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)?