Monday, May 10, 2010

Liberal arts education in Cairo

Here is an article (tip from Laura Sizer) about the American University in Cairo, and its relatively unusual system of education. In particular, I was struck by the their class, The Human Quest: Exploring the Big Questions:

When Rafik Gindy graduated from high school, he knew he wanted to become an engineer. So he enrolled at the American University in Cairo and prepared to immerse himself in math and science.

But the university had a different idea.

Mr. Gindy knew what he wanted to be, but did not exactly know who he was. That was what the university wanted him to think about, in a class called “The Human Quest: Exploring the Big Questions.”

“I thought identity was just your name, your culture, but now I know it’s really complex,” said Mr. Gindy, a slender freshman who shook his head at that revelation.

Who am I?

What does it mean to be human?

This looks like a fascinating class. However, this also prompted me (at the prodding of Laura) to think about what they teach in this class and whether they still avoid the topic of human evolution here. This is an elite university for the elites, and my guess is that evolution won't be an issue here. However, if any of the readers have access to the syllabus for this class, let me know. It would be great to look at it. But the larger picture of the university also looks very interesting:

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.

“It’s different here because there is room for people to express themselves,” said Manar Mohsen, a junior majoring in political science and journalism. “It is not that simple outside, where it is more about conformity.”

Egypt, like much of the Arab world, demands conformity in many corners of life. Education is based on the concept of rote learning, and creativity in the classroom is often discouraged. Students at Cairo University say they memorize and recite, never analyze and hypothesize.

So the idea of a liberal arts education aimed at developing critical thinking skills is often new to the students.

Wouldn't it be great if KAUST (see KAUST: Xanadu for nerds?) can incorporate some of these ideas for its own curriculum. In any case, this looks terrific and read the full article here. For a while there have also been plans for a liberal arts university in Pakistan. That was the dream of Eqbal Ahmad - but this ideas fizzled out after his death in 1999. More recently, the prestigious Aga Khan University (AKU) has been making plans for creating a Faculty of Arts and Sciences (AKU-FAS) for liberal arts campus located outside Karachi. The last I heard was that it was being put on hold for a bit...but I don't know the details. I hope it comes to fruition.


Sadaf said...

Good article. With reference to the last para, the Aga Khan Faculty of Arts and Sciences (AKU-FAS) has been put on hold. However, Habib University Foundation is establishing a liberal arts university in Karachi, which is scheduled to commence in 2013. Interested people can read more about it at

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