Cultural capital

The first difficulty AUC educators face in promoting critical thinking in Egypt is the variability in students' cultural capital in terms of exposure and familiarity with critical thinking in previous schooling and family backgrounds. There is a belief among scholars that deferring the teaching of CT until college is unlikely to be effective (Facione 1990). In the Arab region, it is difficult to use the 4-5 years of college to promote a capacity that has been suppressed or at least not developed over many years of schooling (Rivard, 2006, cited in Hall 2011). This becomes even more difficult when it also contrasts with what is encouraged in the home environment and public discourse. Some educators have suggested that Arab students may resist questioning certain cultural taboos and struggle to do so without strong support from teachers (Raddawi 2011). This means that a household may encourage youth to question certain topics but suppress questioning of others such as cultural taboos, and teachers in higher education have difficulty reversing those unsaid rules.

My research found that variability in students' schooling affected their capacity and comfort with critical thinking as they entered college. It is important to note these differences, because the more practice a student has in critical thinking, the better he or she will become at it (van Gelder 2005), as is the case for many skills.

On the one hand there are AUC students who have studied in what are called "International schools" (teaching using the American, British, German, or French systems), for example, and who repeatedly mentioned ways in which their schooling encouraged critical thinking via in-class discussions of controversial topics, conducting small-scale research-writing projects, and extracurricular activities that promote critical thinking such as the Model United Nations. On the other hand, we have the example of one student, Noha, who came from traditional Egyptian schooling, was unused to questioning authority, and felt uncomfortable participating in discussions and debates, even though such discussion was encouraged at home. She said:

I guess we were taught to always think that the teacher is right as opposed to college . . . you don't question authority . . . as a freshman, it wasn't the norm for me to challenge professors at least intellectually and I'd take their word for granted and I learned from people around me . . . that everything they [professors] say is not necessarily true.

Her ability to question grew slowly:

I guess my self-esteem or my confidence in my own intelligence was limited because of the education I had as a younger person. But I mean that's improving, but it is taking me a very very long time to adapt to.

Although her confidence (which Bourdieu 1973 considers an expression of social capital) grew, the transition was not easy. She says it has been a "tough transition" from her previous schooling and remains so:

I was so used to having one right answer growing up, so it's still very frustrating at times to not have a right answer.

Professors who teach at AUC notice this issue among students. One attributes this to a lack of confidence/comfort:

Some students are not comfortable expressing themselves—some want to simply repeat what's been given to them, are comfortable staying close to the text, don't want to venture on their own . . . no one made them feel confident enough to say their view even if others may not agree.

Another American professor compares this to teaching in the West:

In a Western setting, students have just been brought up that way . . . it becomes more natural for students . . . to think independently. Here [in Egypt], a different type of culture, where you [student, say], "I'm not the authority so who am I to speak, to offer my independent observation about this? The professor is the authority or the author of the book is the authority."

This professor is referring to the lack of cultural capital in students' backgrounds that did not promote critical thinking and questioning of authority while students were growing up. These ideas are supported by research done by Nelson, El Bakary, and Fathi (1996) showing that Egyptian students generally show higher discomfort with uncertainty than US students.

It is important for educators to recognize these differences in students' cultural capital, their familiarity and comfort with critical thinking, when thinking about pedagogies to use in class to promote it.

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