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  • Vive Griffith

Ibrar Mirzai: a Journey to the Liberal Arts

When Ibrar Hussein Mirzai enrolled in the pilot year of the Socrates Project, a Clemente-inspired program that launched in 2019 in Budapest, he was signing up for a very different educational experience from those in his past.

“I was struck from the beginning when one of my professors said, ‘I am not here to teach you. I am here to discuss with you and share my experiences and then listen to you share your experiences. That way we might be able to learn something from each other,’” Ibrar says. “That kind of approach toward education was alien to me.”

In high school in Pakistan, and later in Hungary, learning felt like a one-way street. In the Socrates Project, learning was an exchange. Ibrar quickly knew it was the kind of educational experience he wanted to pursue for his future.

Ibrar found out about Socrates Project from a professor at OLIve, a program at Central European University designed to help refugees and displaced people start their educations. He grew up in Pakistan, where his family had fled after being targeted as an ethnic minority by the Taliban. Ibrar was granted asylum in Hungary in 2016. As an avid reader he was drawn to the Socrates Project’s focus on reading and discussion.

“I was interested in philosophy and in politics to some extent, given my background,” he says. And he liked the idea of being guided toward a collection of books he may not have encountered on his own. One of those was Plato’s Apology, a text that has stayed with him. The two class sessions spent discussing it kindled an interest in philosophy. And it led him to study at a liberal arts college, another thing he couldn’t have imagined as a child in Pakistan.

“In Pakistan it is traditional that you are going to be an engineer or a doctor or you don’t do anything. I had internalized that. I wasn’t thinking critical enough about what I wanted to do,” he says.

Today Ibrar is a student at Bard College Berlin on a full scholarship, studying economics, politics, and social thought. He appreciates the experience of being in small, discussion-based classes with students from various parts of the world. And he values the way that, like in the Socrates Projects, knowledge is co-created in the classroom instead of being passed down from a professor. “It provides me the opportunity to discuss ideas and also dispute ideas,” he says. “It recognizes that ideas are not absolute.”

The Socrates Project is now offered in Vienna and Berlin, as well as in Budapest, and in German and Hungarian and the minority languages of Turkish, Arabic, and Bosnian-Serbo-Croat. It aims to reach as many adults as it can to bring them a rich encounter with texts and ideas. For Ibrar, whose goal is to continue his education beyond the bachelor’s degree to a PhD and to teach in a university, the program opens doors to education, but also to new ways of thinking.

“It teaches you a method of critical thinking and a way forward,” he says. “It is a place to learn how to learn.”

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