by Heba El Sherif

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A teacher struggles to bring the class to a calm.  He has probably held the same position for the last 25 years.  His pay doesn’t match the experience he has amassed, but he makes up for it by giving a heedless number of private lessons.

Over 80 students are huddled between ailing walls; their backpacks overflowing with books and a notebook for each subject, each assigned a different color plastic wrap.  Some of the textbooks assigned to them have not been revised in the last 20 years.

This is the state of public education in Egypt.

Government after government has promised to overhaul Egypt’s ailing education system, but, to date, these promises have yet to be fulfilled.  In August 2014, Minister of Education Mahmoud Abou Nasr laid out a long-term plan to improve education in Egypt.  According to a report published in Al-Ahram daily, Abou Nasr said that almost 30 percent of the school curriculum has already been changed, and that the plan will target the improvement of the remaining 70 percent.  However, the effect of this is yet to be realized.

5092684_origIntroducing the Liberal Arts

“It seemed that the discontent expressed during the days of the revolution would open a window of opportunity for change.  I sought to contribute to this change.  I thought this could be supported best by merging my academic training in the liberal arts with my professional experience in the field of development,” says Karim-Yassin Goessinger, Program Director and founder of the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CILAS).

CILAS is a two-year old educational institution that promotes liberal arts through an 8-month program as well as stand-alone non-degree courses.   Situated in one of Cairo’s oldest and most charming neighborhoods – El-Ghouria – it offers an “environment that is conducive to critical thinking, self-reflection and civic engagement,” according to its website.

Currently, 24 students are enrolled in CILAS, of which six are on full scholarships and another six on half scholarships.  The student-teacher ratio is about six to one.

“In the summer of 2012, I realized that meaningful development work or social work would focus on the re-invention of higher education, considering that a noticeable number of young adults engaged in civil society activities still lack the analytic tools and development theory to engage both confidently and creatively,” says Goessinger.

CILAS is currently in its second year.  Between January and March 2015, it is offering eight thematic courses – two per field of study.  Thematic courses last ten weeks each, with two class hours and at least four individual study hours per week.  Courses are open to degree seeking as well as non-degree seeking students.

The thematic areas are: Arts, Culture, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences.  In Arts, students have the option of choosing between art and the city or media, power and politics; under the culture component, they can choose between colonialism and post-colonialism and the history of education; in Social Sciences, they have the choice between theory and practice of evolution and urban governance; Natural Sciences includes nature-based tourism and urban resilience.

The program is designed to usher students through discussions and debates, promote a culture of questioning and inquiry, and foster ideals of cooperation and self-reflection.

“In a sense – and that’s what it really boils down to – I felt that the generation that kick-started the revolution was disoriented.  They were unable to position and direct themselves… Liberal arts’ education challenges students to question widely held beliefs and/or assumptions, supports them to mobilize resources creatively and effectively, and guides groups of diverse people in their pursuit for alternatives,” says Goessinger.

1823246_origOffering Something New

With a focus on methodology, CILAS’s education program follows Discussion Based Learning (DBL) methods.

Using DBL, lecturers present their students with a prompt, which could be a piece of writing or a video.  Students are then asked to explore this prompt and formulate a research question based on it.  Students then vote on the top question(s) that they would like to explore further in their take-home assignments; assignments are often aided with selected reading material.

And while this process may seem a little restrictive, it ultimately provides students with a structured setting to come up with questions.

Farida Makar, a historian by education and current lecturer at CILAS, expressed a number of limitations posed by DBL, especially when treated as the sole source of teaching at CILAS.  However, she admits that there is a space for teachers to discuss alternative methods of delivering the material with the administration.

According to Goessinger: “DBL invites students to systematically approach a topic during pre-discussion, which taps into students’ prior knowledge of a particular topic; a post-discussion, which is an informed discussion, takes place after a week of actively engaging with assigned readings and viewings.”

Mohamed Fayez, one of Makar’s students who enrolled full-time at CILAS during the academic year 2013-2014, tells CT that he “found himself in DBL.”

“At CILAS, we used to ask questions and discuss them to formulate learning goals.  With these learning goals in mind, we would go home and look for answers and come back to discuss them.  However, the thing is that answering questions is not a one-time act; rather it is a continuous process of development.  I want to tell new students that, when we discuss something, we do not usually reach answers,” Fayez explains.

Meanwhile, 22-year-old Fayez, who holds a bachelor of science in engineering, found it difficult to convince his parents to join CILAS.

“The problem is two-fold: the first is that CILAS is not registered yet, and the second is that I came from a totally different educational background.  But at the end of the day, my passion drove me very hard to continue with CILAS and obtain a degree that will be appreciated only by me.  I am more proud of it than I am of my accredited engineering degree,” he says.

In a country that widely values certificates and science degrees, liberal arts programs have often been forced into a backseat; and this is where institutions like CILAS can play a key role in rethinking education in Egypt.

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Limitations and Outreach

“I am very comfortable about the energy this place creates… Students are introduced to a number of initiatives that are taking place in Egypt across different fields,” says Makar, who taught two classes at CILAS last year: History of Education and Identity.

Indeed, Goessinger prides himself in what CILAS offers to its students beyond education.

“It promotes self-directed and self-organized learning or study.  What has worked well is allowing students to gather and learn around meals, and introducing performance arts and tea into the learning process.  Peer-support has proven beneficial to students,” he says.

As a former student, Fayez feels optimistic about CILAS, convinced that it is contributing to a well-rounded, educated generation.  However, to him, the outreach remains limited.

“I feel very confused about the scale of CILAS and its presence on the map of education in Egypt.  I would say that, in my opinion, it is very limited when it comes to the number of students that benefit from it,” he says. But like any novel endeavor with lofty ambitions, it takes time for real produce to blossom.

“Any pilot year of a project is held back by mistrust, lack of credibility and/or legitimacy,” Goessinger explains.  “In this sense, the first year was about legitimizing the democratization of liberal arts education.  While democratizing the liberal arts sounds undoubtedly noble, translating this mission into action proved particularly challenging in light of the political circumstances.”

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CILAS was inaugurated in August 2013 – a turbulent time in Egypt – and the ripples of instability remain palpable.

“The recurrent upheavals and general sense of despair influence the psychology of students in that it compromises their commitment to the study program.  On the legal front, the passing of increasingly restrictive and eventually repressive NGO laws governing civil society activities has caused a grant by the Ford Foundation to be rejected and complicated fundraising in general,” said Goessinger.

While the government’s chief role is to ensure basic quality education for its citizens, it is initiatives like CILAS that can truly complement the prevalent straitjacketed approach to learning, buoying students with ample knowledge to critically assess the world around them, and supporting them as they skillfully tread the workforce, both locally and abroad.

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