Arab Spring students reluctant to question tutors

Scholars say culture of deference stifles development

September 19, 2013

Source: Getty

Hold your questions: students try not to embarrass academics by probing the limits of their knowledge

Students in countries affected by the Arab Spring are failing to get a proper university education because they still feel unable to challenge their tutors, an international conference has heard.

Speaking at the European Association for International Education’s annual conference in Istanbul, Khaled Fahmy, professor of history at the American University in Cairo, said the culture of deference to lecturers was more damaging to student development than overcrowded classrooms or the general lack of university resources.

Students are keen not to embarrass their tutors by asking them hard questions or probing the limits of their knowledge, said Professor Fahmy, a former Fulbright scholar who taught at New York University before joining AUC.

“Students are actually well ahead [intellectually] of their advisers,” said Professor Fahmy at the EAIE conference, which ran from 10 to 13 September. “But when they have meetings they make huge efforts to dumb themselves down…even [trying] to appear backward or lazy, otherwise their professors will be challenged,” he said.

Professor Fahmy traced the culture of undue deference towards academics back to the hierarchy between teachers and students found in the French academy, which was the model for most Egyptian universities.

“This is the curse [in] Cairo University…far more than the large numbers of students,” he argued, citing his neighbouring university, which has about 280,000 students.

But Michael Willis, King Mohammed VI fellow in Moroccan and Mediterranean studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford, said attitudes may start to change because young people felt more empowered to question orthodoxies since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

“What most depressed me about living and teaching in Morocco was the sense of fatalism in young people,” Dr Willis said. “They felt the future could not be changed and everything was fixed and tied down by self-appointed elites, but there is now a sense things can be changed.”

Professor Fahmy also believed the current status quo was “untenable” but that vibrant democracies could not be established unless liberal arts began to flourish within universities.

“There is actually no term in Arabic for liberal arts,” he said, adding that universities were too focused on providing degrees in science, engineering and medicine. “The result is that it is very difficult for critical thinking to take place on campus.”

Without new ideas arising from the humanities subjects, more vocational skills could not be effectively applied to real-world problems, he added. “In engineering, our expertise is how to pour concrete, but there is no knowledge of urban planning or how to organise public space.”

The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt after growing discontent with its administration may also be attributed to its failure to engage with the liberal politics demanded by people nowadays, he said.

“The common critique of the Muslim Brotherhood is there isn’t a single poet, artist or writer in their leadership – 85 per cent of them hold engineering or medical qualifications,” he said.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

United Nations peace keeper

Understanding the unwritten rules of graduate study is vital if you want to get the most from your PhD supervision, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

David Parkins Christmas illustration (22 December 2016)

A Dickensian tale, set in today’s university

Eleanor Shakespeare illustration (5 January 2017)

Fixing problems in the academic job market by reducing the number of PhDs would homogenise the sector, argues Tom Cutterham

poi, circus

Kate Riegle van West had to battle to bring her circus life and her academic life together

Houses of Parliament, Westminster, government

There really is no need for the Higher Education and Research Bill, says Anne Sheppard