Two Languages Not One

[crucial to understand the ‘disease’ and the way to heal from it]

Ivan Illich: For Dante (1265-1321), a language that had to be learned, to be spoken according to a grammar, was inevitably a dead tongue… In 1492, Queen Isabella [of Spain] receives a petition which unlike the request of Columbus, who wanted resources to establish a new route to China, that of Nebrija urges the queen to invade a new domain at home. He offers Isabella a tool to colonize the language spoken by her own subjects; he wants her to replace the people’s speech by the imposition of the queen’s lengua – her language, her tongue. What for Dante was dead and useless, Nebrija recommends as a tool. One was interested in vital exchange, the other in universal conquest, in a language that by rule would coin words as incorruptible as the stones of a palace… The decision for colonial conquest overseas implied the challenge of a new war at home – the invasion of her own people’s vernacular domain, the opening of a five-century war against vernacular subsistence, the ravages of which we now begin to fathom.

John Piper: In the 1520s, William Tyndale translated (hiding in Germany) the Bible into vernacular English [vernacular language refers to living language which people learn without teaching/ tutoring]. He did it in hiding because King Henry VIII and the church were against translating it into a language which people understand without the help of institutions and professionals. In October 1536, at only 42 years of age, William Tyndale’s one-note voice was silenced as he was tied to the stake, strangled by the executioner, and then consumed in the fire.

Thomas Macaulay:

“I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is, indeed, fully admitted by those members of the Committee who support the Oriental plan of education [in India]… …

We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect… We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue”. From Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Minute of 2 February 1835 on Indian Education,” Macaulay, Prose and Poetry, selected by G. M. Young (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), pp-721-24.]

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A friend wrote: The idea that the university is the only site of learning is a rather modern idea. In fact, in most civilizations, there have historically been numerous sites of learning and pedagogy. One of the many ways in which modernity has insidiously asserted a deadening homogeneity is in installing the university as the sole site of learning–indeed, it is not even “learning” of which we are speaking, but rather an education which these days seems to have no purpose except to prepare students to acquire jobs and become minions of either the state or the corporate world. The so-called “world universities” are by far the greatest culprits in this enterprise. The university is now part of the game of ranking, metrics-driven…

Emmanuel Liscano of the Open University of Madrid wrote: Basque group celebrate their grandfathers who fought against metric system…

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Concerning my conviction that every person is a co-author of meaning:

Since 1971, a main conviction in my mind (which kept deepening within me ever since) has been ‘every person is co-author of meaning’; ‘every person is a source of meaning and understanding’. I refer to this conviction as ‘democracy of meaning’, which I consider most basic of democracies. Democracy of meaning is our main immunity at the intellectual level. Intellectual enslavement is very corrupting at both the personal and community levels. ‘Every person is a co-author of meaning’ leads to meanings that stem from contemplating upon life, and independently investigating the meaning one makes out of it. This is a biological ability, a duty, and a right – excluded from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the rights of the child. To protect ourselves from the onslaught of manufactured words, we need to practice our ability and duty to be co-authors of meanings. It is a most urgent act in today’s world in our quest for freeing ourselves from the harm done to humans, communities, and nature; it frees us from being parrots and robots at the intellectual level.

Words which I co-authored their meanings since 1971 include: learning, science, math, knowledge, illiterate, evaluation, vision, freedom, cultured person, mind, education, plurality, fundamentalism, professor, expert, teacher, values, medium, progress, illiterate, intuitive mind. I will elaborate on some of these words for clarification:

For a long time, especially after the Oslo agreement between Palestinians and Israelis, when the World Bank took over our future, the word ‘expert’ became dominant in the West Bank region of Palestine. I have been trying to see what is common among ‘experts’ who came to Palestine. I noticed that one thing that is common is making the past look backward, obsolete and out of date

‘Professor’ has a very beautiful meaning in English: a person who professes what has brewed and matured within her/him (as a result of engaging in real situations in life and contemplating upon them) and sharing that with others – and not a person who has a degree or academic rank. I keep trying in my interactions with academicians to remind them of the need to regain this meaning.

The father of modern science, Francis Bacon, talked about science as ‘subduing nature’. Science before Bacon revolved around the regularities people saw in nature in order to live in harmony with it, and to remedy the harm done by people to nature; it was more healing than dominating. In other words, it was close to living wisely.

According to modern physics, time moves forward along a straight line; for an organic farmer, who lives in harmony with nature, time follows the life cycle; i.e., it is circular. Darwin held the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’; an organic farmer who knows nature from a radically different angle, holds the principle of ‘survival of the weakest’: earth worms that keep the soil healthy. The survival of earth worms is crucial to the survival of healthy soil and thus to the well being of people. What earth worms do is nothing less than a miracle in relation to the well-being of the soil and of humans. At the intellectual level, what takes the place of earth worms is the intuitive mind whose survival is crucial to having a healthy intellectual life. Modernity made the intuitive mind invisible or worthless.

When I saw the similarity between what the flush toilet does and what official education does, I started referring to official education as the flush toilet of knowledge…

The spirit of regeneration is a value. Modern science – in words and in action – seems to treat this spirit as an enemy to its progress. Elite universities confuse progress at the level of tools with progress at levels where this spirit is protected in order to keep life as an act of mutual nurturance at many levels. Such universities deal with excellence, truth, and creativity as if they are values, although they are tools that can serve totally different values. Harvard at the age of 380, still does not realize that truth (VeRiTas, its motto) is not a value but a tool that can serve different values.

Finally, I want to mention how a young Palestinian ‘Khalil Sakakini’ (at age 18) in 1896 co-authored the meaning of official education (as he experienced it in the schools that were established in the Jerusalem area) as “wearing someone else’s shoes” which he chose as the title of the book he wrote then. Few years later he referred to official education as degradation of students and established a school in Jerusalem with its motto (in words and in action) as ‘dignifying students not degrading them’.

Very briefly, for me, knowledge is action, whose meanings are contextual; it is what becomes part of one’s lifestyle rather than just texts and skills that we parrot as robots.

I can’t stop without mentioning the meaning I worked with concerning math since the 1970s. In 1979, I introduced a course for entering science students into Birzeit University (near Ramallah in Palestine) which I called “Math in the Other Direction” which revolved around several aspects that do not get enough attention in schools and universities, such as: seeing the underlying logic in social phenomena, seeing similarities among different phenomena in terms of their inner structures, inter-connectedness among different aspects and forming a mental picture of that, and using math as a means of discovering aspects in one’s lifestyle in order to remedy the harm done by living with the pattern of consumption…

More on Theory and Practice, Knowledge and Action

As a result of our correspondence and conversations “knowledge and action, theory and practice” kept popping up in my mind. As usual, I went back to my mother’s world to seek a deeper clarity of this dichotomy. That search clarified something I talked about, so far, vaguely; namely the connection between knowledge and action in her life. Western ideologies (American academia in particular) fragment knowledge and separate theory from practice. They also stress that life is made mainly of matter and thoughts; the mystical is ignored. The absence of the mystical is related to the absence of wisdom. Contemplating again on what my mother was doing, I realized more clearly that my mother’s ‘world’ was not a mixture of knowledge and action, not a synthesis of both, but embodied a totally different ‘cosmos’: a world where knowledge and action have never been separated. In this sense, her life constituted a mystical dimension which cannot be explained or expressed via concepts and words. In her life there was no separation between knowledge, action, and the mystical; they were united ‘biologically’. She led an undivided life in the various aspects she lived: mathematics, religion, and our upbringing. There is no word to describe this better than wisdom! Her knowledge is like looking in an unbroken mirror; mine was like looking in a broken mirror where my face appears fragmented, nothing in its right place, no coherence, distorted. Courses I took in math never formed a coherent picture in my mind.

The first big icon who was ‘squeezed’ to his real size by my mother was Bertrand Russell, whom I loved and read much of what he wrote starting in high school. As a result of ‘discovering’ my illiterate mother’s math and of the role of dominant math in contributing to corruptions we witness today, I realized his unawareness of two things: math embedded in people like my mother, and the role of dominant math in today’s mess. What is strange in this is that he was not only aware of injustices created by the West (such as in Vietnam and Palestine) but actually took actions against them; yet, he did not see the role of math in much of the destruction in today’s world! My realization of the unity of knowledge, action, and the mystical in my mother’s intuitive mind, her undivided life, ‘squeezed’ (in addition to Russell) two other icons in my life back to their real sizes: Hegel and his dialectical theory, and Freire and his perception of liberation as praxis, which he defined as ‘the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it’… and also in order to heal from alienation. All three – Russell, Hegel, Freire – seem to have not been able to see the richness, wisdom, depth, and rootedness of the knowledge real people have [I use real rather than common or ordinary]. Wisdom is closer to the intuitive mind (which cannot be felt via language and thinking) and is in the heart where the senses, the intellect, and the mystical meet. For the senses we need the facial eye; for the intellect we need the mind’s eye; for the mystical we need the spiritual eye. My mother was protected by not being a parrot or copy of anyone which made her able to live an undivided life – which is the basis of freedom. Freedom at the roots does not mean having choices but, rather, being bound to an undivided life! A person who has no modern symbols is more free and equipped to live an undivided life. This requires being aware of other main aspects of wisdom: respect and humility.

Some people may look at my mother’s inability to separate knowledge from action, theory from practice, as weakness, ignorance, and inability to connect. We are so used to the artificial fragmentation of everything that makes it difficult for us to see (let alone to live) an undivided life. Academia in this sense is the exact opposite of living an undivided life; it is almost a crime against wisdom. Referring to fragmenting knowledge and thought as specialization is a desperate attempt to give it a positive connotation. Wisdom is an experience. Even a word like reflection is not enough; my mother did not get to the level of unity and harmony in her life as a result of reflection but out of being attentive to life every day, in every action, in every expression, and in every silence – without being conscious of it, without her mind taking over, and without institutional words and academic categories controlling her perceptions and her actions. Such undivided attentiveness to life and making sense of it is the experience we call wisdom.

A main question that stems from the above is: how can we live an undivided life in schools and universities? My first response is to heal from the perception that change can come only from institutions. There is a vast world out there outside institutions; there are even ‘pockets’ of hope and action within institutions. We can live an undivided life anywhere we find an opening, a space where we can squeeze ourselves via mujaawarahs. We don’t need to wait for institutions to change; we can do a lot if we free our imaginations from modern blocks. For example, in schools ( as well as outside them), we can whenever we find an opportunity, work around two aspects in life, namely: the earth soil and the cultural soil as the two main soils that nurture the body, the mind, and weaving fabric at the social, intellectual, economic, spiritual levels; a fabric woven between children in their relations with one another, with nature and with the collective memory of the place and community. In addition, we can encourage students to reflect on two questions (ignored in schools): what are you searching for in your life? what do you yuhsen (i.e. what you do well, useful in the sense of nurturing, giving, has an aesthetic dimension, and respectful)?