CAIRO - Cairo University President Mohamed Othman Elkhosht said he sees his primary objective as laying the foundations in the university for intellectual momentum that helps “fight terrorism, extremism, fundamentalism and all currents that suppress rational thinking in understanding reality and the religious text.”
In an interview with The Arab Weekly, Elkhosht, who took office in August 2017, said the University of Cairo would introduce a project labelled “Developing the Egyptian Mind.”
Preparations for the project began this summer with the selection of 600 students to take part in a university camp dedicated to critical and innovative thinking skills. The event included seminars and training workshops in modern thought processes and critical evaluations of extremist ideologies.
Elkhosht said fighting extremism requires an overreaching overhaul of the intellectual traditions and processes of entire populations. Such traditions usually do not encourage critical analysis and critical thinking and that makes people more amenable to the extremist ideas with which they are bombarded daily.
He added that changing thought processes requires developing mental capacities and must be carried out through different channels, such as the media and Muslim and Christian religious institutions, at the same time. He said the first step in transforming mentalities in Egypt is clearing out ideas encrusted in people’s minds.
During the 1970s, Islamist groups infiltrated Cairo University and spread to most universities in Egypt. For 50 years, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups worked their way deep inside colleges and replaced the ideational content offered to students by one based on obedience and regurgitation.
At Cairo University, Elkhosht implemented a modernisation programme by overhauling class syllabi and tying them to philosophical approaches and logic. Thus, 11 new curricula and 27 new programmes were created, 44 new courses were added and 18 graduate courses were upgraded.
Elkhosht’s reforms are in tune with the overall vision for reforming religious discourse in Egypt. He, however, refuses to just revise traditional religious discourse — that would be like restoring an old building. Instead he is for erecting a new “religious building” by relying on new concepts and terminology and on removing subversive interpretations of the sacred text.
Elkhosht figures on UNESCO’s 2017 list of 21st-century philosophers and has written 41 books of philosophy, authenticated 24 books in Islamic heritage and published 27 papers in refereed journals.
Elkhosht said modernising thought processes at the university will start with two fundamental courses offered to all university students: Critical Thinking and Business Entrepreneurship. In both courses, students learn to analyse and assess concepts and ideas, identify preconceived ideas and learn self-reliance in managing their future projects.
Cairo University began its Developing the Egyptian Mind campaign during the past academic year through dozens of conferences, seminars and workshops on how to include modern philosophical and epistemological theories in curricula and syllabi. The aim is to make the culture of critical thinking the basis of academic practices by teachers and students.
Elkhosht said that closed undeveloped minds are the ideal targets of terrorist organisations and the basic fodder for their wars. An educational system based on memorisation and reproduction only helps these organisations. University contents and teaching methods must change to reshape the learner’s mind towards reliance on critical thinking and creativity and thus support the government’s efforts against backward thinking.
Elkhosht affirmed that the biggest challenge for the Egyptian government will come from those in the country with closed minds. These people’s thoughts were shaped in the country’s schools and universities. They are like robots, capable only of reproducing what they’ve learnt and feed on mediocrity and violence in media and art.
While Cairo University’s reform programme is good for all higher education institutions, its implementation is limited. Elkhosht said he hopes its success will convince other universities to adopt the measures.
Experts say isolated efforts to deal with the challenges of extremism are inefficient. The problem requires coordinated efforts on a variety of fronts — security, science, culture — and a variety of institutions.
Cairo University is upping its fight against extremism by embarking on academic cooperation programmes with Arab and international universities. The university will soon open an international branch, which will offer joint programmes in advanced technologies and business entrepreneurship with Hiroshima, Cambridge, Manchester, Georgia and Liverpool universities.
Ahmed Gamal is an Egyptian writer.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.