Higher education in Afghanistan has been disrupted since the Taliban took control of Kabul last summer. International universities and colleges have raised millions of dollars to rescue scholars and help others at special risk. But the vast majority of Afghan students now face the possibility of attending a university where many of their teachers have fled, and where censorship hinders the kind of dialogue needed to develop critical thinking.
What can international students and scholars, working with their Afghan counterparts, do about it? We decided to start with a single class and build from there.
The 30 boxes on our zoom screen represent three scholars from eight different countries and speaking 15 languages, as well as three scholars from across the globe. Boxes also represented an experiment that asked, how can we teach and learn about Afghanistan in a critical, interdisciplinary way that brings together Afghan scholars and students as well as others, despite the near collapse of higher education in Afghanistan? How can students think and discuss their country and world politics in a way that is more complicated than the very common stories we see in the media?
And while it was a class, with a handful of students talking to each other and meeting with scholars online, it also offers some ways in which we can support Afghan students despite Taliban sanctions that have hampered higher education in the country.
The fall of the Ashraf Ghani-led government and the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan in August 2021 marked the beginning of an economic collapse and humanitarian crisis. Less mentioned, it has created a crisis for higher education in Afghanistan. Students at the American University of Afghanistan have fled or gone into hiding. Students at other universities wondered if they would be able to continue their studies, and in recent months there have been more restrictions from the Taliban alone – including the recent announcement that women must be fully covered and accompanied by a male escort when leaving the house.
Such changes are particularly tragic, as higher education is one of the few fields that has seen real growth in Afghanistan over the past 20 years – with new universities opening, thousands of young Afghans studying internally and many young Afghan scholars making a name for themselves internationally. The growth of subjects such as law, journalism and industry provides opportunities, especially for women. There are now some simple solutions for those who are involved in Afghan higher education and Afghan students. Universities stopped paying faculty, women were sent back to the gates, and for some time, it was not even clear if classes would resume. Many scholars have fled, many Afghan students have stayed at home, and many in the international community have been hurt by what they can do to help in such a moment.
In the following months, American institutions of higher learning, such as the University of Pittsburgh and Princeton University, developed or expanded programs focusing on Afghanistan. These programs provided important opportunities for displaced scholars to continue their work. But as students and scholars in low-funding institutions, we wanted to do what we could. In particular, we began to ask, what would it be like to actively try to support students in Afghanistan as well as try to provide a new lens for students outside the country to see it?
Our course began as a series of emails and conversations between faculty and students at Bennington College and the American University of Afghanistan, and with scholars from about a dozen other institutions. Speaking to young Afghan students – especially those who have benefited the most from some progress in higher education in Afghanistan – it was clear that in the Taliban’s retreat practice, students still want to learn and debate and engage with each other. . Many also had the firm idea that the international media and politicians were not listening to their experiences or realizing that there were multiple ways to look at Afghanistan. We finally offered a joint experimental course with the American University of Afghanistan to 40 students who could participate synchronously or asynchronously, which we called Approaches to Afghanistan, led by one of us, Noah Coburn and Muska Dastagir at AUAF.
Bring a lot of voice
Most of the students were Afghans, many of whom were still in Afghanistan, but others were displaced and living in more than a dozen different countries (about one-third in the United States, one-third in Afghanistan, and one-third elsewhere). Bennington students from different countries also took part. As a result, each zoom session had an incredible variety of our perspectives, knowledge and experience. This can make some things difficult to navigate and of course the course does not always proceed smoothly. Even general decisions in class had a profound effect. For example, some students kept their cameras on, but many বিশেষ especially in Afghanistan নয় not because of security concerns or simply because their Internet bandwidth was not strong enough to make video feeds work. Students were allowed to use pseudonyms throughout the course, and when the Internet was unreliable in Afghanistan, we provided copies of class sessions for those in need. All of this creates a constant awareness of the spaces we physically occupy outside of a class’s common virtual space.
Navigating cultural differences was also a challenge; We have encountered some general differences, such as the formality with which Afghan students address professors as opposed to the less graded first-name basis that Bennington students rely on. Sometimes, especially in politically and socially sensitive areas, Bennington students are reluctant to jump into conversations. For their part, they sometimes feel that they do not have the experience to make meaningful comments with Afghanistan.
Class makeup means that almost every subject has a deeply personal impact for students, which outlines our conversations, but we pressed each other to think analytically and avoid extra simple answers. Sonia Ahsan-Tirmizi, a lecturer in Middle East, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University, for example, gave a lecture on the politics of women’s asylum in Afghanistan. From the personal experience of being a woman living under the new Taliban regime to how we can intellectually understand different types of feminism, the next classroom discussion was broader.
However, many students told us that the real strength of the course was the interdisciplinary approach of bringing in scholars, mostly of Afghan or Afghan descent or with long relationships with countries in different fields, who represented different branches, including political science. Anthropology, History, Media Studies and others. This, in many ways, was very common for a Bennington classroom where we did not have a division or major, and such interdisciplinary approaches were particularly valuable in a context where much of the discussion in Afghanistan has been reduced and overstated. As one Afghan student observed, “This class has shown how Afghanistan is built with a wonderful culture and tradition. We need to understand our country through different mediums and how it portrays the identity of an Afghan. We can research and use different methods to fully understand a culture that gives. “
Together, scholars have shown a deep understanding of the country and Western examples of ways to miss the most important aspects of Afghan life. Harun Rahimi, an assistant professor in the law department at the American University of Afghanistan, discusses informal economic transactions and how they provide assistance to many Afghans that could be missed in further macroeconomic analysis. And at a time when much of the daily life of Afghans has turned into politics, several students have discussed how it makes sense for cultural history presentations to come together instead of divided Afghans. For example, Anika Schmiding, a cultural anthropologist and junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, explains that Sufi networks in Afghanistan offer an alternative mode of conversion to Islam with deep historical roots in many cities in Afghanistan.
In each case, we have asked scholars to speak with their own backgrounds and how they came to be in the particular field and method they use today. For example, Mejgan Masomi of the Stanford University Center for South Asia talks to her parents about how growing up listening to Ahmed Zaheer and other Afghan musicians from the 1970s led her to study history and music. Zahir’s innovative music combines elements from South Asia and beyond to form a hybrid musical instrument that offers ways to create an Afghan identity that is uniquely Afghan, as well as outside the current divisions between the Taliban and other groups. All the presentations and discussions showed the students how their own background and interests can advance their scholarly pursuits as well as new ways of thinking about the country.
The speakers allow different students to take different things from each session and the course design acknowledges that the students were in very different situations, so they can participate synchronously or asynchronously. Most online discussions have taken place in Slack, where students can post comments when they need to, even if they have trouble connecting to live discussions.
The students were finally asked to design their own project to look at some specific problems in Afghanistan and to express their unique perspectives to understand the country. In this small way, students were able to practice their own interdisciplinary thinking skills and develop their own perspectives on Afghanistan more subtly than a media account. A student from Bennington told us, “Taking this course has tested a lot of bias. We are deprived of a multifaceted Afghanistan, which deserves its own dictionary beyond our preconceived notions and revisions of the popular media. This course has become a reminder for us to learn outside of isolated scholarship, especially when we are involved in a different context. “
Helping Afghan Higher Ed move forward
A few months after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, we have seen a shower of support from many liberal American and international educational institutions. They have accepted displaced scholars and students and given them the opportunity to continue their work. But much more needs to be done. Since our course began, the situation has gotten worse, not better, for many students in Afghanistan. Many students feel that there is no opportunity to continue in the country. Women, for example, are now banned from the campus administrative building, and one of the female students in our class had to send her brother to register for the class.
Higher education cannot solve these problems internationally, especially since the U.S. government has not recognized the Taliban, and working with Taliban-controlled universities poses many challenges. Yet, at the same time, there is a world of technology under this Taliban regime that did not exist when they first isolated the country in the 1990s. Zoom, YouTube, Slack and many other platforms can be used to create both conversations and complete courses.
For example, Afghan students have expressed a desire for more courses directly applicable to Afghanistan, such as industrial history and environmental sciences, as well as computer science and journalism, which could help Afghans develop the skills of the current Taliban. Regulated universities are not well taught. International universities can even adopt a consortium approach and cooperate in the development of the entire curriculum. In the end, not only Afghan students, but also American and international students can benefit greatly from this intercultural exchange and learn that countries like Afghanistan do much more than what is shown in the news.