When I saw the headline to Peter Hatherley-Greene’s opinion piece this week – Why the Finnish model of education cannot be imported to the UAE – I expected a slam-dunk argument. Instead, I came away with a deeper appreciation for the affinities between the Finnish and Emirati historical experiences, and a renewed sense of possibility for fruitful cultural interchange.
Dr Hatherley-Greene rightly points out that Finns and Emiratis share a history of economic hardship, born out of a struggle against an unforgiving climate. Both nationals seem to love their landscapes for their rugged beauty.
Similar, too, is the urgency of the mission to improve and advance on all fronts. This was fostered by the emergence of the two young nations into a competitive global marketplace in 1917 and 1971.
What Dr Hatherley-Greene does not mention is that for a long time, Finland relied on a precious few tradable exports, chiefly lumber.
The need to diversify and build a knowledge-based economy drove the educational reforms Dr Hatherley-Greene so praises. Are the parallels with the UAE not evident?
Ah, but culture! Dr Hatherley-Greene references Geert Hofstede’s bestselling yet controversial studies. To hear from him, there are such profound differences in our respective values and beliefs that no fusion of educational horizons is possible.
First, let me say that I doubt that broad generalisations about culture, social mores or national character ever get us far. When we do want to say something encompassing, the conclusions are rarely clear-cut.
Take gender. Both in the UAE and in Finland, the contributions of men and women alike have traditionally commanded recognition and respect.
Call this the "all-hands-on-deck" approach common to societies where a preindustrial sense of basic dignity for all still dominates (something that does not cancel out occasional deference to the needs of the family or tribe).
A corollary is a certain fluidity in the kinds of “feminine” and “masculine” characteristics that men and women are allowed to exhibit.
Men can be gentle and graceful, women can show ambition. Who does not witness this in the UAE today?
Nor are cultures monochromatic or static. Indeed, Finland in the 1970s – the time of Hofstede’s original studies – was more risk-averse, more collectivist, more masculine in its projected values.
But Finland changed. Finns changed. And this was in large part due to changes in our system of education – practices tested out, structures put in place, values vigorously debated then implemented.
None of which is to say that the UAE should necessarily adopt the Finnish model, which surely has its share of shortcomings. I merely suggest that no one – not I, not Dr Hatherley-Greene, nobody – can tell Emiratis what they are or are not capable of becoming.
I am flattered that Dr Hatherley-Greene views my home country’s progress so favourably. Yet to do so on the back of dichotomies that may perpetuate a stereotypical divide between "the modern West and the backward rest" – to cite Fougère and Mulettes, two of Hofstede’s critics – seems unfair and harmfully fatalistic.
What are the purportedly Finnish values that Dr Hatherley-Greene praises? A willingness to demand much of the individual in the name of the common good. Caring for those who are vulnerable. A respect for educators and parents that cashes out in tangible benefits and resources.
All of these are things I see around me in the UAE every day. And they fill me with great hope.
Because if there’s one thing a small nation cannot afford to do, it is to squander any of its talent.
Taneli Kukkonen is a Finnish national and professor of philosophy at New York University Abu Dhabi