Critical citizenship for critical times

This piece was written by Maha Bali and originally published on Al-Fanar Media on August 19th, 2013, and it is with their permission that it has been republished.

As someone who has been studying critical thinking for over six years now and living in Egypt, the situation here continues to surprise me. The most recent violence has left me stunned. It has led me to reflect on critical thinking, citizenship, and what contribution education might make to Egypt’s future.

Students in Egypt protest

My research has shown that Egyptian high school education makes it difficult for students to question their professors’ authority, and does not give them confidence to participate critically in classroom discussions. But these same students are more willing to question local and foreign media. Some of them are even willing to question religious authorities.

Despite the educational system that stresses memorization and discourages questioning and creativity, people in Egypt, with many different educational backgrounds, displayed skepticism of the Mubarak regime. While it seems a long time ago now and much has happened since then, the overthrow of Mubarak was revealing. Despite years of repression, Egyptian youth managed to discern that they needed to get rid of the Mubarak regime. Then they did. It was, and still is, an impressive feat.

Advocacy is considered one of the highest forms of engaged citizenship, and Egyptians have shown they excel at it. However, everything that has come after that, and especially this summer’s events, leave me feeling that Egyptian notions of citizenship are missing something important. Advocacy on the street succeeds in toppling regimes: first Mubarak’s, then Morsi’s. But that kind of citizenship, based on opposition, seems unable to change tactics and work towards reconciliation and reconstruction. It just recreates the protest cycle over and over again. The most recent escalations of violence further complicate chances for reconciliation.

How much of this failure is due to uncritical citizenry responding to sensationalist media, and how much to factors beyond individuals’ agency and control, I don’t know. But I believe that higher education has a crucial part to play in preparing today’s youth for Egypt’s future, including promoting awareness of factors that restrict one’s agency to act. I focus on higher education to suggest short-term solutions. Its role extends beyond simply educating enrolled students, to community outreach. Long-term, of course, change needs to start in schools.

Critical Thinking in Higher Education

If promoting citizenship is an overarching goal of higher education, universities need to go beyond just promoting critical thinking (a form of education already in short supply) and community service to focus on developing “critical citizenship.” While not necessarily a new concept, the term could help us refocus on what form of education is needed. After years of studying critical thinking, I believe that our understanding of critical thinking needs to be contextualized. I work at the American University in Cairo, and the commonly adopted version of critical thinking here is North American, which includes reflective skepticism to inform decision making. Critical thinking is understood as consisting of a set of skills (such as evaluating evidence, uncovering hidden assumptions, and logically supporting one’s argument) and dispositions (such as inquisitiveness and open-mindedness).

Worldwide, it is questionable how far college can develop critical thinking in students who don’t already have it. But even this kind of traditional criticality has failed on two fronts. First, most analyses of the Egyptian situation continue to be based on conspiracy theories to explain multiple conflicting realities, with little attention paid to evaluating evidence. Indeed, sometimes there just isn’t enough evidence or a search for evidence. Second, this approach does not prepare citizens to act upon their criticism. Such action, or “critical citizenship” can benefit from two alternative conceptions of critical thinking.

The first conception borrows from the critical pedagogy movement originating in Paulo Freire’s work. Here, the end goal of critical thinking is to challenge the status quo in order to achieve social justice, collectively raising consciousness of conditions promoting oppression in order to achieve liberation. It is a form of critical thinking that promotes praxis – reflective action based on knowledge, rather than mere activism (which we have seen much of in Egypt in the past two years) or speech and dialogue unaccompanied by action (which we have been seeing for a longer time). It is not mere skepticism about separate facts, it is value-driven and historically situated questioning of power structures that lie beneath the surface. This kind of thinking may be easier to adopt when teaching social sciences and humanities, but more complex to include in the study of professions, such as business, and even more difficult in the study of sciences. But it is not impossible. For example, engineering courses can infuse elements of the social, economic and ethical impact of engineering practices.

The second conception of critical thinking comes from a feminist understanding of critical thinking, based on Women’s Ways of Knowing by Mary Field Belenky and her colleagues. Their research indicated that women (and some men) tend to prefer more communal and less confrontational ways of learning, rather than the pedagogies usually associated with critical thinking such as debating. This preference to understand the view of “the other” before critiquing it resonates with Edward Said’s notion of philological hermeneutics (understanding a text from the author’s viewpoint before critiquing it). This approach widens one’s worldview and also involves elements of empathy missing from the traditional understanding of critical thinking, which prioritizes logic and rationality.

The current situation in Egypt seems to me to fall on one of two sides: either complete skepticism regardless of evidence (sometimes even creating fictitious evidence); or complete and blind trust (as in the July 26 rallies in response to General Al-Sisi’s speech). There has also been widespread lack of empathy for how the ouster of Morsi would affect his numerous supporters. The way Egyptians keep dividing themselves, and doing so with passion, making possibilities for future reconciliation and a pluralistic society difficult, if not impossible.

Egyptians need to develop their own notion of critical citizenship that does not simply adopt ideas from others, but is dialogically and reflectively developed, and responsive to contextual changes, considering issues of social justice and empathy needed in Egypt today. While most academics I know do consider universities agents of social justice, and do themselves have empathetic and social justice orientations, I believe this does not always reach students, when our focus is to develop a traditional critical thinker. My research has found three pedagogies that can help infuse elements of empathy, social justice, and action in our teaching. The first is apolitical civic engagement via grassroots community service, which research has shown promotes adult political engagement. Another is simulated political engagement such as Model United Nations (also Model Egyptian Political Parties suggested by an AUC professor), to explore solutions in a safe environment. The third is intercultural dialogue to widen empathetic understanding of diverse world views.

Higher education’s role, as I see it, is to help society reflect beyond activism and resistance, necessary and important as they are. There is a need to develop critical citizens capable of negotiating multiple conflicting interests in a process of creatively co-constructing a better future.

I invite other people to join the conversation on the role of higher education in the current political situation. How do you envision your role as academic? How do you envision higher education’s influence?


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