When I worked as an assistant professor in the department for Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, I often represented my department at the large freshmen fair which was organized at the beginning of each academic year to welcome new students and to walk them through the different departments, disciplines and activities available on campus.
What really amazed me at this annual fair was the large number of student clubs and organizations, which reflected an extremely rich and diversified student life. These clubs did not have only artistic, cultural or social goals, for some of them were also political in nature. There was a club called College Democrats, another called College Republicans and other clubs representing different trends within the larger US political life, including ones for pro-Israel students, and others for those Jewish students who are critical of the state of Israel, as well as clubs for Arabs, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. in addition to the Whig-Cliosophic Society, the oldest US college political, literary and debating society.
These clubs played a central role in students’ lives and we, as professors, continuously encouraged our students to join them in order to get familiar with the different ideas and trends that are awash in US political life.
The university administration, for its part, always stressed onto students the importance of engaging in such activities, political and non-political, making it clear to them and to their parents that these extra-curricular activities constituted an essential part of their studies.
The purpose of university education is not solely to obtain a certificate that would land students a good job in the labor market. It also aims to refine their critical skills, sharpen their expressive faculties and inculcate in them the feeling of civic responsibility. The political socialization of students and the organizational experience they gain by engaging in these activities were appreciated by the university administration for the role they played in entrenching the values of citizenship and public service, which are at the heart of the educational message of universities.
I was all the more amazed to learn that politics were encouraged not only in universities but also in middle and high schools.
I reflect on these memories and thoughts in reaction to pronouncements made by our Minister of Education, Gamal al-Araby, banning students from participating or engaging in any political activities in schools throughout the country. He justified the ban by saying that politics has a “negative impact on students’ psyches,” and is “destructive of the education mission of our schools.”
The minister may not be aware that we are living in the 21st century and that what applied during his days no longer applies now. In fact, what was acceptable before the revolution may not be acceptable now. How can the minister prevent students from exercising politics when they see their colleagues losing life and limb in the streets? How can he ask students in schools not to be concerned about what is happening in the country in these revolutionary times when their colleagues who go to football matches to cheer their favorite team end up being killed in cold blood?
Four months ago during the Institut d’Egypte incidents, I entered the building with friends trying to save some books only to be drenched by water hoses directed by army soldiers, incidentally, not at the smoldering fire but at the demonstrators. While standing in front of the Qasr al-Dubara Church to dry myself in the sun I was approached by a woman in her thirties with a beautiful smile. She looked me in the eye and passed me by. Then she turned around and said, “I know you. I watched you the other day on a TV program speaking about your experience on Mohamed Mahmoud Street.” Embarrassingly, I smiled back and said, yes, it was me. She then said, “Okay, I will ask you the same question that you said the young men on Mohamed Mahmoud Street asked you: What brings you here?” I hesitated for a second, then I asked her, “Ma’am, what brings you here?” “My son is here,” she said. “Where?” I asked. “Somewhere here,” gesturing toward the front line where skirmishes with the police were still going on. “How old is he?” I asked. “Fifteen,” she said. “His best friend was fatally shot with a bullet in his stomach,” she added. “He told me that he would not return home except if he gets him back his rights.” With that, she left with the same beautiful smile.
What does the Minister of Education have to say to this mother, and to her son? How dare he tell him to mind his business and not to concern himself with politics?
Does the minister not realize that it is better for his schools to teach students how to be politically engaged citizens? Does he not see that rather than banning politics altogether, it is important that schools under his administration teach students that there is more than one way to be politically active, and that street protests, as legitimate as they may be, are not the only way to be politically engaged? Does he not see that his schools should teach students the principles of politics and political work?
Does the minister not see that instead of asking students to memorize Mubarak’s achievements, schools should teach students the history of Egyptian constitutions and inform them about the principles of human rights?
Does the minister not realize that “politics” is no longer a dirty word, and that being politically active is now hip and cool? Does he not see that the days in which politics was considered a shameful thing are over, and that the time has come to raise our children to think that public service is not shameful? Does the minister not realize that rather than regurgitating empty slogans about belonging, loyalty and citizenship, it is better for our schools to inculcate in students the value of civic responsibility and to offer them an opportunity to hone their political skills?
Does the minister not understand that by teaching students what politics is all about and providing them with a safe environment in which to practice it, he would be helping to produce a generation of good, responsible citizens who are loyal to their country?
Your Excellency, have you no shame?
Khaled Fahmy is a historian and chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo.
An Arabic version of this article appeared first in Akhbar al-Adab. Translated by Dina Zafer.