Reflections on Teaching the Liberal Arts in Morocco

In spring 2013, I co-taught a seminar at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, and helped to redesign that university’s honors program. Al Akhawayn is Morocco’s only English-language university and the only institution of higher learning in the country that styles itself a liberal arts college.

Despite this designation, very few of the students were studying subjects that somebody familiar with the Western tradition would recognize as part of the “liberal arts.” More than half the student body was studying for a bachelor’s of business administration, usually in finance. Of the three undergraduate majors offered by the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, one was “human resources development,” a course of study whose classification was justified by the assertion that “development” is a social science. It was a curriculum that left little room for the traditional foundations of a liberal arts education.

Throughout the semester, students would appear in my office to share their aspirations. One by one, they told me of their lifelong fascinations with art, or psychology, or poetry, or history, or even religion. After a few of these encounters, I learned to expect the sudden shift in the conversation.

The student would straighten his or her back, look down at the floor, and tell me, “Of course, I have to study finance.” This statement, once uttered, was non-negotiable, no matter how much I questioned the premises that led to it. Still looking at the floor, the students would begin to ply me with questions about how to apply for an American MBA.

Our seminar offered our best opportunity to introduce new modes of thinking. It was framed as a “great books” seminar, filled with short excerpts of classic texts. The syllabus mixed together important Western thinkers (everyone from Plato to Descartes to Darwin) with Arab writers (such as al-Farabi and Rifa‘a Rafi‘ al-Tahtawi). It was a setup that allowed us to draw connections across cultures—to discuss, for example, how al-Farabi adapted Plato’s ideas for an Islamic context—and across genres. Our wide-ranging discussions were a significant departure from the style of teaching our students had previously encountered in Morocco. One student even confided that she had never before spoken in a class discussion.

The day I knew our seminar was special came in the third week, when my co-instructor began the discussion with what seemed like a silly question. We had just read a few chapters of Aristotle’s Ethics, including a section where Aristotle muses about the ideal number of friends that a person can have. “We’re going to go around the room,” my co-instructor said, “and you’re going to tell all of us how many friends you have on Facebook.” This opening question jumpstarted the discussion. For the next hour and a half, the students furiously debated the finer points of Aristotle’s philosophy, but they did so in a manner that was relevant to their own lives and relationships.

Thereafter, I increasingly understood that my job was not merely to teach these students about the texts on our syllabus, but to encourage them to be comfortable making connections. Part of my role as an instructor was to show students that it was okay, even in an academic setting, to be “playful.” In other words, students had to understand that there was merit in sharing and developing new ideas, even and especially when those ideas seemed bizarre, contradictory, or upsetting.

Accordingly, we tried to guide students to understand each class’s reading in a dialogue with what had come before. One of our most off-the- wall discussion questions—“what would Pericles and Confucius discuss at a dinner party?”—earned us five minutes of perplexed stares, followed by an hour and twenty-five minutes of thoughtful discussion.

One of the reasons it was so important to consider each reading in concert with the rest of the syllabus was because these students were so rarely taught to contextualize what they were learning. The Moroccan academic environment in which they were studying, like the French-inspired school system in which most of them had grown up, prioritized learning distinct skills over making connections. The limitations of this approach were made especially clear during a capstone project defense I observed for an honors graduate in computer science. I was alarmed to discover that this student’s interlocutors were interested in posing questions only about the code used to program the project, not about any of its potential social, environmental, political, or ethical ramifications.

In general, the students I encountered in Morocco cared deeply about their society and were eager to make their mark on the world, but they sometimes struggled to know how to pursue those aspirations. In an environment where the overwhelming majority of students pursued degrees in either finance or computer science, it was perhaps inevitable that many would come to view technology as the most attractive path. As undergraduates, they dreamed of making apps and starting companies. Many did so with noble intentions, believing they could create something capable of transforming Moroccan society. But I worried that many pursued these goals with little opportunity for reflection, pushed along by an academic environment that fetishizes entrepreneurship as both the object of an undergraduate education and the only legitimate avenue for promoting social change.

I emerged from my time in Morocco convinced that one of the most important tasks of any university is to help prepare its students to think critically about their place in the world. An important first step is to teach students to understand the broader context of what they are learning and to make connections across disciplines. After all, if we want students to come up with creative solutions to real-world problems after they graduate, we must begin by making a conscious effort to foster creativity inside the classroom.

 

Kyle Haddad-Fonda has worked at universities in both Morocco and China, as well as for a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing a global focus to K–12 education in rural communities in the United States.  He holds a DPhil in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.  His ongoing research focuses on China’s relations with the Middle East.

In Response to the Questions Raised

The Undercommons

The Undercommons is a freedom school that operates in Los Angeles, California, in the United States.  We work to equip social movements with the looted intellectual and material resources housed in universities.

“Is education for liberation, in the sense of Paolo Freire, Henry A. Giroux, and others, impossible in a for-profit institution? How might we think through both shareholder returns and critical pedagogy in the same breath?”

We want to fight the frame of the question.  By asking whether or not the for-profit institution is compatible with education for liberation, we are operating on the presumption that the institution’s goals set what is possible for the school.  But as students of the Black radical tradition know, that isn’t how power works, or how it has ever worked.  Resistance to oppression is, necessarily formed within the conditions of oppression. The self-emancipating slaves in Haiti and Brazil, didn’t need to step outside of capitalism to get free, and they didn’t need to exit the plantation to disrupt or co-opt its operation for their own ends.

If form determined possibility, these institutions of power wouldn’t need to be policed and securitized in the way that they are.  The questions actually in front of us are:  What resources do you have access to, regardless of why they were made available to you?  What leeway do you have to use them? In other words, what modes of subversion can you participate in? What kinds of surveillance and punishment manage the resources you have access to, and what can you do about them?

“How might we teach students to think in a way that is inherently decolonial as they go through their undergraduate curriculum? What kind of practical assignments do we set, what kind of theory do we read, what kinds of discussions do we ensure that we have?”

We understand colonial education to be the systems of education put in place by colonizers in order to protect and advance their colonial interests. Accordingly, we understand decolonial education to be abolitionist.  A decolonial education is one that contributes to destroying the relationship of colonialism (or neocolonialism) that holds one group of people hostage to the whims and interests of another.  On this understanding of decolonial education, it isn’t possible for a curriculum to be inherently decolonial.  Decolonizing is a political, material, and spiritual objective, not a methodology or a set of practices identifiable without reference to their effects.

Many of our most prolific and important decolonial scholars were trained in mission schools or what could have been considered colonial education, for example, W.E.B. DuBois and C.L.R. James. When they realized the sham that was and still is western civilization, they turned their political objectives to decolonization using the very colonial education they received.  They used that very “colonial” education as a positive contribution to their decolonial political efforts.

As we know, no curriculum, no matter how woke or intersectional, can succeed at being decolonial unless and until it materially alters the relation of power between colonizer and colonized towards the abolition of that relationship.  We all also know that the form of experience for 28 students in the room, no matter how personally meaningful and liberatory, will not be decolonial for the millions of Africans who are not in the room.  That is, unless and until it contributes to the erosion and eventual abolition of the colonial structures they confront in their daily lives.

Curriculum is but one facet of education. The structure and location of education, who teaches, and who learns have all been infected by histories of colonialism and its attendant dislocations such as racism, patriarchy, etc. Yet we can’t then reject all forms of education that we believe to be European for the performative sake of not being European. Our selective rejections must be based on concrete decolonial objectives, and since plenty of European peoples have been colonized, there are decolonial traditions to be had everywhere resistance to colonialism has occurred, and it always occurred.

Igniting Decolonial Social Sciences at a University-yet-to-come

My colleague Janice Ndegwa and I have been given a very interesting, and very difficult task, and I write this post to request help from a global community of scholars, activists, thinkers, and actors.

This month we began a Social Sciences Program in a university-yet-to-come located in Mauritius with a student body who are from all over Africa. By university-yet-to-come I mean a for-profit institution not yet accredited as a university but as a college, partnered with an accredited institution in Scotland, established and run by MBAs with the explicit goal of “creating 3 million transformative leaders” though the meanings of leadership are rarely interrogated. This is to be done through a curriculum aimed explicitly at work-readiness rather than, say, intellectual exploration. The model for education is one that has come out of significant research into pedagogy and learning. It is based on “7 Meta Skills” that I confess I initially concluded read like a cross between Steven Covey’s highly effective habits, and the kind of tech-futurism that made me flee Silicon Valley thinking no, an app cannot actually end poverty in Africa.

Skepticism aside, the African Leadership U (ALU, nick-named by a few of us as the Albert Luthuli University when we are trying to present a serious front at conferences), is achieving what generations of liberation and post-colonial thinkers have dreamed. That is, creating a place and a network where young people from across Africa come together to imagine and bring into being a different vision of the continent and its place in the world, and to learn the skills that it will take to do so. Though much could – and no doubt will – be improved on the current model, ALU makes a genuine attempt to rethink the training and development of university students in the context of the 21st century knowledge environment.

All of this creates a very different tone to the institutions with which most of mine and Janice’s communities (scholars, activists, students, policy shapers, and those based in the broad NGO sector), align, and a certain amount of skepticism is a healthy response. Nonetheless, ALU’s founder, Fred Swaniker, can hardly be faulted when he says the solution to the higher education crisis in Africa is not forthcoming from the public sector. Globally too, tertiary education often appears completely dysfunctional. Perhaps, as Swaniker claims, the private sector can do something differently – and I really respect to him for genuinely trying. Whatever the result, there is no doubt that he has managed to bring together a phenomenal group of students. That in itself may guarantee a certain success. The first cohort of students are now in their second year, so two classes from all over the continent are doing problem sets, writing poetry, and learning intensively from one another as they go about the business of communal and intellectual life.

After spending their first year in a mandatory “Leadership Core,” which is followed by an internship in (usually) the corporate or NGO sector, students at ALU currently have four options for their majors. These are Business Management, Computing, Engineering, and Social Science, and the approach is to teach students ways of thinking, rather than necessarily an entire traditional canon from a subject such as, for example, sociology. We are all beginning, and we are all finding our way, but in Social Science we know – and our 28 founding students know – that the stakes are high, and fascinating.

Across the world, there have been heightened (re)calls for the Decolonization of Knowledge, for what Nelson Maldonado-Torres refers to as a “decoloniality” as a way of being, of thinking, of action[1]. Maldonado-Torres, building on a long history from Fanon through Steve Biko, Angela Davis[2], and far beyond, writes that decoloniality “involves an aesthetic, erotic, and spiritual decolonial turn whereby the damné emerges as the creator” (Maldonado-Torres, 2016). In this, Maldonado-Torres speaks to the very difficult work that “the damnés” – groups of people who have historically suffered from profound structural violence – must do to find not only voice and audience, but the intellectual and spiritual space in which to feel whole at institutions largely founded on exclusionary premises. #RhodesMustFall was not responding to something new of course, but something very old. The same can be said of the US American #BlackLivesMatter, or the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, or the 2011-2013 Chilean Winter.

So where might an institution like ALU fit into this history? What does it mean to begin a new program in such a space, and to found it in Mauritius? ALU is very new, and is very explicitly resisting “the pressure to conduct tertiary education the way it has always been done.” The institution is premised on “reimagining” education, to “create a more prosperous and peaceful Africa” – and presumably, given the interconnectedness of things, also the world. It has a student body that represents 32 countries, and the 276 young people in the founding two classes. Identity and race are read in multiple ways and with multiple lenses. They come from diverse political, cultural, and spiritual traditions, and to assume any obvious commonality due to shared ‘belonging’ in a place that represents over 30.37 million square kilometers of physical territory seems dangerously old-fashioned. Nonetheless, the point is that something akin to black excellence is assured, and articulated in a way that seems only to parallel the self-confidence of the American formally-black institutions such as Howard College, which was recently described by Ta-Nahesi Coates as the “Mecca” of black intellectualism (Coates, 2015).

Students in our founding classes know that they have potential, and they buy into “leadership” in some way. They’ve taken an enormous risk in getting their education at a university-yet-to-come, so they are deeply invested in making it work. They have been selected from an enormous pool of applicants because of the vision they have for their lives, which in all cases involves something different, and doing it well, but in most cases what exactly that is has not yet crystalized. They see the opportunity in being the first, but they are also a little nervous, because without the training in conventional social science and conventional disciplines that Janice, myself, and everyone I know has received, it’s hard for the undergraduates to figure out just what, exactly, they are supposed to be “disrupting.”

socscifounderswgcu

[Founding Social Science students with visiting Glasgow Caledonian University Faculty]

One of the students has already informed me he wants to do a PhD at Harvard, and he knows he needs a very solid training. Another plans to go into law. Another ‘simply’ wants to create systems whereby poor people in her home city are not patronized by the rich, that they are listened to, and supported. These students look to Janice and I to provide the scaffold from which they will do all these things, but Janice and I are limited by our own educational lenses, and our own biographies, and between facilitating a Scottish curriculum, designing supplementary material, and helping the university-yet-to-come turn into a university-that-is, the two of us alone cannot possibly accomplish the task of adequately preparing them to think in a way that we are able to envision, but not quite see.

Our project is to build a unit within a university that is fundamentally decolonial from its inception. To do this we would like to pose eight questions to the global community (of thinkers, whatever your age, position, location, view). We think that finding and enacting the best answers to these questions will make or break our program. We would like to invite submissions of essays in response to what is listed below, and then to publish one such essay every fortnight on our blog. We will then use it as the base for discussion with our founding Social Science students, and with the broader community at ALU. Then, we want to bring the contributors to ALU to think with the students face-to-face. We don’t yet know how that all might happen, and we do know it’s a big ask of busy people’s time and energy, but we think it’s interesting, and that it could lead to something of value to others beyond our community. Given the state of the world right now, some examples of overcoming barriers and building new forms of community seem utterly essential. At a time of such global fear and limitation, facilitating the emergence of an explicitly Pan-African department/unit/thinking space/approach from scratch is a unique and powerful opportunity, and we have more institutional freedom than most academics can even dream.

With this in mind, we ask our networks, and the networks-of-our-networks, to reflect on the following, and if the urge strikes to write a response, please email it to us at jauerbach@alueducation.com, and jndegwa@alueducation.com and/or leave your comments on the blog for the sake of global dialogue. Building the program for the future, we have a free slate, and though we have our own answers penciled out and already enacted in certain ways, there is so much more that we could do. We hope, in time, to also use this platform as a way of profiling best practices in what in the US might be considered “diversity” education, or in other places “teaching difficult questions,” in which the personal is always assumed to be political, and vice versa.

  • How might we teach students to think in a way that is inherently decolonial as they go through their undergraduate curriculum? What kind of practical assignments do we set, what kind of theory do we read, what kinds of discussions do we ensure that we have?
  • How do we engage with the local (in this case Mauritian community), when most of our students are not from here and do not speak Creole, and only some speak French?
  • How do we think of Africa, and of the world, from such a space, and how do we do so in a way that is the most deeply respectful, intellectually rigorous, and practically useful? Is there a way that we could model for others both institution building and engagement, such that we do not in some subtle way engage in our own version of ‘colonial’ thinking and action?
  • What might the role of African Languages be in our program? We currently have a founding class who between them speak 29 languages,[1] and though they are being assessed in English, it is clear that we could do a great deal to address the call for engagement with African Languages that has been called for from scholars such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o for decades[2] but rarely manifests in actual institutions. How do we address the limitations of our own languages when working with students, helping them to master rigorous intellectual and narrative skills when we ourselves, as mentors, in many cases cannot speak the languages under discussion?
  • Is education for liberation, in the sense of Paolo Freire, Henry A. Giroux, and others, impossible in a for-profit institution? How might we think through both shareholder returns and critical pedagogy in the same breath?
  • Part of intellectual decoloniality as we understand it demands that we attempt to take seriously sources of knowledge that are not only textual. What techniques or strategies of engagement, summation, analysis and re-presentation might we engage as part of our pedagogy? How might we use this to effect change in the institution as a whole, as we lever such knowledges to widen the accepted scope of Africa-based epistemology and ontology in the world? How might we represent it, using both new and old technologies?
  • What are the best practices for engaging the truths of racialization and its effects, without racializing our students in turn? The same with nationalism, regionalism [#Africaisnotacountry], religious affiliation and social class? We want our students to be angry enough to change the world order, but in a way that is productive, thoughtful, and empowering rather than incapacitating.
  • What other questions should we be asking?

On this blog you will find short bio-essays from our students, and from ourselves, so that readers might understand this founding class as human beings. Our hope is that many other students follow in their path. We need to get it right, or if not quite right, to make a full-hearted attempt to do so. We are curious about what the wider community might think, and thank you all for engaging with us thus far.

 

Jess Auerbach

 

Pamplemousses, Mauritius

 

References:

 

Biko, S. B. (2001). I Write What I Like. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Coates, T.-N. (2015). Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Davis, A. (2015). Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. New York: Haymarket Books.

Fanon, F. (2008). Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Maldonado-Torres, N. (2016). Outline of Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality *. Cape Town: Institute for Creative Arts.

Mangcu, X. (2014). The Contemporary Relevance of Black Consciousness in South Africa. New South African Review 4: A Fragile Democracy.

Wa Thiong’o, N. (1986). Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature. London: Heinemann.

 

[1] Afrikaans, Amharic, Arabic, English, German, Maasai, Mauritian Créole, Fante, French, Ga, Igbo, Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Kinyarwanda, Kiswahili, Luganda, Ndebele, Nyanja, Oromo, Portuguese, Russian, Setswana, Shona, SiSwati, Tigrigna, Twi, Venda, Yoruba, isiZulu.

[2] (Wa Thiong’o, 1986)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] (Maldonado-Torres, 2016)

[2] (Biko, 2001; Davis, 2015; Fanon, 2008; Mangcu, 2014)