Friday, May 7, 2010

Mr. Gindy knew what he wanted to be, but did not exactly know who he was

"Who am I?
What does it mean to be human?
These are the kinds of questions posed to undergraduate students entering this 90-year-old university during what the president, David D. Arnold, called a first year of “disorientation.” During disorientation, the students — 85 percent of them Egyptians — are taught to learn in ways quite at odds with the traditional method of teaching in this country, where instructors lecture, students memorize and tests are exercises in regurgitation.
American University is a private, elite school, although university officials sometimes recoil at the elite label. Yet, the school is expensive and so is generally out of reach for all but the wealthiest families and a handful of scholarship students. Tuition and fees for Egyptian students run about $19,600 a year, a princely sum in a country where about half the population lives on about $2 a day.
The campus exudes affluence. Students joke about the “Gucci corridor,” a spot where well-coiffed students gather each afternoon. There is no cafeteria, only expensive fast-food stands.
“We are all rich and spoiled,” said one student, upset that more of her classmates were not more politically aware. But in some respects, the elite label is a strength. American University plays a central role as a sort of intellectual boot camp for young people who will become leaders in government and the economy." (Thanks Marcy)
These are excerpts from NYT article about the American University in Cairo (but which applies to many other American-styled universities in the Arab region. For total disclosure, I work in one of these institutions but what I write represents only me). It raises many important and relevant issues that have to do with the production and consumption of knowledge and education in the Arab World. 

1. The statement in the article "Mr. Gindy knew what he wanted to be, but did not exactly know who he was" and the questions: "Who am I? What does it mean to be human?" indicate clearly the conviction (of the author?) that young people who enter the university have an identity crisis and are not reflective and introspective prior to having been exposed to the US liberal education system. However, these questions are the mainstay of teen-age existential angst as well as of philosophical thought, in the West as in the East and they are answered in many different ways depending on the culture and education and the exposure of the person who poses the questions. Religion provides answers to these questions, and that is why many people turn to religion. People did not have to wait for the US liberal education system to start asking themselves these questions. Is the real issue that people do not ask themselves these questions or the possibility that they may come up with answers that are not framed by liberal thought? 

2. This is really a further elaboration on point 1. The caption under the picture in the article says "the university aspires to teach people to think for themselves". What exactly is meant here? Think for themselves or think differently from their "home way"-but in unison- and along the lines of specific paradigms? In many US-Western-styled liberal education colleges, schools of business promote a very distinctive, capitalist, entrepreneurship-oriented approach. In departments of economics, most of the texts focus on neo-classical thought. Design schools use a global charabia cliched from European postmodernist thought. Cross-fertilization of cultural thought is what we should aim at but are the students encouraged to cross-fertilize or to replace? And if the question is that they are encouraged to cross-fertilize, is it with global cultural thought or exclusively with US/Western liberal thought? 

3. No doubt some excellent people have graduated from the US/Western educational system. But so did the political and economic leadership of the empire and the comprador. This is a leadership that wages wars and invades the world and establishes and enforces economic systems that are inherently unjust and exploitative, lead to widespread poverty and inequality, and result in the death of millions and then calls it collateral damage. Going through the US/Western liberal education system is certainly no assurance that humane, social leadership will be produced. 

4. There is no doubt that the current Egyptian and Arab educational system is in dire need of reform. There is no doubt that it is based on rote learning and on direct control of the thinking and reflection process. But so is the system that produces "Gucci corridors" and corporate fast food outlets in universities where they become the cultural norm and signs of social distinction. Different means of control are used, including media and anxiety about self image, but the outcome is the same. What is needed in replacement of the native discriminatory and oppressive systems is a new educational system that will grow organically from the local people and their culture and their experience as well as from cross-fertilization with global culture rather than imported turnkey ideologies. As long as we do not work on that, we will just remain complainers and whingers.

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