much more positive attitude choosing such subjects rather than forcing yourself to do a subject that isn’t for you just because it has a reputation for scoring big. Remember that wise moral: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?”

Coptic children come from a non-English speaking background, so they can never be good at English or English based subjects.

Wrong! Research has shown that children who grow up learning more than one language are actually better at their main language than those who only learn a single language. That means that growing up in a home where Arabic is spoken actually results in the child becoming more adept at English.


My experiences at a Coptic College have borne this out. Our kids are great at English and the humanities, and proportionally more students at a Coptic School do tough humanities subjects like 4 unit English than in most other schools, public or private. And they score really well. Yet they are not as appreciated as those who do 4 unit Maths. They are also very good at speaking (surprise, surprise) and given attractive material, they generally love to read. If anything, we as a Church have largely failed to provide the young with attractive faith-based reading material. Where are the books for teenagers? Perhaps it will be this new generation of highly literate young Copts who will write these books?

In my own Year 12 graduating class (some time in the last century) there were 12 students I knew at my school who scored a mark that would get them in to Medicine. Yet I was the only one of them who actually chose to take that path. Some chose a scientific path, but others chose business or humanities, and I am sure that they are enjoying very successful and fulfilling careers today, doing all sorts of interesting things that doctors generally miss out on!

Another area to question is whether parents push for the “Big Four” because they think that they are licenses to print money. Get into one of those careers and it will make you rich. I have to question whether this is valid or suitable motive for a genuine Christian. Now please don’t misunderstand, I have nothing against a person profiting from their hard work and efforts to educate themselves, but should wealth be a high priority for the sincere Christian? Shouldn’t it come after other priorities, such as helping others, being content in one’s life (including career), curiosity and leading a balanced life? On the other hand, wealth brings with it all sorts of spiritual dangers. St James (James 1:11; 5:1), St Paul (1 Timothy 6:9), and Jesus Himself (Matthew 19:23; Luke 6:24) certainly did not think it an advantage to be wealthy, so what does that say to a parent who is motivated by wealth in the educational direction they give to their children?

Fr Ant

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3 Replies to “Longing For Literacy”

  1. It’s funny that you say that Abouna. I think it’s the Coptic community as a whole. I had one uncle at church ask me what I was studying, so I replied that I was studying psychology. His response: “Oh… well… are you thinking of switching programs?” Ummm, no.
    There’s a Facebook group that was created by one of the youth called “U can be anything u want…as long as its a doctor, engineer, or pharmacist” hahaha.

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  2. I am not one to speak, having studied engineering, however I think our community’s desire to push its children into career paths of one of the ‘big four’ stems from the high societal status these professions have in the mother country; where doctors, dentists, pharmacists and engineers sit at the top of the table of society. I would actually like to add another one…lawyers…

    Although I think this attitude is beginning to change in Diasporic Copts, or those of our country anyway, what our parents fail to realise sometimes is that professional status has very little importance in our society, and that sometimes professions with the lowest status in Egyptian society, such as accounting and/or economics, are sometimes those which will make their children the most successful and most wealthy in this country.

    Let’s be realistic, everyone wants to be wealthy, financially secure and comfortable.
    You can still be all those things and a genuine Christian at the same time.
    It is no doubt that doctors, dentists, pharmacists and lawyers have the potential to make a lot of money (I deliberately did not say engineers…I think everyone thinks their work is worth more than they make…hahaha)…however, be smart and you can be financially successful, whatever your pay packet and whatever your profession (Tony Robbins eat your heart out..hahaha). I think this is slowly becoming understood in our community, and more of our children are venturing out of the ‘big four’ (or five) and thinking outside the square.

    The change in attitude and the moving away from the perception of high societal and professional status may not happen in the next generation, but I believe we can have hope that it will happen in generations to come, particularly with our children’s move from an Egyptian identity to a more Australian one. Maybe then, literature will be given the weight it deserves, and we will have more writers, journalists, historians and politians among us.

    I am also of the opinion that our Church has lacked in providing sufficient faith-based literature in languages other than Arabic. Being one who has a high interest in history and politics, particularly Church related history and politics, I would love to see more ‘Coptic material’ out there, instead of having to resort to other Christian or secular writings.

    Maybe, hopefully one day…there is light at the end of the tunnel…

    My apologies for blabbing on…I like to write…is it obvious?…hahaha..

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  3. Our culture from the old days and since their children started to be able to access freely” no fees ” higher education at university level that there main dream that their sons and daughters to enter the medical and engineering fields …since early 1960 and that was the main dream of a lot of parents ….i remember when i got a scholarship in early 1970 to study anything overseas and when i chose what i liked to spend the rest of my life in it , my parents were jumping up and down because i did not choose Human medicine !! it happened also with my brother when he chose to study chemical engineering , oh what a day ???!! i believe our parents as a sample of our culture struggled a lot in their life like other parents at that time with a bit of education , poverty and they saw the only way for their children not suffer as they suffered by putting them to study prestigious type of professions !! their mentality was like that and the market needed that at that time ….those humanitarians jobs like psychology, social worker , councilor , art , teaching , trades , law , accounting used to be non prestigious as well as can not give the person a decent life !!! life evolve and we evolve with it and life continues and now nearly fifty years and the whole culture with the same mentality … the consequences of that a lot of our children go under high pressure in the high school certificate , most of them they get depressed because they did not achieved their parents high expectations goals and get no where , however if some achieve those prestigious professions goals you find them not enjoying what they do ??!! the other factor which our cultural parents are not realizing that it started to be the supply more than the demand in those prestigious professions all over the world ..the market is saturated and you find one or two persons in almost every family now holder of those prestigious stuff with less demands and interests …the crucial factor and consequences that those who studied those humanitarians field of study most of them got the tools and life skills of successful relationships with their families and others around them …i believe they have got more rewarding and meaningful life than those who got some only knowledge on those branches of those prestigious jobs at the time of our parents ….oh mate life is not the life today ???!!mate choose what you like to do most and you feel you be successful in it …make sure if not God there in every thing you do you will never be successful …i believe it is time to educate ourselves and our children with those sandwich courses in communications , problem solving etc. and integrate them with our christian values in order to be semiskilled and improve our relationships at all levels… we have to be positive and remember there is always room for improvement ….we have to go the extra mile as the good Samaritan ….Jesus Christ our lord is our great councilor , amen …

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