- The Crisis of the Humanities in Egypt
On March 8, 2014, an ex-deputy of the Egyptian minister of interior appeared on a TV political talk show to ask a rhetorical question: "Why are all the [Islamist] terrorists in recent years graduates of departments of medicine, dentistry and engineering, despite the fact that these are elite departments (kulliyyāt al-qimma)?"1 In Egyptian parlance, "elite departments" refer to medicine, engineering, dentistry, pharmacology, sciences, and veterinary science, usually listed in this order reflecting societal ranking and valuation. The program's other guest, Dr. Wael El-Degwy, the minister of higher education, decided to ignore the question. However, the host, Roula Kharsa, offered her answer: "It is because education in these departments is conducted in such a way as to stress laws [of physical sciences], unlike departments of humanities (ādāb) or arts (funūn) where students are encouraged to read, think critically and broaden their horizons." No sooner had the program aired than Islamist viewers started making fun of both question and answer on Facebook. For them, the question was a dishonest one aiming to ridicule members of Islamist groups and to portray them as uncouth and uneducated. "They [the secular elite] can't accept that Islamists are well educated. Why, even Ayman al-Zawahri [Ussama Bin Laden's successor as chief of al-Qaeda] is a graduate of the Faculty of Medicine, Cairo University," one of them retorted. In response, Amr Ezzat, one of Egypt's most gifted journalists and also one of the country's first bloggers, wrote on his Facebook page, elaborating on Kharsa's position: "Learning about science and technology in a superficial manner without delving deeper into the theory behind technology, and without learning about the assumptions and theoretical frameworks that inform the process of creating it—if all this is taken as a model for political and social thinking, then somehow we end up with a dogmatic, conservative political outlook, an outlook that assumes that we need nothing more than a user's manual to engage with the world."
This polemical exchange on higher education is indicative of the seriousness, or the lack thereof, with which the problems plaguing the humanities in Egypt are discussed. The fact that the minister of higher education chose to ignore a question that hinted at the possibility that lack of training in the humanities might lie behind the increased radicalization of university graduates is another sign of the lack of serious national debate about the status of humanities education.2 [End Page 142]
Are the Humanities in Crisis?
But maybe all is well with the humanities in Egypt and the fact that members of some extremist Islamist groups lack training in the humanities could be a mere anecdotal link, at best, or a spurious one, at worst. Indeed, enrollment figures do not indicate any serious decline in the number of university students majoring in the humanities. According to annual statistics published by the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education, student enrollment figures do not evince a turning away from the humanities. In 2005–6 there were 290,079 students majoring in "arts and humanities," "languages (al-Alsun)," "languages and translation," and "Arabic language," constituting some 15.5 percent of all university graduates. This was up from 137,962 graduates ten years earlier, when the percentage was 15.8 percent. In other words, the percentage of students majoring in the humanities declined by only 0.3 points over this ten-year period. By contrast, in 2005–6 the total number of students majoring in the physical sciences (medicine, engineering, pharmacy, dentistry, and sciences) was 262,919, constituting some 13.9 percent of university graduates, up from 13.4 percent ten years earlier.3
Moreover, although problems of higher education are a matter of public concern, and, as indicated by the TV program mentioned above, although they often trigger heated public debate, the crisis of the humanities, if ever there is one, is not among them. Unlike in the United States,4 Europe,5 or India,6 where there are repeated alarmist commentaries warning against the decline of the humanities in higher education and painting a bleak picture...