Linda Herrera, Educating Egypt: Civic Values and Ideological Struggles (New York and Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Linda Herrera (LH): I had been planning to compile a volume of my work on Egyptian education for some time, but it kept getting interrupted by the forces of history. For instance, while I was preparing a manuscript covering a decade of ethnographic work in relation to nationalism and political Islam in education, the events of 11 September 2001 occurred. I became temporarily paralyzed, not sure how to position this work given the tide of Islamophobia and the “War on Terror.” I shifted my attention instead to life histories of Muslim youth. When I returned to researching education, I discovered I needed to pay attention not so much to Islamist politics, but to new information and communication technologies and how young people were using them to learn, socialize, do politics, and perform citizenship roles. As I was researching the social media activities of Egyptian students, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 erupted. I shifted my focus to youth and revolution in the age of social media. As the dust settled and I started researching educational change in the post-revolution period, I realized that for three decades I had witnessed different eras of Egyptian history and been documenting them through the lens of education, technology, and youth. It was time to finally write and compile this book.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

LH: This book combines a substantial reworking of already published material with new writing in the anthropology of education, youth and technology studies, critical development studies, and Middle East studies. It is divided into four sections. Part One, “Schooling the Nation,” is an ethnography of a government girls’ school during the Mubarak era. Through attention to the everyday life of the school, which stands as a microcosm of the nation, it provides insights into the ideals about schooling for national cohesion and development, versus the challenging realities. Part Two moves to political Islam and interrogates how Islamist movements, starting with the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, have used the technologies and institutions of state power to create alternatives to it, and how students and education workers have intervened in ideological and political struggles. Part Three looks at youth in a changing global order, with attention to how the logic of the market, the “knowledge economy,” has influenced education policies and altered state-society relations, particularly with regard to youth. Finally, Part Four asks about the future of education in light of the ubiquity of private lessons, technological advances, and major upsets brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic. It asks if the school as we know it is on its way to extinction and, if so, what is on the horizon to replace it?

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

LH: I have always been interested in the relationship between research and theory and how empirical realities from the ground can upend our assumptions about social systems, nudge us to reconsider our theories, and open new avenues of inquiry. Among the many strengths of qualitative methodologies generally, and ethnography specifically, whether of brick and mortar schools or virtual social media spaces, is that they allow us to learn about how social systems and relations might be changing and, in the process, build new knowledge. In other words, qualitative research forces one to build and test theory from the ground up, while staying cognizant of structures of power and systems at the macro level (no easy feat, to be sure). The trouble is, we might not like what we find, and I am not always sure how to handle difficult, uncomfortable, or unpopular findings. But I find that too much academic work is driven by an unswerving fidelity to a theorist (think of Foucault, for example) or a theoretical framework, even when faced with cracks or fault lines in said theory. This happens in critical scholarly traditions—where I generally situate myself—as much as in other traditions.

On reflection, something that connects my previous work with the current book is that I anticipate some people will interpret it as “not optimist enough,” while others will undoubtedly opine that it is “not critical enough.” For instance, after Revolution in the Age of Social Media was published in 2014, some readers were annoyed that it did not celebrate the agency of young tech savvy activists to the end (there was some celebration, to be sure) but raised all kinds of doubts and caveats about the murkiness of social media companies and spaces. In 2022 this is nothing surprising, but at the time there was a hunger for more optimistic accounts about social media and youth agency in relation to democracy. In this current volume, readers may take issue with the fact that it confronts head-on some of the disfunctions of the system but refrains from laying total blame on the usual suspects and systems (i.e. neoliberalism), nor does it offer prescriptions on how to “fix the problems.” The work is generally agnostic on social actors, with no clear-cut heroes or demons, and eschews grand totalizing theories of the State or economy as explanatory devices. This is not due to being anti-theory, but simply because I have found the existing theoretical toolkits to be too narrow or reductive to capture the enormous complexity of the reality. Indeed, a key reason I am so drawn to the field of education studies is that it presents constant puzzles and paradoxes, often defies the prevailing framing mechanisms and theories, and pushes us to be more creative in our thinking and methods so that we can, however incrementally, move the bar.

J: Who do you hope will read this book and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LH: As a point of pedagogic principle, I put a lot of effort into writing and communicating ideas to reach readers of different backgrounds and ages. I try to write with clarity—by avoiding jargon or grandiose expositions on theory, maintain rigor—by conducting thorough research and showing evidence to build an argument, and practice humility—by admitting when I am confused, stumped, or uncertain about how to make sense of something, or simply do not have enough material to do justice to a topic. I tend to imagine the reader as a student, and I do not mean just someone enrolled in a class, but rather a person who sets out to discover or go deeper into a topic and is open to being challenged in their thinking and perception. I hope this book will provide a window into aspects of the world of education, power, and Egyptian society for students and discerning readers interested in Middle East Studies, global studies in education, social policy, youth studies, gender studies, and others. I could only wish that the book might attract readers to join the field of education studies. For those already in the arena, it might stimulate ideas for timely critical research. We need all the energy, solidarity, forms of collaboration, and brain power we can muster for the enormously challenging questions about the present and future of education. The social policy dimensions of education are also immensely critical, and I hope the work can animate policy discussions and actions.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LH: I am currently compiling oral histories of the education reforms in Egypt. I have been talking to policy makers, architects of the digital platforms, ministry of education advisors, authors of the new textbooks, and others involved in building the “new education system.” I hope to produce a book based on these oral histories and also leave an archive (the location TBD) for future researchers. This work comes out of my role as director of the Education 2.0 Research and Documentation Project (2019-2021) where I worked with a team of Egyptian researchers to document education sector reforms that started in 2018. I am also managing a YouTube Channel to provide a record—in Arabic and English—of contemporary education policy initiatives in Egypt.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, “Educating Egypt: From Nation Building to Digital Disruption,” pp. 1-18, 199-200) 

Mass schooling in Egypt has unfolded in the past century with enormous success in terms of its reach and place in the collective imagination. The state and diverse groups in society have consistently leveraged education to shape identities, assert political and moral authority, and pursue ambitious visions for economic and social development. Indeed, education is such a compelling field of study precisely because of how it is intertwined in larger processes of power and counterpower, social continuity and social change, and because of its connection to the hopes, aspirations, labor, setbacks, and opportunities of millions of families and children, who make immense sacrifices to be credentialed and “educated.”

This book traces the everyday practices, policy ideas, and ideological and political battles relating to education from the era of nation building in the twentieth century to the age of digital disruption in the twenty-first. The overarching theme is that schooling and the broader field of education have consistently mirrored larger political, economic, and cultural trends and competing ideas about what constitutes the “good society,” the “good citizen,” and the “educated person.” Questions around citizenship, civic belonging, and participation in public and economic life have loomed especially large as sites of struggle and reimagining. These themes run through the book and tie its chapters together. […]

This volume takes an interdisciplinary approach that draws on anthropology, sociology, political economy, philosophy, social history, and the fields of international development studies, youth studies, gender studies, and technology studies. Since new tools, technologies, and ideas are periodically infused into the education system, leading to sudden changes in behaviors and attitudes, researchers must be methodologically agile. The methodologies employed here include ethnography, oral and life histories, critical analysis of education policies, laws, and textbooks, social historical analyses, and digital social research. […] These approaches do not lend themselves to tidy or grand theorization about the nature of schooling. The aim of this volume, rather, is to bring issues and social realities to the surface, raise questions, and put forward propositions for further investigation. […]

This book moves between the local and the global, the micro and the macro, as it examines the broad social forces that drive educational practice, ideas, and change. These levels of observation bring into view the constant interplay between structure and agency. Among the main questions the work addresses are these: How have different interest groups—including foreign governments and entities, multilateral organizations, social movements, the private sector, civil society, and youth themselves—been forces for educational change? What happens when education actors harbor fundamentally different views about the purpose of schooling, the role of the citizen, and the character of the collective “we” in society? How do new educational ideas, policies, modes of financing, technologies, and practices emerge, to what ends, and to whose benefit? This book is divided into four sections. Each one reflects different time periods, themes, foci, and methodological choices.

Part One, “Schooling the Nation: Inside a Girls’ Preparatory School” (chapters 1–5) is an ethnography in the tradition of cultural anthropology, carried out between 1990 and 1991 … Schools were widely seen at the time as microcosms of the nation, sites of political socialization fundamental to the nation state project. … Unbeknownst to me at the time, this ethnography would become a snapshot of national schooling at the end of an era, a time overlapping with the close of the Cold War and the opening to more aggressive forces of globalization.

Part Two, “Political Islam and Education” (chapters 6-8) emerged from a desire to understand how groups and movements use the institutions and technologies of state power to try to forge alternatives to it. [In the 1990s], schools were becoming supposed ideological breeding grounds for radical ideas and recruitment, making the entire education sector a matter of national security. At the same time, education markets were opening as part of a state-led drive towards privatization. A new category of for-profit private schools, private Islamic schools (al-madaris al-islamiya al-khassa), combined schooling with lifestyle aspirations, business with politics, and upward mobility with piety….

Part Three, “Youth in a Changing Global Order” (chapter 9-12) came about as “youth” and youth subjectivities became foci in international development interventions. …Democracy and related concepts—human rights, active learning, civic participation, gender empowerment, global citizenship, and entrepreneurship—were international policy mantras mapped onto education. Many efforts were made to integrate these concepts into school curricula and support civil society’s non-formal education programs …. This section takes “Muslim youth” and “youth” as key categories. It explores the relation between youth, education policy, citizenship, and global politics using two methods: critical discourse analysis of international development reports and policy documents (chapters 9 and 12), and life history interviews with young people (chapters 10 and 11). The chapters highlight the dissonance between the voices of Egyptian youths who articulate their struggles, aspirations, and ideas for fair social policies, and the oftentimes out-of-touch and ideologically driven policy prescriptions about what young people need and should do.

The concluding chapter in Part Four is a rumination on the future of education. It reviews three factors that are upending the Egyptian education system: a runaway shadow education system and continuous innovations of educational entrepreneurs; the attempt by the post-2014 government to build a new education system that involves, among other things, digital transformation by way of injecting it with a number of digital tools, platforms, and learning technologies; and the Covid-19 pandemic that opened the way for a hybrid model and normalized distance learning. It asks if schooling as we know it, the model born out of an earlier industrial revolution, is on a life support system gasping for its final breaths of air? And if so, what is on the horizon to replace it?

The thing about educational research is you can never know where it will take you. One needs to be nimble enough to follow where it leads, and humble enough to know that you can only ever scratch the surface. In our roles as chroniclers of education practice, and as critical and humanist educators who believe in inclusive education and values of social solidarity, fairness, and the endless possibilities of human learning and creativity to confront and solve the immense challenges of our times, we endeavor to recognize the people whose labor, aspirations, and struggles keep the education sector worth fighting for. As we march further into a twenty-first century laden with perils and unknown consequences, but also abounding in opportunities, we try to take stock of the past and envision a future. In the throes of overwhelming structural and resource challenges, contentious politics, and spectacular technological advances and disruptions, we strive to build knowledge and engage in dialogue about how education can best serve and support the common good, the global good.