Morocco excels in mathematics

Photo caption: Moroccans pride themselves on a tradition of excellence in teaching mathematics in schools. Here Moroccan schoolboys play in the Tangiers Casbah, or Old City. (Abdelhak Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

CASABLANCA, Morocco — Moroccans pride themselves on a tradition of excellence in teaching mathematics.

Indeed, for decades, the North African country has chalked up high achievement in math — a discipline that does not require lots of material means and relies instead on the students' mental abilities to deal with abstract concepts.

“An ambition to succeed came with the independence [from France in 1956]. Mathematics because they were so difficult and theoretical, fascinated people,” explained Abdelghani Zrikem, a retired math professor. “People can study maths anywhere and anytime. It doesn’t require any mean or actual conception.”

Thousands of Moroccan students — mostly males — are pursuing a scientific education in some of the most prestigious schools in the world.

For instance, Ali Aouad, 20, started his second year at the world famous Ecole Polythechnique de Paris, reputed for recruiting the finest students in the world and for its extremely difficult admission process. Morocco's academic curriculums are very similar to the ones in France, because Morocco was under a French protectorate from 1912 to 1956.

Morocco is the second nationality most represented in the Grandes Ecoles (name given to the elite schools in France) after China, according to the most recent statistics released by the SCEI, an organization that keeps track of admissions in engineering schools in France. At the University Les Mines — another prestigious engineering school — five times more Moroccan students are admitted than their Tunisian neighbors.

Getting into these schools is extremely competitive. After two years in preparatory schools that provide an intensive training for a nationwide test, tens of thousands of students compete for only a few hundred spots at the top schools.

Karim Arji is an engineer based in Marrakesh. He first went to high school in the French school of Marrakesh before attending a Moroccan preparatory school that allowed him to be admitted at L’ESTP in Paris in 1996. The abrupt switch from the French to the Moroccan system meant that Arji was in faster paced courses and was surrounded by students more advanced in mathematics.

“The students from the Moroccan high schools had a particular easiness with maths. There are concepts in maths that are completely abstract and impossible to explain but they had this ability to instantaneously solve a problem,” said Arji. “They had studied chapters in high school that were already very advanced.”

However, he also noted that Moroccan students were still somewhat behind in other areas such as languages and social sciences, which lowered their chances to succeed in university.

But the golden age of mathematics in Morocco has long ended, according to Zrikem. For half a century, generations of Moroccans were trained under the Bourbaki influence, a collective of mathematicians in France that revolutionized the discipline in the 1960s and 1970s. But Zrikem insists that Morocco no longer provides the necessary means for the new generations to prosper and he said that a great deal of potential is wasted.

“One of the main problems started when the Moroccan school system went back to teaching everything in Arabic. The students no longer have access to great works in French or English and the professors were not given the means to write books in Arabic that the students can work with,” he said. “The books they now use are badly written and the quality of the teaching has also degraded.”

He also argued that the excellence in math is often of no use in the country and that those who are particularly gifted have the choice to either study abroad or to seek a career in engineering.

“In Morocco, there is no research financed. A lot of great talents do not pursue careers in mathematics but rather use their skills to practically apply them in other fields,” explained Zrikem.

Aouad is the vice president of the AMGE-Caravanne (Association des Marocains aux Grandes Ecoles), an association of Moroccan students who attends the elite schools in France. One of their goals is to meet with students in Morocco in order to stimulate their ambition and help them make wise choices.

“A professor in Paris once told me that although the Moroccan students had a particular ease in maths, they were not so much interested in the beauty of the knowledge, but seeing it more as a mean to be admitted into a school,” Aouad said.

Zrikem is pretty pessimistic about the possibilities for great mathematicians to grow in the country.

“Our level is very low because we have been failing at stimulating the students,” he said. “These days, students go to class, work on their math books, get out of class and throw them away because they’re not interested much in it.”