Two separate systems of education exist in Afghanistan. The older system is a religious one, taught by the mullahs, who conduct classes in the madrassas (mosque schools). They teach the religious precepts of the Qur’an, reading, writing, and arithmetic. The other system was introduced in Afghanistan’s 1964 constitution, which provided for free and compulsory education at all levels, although this was rarely achieved. This system was based on Western models. Special emphasis was placed on primary education. Secondary schools existed in Kabul and the larger towns. Five years of primary school and five years of secondary school were expected, although many Afghans could not attend because they lived in areas where there were no schools.
Decades of war effectively eliminated most education, and an entire generation grew up without any formal schooling. The civil war resulted in the closing or dismantling of most lower, middle, and higher educational facilities in the country. Many teachers quit their posts and left Afghanistan. The subsequent Taliban regime suppressed all schooling except in the madrassas, and forbade it for girls and women. Only rote memorization of the Qur’an in Arabic was officially allowed. Opposition groups in a few places in the country tried to maintain some education, but under very difficult circumstances.
With the removal of the Taliban from power in late 2001, people in Afghanistan began to rebuild a national education system. Schools such as Kabul University reopened, and student enrollments soared. However, the country was sorely lacking the educational facilities and resources it needed to meet the burgeoning demand. A mobile school system was set up to bring education to rural areas, and foreign universities and nongovernmental organizations donated books and teaching materials. By the 2003-04 academic year 4.2 million boys and girls attended about 7,000 schools around the country. The male-female ratio had returned to pre-Taliban levels, although boys still outnumbered girls. A major project to improve literacy rates throughout Afghanistan was launched in January 2003 with the help of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The average literacy rate was estimated to be 36 percent for all Afghans aged 15 and older in 2000, with 51 percent literacy among males and 21 percent among females.
According to the 2004 constitution, Afghans are free to choose the language in which they receive their education. Primary and secondary educations are available in both Dari and Pashto, as well as in Afghanistan’s other languages, such as Uzbek. University courses are mostly taught in Dari. Kabul University, founded in 1932, is the country’s largest and most prestigious academic institution. Nine other colleges were established within it from 1938 through 1967. The University of Nangarhār in Jalālābād was established in 1962 to teach medicine and other disciplines. Important but small universities are also located in Kandahar, Herāt, Balkh, and Bāmiān. Before 1961 only men could receive a higher education; that year the government opened all public institutions of higher learning to women.