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Myths and Illusions about Free Public Education in Egypt
In June 1963, public intellectual Luis ‘Awad published an article in Al-Ahram newspaper titled “The Trojan Horse of Imperialism: The University and the New Society.” The article in question demonised the education policies of the bygone parliamentary period and critiqued their architects—chief among them former Minister of Education, Isma‘il al-Qabbani. ‘Awad was certainly not alone in attacking al-Qabbani as he was joined by other public intellectuals of the period including thinker Adib Dimitri who propagated similar narratives in the press. Al-Qabbani is most remembered as the archenemies of Taha Husayn because he publicly endorsed a position against the removal of primary school fees in the late 1940s in what came to be known as the kamm (quantity) vs. kayf (quality) debate. Or so the narrative goes. This paper explores the ways in which narratives about this debate emerging twenty years later, i.e. at the height of the Nasser regime, have clouded popular perceptions about the incident and about the history of public education as a whole. While al-Qabbani and Husayn undoubtedly supported opposing views, al-Qabbani’s positions have rarely been explored in great detail since he was cast as a British puppet, a palace supporter and a classist. Yet, by exploring his writings more closely a different image emerges: one in which al-Qabbani was actually a champion of social justice and a proponent of what we today refer to as ‘progressive education’. This is why most members of the teaching profession supported his position. The paper therefore asks two interrelated questions: If these narratives are false, what truly transpired in the 1940s? And why do these narratives continue to have staying power until today? Through the use of the pedagogy press and ministerial documents, the paper seeks to present a different reading of the debate arguing that the Nasser regime’s tendency to oversimplify and to scapegoat contributed to the obfuscation of the otherwise highly nuanced history of free public education in Egypt.
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