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.

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