"My mentors told me "Be brave! Go for it!""

"My mentors told me "Be brave! Go for it!""

  • The class of 2016 on graduation day ©Suvaid YassinThe class of 2016 on graduation day ©Suvaid Yassin

Karim Goessinger has dual Egyptian and Austrian citizenship. In 2011, he watched the Egyptian revolution unfold from Paris where he was studying for a Master’s at Sciences Po. Having observed these events that changed Egyptian mentalities forever, Karim went back to Cairo after his Master’s and founded CILAS, the first Liberal Arts College in Egypt.

Why did you create a Liberal Arts College in Egypt?

In 2011, when the revolution took place, it opened up incredible possibilities! Young people were talking about social change and I could see from a distance–I was doing my Master’s in Paris at the time–that young Egyptians had begun to discuss Marx, the theories of justice, etc. This revolutionary momentum lasted a few months, but without any framework in which to develop it could not keep going. So my idea was to create a framework to help this burgeoning critical reflection grow.

The young revolutionaries didn’t have any theoretical grounding, but I felt they had a strong consciousness and good ideas for innovative projects. For instance, they created coworking spaces so they could get together easily and keep up the debate. They wanted to study the great classics at their meetings, but how could they approach these often difficult texts without any methodological background?

In Egypt, the quality of higher education is poor and universities teach only technical disciplines aimed at training professionals. Today, young people want something else. Observing all this, I thought that I could help them take advantage of the education I had received in the Netherlands and France. My friends supported me, my mentors told me “Be brave! Go for it!” and in 2013, I created CILAS, the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

How is the curriculum structured at CILAS? Which disciplines are taught?

It's a one-year programme organised into three parts. Like at all Liberal Arts Colleges, we first study a core curriculum covering the arts & culture, the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences to provide students with an intellectual foundation. During the first semester, students also tell us which topics they are interested in and would like to study. According to their interests, we develop a range of thematic courses for the second and third semesters.

What were the main thematic courses in 2015-2016?

We offered a course called “New Eyes, Old City” about photography and the many ways in which we can see the city. There was also a course about the state, entitled “Theorising the State in Africa”, a course called “the Right to Food and Food Sovereignty in the Egyptian context”, a course about elites, a course on Plato's Republic and a course about insanity which was taught by an anthropologist.

A course about insanity?

The revolution in Egypt gave rise to great hopes, and the failure of this movement was a violent trauma and a big disappointment for many people. It isn't possible for Egyptians to go back to thinking and doing things the old way. A door has been opened. Today, many Egyptians are very depressed, so it's logical for students to want to understand insanity and depression better.

How are courses taught at CILAS? I'm assuming they're not based around traditional lectures.

You're right, there are no lectures at CILAS. We work in small groups of eight people who get together around a table to learn through discussion. At the start of a class, we watch a Ted Talk, read a text, or listen to a podcast. This gives the students a chance to think about what they know on the subject and gather their resources. Then the teaching fellow moderates a discussion. At the end of the class, students make a list of questions and the teaching fellow provides them with a bibliography, videos, podcasts, etc. The following week, the students are able to address the questions from a theoretical perspective.

Who are the students and who are the teaching fellows?

The students are Egyptians from diverse cultural backgrounds, and refugees from Sudan, Eritrea or Syria. Some students are aged between 30 and 60, but most of them are between 20 and 30 years old. The cohorts are composed of 24 students, six of whom are refugees. At the end of their programme at CILAS, the students receive a Liberal Arts diploma. Our teaching fellows are graduates from leading universities such as Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Sciences Po. They are people who love Egypt and want to do something other than research.

How is CILAS funded?

Tuitions fees are very low, but they are enough for CILAS to be self-funding. We also run crowdfunding campaigns and get support from some foundations. The Ford Foundation made a donation for instance, but the Egyptian government didn’t let us access the funds. Recently, an Egyptian philanthropist gave us a building in Cairo which used to be the headquarters of the Egyptian Surrealists. So CILAS is now housed in a very symbolic location!

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