The Role of Mathematics in the Destruction of Communities, and What we Can Do to Reverse this Process, Including Using Mathematics

Since the days of Francis Bacon, the father of European science, who articulated the purpose of science as having “the power to conquer and to subdue [nature]”, people (especially the educated) have lived in disharmony with nature. Mathematics – the “queen of sciences” – played a main role in “subduing and conquering” nature. In recent times, conquering and subduing physical nature was extended to human nature and human communities. For 12 years, education seduces students to live in a make-believe world and become active participants in the harm done to themselves, their communities, and to physical nature – believing all the time the claim that all is done for their own good!1 As Wendell Berry (1990) says, harm that was done to the world prior to modern times was done out of ignorance or weakness; today, the “rape and plunder” of the world is done with full awareness and conscious intentions. The role of the sciences and mathematics is central in this process. For Berry, these conscious acts are a “new thing under the sun”. According to him, the main division in the world today is between those who work hard to protect life and those who (for greed and control) are consciously destroying it. Mathematics faces this parting of paths: it can contribute to protecting life or destroying it. This article is a personal reflection on one experience in such parting of paths: the Palestinian experience. 

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The Ecoversities’ gathering in Jordan (for the Arab region)

People from 9 Arab countries were represented in the gathering: Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Lebanon. The refugee phenomenon in the Arab region started in 1948 when Palestinians were driven out of our homes. I was one of them. I was 7 years old. It was the making of Britain. Since 1991, when Bush invaded Iraq, the refugee phenomenon kept increasing. Jordan has been one of the countries that received refugees from neighboring countries. The ecoversities gathering in Jordan embodied this phenomenon.

The main ‘medium’ in the gathering was people telling stories about their experiences in relation to learning, culture, building community, co-authoring meanings, and knowledge – in harmony with wisdom, wellbeing, and plurality. In telling stories, people are equal in worthiness in the sense that they cannot be compared along a vertical line. The absence of any authority within or from outside helped in creating an atmosphere of trust that made the gathering very lively and at the same time helped in weaving social intellectual cultural spiritual fabric among those who were present. People saw the possibility of such weaving as an opportunity where the ‘civilization horizon’ was lived and experienced rather than just an idea to discuss. In other words, we did not use words and ideas to talk about the meaning of ‘civilization horizon’ as much as we lived it within the richness and diversity which was manifested in actions and interactions. ‘Civilization horizon’ meant the presence of various cultures mutually enriching and nurturing one another. The aliveness of meanings was many-folds as a result of diverse ‘worlds’ in the group, including some that are not in the spotlight of mass media.

The main challenge is to unplug ourselves from dominant illusionary terms and perceptions and land us in a territory that is rooted in our reality – including our diverse cultures – as foundation.

Due mainly to the occupation of British and French after the first world war, the region was torn into 22 ‘nation-states’ with harsh borders which made the possibility of people interacting very difficult. Having people from different cultures and countries in the ecoversities reminded us of how things were a hundred years ago. Most felt and wanted to keep this weaving going on and deepening. One participant worked for five years with Nubeans who inhabited the region between Egypt and Sudan for thousands of years; another belongs to the Sabe’ah in Iraq; a third from Somalia; two from Sudan; one from Yemen. Living the ‘civilization horizon’ made us more connected to the ‘roots’ rather than  staying among the ‘branches’.

In addition, most meetings took place in the open air under trees, and included walks in the morning and also in the evening. Having children in the gathering added a beautiful dimension usually missing in gatherings; it took place in a farm with chicken and sheep all around. All of that made naturean integral part of our gathering.

We shouldn't spend much time on alternatives, but on vision-Munir Fasheh

The various images I usually mention in explaining the essence, spirit, and soul ofmujaawarahwere manifested in the gathering: as a ‘womb’ protecting people from what could harm them; as yeast in dough where its aliveness and vitality spread without intension or planning; and as a ‘social adobe’ in building community. The gathering made me think of mujaawarahsas ‘tents of wisdom’ that need no permission and budget, and can be lived even in prisons…

One aspect that was basic in our gathering was the richness in this civilization horizon, one of whose manifestations is the Arabic language: mujaawarahreplaced dialogue; muthanna(which has no synonym in any European language) replaced the binary logic; what a person yuhsenreplaced vertical evaluation as the source of one’s worth; what the person searches for in life replaced research as a basis; reflective thinking replaced critical thinking… The main challenge is to unplug ourselves from dominant illusionary terms and perceptions and land us in a territory that is rooted in our reality – including our diverse cultures – as foundation. This is the basis of dignity, not rights. In practical terms, we need to articulate a vision and not a project. We shouldn’t spend much time on alternatives, but on vision. Dominant ideologies serve illusions; our focus should be on a vision that unplugs us from such ideologies and, instead, articulate perceptions, convictions, and values that are in harmony with living with wisdom, well-being, diversity, and responsibility. The main ‘germ’ that is defeating us, from within, at the intellectual-perceptual level is an artificial language whose meanings stem from official institutions and licensed professionals that occupied and replaced living languages. Mother’s tongue is the opposite of mother tongue… Courage is basic in such an endeavor…

We articulated our experiences via the discourse of the people (rather than professional terms and academic categories). We talked about things that people know and live. The gathering helped articulate what people already know but was made invisible. One obsession for us was the relation and weaving among cultures. The basic assumption is that we have lost this ability between cultures for a century – even for much more. It is about time that we regain it. This is different from tolerance where we say ‘okay, your way is not the right way, but I am so generous that I will tolerate you’. To tolerate is to insult, by dismissing others by tolerating them. We spoke about hospitality and generosity (both different from tolerance). It is opening one’s arms and hearts to others; it is not accepting or tolerating the difference, but celebrating it. One aspect that was evident was the art of listening الإصغاء; it is a wonderful example of hospitality…

We lived what Illich refers to as ‘conviviality’, which he applies to tools, not to people. It is not ‘about the relations between people, but how people use tools. Convivial tools are the opposite of industrial tools. Industrial tools are leading us to the world of systems in which we become sub-systems of the systems, and then we can no longer use the tools for our intentions but tools use us for their intentions.’ May be (just like in relation to food in regaining wellness), we need to fast (at least once in a while) from using technology in order to regain our sanity. We spent time and energy in watering seeds that are already within us rather than importing new seeds that are not native to our cultural soil and not within our civilization horizon. Humanity which is humanitas in Latin mainly meant kindness as manifested in a bleeding heart, in addition of course to feeling happy and loving together.

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)?