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New Institute to Offer One-Year Dose of the Liberal Arts

CAIRO – Weaving through a labyrinth of ancient alleyways, Karim-Yassin Goessinger navigates the way to a centuries-old building nestled in a marketplace bustling with trade.

He unlocks a rickety door, ascends a towering set of white-washed stairs enclosed by a wobbly railing, then showcases the expansive view from the top of an unusual preparatory liberal arts college that he founded in the heart of Islamic Cairo.

“We could have renovated this, but we want it to be a shared effort,” Goessinger says, scanning trash-ridden rooftops before glancing off into Cairo – called the city of a thousand minarets, some of them visible from here. Part of the idea of the institute, along with its commitment to Egyptian youth, is to embrace its urban background.

About a quarter of Egyptians are between 18 and 29 years old. But the country is bogged down by a slew of problems that limits that generation – among them an educational system that often sees students proceed on rigid paths toward flooded careers and largely fails to teach critical thinking and incorporate ideals of civic engagement.

Goessinger’s college, the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences, seeks to cure some of those ills. Its one-year bridge program for students just out of high school and graduates of universities offers a curriculum conducive to critical inquiry, self reflection and debate with the aim of helping students determine their passions. The curriculum will also be sensitive to the realities of being in a developing country—and the need for development.

“This idea of liberal-arts studies enables you to figure out what it is you’d really like to study, what you’re passionate about,” Goessinger said. “But I think it should also take into account the social reality that we’re in, which is one characterized by very pressing needs that need to be addressed right now, and so this is the component of development.”

“It’s about the new generation coming up with new ways of addressing problems,” Goessinger added.

The institute is the first of its kind in Egypt and part of a wave of innovative programs started by young Egyptians over the past two and a half years since the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. Some of those initiatives are going forward despite political turmoil and economic deterioration.

Now is a good time to open the college, assistant program director, Alexandra Chorlton, said.

“Young people especially are looking for new ideas and new approaches to everything they do in their everyday lives,” Chorlton said. A lot of young Egyptians, she said, seem very frustrated with higher education and would like a broader education in smaller groups of students, with the education more focused on individuals.

“The goal is to create a hub in Cairo where young people can explore the ideas that they want to,” she said.

The institute will open Aug. 24, the day before Goessinger’s 27th birthday – perhaps fitting since the school so acutely mirrors his ideals and interests.

The Austrian-Egyptian, who was raised in Germany, studied political philosophy and is interested in thinking about ways political principles translate in given social and cultural contexts – two themes that resonate in the program. Goessinger speaks seven languages, has lived in six countries and embodies a cultural fusion. He is keen on opening students’ eyes to different concepts and world views.

But there are a number of challenges.

“People are cautious about new ideas and adding more and more complexity to the system that they already live in,” Chorlton said.

“There is definitely a shift you have to make in peoples’ mind, particularly parents and older generations,” she added.

For now, the institute will be small: Fewer than a dozen students are set to be part of the first class. Moreover, it has yet to secure long-term funding, instead operating on money raised through web-based crowdfunding and on student fees, which total 5,000 Egyptian pounds per student (about $715). And the program is only taught in English, excluding a large portion of the population.

It remains to be seen what will become of the institute after its first year. But the principles it promotes do appear to be relevant to a country embarking on a contested political transition. Since Egypt’s army chief unseated the country’s first freely elected president Mohamed Morsi in a July 3 coup, opposing political camps have remained at odds over how to move forward, propelling violence and threatening political exclusion.

“There is no consensus on where we’re going, and so what is required – instead of presenting answers – is to present the tools to discuss different answers,” Goessinger said.

“This is what we’re trying to do with discussion-based learning, to listen and hear someone out who may have a completely opposing point of view,” he added.

Through four main disciplines – arts, culture, social and natural sciences – fellows, with master’s degrees, will teach students how to research, debate, discuss and write professionally and academically. The program will seek to provide students with self-confidence, a sense of direction and leadership skills, and promotes community service and innovative learning, culminating in a capstone project.

Those attending the institute seem to be enthused.

Abdelhalim AbdAllah, 23, who has enrolled in the program, described it as “the perfect fit.” A graduate of Helwan University, a public institution, he sought a program that would prepare him for a master’s degree in journalism and international affairs and provided a platform for research, challenged him intellectually through a reading list and offered an environment with driven and ambitious peers.

The liberal-arts institute was the only institution he found that offered those components, he said.

“I think it will be a great start for an amazing revolution in post-secondary educational programs in the country,” AbdAllah said, hoping it will improve the quality of Egyptian graduates and help more Egyptians get into master’s degree programs abroad at top-tier schools.Karim-Yassin Goessinger at the new liberal-arts institute. (Sarah Lynch)

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