Egypt & The Liberal Arts: A Conversation With Khaled Fahmy
Khaled Fahmy, professor and chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo, returned to Egypt right before the January 2011 uprising after 11 years of teaching at New York University. Like many of his colleagues and friends, he was lured back to Egypt by the promise and the energy of the nation’s youth.
Since then he has become an outspoken critic of the government during Egypt’s political transition, often speaking to international media and writing columns for a leading English language outlet, Ahram Online.
Most recently, Fahmy told PBS that Egypt has more to fear from general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a widely popular head of the military who has led Egypt’s political transition, than from the ousted Muslim Brotherhood.
“In Sisi we have something much more ominous, much more dangerous,” he said in the interview with PBS Frontline. “It seems that this is someone who has much more serious things in mind.”
In discussing higher education, Fahmy is just as outspoken.
This month, he spoke at a panel titled “MENA (Middle East and North Africa): A New Generation of Change,” at the annual meeting of the European Association for International Education, in Istanbul.
Fahmy’s remarks were a call for liberal-arts education in Egypt and the wider Arab world, which he sees as one of the most critical aspects of educating the new generation and fostering critical thinking.
While a liberal-arts education may be an accepted model at a global forum, it is far from a commonly discussed issue in Egypt.
Shortly after the conference in Istanbul, I spoke to Fahmy in more detail about the obstacles to liberal arts education in the Arab world.
What can liberal arts education offer Egypt’s educational institutions, given all the current limitations?
There needs to be a major refocus on what the country needs, what the purpose of higher education is and how the labor market can best be served by the university–not only by graduating students with vocational degrees, but also with these skills to write clearly, think critically, to be able to express oneself legibly.
These are the skills that the market, any employer, needs. And that can be acquired with a degree in philosophy, literature or history much more than a degree in engineering or medicine.
But that shift in the way of thinking is not happening. That is not a debate we are having in Egypt, it’s not on the agenda.
So even within the academia itself, this is not part of the agenda?
Absolutely. Even at the universities, faculty are concerned about large numbers [of students], interference of security [services], they are concerned about meager pay. But they are not concerned about the lack of critical thinking. They think this is a result of large numbers. And indeed it is, to a considerable degree. But it is more a result of curriculum design.
Even if we had much smaller numbers, we would still have this problem if we don’t address curriculum design and the very philosophy of education.
You mentioned at the conference panel that the lack of critical thinking is related to the rise of extremism and lack of tolerance in public discourse in Egypt. How so?
This is a very big question. If you train students in such a way that they do not criticize the texts they are reading, that there is only one way to read Shakespeare, only one correct interpretation of historical events — then you are basically training people who are accepting tradition in an uncritical way. They do not have the critical skills to form an independent opinion.
The result is a citizen who is incapable of making an independent opinion and is constantly beholden to authority. And that reflects itself in a very dogmatic, intolerant attitude whether with regards to politics, religion, gender relations, patriarchic authority. You generate students who are not good citizens, who are not capable of forming their own opinion, of standing up against authority or managing their own responsibility as free decision-makers.
That has enormous repercussions. Religious extremism is only one aspect of it. But you go to the civil service, and you have the same problem. All these interesting new initiatives in politics, in arts, in literature have been coming out now has been despite the training people got at universities. The universities or the state institutions have not generated interesting new ideas in any of these fields.
The youth culture that has produced this revolution we have been witnessing has nothing to do with official state institutions, whether the universities or official state media or cultural institutions. These are people who have rebelled outside these state institutions. The universities in that sense are lagging behind, not behind Western universities or international standards, but lagging behind society, the energy and critical thinking of Egypt’s youth.
What other elements of liberal arts education are most needed in Egypt at the moment?
In terms of extracurricular activities, we don’t have debating societies in Egyptian schools or at Egyptian universities. The ability to listen or express an opinion you don’t approve of is a skill that is highly needed.
Go to any Egyptian university, including Cairo University, and try and enter the library. Libraries just do not feature in the way Egyptian students are trained. The majority of students have not set foot once in the library throughout four years of education. The educational system is not based on assigning library tasks for people to go and read on their own and write an essay.
One reason is funding, but that is a small way of answering the question. It’s much deeper than that. There is a textbook assigned to students, written by the professor. And that is one of the main ways for the professor to make money, by selling his own textbook to students. What makes things worse is that the textbook is summarized in small pamphlets and the companies that make these summaries (lecture notes) make enormous profit. And the students end up having to buy the textbook and then they memorize by heart the lecture notes. And that is how the education is done.
You are describing public universities in Egypt?
Mostly public; AUC is very different. The library at AUC is a very important aspect of how students are trained from day one of student life. And we don’t have textbooks as such at AUC. It is more similar to the US and European systems.
But that is not how education is conducted at Cairo University, for example. There are no research papers. There is no place for the library in this educational structure.
This is just one dramatic way of highlighting what I mean by a lack of liberal arts education. These universities do not have libraries. When they do, they are not updated and they are libraries that no one goes to.
In terms of international collaborations, is introducing a liberal-arts model from outside perceived as a threat to authority?
I don’t think the idea of international collaboration is looked down upon. Some of them are very successful. But I personally feel many of these collaborative projects are like conversations of the deaf. There is no dialogue because the very natures of universities are different.
The thing that is looked at with suspicion is not at university level, but on the school level, are attempts by donor agencies to tamper with the curriculum. That becomes a sensitive issue. People think the donor agencies, the USAID, the IMF, the European Union are interfering with the contents of the curriculum and how the Egyptian youth are being taught.
So what is preventing a liberal arts model from prospering in Egypt?
It’s a good question. On a simple level, this is a closed system and it’s very difficult to affect any changes. The problem is money and lack political will on behalf of anyone, not only the minister of education. Even the liberals in the Egyptian opposition are not committing this as a priority. This is not on the agenda in Egypt.
Is there a period in Egyptian history when universities played a more active role and current institutions could draw lessons from, for example period of Taha Hussein?
Many people would answer yes. I would answer no. Many people have nostalgia for what is called Egypt’s “liberal age”. But real scholarship by students like Hussam Raafat [PhD student at McGill University] or other scholars studying the education and the political scene of this period would doubt this.
I don’t think there was a moment in which Egyptian universities were centers for critical thinking. That was the golden age of Egyptian cinema, Egyptian novels, this is all true. But that was not a result of a different style of education being instituted back then. It was always like this.
What about the role of religion in public discourse and education–what role can universities play in fostering this debate?
I would prefer to play down the secular-religious divide. It’s interesting to witness what has been happening in Egypt since June 30. Secularists have adopted some of the most dogmatic, intolerant positions.
The lack of critical thinking, the lack of confidence are a sign of Egyptian liberalism as much as it is of religious speakers, the Muslim Brotherhood, Gamaa Islameya, other Islamist groups. It’s a feature of the Egyptian intellectual class across the board, not limited to religious figures. Something much deeper needs to be questioned than the religious-secular divide.
And the universities have a big role [in this]. The best thing is to institute this type of education, whether in science, in history or in literature. As long as this is not done, we will continue to find people who are trained to idealize ancestors, pay homage to tradition and be very differential in an uncritical way to authority. And that is the problem.
In this publication, Khaled Fahmy also wrote “Why I didn’t Go To Dubai,” an exploration of academic freedom issues and liberal arts in the Arab World