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Classical ideas for a new future: Dallas College

By Hillary Frattini

Dallas College Graduation 2017. Copyright: Dallas College.

Classical ideas for a new future: Dallas College 

A previous article explored the idea that higher institutions should not only direct students to the employment market; it should also give equal importance to forging the citizens of tomorrow. However, in a society in which colleges and universities invest more on marketing than on their curricula, it is difficult to detach from the perception that the concept in question remains nothing more than a romantic, theoretical vision.

Revisiting expectations about the purpose of higher education institutions is not a recent phenomenon and will remain a relevant topic of discourse until the desired steps toward relevant progress in this regard is more comprehensively addressed. It is admirable to see that some institutions dare willing to buck contemporary trends and endorse the view that higher institutions should not merely facilitate entry into the labour market. Dallas College, located in the heart of the city of Cape Town, is such an example. 

The founding father

Dedicating some time to narrate the story of Dr Ian Dallas is not only a means to celebrate a man who has guided and transformed a path of enlightenment for many people around the world, but it is also fundamental to understanding the pillars on which the college he founded is based. 

Born in 1930, he is a descendant of that classic Scottish aristocracy characterised by men of honourability, firmness, sublime etiquette and excellent education. His status, drive and talents provided a springboard for further access to the social circle of artists, intellectuals, and leading figures of his time – collectively considered the elite of an era – and introducing him to a career as an actor and playwriter in the1950s and 1960s. The privileged life that befell him did not, however, fulfil a desire to seek something more purposeful than the trappings of social status and material opulence.  

His spiritual journey eventually led him to Morocco, where he became part of the Shadhili-Darqawi Order of Sufis and subsequently inherited the title of Shaykh of the Order under the name Shaykh Abdulqadir as-Sufi. The education he received is rooted in an Islamic teaching thousands of years old and embodies a vision uncontaminated by the both the modernist and nihilistically extremist versions of the religion that have become more prevalent in the modern era Dr Dallas has founded mosques in England, Spain and South Africa and is largely responsible for providing a symbiotic intellectual light between traditional European culture and the fundamental tenets of Islam.

Europe now counts a substantial number of indigenous Europeans among its populace that have either converted to Islam directly or were born into the religion itself from parents who were influenced by interaction with Dr Dallas.  He has also written extensively – more than 20 books, essays, articles, discourses, and translations of Islamic sacred texts have been published under his name and through his perseverance. Dr Dallas has managed to reconcile his European ancestry with the Islamic faith, becoming a living example that culture and religion are not mutually exclusive.

Many other things can be said of Dr Dallas, but for the sake of this discussion the focus will remain on the facts  described herein, and from which it is possible to extrapolate some values that inform the core principles on which Dallas College functions. A global outlook based on authentic and unspoiled Islamic conceptions, the re-evaluation of Islam as a spiritual and not a cultural matter, and the classical approach to European education have formed the basis of the institution since its early stages.  

The actualisation of the classics 

Opening the doors of Dallas College to us was its Chancellor and Lecturer, Dr Stefano Azzali, who, with Dr Dallas and current Vice-Chancellor, Dr Hajj Abdalbaseer Ojembarrena, contributed to establishing Dallas College in February 2004. Dr Azzali explains that the decision to found an independent college in the form of a non-profit organisation stems from the desire to improve the social constraints identified in the current educational dialectic and offer the opportunity to obtain a thoroughly informed education even to those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

The prime inspiration was the experience gained between 1998 and 2002 at Achnagairn House in Scotland – a private educational institution founded by Muslim European scholars and teachers. The model initially tested and implemented at Achnagairn House and continued at Dallas College, takes up the classical Greek paideia. The goal is to form a man ready to face life in its every aspect, through the maturation of full awareness of the self and the world in which he lives and the ability to understand, analyse and discuss complex issues.

One who completes his studies at Dallas College has the opportunity to develop well-rounded leadership qualities, whose professional specialisation therein comes only after acquiring a firm personal consciousness. Dr Azzali reveals that this classic model’s actualisation consists of educating students to value spirituality above materialism, bringing them closer to the community without losing the ability to reason and respond to situations individually and create resistance to the modern world’s conception of Man through intellectual freedom. 

The formation of a complete man, says the college Chancellor, occurs by teaching subjects such as geopolitics, languages ​​- including Arabic and Latin -, Qur’anic studies, history, literature, and finance, to name a few. Students are expected to evaluate present situations through the spectrum of classical events and teachings and to have a solid understanding of the political, economic, technological, and social foundations that shape the world in which we live.

The regular classes offered – Monday to Thursday, 8.30 am to 2.00 pm – are often supported by talks from experts in various fields. Dr Azzali reports the example of the last guest, the law graduate Ms Ibtisaam Ahmed, who discussed the political implications of the Covid-19 crisis.

No opportunity is wasted at Dallas College, including the coffee break and the lunch break. In this circumstance, students can develop adeptness and courtesy of service while sitting around the same table with the staff for a moment of informal interaction. 

In line with the institution’s founder vision since earlier stages, Dallas College on-campus courses are offered to young men only. This gender separation is based on Islamic religious principles. Young women have the opportunity to attend the same educational path at Lady Aisha College. Founded in 2014 by Dr Ian Dallas, it follows the same principles and methods as Dallas College, boasting a highly qualified all-female staff. However, upcoming Dallas College online courses will have both male and female lecturers and will likewise be open for male and female students.

First, the students 

The conversation was concluded by Professor Vladimir Filyakov, a former student and current Humanities and Islamic Studies lecturer at Dallas College. The professor explains that the college’s success lies in the passion of its collaborators. Each of them has a deep devotion to the college and the community and the values ​​it represents. The focus always remains on the students and on giving them the best possible education. 

Professor Filyakov reminds us that learners are often required to choose a specific career path immediately after graduating from high school, when most are not yet ready. For this reason, Dallas College, in tandem with the standard three-year cycle of studies, offers a shorter programme that students can use as part of a ‘gap’ year. At present, the college is gearing up to provide online classes to extend its teaching to those living far from Cape Town and address the challenges posed by the current pandemic. 

Despite following a standard curriculum, the lessons never lack the lecturers’ personal touch, who adapt to the students they are facing or even to recent events relevant to learning. Having small classes is key to facilitating the educational process for both students and teachers. This allows the instructors to understand each pupil’s strengths, reinforce their gaps, keep their attention span constant, and enable all participants to interact in the constructive debate that inevitably comes to fruition. 

Professor Filyakov specifies that, as Dallas College is an independent institution, it is challenging to set grades or issue a formal certificate at the end of the academic course; this is why their teaching model uses other methods to test the learners’ readiness. For example, the classrooms’ modest sizes and the high level of interaction required from the students facilitate regular evaluation during lessons. In addition, learners are expected to prepare essays and assignments routinely, which also account for part of their portfolio of learning. 

After completing their studies at Dallas College, each graduate follows different paths. Some become teachers – even at the college itself like Professor Filyakov -, some continue their studies elsewhere, while others pursue different career paths. 

The majority of those who studied at Dallas College are still in contact with the institution. Some of them assist as they can, for example through donations, or by participating as guest lecturers. What matters is that the respect and friendship that bind those who join Dallas College lasts despite time, distance, and different life choices. 

The author thanks Dallas College for sharing its experience and wishes all its staff and students continued success in their path whilst preserving the same authenticity and passion, hoping that they can be an inspiration to all those who believe in education. 

Hillary Frattini is completing a Psychology degree through the University of Essex. She is a passionate storyteller and adventurer, and she firmly believes that education is the key to a better future. Hillary has recently started working on combining her passions to represent the voices of her generation. The views and opinions expressed in this article are her own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of Africademics.