Most agree that the state of education in Egypt is dire. There is an over-emphasis on exams and teaching methods are based on learning by rote memorization. In both the private and public systems, paying for extra private lessons is the norm. In the public system, specialization is imposed at a young age and the state decides what a student will study at university based on exam results (and connections).
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world,” Brazilian education theorist Paulo Friere wrote in 1968.
In the past few years, attempts to create other, freer modes of education have increased in Egypt. One of these is the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CILAS), an initiative in Islamic Cairo that seeks to nurture a diverse student body to think critically as co-creators of knowledge through a year-long study program.
CILAS was founded in 2013 by Karim-Yassin Goessinger, an energetic 27-year-old raised between Germany and Egypt, who had become interested in Friere’s theories. It combines a liberal arts approach with evolving alternative teaching methods such as discussion-based learning, for the development of a more local, flexible format.
The idea of liberal arts originated in ancient Greece as a skillset for active participation in civic life, including the ability to use logic and form an argument. More recently, liberal arts education has come to include humanities, natural sciences and languages. Essentially, it’s broad and aims to enable people to think critically. Well-established in the US since the 19th century and having recently gained ground in Europe
, liberal arts is only offered in Egypt by the American University in Cairo, which is unaffordable for the vast majority.
“Here in Egypt, we’re conditioned on how to think and what to think,” says Olfet Sakr, 27, a current CILAS student. “Liberal arts tries to encourage the individual not to be passive, to go out and do something. At the same time we’re taught how to think, and exposed to a lot of texts and information that teaches us more about the global context in which we live.”
CILAS is the brainchild of Goessinger, now 29, who attended universities in four countries, including one situated in a forest in Rio, where professors would show up to class in flip-flops and shorts and have beer with the students afterwards. He remembers them saying, “Hand in your papers whenever they’re ready.”
For postgraduate study, Goessinger attended Sciences Po in Paris, one of the world’s most prestigious higher education institutions. He was challenged and overwhelmed, but ultimately left disappointed by its pretentiousness. “Teachers were metaphorically a kilometer away from students,” he says. “They would sit in their ivory towers, and you could forget about the idea of having tea with them.”
(Goessinger does everything with tea. Almost all his social and professional interactions take place over a cup of it — he’s obsessed with Chinese teas and adept at traditional methods of serving them.)
While watching his friends doing their PhDs, Goessinger paused. Thinking about his own trajectory in academia, he decided he wanted to harness those experiences to start something of his own in Egypt.
For three months he searched downtown Cairo looking for a space to house the project, to no avail. Eventually a family member mentioned that his grandmother’s cousin, Nawal Hassan, owns a building near Al-Azhar mosque that she lets out to scholars. Goessinger sold her his idea over tea, and they agreed to share the space.
Friends and a feasibility study urged him to reconsider the length and location of the course. A civil engineer brought in to assess the building’s structural integrity said that because it hadn’t collapsed so far then it probably wouldn’t. Goessinger’s mother, a clinical psychologist, suggested he was on the brink of insanity.
But just weeks after the military removed Mohamed Morsi from the presidency in July 2013, CILAS became operational.
Built in the mid 19th century and shrouded at the end of an alleyway by vendors selling Sponge Bob quilts and raunchy underwear, the building CILAS occupies is a work in progress. It has the air of an aristocratic studio re-appropriated by an unusually serene commune of artists. One classroom has a bed, where students sometimes sit during discussions. Watching classes unfold, there is a sense of engagement, but also of ease.
“Space is the medium that connects the self with the social,” says Goessinger. “It’s in coming together in a space as yourself and being present and connecting with one another that social emotional learning takes place. That constitutes the social, and thus social change.”
Goessinger inhabits the city in a unique way. While he catches microbuses — one of the cheapest forms of transport — to get around, he also attends fancy parties and has tea with ministers to push the school’s agenda. There’s a relentlessness about him. He’s obsessed with the effect of space on human beings and how integral it is to education.
The school, registered as an NGO, operates through a network of people invited as fellows to come and teach. At first there were about a dozen students, but now, in its third year of operation, it admits up to 24. Fees are LE5,000 per academic year, while refugees (for whom it is often very difficult to apply for education in Egypt) and state high school graduates can apply for a half scholarship, and everyone must commit to 25 hours per week.
Students study four core courses in arts, culture, social sciences and natural sciences in the first trimester. They then specialize in two thematic areas for the remaining two, during which they also undertake related community service. Courses are taught twice per day, morning and evening, in English. Next year, the aim is to also teach in Arabic.
Inspired by the ancient Greek model, each fellow sits with the students, engaging them with them in an education that takes on an osmotic character, through a curriculum that evolves based on students’ needs. All students are expected to give input on assigned readings or related video screenings.
“The only difference between the fellows and the students is that the fellows know how to be students,” it says on the CILAS website. “They are not the ones who know the answers but the ones who know how to find out.”
At the beginning of each course, fellows have a general idea of what they want to teach, they then talk with the students about what they want to learn, and thus each course is shaped. Recently, for example, Goessinger taught a course called “Emerging Modes of Urban Governance – The Urban Global South in Perspective.”
Ayesha Mualla, a CILAS fellow from India, contrasts this process with her last teaching position in Oman, where she says the syllabus was imported from New Zealand. “If you wanted to make any changes you had to do it discreetly, and so as an academic there wasn’t much freedom to experiment,” she says. “Here, the first thing I had to do was design my own curriculum, relevant to what we are doing at CILAS and also to the context of Cairo.”
The aim is no hierarchy. CILAS fellows don’t have offices of their own, but work on their laptops side by side with students. Fellows and students often eat and socialize together, and fellows tend to be familiar with each student’s story and issues. There is a system of weekly “check-ins” where students can voice their thoughts on the progress of the course and express what they are feeling more generally.
Fellows are selected based on academic experience (each has at least a master’s degree) and their experience more generally. Currently hailing from India, Holland, France and Egypt, CILAS fellows are a quirky mix of personalities. René Boer, an urban researcher from Holland, has previously worked as a freelance journalist in Syria and Lebanon and once ran a squat. Pam Labib, who teaches natural sciences, is famed for her cooking and runs a course called “The Anarchist’s Recipe.”
Pigeon towers are a frequent topic of discussion at CILAS, used as metaphor to describe the school’s reason d’être: replacing the ivory towers of corporatized education — which Goessinger believes have eroded higher education’s moral integrity — with educational spaces that give students the intellectual tools and confidence to fly on their own, with the freedom to come back when they choose.
The idea is that pigeon towers, like CILAS, allow those inside them to relate to one another more than to the institution itself.
Goessinger says that the CILAS team are trying to re-assemble the social at a smaller scale. He frequently uses this phrase, “re-assembling the social.” He says it means shifting the focus of education from financial capital to human capital, and using this alternative model as the foundation for a more egalitarian, communal society.
“It’s not just come, study and leave at CILAS,” says Batool al-Hannawy, 18, a current CILAS student who dropped out of Helwan University’s art department due to a rigid and unchallenging course. “Discussions that begin in class often continue outside class. We aren’t just learning here, we’re building a community.”
Goessinger — who also studied under the late Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel Prize winner for re-defining what constitutes an institution — likes to think of CILAS as a movement.
Despite his attempts to have CILAS formally recognized domestically and abroad, the school remains unaccredited due to the high costs and bureaucratic obstacles. As a university degree remains a stamp of privilege and a key to the job market in Egypt, I asked Goessinger, who seems to actually revel in the school’s lack of formal recognition, to comment on concerns of parents and outsiders.
“A movement is something dynamic that can only be experienced,” he says. “Someone from outside, say parents or the state, will not grasp the importance of it, because they’re not practicing with us.”
Anne Clement, another CILAS fellow, echoes this: “We’re not training people to become doctors, lawyers or engineers. Rather we’re giving them the tools to decide what job they do want to pursue and maybe to invent it, if it doesn’t exist.”
After completing his degree in dentistry, Ahmed Rizk, 24, decided he wanted to study at CILAS. As was the case with many of the students, his parents protested. “You’re a dentist,” they said. “Why do you want to study liberal arts?” Rizk, who has also been working in the NGO field, persevered and is now doing his dentistry internship while completing a year at CILAS.
Rizk remembers his selection interview with Goessinger, where he was told that selection was based almost solely on student’s future potential.
“When you apply for a study program anywhere else they always ask about your past experience, but here we are very diverse, coming from different educational backgrounds,” he tells me. “We all have a personal goal. What’s common is that I feel we’re all seeking some kind of truth. We are all trying to understand and find ways to help our communities and the society.”
Sitting with another student, Hussein Tarek, 25, it’s evident that studying at CILAS has been transformative for him.
“When I joined the revolution I wasn’t reading widely. I read literature and a little political theory, but that was it,” says Tarek, who was previously studying literature at Cairo University and was involved in street politics.
After the clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in November 2011, he stayed cocooned in his room for several months. “Our spirits were working in a very suicidal way, like we had nothing to lose,” he says. “But we lost everything.”
CILAS prompted him to engage in a wide array of texts from natural science to culture and political theory, and he now plans to apply for a masters in community psychology.
“CILAS has given me the space to think about what I want to do beyond just integrating into either the government or private enterprise structures,” he tells me.
Embedded in once of the most densely populated areas of Cairo, Ghouria, CILAS at first glance seems quite impermeable to the outside world. It’s as if you’re suspended in this cloud of tranquil tolerance, joining a hidden conversation. But the students come from diverse walks of life, and the outside affects them – they bring in a mixed bag of experiences. As many have been struggling with the politics and violence they have encountered, every two months psychological counselling is made available.
Goessinger is known among the students for his personal approach. “During my exams I was going through a turbulent time,” Rizk says. “Karim opened his house to me so I could have some quality time to study during the exam period. This was one of the most striking things that happened to me in my life.”
There are other challenges that come with running a start-up school without the resources or institutional clout of a traditional university — the main one being lack of financial resources. CILAS was recently awarded a large grant from the Ford Foundation, which would have covered its running costs for the next two years, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs blocked the grant, apparently for no clearly stated reason. So CILAS launched a crowd-funding campaign to try and secure basic funds to continue operating.
Thus far the campaign, which ends on April 10, has raised just over US$3000 of its $10,000 goal. While the campaign is necessary, Goessinger says he doesn’t want money to become the only focus. He asks that anyone who has a spare chair, book or anything they would like to donate to CILAS, including their time, to pass by for tea.
In tertiary education institutions there’s usually a pause every six months or so, when department heads meet and compile a report to gauge its progress. But at CILAS two days don’t go by before fellows sit down and engage in a conversation about the state of the project. “What are we doing right now? What are the challenges? And is it working?”
Underlying the experiment with re-assembling the social is the belief in the necessity of an education that allows people to decide what kind of lives they want to have. In one of the exercises Goessinger does, he ask students to describe the view they wake up to and what bothers them about it.
In my first interview with him, we walked in circles on the roof of the CILAS building for over an hour. And so far, his determined belief that when “you move constantly in the direction of self-discovery, change is possible” seems to be keeping CILAS moving forward against the odds.