Putting philosophy into practice half a world away

Chris Viger is helping reform education half a world away.

“What we philosophers do is often far removed from anything practical,” Viger said. “So it seemed to me an important opportunity to take advantage of.”

Partnering with Abdessalam Ben Maissa, an academic colleague in Morocco, the Western Philosophy professor is developing a curriculum for teaching critical thinking in the North African country.

“In the MENA region – the Middle East and North Africa – it’s been criticized by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) for not having critical thinking as part of their educational system,” Viger said.

Ben Maissa wanted to address the issue and, eventually, became a UNESCO Chair in Critical Thinking, based out of the Mohammed V University at Agdal in Morocco. He organized a conference to mobilize its implementation in Morocco’s educational system.

“He listed many motivations (for critical thinking) – part of which is supporting democracy, modernization and conflict resolution,” Vigar explained.

Viger attended the conference, and jumped at the chance to help. Recognized at Western by the Marilyn Robinson Teaching Award, mostly for his critical-thinking class, Viger gave a lecture at Mohammed V University in Rabat, put together a lab on critical thinking and held workshops for Morocco’s university students.

A larger conference on the topic is planned for the spring.

“For us, it’s an undergraduate program. But they’re starting at the graduate level, at the teacher level, because they feel they need to have some people understand critical thinking in order to start teaching critical thinking,” Viger continued.

“Right now, we’re just sharing ideas and talking to educators about the kinds of things they can do, so it’s really curriculum development, putting a textbook together,” he said, noting he is encouraging colleagues in Morocco to write a textbook in Arabic instead of using North American texts.

“Even the idea that, culturally, critical thinking is a ‘Western notion’ is something they face, which is why I suggested that they write their own book in Arabic because the books are all American.”

So people are unlikely, at the moment anyway, to lean toward something like this. And that’s particularly why it’s important to start planting the seeds of critical thinking now, those that will sow potential for peaceful conflict resolution down the road, he explained.

“Here, at least everybody recognizes the importance or critical thinking – whether we do it enough is another story. But there are elements in (Morocco’s) society that are actively opposed to it. You find that really anywhere where you’ve got a very fundamental interpretation of religion that’s influencing how people work. One of the main elements of religion is that you have to accept things on the element of faith and not question it, which is exactly foreign to critical thinking where nothing is sacred, anything is up for grabs and anything can be discussed.”

“I look at me and my colleagues, and we sit down and share experiences, and cultures, and ideas, and that’s the kind of world I want to live in. It’s about having that dialogue, understanding there are techniques for resolving conflicts without resorting to violence. The religious undercurrent is, of course, very tense,” he said.

“One of the things I’ve been suggesting is, that they don’t make this about religion at all, that they don’t bring it up in a religious context, they don’t challenge religion at all and just do it as a part of secular society.”