In an article published in October magazine, titled “Those Who Have Withdrawn from the Age… And Those Who Are Up to Its Challenge”, my friend the author and historian Dr. Abdel Azim Ramadan, touched a nerve as he discussed Egyptian post-graduate students abroad. Ramadan’s article centered on the tendency of this expatriate community of future university professors to escape into the past and on their inability to face the challenges of civilization and culture in the advanced countries where they spend a good number of years. I have met many graduate students in various countries of Europe and North America and can concur that they are indeed, as Ramadan described them “fugitives from our age”. For the most part, they avoid the challenge of adapting to and absorbing these cultures and, instead, opt for the easy path of retreating into themselves.
In the UK, most Egyptian post-graduate students live in Egyptian “cloisters”, quite detached from the golden opportunities available to them at the expense of the Egyptian taxpayer. In all probability, not one of the hundreds of Egyptians who obtained their doctorates from British universities bothered to read basic literary works as those of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Byron, Wordsworth or Dickens. It is also safe to bet that none of them became anywhere near as familiar with the treasures of museums as they did with the layout of department stores. University professors who lived in Britain for years have admitted to me that they never bothered to follow the political, literary or cultural events in that country throughout their stay.
In the US, I met several Egyptians preparing their doctorates in various branches of learning. Most had never really experienced American life, preferring to spend their years there in self-imposed isolation because of their inability to face the challenge of civilization and culture. Before meeting with a number of doctoral graduate students at one of the largest universities in the US, I had hoped to spend a few stimulating hours discussing American political history, cultural life and literature. But that was not to be. Instead, I was subjected to a series of monologues which reflected the speakers’ total detachment and withdrawal from their environment and their retreat into the distant past – and to the most fanatical and extremist trends of that past.
The reason for the cultural introversion of our graduate students abroad is, I believe, the poor educational and cultural baggage they bring with them. Forced to retreat into complete isolation, they seek refuge in exaggerated conservatism and extremism as an easy way out of their dilemma. Indeed, with their poor educational, linguistic and cultural assets, how could they accomplish what generations of their forebears had achieved? The generation of Taha Hussein, Tawfiq al-Hakim, the scientist and artist Hussein Fawzi and the two generations that followed traveled to the West armed with a solid educational and cultural background, and at least one or two foreign languages. They then acquire the best that Western civilization had to offer without losing their faith in the greatness of their religion and the glory of their past. Today’s students come back to Egypt not richer than when they left, having concentrated on the study of one exclusive subject for the most part. As for the host society, its civilization and achievements in the areas of public freedom and democracy, the rich diversity of its literature and culture, its vibrant political life – these are of no interest to our M.A. and Ph.D. candidates, who are completely wrapped up in themselves and their own narrow vision, isolated and brewing ideas that belong to the age of darkness and obscurity.
In Paris once I sat in on a heated discussion among a group of graduate students, all of whom have since joined the faculties of Egyptian universities. The discussion was about painting and sculpture, and all those present pronounced both art forms to be works of the devil! Ironically, we were at that time only a few steps away from the city’s Latin Quarter, a district alive with art, literature and culture, and just a stone’s throw from the Louvre, where hundreds of the world's greatest paintings and sculptures stood in mute reproach to the astounding views put forward by people who had turned their backs on the age.
Education for all:
The above is by way of an introduction to the subject of education in Egypt today and the sorry state it is in. Egyptian education is a closed system, detached from contemporary realities and isolated from the common cultural heritage of mankind, without which no educational system can hope to produce individuals capable of enriching their nations. But where and when did this tragedy start, and who is responsible?
This is Part I in a series on the role of education in society.