In 1980, Saadeddin Ibrahim published in English an analysis of the social background of two pioneer political Islam groups in Egypt. After acquiring the necessary security passes, Ibrahim made prison visits to talk with members of the Military Technical College and El-Rl-Takfeer wa El-Hijra (Excommunication and Exodus) groups who were jailed after carrying out violent attacks that killed dozens, such as seizing the Military Technical School in 1974, and kidnapping and murdering former Minister of Religious Endowments Sheikh Dahabi in 1977.
A key observation Ibrahim made about the academic background of these two groups is that most of them are university students or university graduates. Even more important is that 80 per cent of his subjects attended professional colleges such as medicine, engineering and pharmaceuticals. Also significant is that two key members of Al-Qaeda also graduated from professional schools in Egypt: Ayman Al-Zawahri – Al-Qaeda’s number two– graduated from Qasr Al-Aini School of Medicine in 1974 and earned his MSc in surgery from Assiut University in 1978. Mohamed Atta, who the FBI describes as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, has an architecture degree from Cairo University.
Of course there is no direct link between studying medicine and engineering, or attending Egyptian universities in general, with extremism or what is described as "terrorism." I do, however, make a link specifically between extremism and how medicine and engineering are taught and teaching methods at Egyptian universities in general.
There are, of course, many reasons behind religious fanaticism, whether peaceful or violent. Hundreds of books have been written in many languages exploring the social, economic, political and psychological reasons behind extremism. Without diminishing the significance of all these factors, I believe we need to also closely examine the fact that many members of extremist political Islamic groups are university graduates and that the majority of these graduates – not all of them of course – studied at professional universities.
There are many studies about festering problems at Egyptian universities; everyone knows how the education process is influenced by several aspects such as large numbers of students in classes and laboratories, small budgets, low pay for faculty, lacking or inadequate laboratories, libraries and other research resources to generate knowledge. There are many inhibiting factors and hundreds of studies about substandard teaching techniques, focusing on memorising rather than understanding and inferior curricula.
While all these factors are significant and important, I believe the key reason for the breakdown in Egypt’s university education is only focusing on one’s field of study. By that I mean the (mistaken) belief that the best way to train a university student is deepening knowledge of their specialty subject and not to expand their knowledge about other subjects. This is especially prevalent in professional colleges such as medicine whereby students are there for at least seven years studying various branches of medicine without any knowledge of the history of their profession, or Egypt’s health insurance policies, or hospital design and administration. And what about other subjects that have nothing to do with medicine such as music, philosophy or literature?
Meanwhile, an engineering student studies various branches of engineering for five years without learning about modern Arab literature or Renaissance art or reading Islamic philosophy. But what is the connection between architecture and Islamic philosophy? How will a medical student benefit from studying Shakespeare or Pharaonic history? Are these just a waste of time and opportunity for a genuine education?
These are obvious and pertinent questions, and the answer to them is rooted in the approach of "liberal arts" that does not exist in our universities, which could be a reason for religious fanaticism. "Liberal arts" has nothing to do with liberal ideology but is a derivative of the Latin word liber, or "free." It means acquiring the skills and faculties that a free person – i.e. not a slave – should have, essentially, the ability for critical thinking; verbal expression of opinion; writing in an articulate concisely and to listen, converse and debate in a critical manner.
University education based on this approach does not aim to produce students who know everything about their field but nothing about the other branches of science. Instead, students become skilled in creative thinking and engaging in quiet dialogue about a subject that has nothing to do with their field. Also, finding unconventional solutions for problems they may face in the workplace and communicating with others in a more persuasive manner and influencing them through civilised peaceful means.
Most US and European universities are built on liberal education which is dissimilar than in-depth field –specific specialisation. Classes related to the economy that economics students study at Yale University, for example, account for no more than half their course load and the remaining courses could be in political science, statistics, music, philosophy, mathematics or even Chinese.
Meanwhile, an English literature graduate from the University of California could have also studied the history of cinema, political science and the history of science.
Everyone, whether professors, parents, students and employers all acknowledge that not everyone who studies commerce will become a merchant or if they study business administration they would become a businessman or an English literature student will be the next Shakespeare. On the contrary, everyone knows that a skilled diplomat does not have a degree in political science, and anyone who wants to be a writer does not have to graduate with a degree in literature.
There is a general belief that the curricula of a liberal arts education not only encourages raising a free citizen but are also necessary for the job market. Field-specific colleges in commerce, political science and economics, medicine and engineering began more than half a century ago when the market needed specific skills for a particular job that the graduate hoped he would be recruited for and remain there until he retires.
Today, however, most graduates will be asked to hop from one assignment and job to the next within the same company, or move from one company to another. This is why they need to be armed with skills and faculties that enable them to deal with aggressive fluctuations and challenges in the job market.
There are, of course, many reasons behind the breakdown of our universities, but the absence of liberal arts education remains a key reason. Our universities played a pioneer and pivotal role in society’s renaissance and boosting the economy at a certain point in time, but now the time has come to overhaul the approach to university education. We should not limit debate to its mechanisms, economics and ideologies but instead reconstruct university curricula to successfully train students to be more competitive on the job market. Also, so as to produce free citizens who can creatively connect with their society.
The writer is a historian and head of the Committee for Documenting the Revolution at the Egyptian National Library and Archives