Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (657)
The quality of university education in Egypt has always been suspect. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk points to a series of articles in Al-Ahram in 1939 which became part of the ongoing debate
Data recently collected by independent research institutes with the aim of classifying universities of the world showed that not a single Egyptian university, including the mother university, Cairo University, succeeded in occupying an advanced position. Egyptian universities either placed at the tail end of lists or were not even classified to begin with. This fact brought sorrow to the hearts of Egyptians, and particularly those concerned with educational matters, and especially higher education.
Such sorrow was compounded by the fact that higher education was introduced in Egypt as early as the 1820s when Mohamed Ali began his experiment in modernising Egypt. Egypt has known university life since 1908, with the establishment of the Egyptian University by a group of eminent Egyptians concerned with the state of Egyptian education. This took place at a time when most of the countries surrounding Egypt in the Arab world and Africa knew nothing about this kind of education.
A number of writers have attempted to explain the decline of university education. Some have attributed it to the phenomenon of sheer quantity overcoming quality. The spread of high-density universities has not provided an opportunity for a healthy educational atmosphere to reign. This has been the case whether the "quantity" has spread among the many national universities that have reached, according to my knowledge, a total of 14 across the country, or relates to the number of students in each university, and particularly in specific colleges such as those of law and commerce. This high density has reached the point whereby students cannot find enough seats to sit in during lectures, a fact that has produced the phenomenon of renting extra seats.
Under such circumstances, university education has lost its most important foundations -- research and innovation. There is no professor who can direct such enormous numbers of students towards research. And there is no professor who can sustain an atmosphere of discussion with all these students, with all the accompanying struggles of ideas produced to explore non-traditional horizons and to approach ideas other than those they inherit.
In fact the very opposite took place, particularly after the door was opened to commissioned posts at some of the new Arab universities established by the rich governments God blessed with oil. The mission of the Egyptian professors who travelled to teach in those universities was supposed to be their modernisation. Unfortunately, the opposite took place, and the Egyptian professors were influenced by the traditional thought-systems dominant in those societies and based upon following the steps of the "upright predecessors" in all that entails both good and bad. This included the predominance of a style of inculcation in university teaching that took the form of university textbooks written by the professors that students must memorise by heart; woe upon those who depart from the text. This has aborted any attempt at independent judgment or a search for other sources on different opinions or additional information from which a student might learn that the teacher's opinion is not necessarily the sole opinion and that there may in fact be another more convincing and sounder. In short, professors in this kind of university education have come to seem as though they possess "absolute truth," a situation that forms the first step towards the spread of ignorance rather than education.
From another perspective and for historical reasons, higher education used to be, beginning with its introduction in the era of Mohamed Ali, a virtual "royal door" to ascending the social ladder. A French-style licentiate or baccalaureate degree became something of a license that allowed mobility. This was an acceptable situation during the period in which universities received tuition from their students. But when Taha Hussein, the minister of education in the final Wafd Party government (1950-1952), introduced the saying that "education is like water and air," the right of every citizen, and the July Revolution later took place and this saying was put into practice for university education, the "royal door" that had been shut to certain classes was opened wide for them to rush through.
An attempt was made to limit the extent of this inflow through the universities' acceptance coordination office, but this attempt was not successful, particularly following the spread of so-called "private lessons" that rested upon teaching students the means of gaining the highest matriculation scores possible, rather than academic fundaments. We have heard of astronomical scores that have even, in some cases, exceeded 100 per cent, which is, in the end, a joke.
The crisis of unemployment that most graduates of Egyptian universities have fallen into further augments these shortcomings. This crisis is not the result of a lack of employment opportunities, per se, due to slow economic growth. Rather, it developed prior to that due to university education not qualifying its graduates to fill empty positions in modern economic institutions that demand specific competencies that the current education system does not provide.
This was discovered through the passage of time and the availability of employment opportunities for graduates of the American University to the exception of graduates of Egyptian universities, including the major ones -- Cairo, Alexandria, and Ain Shams. And thus spread a new kind of university education to meet the needs of the age, and Egypt came to know British, Canadian, French, and German universities whose educational curricula are in keeping with the age's continually changing needs.
Those concerned with educational matters in Egypt imagined that the promulgation of a law for the "quality of education" and its enforcement in universities would fill this gap, and so they promulgated a law to place standards for such quality. Yet, it appears this solution will neither form a transparent solution or otherwise, for the situation is greater than any law can deal with, even if it is approved by the two houses of parliament, the People's Assembly or parliament and the Shura or Consultative Council.
This long introduction is a modest attempt to diagnose the state of university education in Egypt, although it is more like a rousing of bad memories. Yet what we intended in the Diwan was to draw attention to the fact that the quality of university education has always been a consideration of Egyptian intellectuals. This issue appeared in the pages of Al-Ahram from time to time, including in a series of articles written by the Egyptian intellectual and philosopher Mansour Fahmi that was published in the summer of 1939 under the title "The fundamental issue of university education." In light of what we are now suffering, this series deserves to be reread.
THE FAMOUS PHILOSOPHER began his articles with the following question -- "Should the facilitation of university education or lack thereof for some of the people be the correct formulation of the issue? Or should the issue be higher education itself, and what of higher education should be facilitated to people and what should not?"
Fahmi's response to this question was that education is of various types. "Its types can be learnt through various means depending on the learner's goals and his needs of education. Among its types are that which is favourable for the greatest number of people possible to appreciate, such as the arts, which raise the level of the human spirit and allow nations to know themselves and higher ideals. National history, for example, and the cultivation of artistic and literary taste, an understanding of public rights and duties, knowledge of the means of preventing disease and approaches to health and well-being, appreciation of the values of comportment and morals, and other sciences and teachings related to a refined humanistic sense in sophisticated individuals, should all be made available to people."
To demonstrate the veracity of his claim, Fahmi wrote about his latest visit to Paris, during which he listened to the most prominent men of the arts, philosophy and science. He recounted the names of some of these individuals, an endeavour he was shared in by "hundreds of men and women who are brought together by a sincere desire to bring true knowledge back from its pure sources." This visit drew an image in his mind of how he wished higher education in his country would be. He wrote:
"I imagine a scientific institute with all kinds of laboratories and instruments through which professors of chemistry, physics, or biology, for example, can correctly teach those who wish to learn, for example, how to distill perfumes or beverages to gain from their trade, how to produce clothing from various materials, or how to make explosives that destroy vistas and shred innards. Does reason allow for a state to give bountifully to such a group of professors and instruments? And to facilitate in all ways possible anyone who seeks them or others in order to make gain for themselves or their merchants, or to use their outcomes to their own benefit? Sound reason demands, in the example of such forms of education, that the door be opened, yet to an extent that is appropriate and with caution." In other words, the famous philosopher agreed that higher education of this kind of scientific nature be made available, but with caution.
It appears that university education was at that time an interest of the dean of Arabic literature, Taha Hussein. He wrote on the necessity of taking interest in reforming regulations in higher education so that it could perform its desired mission, and wrote that reform of these regulations had priority over exploration of facilitating an education that needed reform. This inspired Fahmi to dedicate his second article to the topic, "The reform of regulations in higher education."
Fahmi opened this article with an overview of the most important elements of higher education. In his opinion, these were teachers, students, the practical methodology of teaching knowledge, attention to the environment and any special consideration it mandates with regard to teaching, the history of knowledge in other environments, non-harmful freedom of thought, and, finally, filling the university atmosphere with that which cultivates a sense of order, character and duty.
With regard to the university professor, Fahmi held that he must be mature in his own knowledge and his teaching, as well as passionate about everything related to both. He gave pause to those who were aided by their circumstances, travelled for a few years to the West, chanced a high score on their exam, and fancied that they represented the highest example of a university professor. "That is because sound knowledge requires perseverance and a great deal of time, and cannot be compared to the rare gifted individuals who gain tremendous knowledge with a speed that pays no heed to extended time. If this is true, then some change is due in the system of academic missions. Our forefathers were more discerning of matters than we when they extended the length of these missions and thus produced those worthy of truly representing the teaching profession. Add to such length of time the passion of those preparing to become teachers for the knowledge they seek to put to practice."
He then turned to the second element of higher education, the student cultivating knowledge. To begin with, he held that those not fit for knowledge and education should not enter the field. "Students who seek knowledge in a college whose training they do not wish for or whose burdens they are not prepared for are led to a massacre in which their nerves will be shot, their self harmed, and their character exhausted. And thus is formed the troublemaking student and the deviant youth, necessitating good sorting and exacting selection."
As for the third element of university instruction in a manner by which students can gain the most benefit, Fahmi held that its source should be the views of specialists in the various sciences and fields of education, and left the matter to them.
The fourth element he considered was attention to the environment surrounding educational institutes. This included unalterable matters that require appreciation "because the industrial or agricultural country, or land with metals, or a sky with meteorological phenomena... all of this should make universities take special interest in the sciences related to the nature of the countries in which these universities are based."
The fifth element was related to the history of knowledge in the nation concerned with higher education. "This is among the matters that universities should take into consideration. Lessons in mathematics, the natural sciences, chemistry, philosophy, medicine, the social sciences, the arts, law, and other fields must be connected to what was available to the nation's forefathers of these sciences. What natural science studies of ours permit the overlooking of mention of Ibn Al-Haitham and his like? What chemistry studies allow us to cut ties with Jaber and his like? What social and philosophical studies do not connect us to the likes of Ibn Khaldoun, Ibn Rushd and Al-Jahiz?"
The sixth element was non-harmful freedom of thought. Fahmi held that the person charged with this was the university professor himself, who is supposed to be graced with subtlety. "There is no university and no university's interest in making people despise knowledge by not taking their feelings and what they are accustomed to into consideration. People are raised, in accordance with the age and circumstances, on traditions they value and it is only seemly to protect the feelings of people."
The final element was filling the university atmosphere with that which cultivates a sense of order and inspires character and duty. "The source of that may be a group of laws and statutes, university traditions and the determination to enact them, following sound examples, and other sources that create an invigorating university spirit."
These two articles inspired others to make contributions to the subject at hand, and Al-Ahram opened up expansive space within its pages for these contributors. Among them was Mohamed Arafa, who ignited what he called holy flames over the issue. His response focused on the old issue of university graduates waiting for state posts. If granted such posts, they were fortunate and blessed, and if not, they remained unemployed, failing to rush towards the doors of non-government work through which to be active and earn their living.
He concluded from this that opening the doors of universities in order to graduate the unemployed comprised two wrongs -- a wrong to the rights of students and another to the rights of the nation. He demanded the reform of education "to graduate people who love knowledge and, in partnership with civilised nations, create a sacred structure for knowledge."
Another contributor was Mohamed Ali Diraz, who showed his anger towards those demanding an expansion of university education, which he described as a type of "cultural luxury." He stated that instead of university education, the government should save its efforts for eradicating illiteracy and combating ignorance. "It is incomprehensible to leave three-quarters of the people prey to ignorance in order to educate a group for whom shouldering the costs of their higher education may be within their material limits."
As for Rafayel Masiha, he fancied university costs as plunder of taxpayers' money. He held that it was an almsgiving that was donated by the "government charity agency, although the state is not a commercial company and should not sell its goods at less than production price. If this principle were applied to all public facilities, the government would be without work and the departments that bring income would stop functioning without that which spends on them."
These contributions led Mansour Fahmi to dedicate the rest of his articles to the side effects of the success and failure of university education.
HIS FIRST ARTICLE on this issue was titled "The principle cause of our social problems". It was written in the form of a response to an article by Taha Hussein in which he stated that since the beginning of the previous century (the 19th), "we have looked to Europe and taken it as an example to follow and emulate. We have borrowed from it the idea of compulsory and free education, and the idea of higher education. I wonder, however, are we not continually looking at Europe and perpetually imitating it while at the same time refusing to look at Europe and benefit from its experiences and the various luck it has had?"
From the article by the dean of Arabic literature, Fahmi went on to ask which better led to truth, "that which considers our social life to remain deviated and troubled as long as we do not follow the example of the West? Or that which views our nation as not like those of the West in everything, and holds that adopting the system of Europeans is not of use in the production of our sophistication and happiness?"
Following some give and take, Fahmi attempted to reach a conclusion, which was, "The environment I live in is not the environment of the West, for its sky is not the sky of the West, and its soil is not the soil of the West. Its location, among the possessions of God, is not its location, and our language is not its language. Should our hidden contents be other than its, and it be desired for us to be like Westerners?"
He closed this article by stating that we are not like the West in anything, and that it is a grave sin to follow the West in everything. The solution is to remain within the bounds of limits as defined by his following article titled "The limits of imitation and emulation." It opened with a quote from Ibn Khaldoun, "And thus you will find that the vanquished always resembles the victor in his clothing, mount, and weapon, and even in all his other circumstances."
He then went on to state that imitation of Westerners in education or otherwise is inevitable at some period of time "as long as we continue to feel that we are in the position of the weak down-and- out and as long as we resonate with the position of the weak."
He followed that with an attempt to differentiate between the need to borrow from Westerners, in particular with regard to discoveries and inventions, and the fact that nations have borrowed from each other since antiquity and exchanged all kinds of cultures on the one hand, and on the other the fact that this borrowing must be done with the goal of benefiting from it in order to invigorate untapped strength and breathe life into fertile ideas.
From this distinction, he concluded with the following question. "Does it please our national pride for us to remain in the position of submissiveness and look to that of others and limit our view to what is in their hands without having what draws others to look to our hands and emulate us?"
He responded to that by questioning the benefit to Egyptians of saying that they have a distinctive personality while they follow the examples of Europeans and resemble them in their clothing and outward appearances and many of their habits and affairs "to the point that a wise viewer may sense that it is among the marks of appropriation, although the matter is left to God."
It seems that our philosopher sensed that many intellectuals would not take his statement seriously and that they would say, "In that you are like a castaway in the ocean who imagines and dreams of shores. The truth is that you are following the path of Westerners and wish to go far on that path."
He responded to them, saying that the silkworm, in its final hours of development, when it has become within its weaving a butterfly pressing to tear apart its covering and pierce the woven wrap surrounding it, does not know what it will come across in this world. Yet in only a moment the cover is removed and a butterfly comes out to existence and views wide horizons. "The nation that wants to be proud must deeply sense the meaning of this pride."
Yet departure from the cocoon, according to our philosopher, places that which exits before another problem, that of "choice" and its most important conditions -- good sense and freedom. He meant by good sense all the means and tools that prepare the mind to approach perfection through experience, knowledge, acumen, vigour, and acceptance by and good placement among people. He meant by freedom all the means and tools that enable those with good sense to investigate what their mature mind encounters and thus direct themselves according to its guidance without encountering obstacles in their movements. Weak desires, flexible thought, a tolerant environment and a ruler's observance of human rights, "in all of this is that which assists people to bring out their true nature. Those who fulfill the conditions of freedom and good sense must necessarily be trusted with choosing from civilisation. Successful selection must be entrusted to them."
The last thing Fahmi turned his attention to in this lengthy round was that all this should take place through the establishment of a so-called social council, something the prime minister, Ali Maher Pasha, was speaking of a great deal at that time. The author of these articles found it best to quote the remark of the holder of this high post in saying, "In its culture and ancient civilisation, the country surpasses the role of translocation, where different currents and opposing inclinations meet coming from the direction of modern culture and civilisation... If this role were left to a merely natural interaction between two cultures and civilisations whose roots and foundations differ widely, the matter would become confused and unsound... There is no means to deal with this other than for the country to have a social policy based on preserving its morals and customs... And thus it has become necessary for reform to act as a salvation from the sources of turmoil. A model of that would be for these affairs to be undertaken by a permanent council composed of knowledgeable individuals and which would bring together the different currents and directions."
Our philosopher was enthusiastic about the idea and began to repeat that the strength of Western civilisation's current was made clear by Egyptians thronging to anything taken from Westerners and the fact that most of those responsible for directing the people had Western hearts and minds. In this regard, he again returned to the issue of university education and expressed his fears of what would take place if the education of youth were left to those who did not know or acknowledge the culture of their homeland. He ended with the following questions: "What is the use of an article in the newspaper or a book thrown upon a bookshelf if those who control matters function in opposition to what you prove in the book? What benefit is there to your voice trembling from a podium if ears do not listen to your call?"
I wonder what Fahmi would have thought had he lived to this day, when all those who want to read or listen have disappeared and in the meantime real university education has eroded. Egyptian universities have declined to the end of the list, and some of them have even exited to sit in the seats of spectators.