When life gives you Falcons (part 1)

There is much to be said about the current security crisis in Egyptian universities. There is, first, the matter of students getting shot and killed on campus. Then there are the issues of police violence and accountability, universities and their security policies and of course the issue of student political activity itself. I will discuss none of these issues. I will instead entertain here the possibly fanciful notion of what it might mean for a student to abandon university altogether and make do elsewhere.

It was reported that the Supreme Council for Higher Education issued a decree prohibiting students expelled from government universities from enrolling in private universities. As someone who has spent some time working on, and thinking about, education policy, my first thoughts upon hearing this were that such a decree is probably unconstitutional. Also that, as a punitive measure, it was ill-considered because it couldn’t possibly deter students from doing whatever it was they supposedly did to get them in such trouble in the first place. It also seemed outright vindictive, because it would just ruin people’s lives. It’s like taking away people’s life jackets in the middle of a storm and, most importantly: no one knows how to swim.

I thought about how I might feel were I one of these students, condemned to a life of exile from the one avenue, it would seem, to a decent future. I really thought about it. I sat and visualized the whole affair and nothing else: the conversations I might have with my devastated parents and the looks on their faces; my helplessness before brutish robotic university administrators enforcing the decree; the phone calls to lawyers; the dubious-looking scans of the actual decree; the aborted coursework on my desk; the dashed hopes of excelling in my field of study; the fear of not finding work; the fear of social ostracization; the fear of not being able to marry the person I love. I immersed myself in the entire scenario, as though it were actually happening to me, to my younger university-aged self.

I did this until it made me feel sick. A very particular kind of feeling sick, where my gut feels warm and this warmth begins to expand, rising into my chest and my throat, then filling my head from the inside out until I can feel it in my ears, my forehead, and still my belly, except now hotter than when it began.

In my life, there have been two kinds of situations when I have felt this way. One is when I would be taking an important exam and find myself unable to answer the questions. I would then panic about failing the test and, in turn, about failing in life. Then there is heartbreak. Particularly the moment of encounter with a lost love’s new love interest. Like many people, I sometimes experienced this with such debilitating severity that I actually thought the feeling would kill me. But it wasn’t ever about heartache, nor the details of a failed romance. It was very bluntly about death, a sort of visceral sampling of it. I’ve come to embrace a socio-biological interpretation of this very physical reaction to what is presumably a social and emotional phenomenon. This interpretation holds that to lose one’s love to another person is, in evolutionary terms, to lose one’s chance at procreating, at extending one’s bloodline and, by extension, to risk extinction. To die genetically, as it were. So, programmed as we are to want to flourish genetically, it is only natural that the prospect of this not happening makes us sick to our stomachs, so that we know it’s a serious issue and work hard to not lose the girl. Except romance is more complicated. In any case, I like this interpretation because it means that all that pain isn’t ever actually about the woman, or me, or even about the much-reviled new guy. It’s about survival. Nothing personal.

Why then, does academic failure induce so similar a reaction in me? (While my instinct in writing this is to say something to the effect of this being just me and just how I experience things, I’m reminded of the news reports almost every year in June, with pictures of bereaved Thanaweyya ‘Amma students and their parents outside the examination halls, and of course the requisite handful of reports of student suicides. It’s not just me, and it’s essentially on this assumption that I’m writing this essay in the first place). Why is academic failure associated for us, at a primal level, with death?

The Palestinian educator Munir Fasheh reminds us that modern education produces citizens, which sounds agreeable enough. But, he says, citizens are always defined in terms of their relation to other institutions, primarily the state, the legal system and the various agencies — health, education, security, etc. — tasked with providing the citizen with what they need. He contrasts the concept of citizens with that of ahaali, the Arabic term for “folks,” literally “people of relation,” whom Fasheh explains are defined by their relation to each other, to culture, to place, to memory and to language. When a person’s self-worth is defined by their education and their job, and when their access to medical care or legal recourse when they experience harm is dependent on the amount of money they have and on their social standing (if also on their social relations), then to be deprived of one of these enabling mechanisms threatens their ability to function normally in society. When my chances at university are ruined, then I risk losing everything, and I feel terror.

Education, for the state, is a service that it is obliged to make available to its citizens “free quality education for all,” goes the constitutional mantra in almost every country in the world. But, what is education and what is it for? Formally, education is a way of socializing the young into law-abiding, patriotic citizens and equipping them with intellectual tools that will translate into economic value and scientific and cultural advancement. All of this sounds innocent enough and the dominant discourse in government and amongst development practitioners is that it is outright good. As a human right, education is often described as an enabling right, because it enables access to other rights, like health care and legal due process. An educated person is better informed and is less likely to be tricked and oppressed; an educated person has a way out of social marginalization, be it poverty or gender discrimination. This is the dominant narrative: Education Saves. There then follow debates around just how much education and about quality standards and government expenditure and about who gets to write the curricula, and so on. But still, education saves.

Making the distinction between citizens and ahaali helps in thinking more creatively about what to do when the state and its institutions — in this case, the university system — fail at enabling individuals to have a decent life as citizens. In these situations, it is important to be asking more fundamental questions than just “what is the state’s responsibility and what are our rights?” Because, while the tribulations of being a citizen are certainly urgent in themselves, they also illuminate the limits of citizenship’s suitability to the purpose of making human collectivity tolerable and prosperous. It is precisely at these limits and beyond them that the concept of ahaali helps to both better understand citizenship and to imagine alternatives.

When a student falls through the cracks and finds themselves locked out of education altogether, as might very well be the case with the Supreme Council’s decree, it is only natural then to rush at the government to ensure that education continues to save. Even if it is merely saving these deviants. But should we not be alarmed at how severe the crisis feels? At the destitution that seems to await these banished students? Is there not something tellingly toxic in our dependence, our utter beholden-ness to education as we know it?

But what exactly is it that we’re dependent on education for? By we, I mean individuals, families, communities, businesses, organizations — basically, every kind of social grouping that is not the state. What we need, as far as education is concerned, is for ourselves and for the people with whom we are connected to be able to do certain things — have skills — and be a certain way — embody values. The state, then, as an expression of the supposed sum total of society’s goals, organizes the mechanism — schools and universities — by which people learn to do the things, and be, in ways that are suitable to life in our society.

Except that this entire undertaking happens outside of life altogether. Education, the citizen’s avenue into life — a good life, certainly — is not life, it’s something else. At face value, there is something obviously wrong with this, but looking closer it makes a little more sense, because surely learning can’t happen at the pace of living or at the site of living because it would be disruptive. Learning needs dedicated spaces where teachers can focus on teaching and students, and students can be exempt from having to work — from having to live, one might argue — so they can focus on learning. There is then the inconvenient question of childhood and the logistical necessities of the modern workplace: after all, children have to be somewhere while their parents go to work. And so on.

Viewed this way, the contemporary education system makes sense. The machinery of education, much like that of the state, aims at providing society with a scaffolding, a centralized, massive and complex set of tools with which to fulfil an objective. But just as the muscles atrophy when the limbs are scaffolded by the use of crutches, splints and plaster casts, so do the capacities of a society wither in those areas it has, willingly or unwillingly, delegated as a social function to the state. One might argue that, while such delegation might make sense when it comes to protecting a country’s borders, for example, the attendant costs are greater when it comes to an issue like education. This is not to echo libertarian arguments for the scaling back of government service provision, but rather to suggest a rethinking of education as a service in the first place. The components of what is today called education (vocational skills, intellectual inquiry, personal development, social cohesion, etc.) were not always bound together in the way that they are, nor were they articulated into a realm, a field of practice, which we now define as being a service and a right.

In articulating the elements of education and its stated goals into a service, something has been lost: a sense of agency and autonomy. It is not lost the same way for all people in society. A middle class person from the city is not dependent on education in the same way and for the same reasons as a working class person from the countryside, or even an affluent person from the same city. Of course, mainstream education, even with free government schools and universities, doesn’t serve people from different social groups the same way either, despite the mythology around education and salvation.

What does it mean for our sense of agency and autonomy as learners, as citizens, to have atrophied such that any disruption in the state’s support threatens our wellbeing so dramatically? Where else might we turn? Just as a person with atrophied limbs has no choice but to rehabilitate themselves to restore strength, it is possible to begin restoring society’s capacity for ensuring for itself that people can do what needs doing, and can be the ways they need to be, in ways that aren’t so debilitatingly dependent on the state’s institutions or the protection of its courts. To do so would be to re-imagine education as ahaali, to see it not as a service but as a complex set of practices defined by people’s relationships to each other and to what they do in the society in which they live. We explore that in the next article.

Motaz Atalla