Learning with Covid

A conversation with Silvia Federici, Gustavo Esteva and Munir Fasheh curated by Alessandra Pomarico and Udi Mandel Butler from ecoversities on viruses of the mind.

Gustavo Esteva is an independent writer and grassroots activist. Gustavo has been a central figure in a wide range of Mexican, Latin American, and international nongovernmental organizations and solidarity networks, including Universidad de la Tierra en Oaxaca, which he founded in 1999. In 1996, he was an advisor to the Zapatistas (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) in their negotiations with the Mexican government. In 2006, he took part in the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO). Gustavo, a “de-professionalized intellectual” is well known for his contribution to post-development theory and practice, a strong advocate for active non-violence, and a proponent of radical pluralism and community-based initiatives, for the reorganization of the society from the bottom-up. A prolific writer, he is the author of more than 40 books, published in seven languages. 

Silvia Federici is a feminist activist, political philospher, teacher and writer. Born in Italy, she moved very young to the States, and also lived for a long period in Africa and Latin America. In the 1970s, she was one of the founders of the International Campaign for Wages for Housework and the International Feminist Collective. She was also one of the founders of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa and of the Radical Philosophy Association (RPA) as wells as the Anti-Death Penalty Project. She is the author of books and essays on women’s history and feminist theory, political philosophy and education. Her published works include: Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation; Revolution at Point Zero; Witches, Witch-hunting and Women, and Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the politics of the Commons. Silvia is Emerita Professor at Hofstra University.

Hidden Treasures

To understand the contemporary world, we need to look not only at what is presented, but also at what has been made invisible and belittled which, in my experience, is by far more telling. In other words, we need to build not on needs but on what is abundant as our foundation.

An awakening event in my life was ‘discovering’ my illiterate mother’s mathematics in 1976. Her intelligence was not connected to abstractions but manifested in her fingers, imagination, and eyes that connected her mind with reality. In addition, her maths was connected to art in the dresses she made for women, and had use-value, whereas my mathematics had exchange value.

I can summarize my life so far – in most aspects – as occupation and return. I was one of the first group of refugees in the modern Middle East: of Palestinians who became refugees in 1948 (caused by Britain). Our house and land were occupied; and the mathematics in our house was also occupied (by the mathematics I acquired in schools and universities and by Bertrand Russell whom I loved in secondary school and college). I ‘returned’ to knowledge but not yet to home and land. I was freed from the binary logic by my return to muthanna, from vertical evaluation by return to yuhsenas my source of worthiness, from institutions by my return to mujaawarahs, from critical thinking by my return to reflective thinking within context, and I was freed from citing theories by telling stories.

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.

Community Education: To Reclaim and Transform What Has Been Made Invisible

Munir Fasheh, Tamer Institute for Community Education and Birzeit University                 [Taken from an article published in the Harvard Educational Review, February 1990]

In describing anyone or anything that cannot survive on its own, Palestinian Arabs in the Galilee say, “It is like an Israeli hen.” The difference between the Israeli hen and the indigenous Palestinian hen is that the first cannot survive, grow, or produce eggs without special shots, a special mixture of food, specific temperatures, and a specific schedule; it requires some kind of “scientific and rational” planning and constant support from outside. In fact, any change in the food mixture or in the conditions surrounding the Israeli hen can lead to its inability to produce eggs, at least for a while. In short, if this “technological” hen is taken out of its “artificial and ideological” environment and put into the real environment, it will have difficulty surviving.

In contrast, the indigenous Palestinian hen survives because of the characteristics it has developed through the ages, thriving on what it finds in the environment and through its ability to adapt to diverse conditions. It will even consume its own excrement, if need be, in order to survive. These qualities – internal strength, “feeling at home” within the environment, and the ability to adapt to diverse conditions – have helped the indigenous hen to survive for thousands of years.

Human beings and communities require these same qualities for survival and growth; but they also require creativity and increased capacity for learning. The role of education in promoting or hindering the development of these qualities is crucial.

I believe that most graduates of the formal education system within Palestinian community are like the Israeli hen: their survival depends on external support, and their values are based on artificial, induced, or symbolic qualities. Such graduates live on a special mixture of courses and curricula that are ‘scientifically and rationally’ prepared for them by experts, mainly from abroad. Further, such graduates are in general alienated from their own environment and are mostly blind or insensitive to its basic problems and needs. When the surrounding conditions change, or when real-world situations must be dealt with, such graduates become confused: the “correct” answers and ready solutions they learned in schools and universities suddenly become useless and meaningless.

The Contrast between My Math and My Mother’s Math

The contrast between the educated Israeli hen and the indigenous Palestinian hen parallels the contrast between the math that I studied and taught in schools and universities for more than twenty years and the math of my mother, who is illiterate. This contrast illustrates the importance of one’s relationship to environment, in both the ideological and the real sense.

To borrow an expression from Jackson Lears, the ideological environment serves to mark ‘the boundaries of permissible discourse, discourage the clarification of social alternatives and make it difficult for the dispossessed to locate the source of their uneasiness, let alone remedy it.” This environment “functions to ‘position’ people in the world, to shape the range of possible meanings surrounding an issue, and to actively construct reality.” Shaped as it is by existing power relationships, the ideological environment reflects the ideas, perspectives, interests, and behavior of dominant groups and nations, through local elites and urban centers.

The real environment, on the other hand, represents what formal education under these conditions normally marginalizes or excludes. It extends from the immediacies of the historical process as experienced by people, to the social institutions (material, spiritual, and intellectual), productive activities and cultural traditions that shape people’s responses.

It was a drastic event in my life – the 1967 Israeli-Arab war – that caused me to realize certain fundamental things about life, including education and its relation to the environment and community. That war raised in my mind the first serious challenge to the kind of education – and later to the math – I had been given (and was teaching), both at the school and university levels. In particular, I became aware of my illiterate mother’s math

When the 1967 Israeli-Arab war broke out, I was twenty-six years old, with a master’s degree and five years’ experience teaching math at various levels. The war shook the foundations of my small, comfortable, and seemingly consistent and meaningful world, a world created by formal, institutionalized education. The war revealed how little we – the formally educated – knew. Almost none of our conceptions, convictions, and expectations matched what was going on. Although I started questioning education in general almost immediately after the war, I did not at that time consider the possible relation of math and physics to many of the problems in today’s world, nor did I question the fundamental assumptions upon which math and science were based. In fact, as a result of the war I became more convinced that one task I had, as an educator, was to expand the use of logic and science in the world through teaching.

I thought that what we needed was more math, a “New Math,” as well as better and more diversified ways of teaching it. For six years (1972-78) I was formally involved in math instruction at several levels and in different ways in the schools of the West Bank. But the “New Math” I was in charge of introducing into the schools was, I realized, fundamentally alien, dry, and irrelevant to both students and teachers. In order to overcome this problem, I encouraged the incorporation of cultural concepts, independent avenues of exploration, and personal feelings into the work. I encouraged teachers, for example, to ask small children such questions as, “Which do you like more, five or two, and why?” and not only questions like, “Which is greater, five or two, and why?” I also stressed the idea that most if not all children are logical in their own way and that the job of teachers is to explore and discuss that personal logic. In addition to classroom teaching, I established math clubs, magazines, general discussion meetings, and in-service courses. This approach revitalized the teaching, introduced both structure and logic, and was important in developing creativity and enthusiasm among both teachers and students. It did not yet lead me, however, to question hegemonic assumptions behind the math itself. It was the discovery of my mother’s math that led me to question such assumptions.

Math was necessary for my mother in a much more profound and real sense than it was for me. Unable to read or write, my mother routinely took rectangles of fabric and, with few measurements (using chalk), cut them and turned them into beautiful, perfectly fitted clothing for people. In 1976 I realized that the math she was using was beyond my comprehension. Moreover, although math was a subject matter that I studied and taught, for her it was basic to the operation of her understanding. What she was doing was math, in the sense that it embodied order, pattern, and relations. It was math because she was breaking a whole into smaller parts and constructing a new whole out of the pieces, a new whole that had its own style, shape, and size, and that had to fit a specific person. Mistakes in her math entailed practical consequences, unlike mistakes in my math.

The value of her math and its relationship to the world around her, moreover, was drastically different from mine. My math had no connection to power in the community or the practical world of making things; it was connected solely to symbolic power through the Western hegemonic culture that had engendered it. Without the official ideological support system no one would have needed my math; its value was derived from a set of symbols created by the hegemony of the dominant culture and by the world of education. In contrast, my mother’s math was so deeply embedded in the culture that it was invisible to eyes trained by formal education. Her math had no symbols of power. Its value was connected to concrete and immediate needs and actions.

Seeing my mother’s math in context helped me see my math in the context of power. This social context limited the value of her experience, discredited her as a woman and an uneducated person, and paid her extremely poor wages for her work. She never understood that social context and was vulnerable to its hegemonic assertions. She never wanted any of her children to learn her profession, sewing clothes; instead, she and my father worked very hard to see that their children were educated and did not work with their hands. As a result, it came as a shock to me when 1 realized the complexity and richness of my mother’s relationship to math. Math was integrated into her world as it had never been integrated into mine. In retrospect, I wish I had learned more about her work and the knowledge embedded in it. She knew in practice much more than she was able to tell. In contrast, I was able to articulate words and manipulate symbols much more than I was able to put them into practice.

My mother’s math was biased toward life, action, production, and personal experience, and it was linked to immediate and concrete needs in the community. My math, on the other hand, was biased toward the manipulation of symbols and theories linked mainly to technological advancement and techniques that usually lead to military, political, and economic power and control.

I was initially attracted to math and physics because of what I felt to be their role in making the world more intelligible, by finding patterns and relationships and describing them in words, formulas, and theories. It was fascinating for me to realize, for example, that there is a single principle (the law of gravity) that explains falling apples, rising balloons, the rotation of the moon around the earth, and tides. Math and science were attractive because they could help explain phenomena and predict events. I was fascinated by the power of logic to make absolute statements that transcend place, time, and speaker, and by the fact that one could reduce a whole system of ideas and statements to very few basic axioms. In addition, math and science enabled people to do such concrete things as build bridges, construct radios, make planes, and facilitate surgery.

I was also attracted to math and science because of the claims made about them: that math and science require higher intelligence than other fields; that science eventually would solve all problems; that math and science enable people to discover objective, universal truths and absolute laws; that expressing ideas in numbers is superior to other forms of expression; that math and science transcend national, racial, and gender boundaries. Furthermore, I was attracted to math and science because of the claims about their role in improving the human condition, generating tolerance, reducing inequities, and raising people to a higher level of civilization. This was the image of math and science I had internalized and this was the image I preached. Although I was aware that math, science, and technology were also used to produce bombs and pollution, I believed this to be an aberration, an abuse. When pressed to explain the paradox, I responded with the answer that I had internalized: it was people who abused math and science. I parroted back the notion that math and science were neutral and thus could be used to any end. I was convinced that the ethical, moral, humanitarian dimension of math and science was both the fundamental role and the norm. In short, I was attracted to study and later teach math and science because they were associated with things that were pleasurable, ethical, intellectual, and useful, and because of the claims that linked math and science to progress and to the improvement of the human condition.

In 1967, I started to see the practical limits of the education I had been given. The Israeli Arab war started a process that made the real environment and its power relations more visible. My sense of the intellectual, moral, and humanitarian dimensions of math and science gradually gave way to a sense of the central functions of math and science: creating power and generating hegemony. The stunning Israeli military victory in 1967 was a victory of superior math, science, and technology — not a victory of moral superiority or greater personal courage. The message of the highly sophisticated warplanes and bombs was loud and clear. Thus, although it is true that math, science, and technology produce planes, for example, that can transport people for harmless purposes, they frequently produce warplanes whose function is to kill and destroy. In almost every country in the world, the number of warplanes is many times the number of civilian planes. Just as it is misleading to emphasize the protein and other values in meat that has been poisoned, it is deceptive to stress only the technical skills and knowledge one can acquire through education while ignoring its potentially dangerous consequences. In addition to the destructive machinery, certain values and patterns of thinking and behaving that are associated with current models of learning are equally destructive.

My mother’s sewing demonstrated another way of conceptualizing and doing math, another kind of knowledge, and the place of that knowledge in the world. But the value of my mother’s tradition and of her kind of mathematics and knowledge, though not intrinsically disempowering was continually discredited by the world around her, by what Paulo Freire calls the culture of silence, and by cultural hegemony. Although I was not yet ready to question the theoretical bases of positivistic math and science, this discovery allowed me to recognize the need for a different type of education, and to respect all forms of knowledge and their relation to action.

Formal Education, Hegemony, and Power

The discovery of my mother’s math was a discovery about the world and about the relation between hegemony and knowledge. Hegemony does not simply provide knowledge; rather, it substitutes one kind of knowledge for another in the context of a power relationship. Power, in this sense, is almost defined by what is excluded. While I was struggling to make the mathematics I had learned meaningful, what I was seeking was in front of me, made invisible to both my mother and me by the education I had been given and that she had desired for me. To recognize my mother’s activity as math was for me to recognize that education and knowledge are not only about facts but also about the inner logic of society, both within itself and in relation to outside forces.

The most crucial issue this discussion raises is that of the relation of education to the world it inhabits, and the relation of the learner to his or her community and environment. The education I received prepared me to live in a world created by that education and hegemony. It left me blind to its ideological dimension, to the relationship between the knowledge transmitted to me and power… Like the Israeli hen, I was constantly sheltered from events in the real environment, and I looked for support and a sense of worth from outside. My strength did not emanate from internal qualities but from external sources. Hegemony is characterized not only by what it includes but also by what it excludes: by what it renders marginal, deems inferior, and makes invisible. As a result, the effects of hegemonic education make it possible to define the real environment by what formal education marginalizes or excludes.

Hegemony is to be understood here as a form that often precedes political and military conquests and continues after them. But unlike military conquest, hegemonic conquest permeates almost all spheres, and those being dominated facilitate their own domination. Hegemony is always linked to an ideology that reflects the manners and interests of the invaders and their culture. This ideology embodies certain conceptions, values, language, relations, and interests that are translated into daily practices. Crucial to the hegemonic relationship is the belief of the conquered that the lifestyle and values of the hegemonic group are inherently, naturally, and objectively superior. Hegemony is successful when the invader’s ideology is taken or even assumed to be universal and superior.

The role of intellectuals and institutions is of primary importance, since the reproduction of a hegemonic ideology is achieved through them. Intellectual development in a colonial hegemonic context is designed to provide ideology without a basis in power. This allows intellectuals to participate vicariously in the moral, intellectual, humanitarian, and technical aspects of Western culture, as well as in educational, scholarly, and research activities. The training of colonial intellectuals directs them to derive their sense of worth and status from this vicarious participation, alienating them from their own culture, history, and people. The indigenous population, however, often supports this process by giving status to such intellectuals. Generally speaking, hegemonic education produces intellectuals who have lost their power base in their own culture and society and who have been provided with a foreign culture and ideology, but without a power base in the hegemonic society. I personally have seen this process as I have worked with and observed Palestinian intellectuals over the past twelve years. I have observed that, because they lacked a power base at both ends, these intellectuals tend to sharply overvalue symbolic power and tokens—such as titles, degrees, access to prestigious institutions, and awards— associated with the dominant culture.

Ultimately, I found that the power of Western hegemony rests on the claims of superiority, universality, and ethical neutrality of Western math, positivistic science, technology, and education. These claims extend into social, cultural, moral, political, and intellectual spheres. But continuing to accept Western math, science, and education as universal and authoritative is detrimental to creating a healthier and more humane world. Like any other human activity, math, science, and education need a critical analysis, not only at the implementation and application stage but also, and more important, at the level of the basic premises and values that govern their conceptions, practices, and production.

In short, the 1967 war, its aftermath, and the discovery of my mother’s math convinced me that education can do one of two things: it can either introduce hegemony into the community, or it can reclaim and develop what has been made invisible by hegemony.

Education of the second kind, which I refer to in this essay as community education, requires us to use our senses again, to make things visible, and to allow people to speak. Like many other peoples, Palestinians have been denied the value of our experience and have been robbed of our voice and sense of self-worth. Value, language, and visibility are at stake here because they have been taken away from people’s fundamental activities.

…. …. ….

The Palestinian intifada (1987-91)

I personally witnessed two events during this period that will help illustrate what Palestinians have been learning. I once watched a boy of seven or eight hiding behind a wall watching several soldiers trying to pull down a Palestinian flag that was hanging over an electric wire. This means of raising the Palestinian flag has been a common practice since the beginning of the intifada. Children attach a flag to one end of a string and a stone to the other end, and then throw it over an electric wire so that the flag will hang high. These actions always draw soldiers, with their sophisticated equipment, to the site of the “crime.” On that particular day, the soldiers could not get the flag down through “conventional” means, so they extended a long tube, ignited the top, and burned the flag. After the soldiers left, the boy ran and came back with another boy, threw another flag over the wire, and hid behind the wall—to wait for new soldiers to come. Through this creative, innocent “game” this boy feels empowered, that his actions can make a difference: he can manipulate—almost daily—the fourth-strongest army in the world! That boy is now aware of and able to use the power that exists in every human being.

The second event concerns another common scene in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. A number of soldiers were harshly beating a young man in his early twenties in the central district of Ramallah. Several women rushed toward the scene shouting and trying to pull the soldiers away from the young man. Suddenly, a woman carrying a baby ran up and started shouting at the young man, ‘l told you not to leave the house today, that the situation is too dangerous. But you didn’t listen; you never listen to me.” Then she turned to the soldiers and said, “Beat him; he deserves this”. He never listens. I am sick of my life with him.” Then back to the man she cried, “I am sick of you and your baby; take him and leave me alone.” She then pushed the baby into his arms and ran away. The soldiers were confused. Finally they left the man and went on. A few minutes later, the woman reappeared, took back her baby, told the young man to go to his home, and wished him safety and a quick recovery. I then realized that they were total strangers to one another.

The woman was not acting or pretending; and she was not a superhuman or a hero (as many like to characterize Palestinians today). Nor, on the other hand, was she a subhuman or a member of a non-people (as many Israeli and Western experts have been trying to portray the Palestinians for decades). She was simply acting humanly, as a concerned, responsible, and compassionate human being. Her power and her inspiration stem exactly from this fact, and from her understanding that her survival, and that of her community, is at stake. She acted spontaneously, creatively, and courageously; feeling a sense of community and solidarity beyond the usual uttering of slogans. For this woman, the combination of thinking and acting within a particular context, of praxis, was a natural part of living. It was also obvious that she felt she could make a difference. Self-reliance (internal strength, making decisions, taking action) and mutual help (compassion and communal feeling) could hardly have been combined more clearly within a single event. Her action brings out the hope in human beings: how incredible, how unpredictable, how creative human beings can be.

This woman was practicing a human logic different from the mathematical logic that we are taught to consider as the peak of human thought and capability. In this human logic, the conclusion she desired – saving the young man from brutal action – was important; but just as important was that she take some action. She felt a sense of responsibility about doing something even if it did not lead immediately to a conclusion. Finally, her behavior shows that in order to deal effectively with systems of control, the meaning of words must be produced in the form of action, in the context of action. Some words that gained concrete meaning through her action are solidarity, creativity, courage, and human logic. People who witnessed this incident also learned a great deal.

Incidents like these help Palestinians rediscover and reclaim their internal strength, their sense of self-worth, and an understanding of the importance of self-reliance for survival and growth. One expression of this development has been the neighborhood committees that were formed to deal with basic problems and needs in the community. The activities of these committees included storing and distributing food, responding to health needs, taking care of the wounded and the needy, communal gardening, teaching children in homes, mosques, and churches, and alerting the community to army raids and settlers’ attacks. Popular education dealing with these issues, as well as with school subjects, flourished for a few months after the beginning of the intifada.

But these neighborhood committees were dealt a severe blow by Israeli military order in August 1988, which made it a crime for anyone to be involved in popular committees, including those concerned with gardening and teaching children in homes. The penalty for engaging in such activities was up to ten years’ imprisonment. This order significantly curtailed the activities of the neighborhood committees. It is actually ironic when one considers the role of home teaching in the survival of Jews in Europe for many centuries.

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A basic premise in community education is that social reality will never be completely free of pain or injustice; that prior to and beyond any curriculum, any educational activity, or discussion, there is a concrete and often oppressive and evil reality; and that the purpose of education is not to ignore, conceal, or distort this reality, but to transform it.

The idea of transforming reality is linked to hope, and hope is linked to the belief that change is possible and that we are all responsible for it. Community education embodies the hope that today’s technological-military logic and power can be swept away by human logic and human strength. The hope that the intifada embodies is a hope that transcends the Palestinian situation to reach out to humanity at large. In the big picture of human conflicts, the intifada is not a struggle between Palestinian young people and Israeli soldiers (although it is taking that form at this point); but rather, it is a fight between human power and technological military power. The victory of the intifada is not a victory for the Palestinians over the Israelis but a victory for humanity, including both Palestinians and Jews. The intifada embodies the hope that humanity cannot be crushed indefinitely. Like the wildflower seeds in the Palestinian landscape, humanity can dry up for a while, but with the first rainfall it will bloom all over again. Like a poppy growing up through cement to reach the sunlight and fresh air, humanity strives through oppression to reach toward the light. The role of education in this process is crucial. This is the message that Palestinian children exemplify for education today.

The Words al-muthanna and yuhsen in Arabic as Examples of Cultural Diversity and of Clarifying the Meaning of Intercultural Dialogue

[Presented at UNESCO conference “Towards Mainstreaming Principles of Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue in Policies for Sustainable Development”, Paris, May 21-23, 2007]

I will first choose the word al-muthanna in Arabic as a pivotal idea to explain what I want to say concerning the main words used in the conference materials: universal, diversity, principle, culture, dialogue, policy, and sustainable development. By choosing a word from Arabic that most Arabs experience daily and that forms a good part of the grammatical structure of the language and, at the same time, has no equivalence in any European language, I would be practicing intercultural dialogue, embodying cultural diversity, and shedding light on what kind of principles and policies should guide our actions. It can also clarify what such words as ‘sustainable’ and ‘development’ would mean in relation to cultures. In addition, choosing words from Arabic demonstrates the richness that exists in every culture and, at the same time, shows the limitation of cultures. There is no culture that can encompass the totality of experience, of being, of life; no culture can have universal claims about life. Every culture has something to offer and inspire and, at the same time, is limited. That’s why I believe that humility is crucial in creating meaningful and mutually nurturing dialogues among people and cultures. Humility is in the very nature of al-muthanna experience.

What triggered me to choose al-muthanna was something that was mentioned in the working document in the conference written by Roger-Pol Droit. He points to what he considers “a very old philosophical debate: the relationship between the One and the Many” (p. 4). When I read that, I thought, “I don’t remember I ever experienced I was one or many but, rather, I always felt I am made up of muthannas”. It is an alien concept to Roger because it is absent from European languages, and seems to be absent from people’s experiences in Europe in general. I believe that children in all cultures – including those where al-muthanna is not part of the language – experience it when they are little, and some adults retain it, but it usually gets lost in cultures where the language does not reflect it or where experiences do not embody it or lived values do not cherish it. Al-muthanna refers to a relation between two people that becomes very important in the lives of both, and yet has a life of its own – almost like a common baby. It is neither a legal relation nor intellectual nor economic nor social… it develops in a free and natural way between the two. It is neither a couple nor dual – although the latter is usually used to refer to it. Al-muthanna does not perceive the other as non-I or as a person that is a copy of I, and it is not a higher synthesis/ unity of the two. Each person remains who s/he is but a relation starts developing between the two, a relation that becomes so important in both persons’ lives that neither can live any longer as if it is not there. In this sense, it embodies a logic that is different from both Aristotle’s and Hegel’s logics. The other person is a ‘you’ rather than a non-I or a copy of I or forms a higher synthesis with I. It is also different from Descartes’ logic who said “I think, therefore I am”. In the logic of al-muthanna, “YOU are, therefore I am” – my existence depends on my relation with you. That’s why I believe that without al-muthanna, it is very difficult to develop a pluralistic attitude in living and perceiving. Without having experiences that embody al-muthanna, one would consider a place like Boston to be pluralistic. No doubt, there is cultural diversity in Boston but, for me, it is more like the diversity in a zoo, where each group lives in its own cage. Living in cages or living a “melting pot” of cultures is contrary to the spirit of al-muthanna. This also explains why a person like Samuel Huntington oscillates between conflict and integration; he can’t think of the other in any way that is not conflictual or being an identity/ copy of Huntington’s way of living. His two books The Clash of Civilizations? and Who Are We? reflect the only two possibilities that Huntington seems to be able to imagine: he could only perceive cultures and civilizations in conflict with Western civilization or copies of it. The limitation of his mind and imagination springs from the lack of al-muthanna in his language and in his experience. In such cultures as European ones, one has to work hard in order to unplug self from the dichotomy of the one and the many; to keep the spirit of al-muthanna alive in one’s life.

Al-muthanna cannot happen in formal meetings or through rational planning. In conferences, for example, it happens on the side, in the margins, through free associations and interactions… and lets the nurturance between the two grow naturally. Mutual nurturance happens when the relation is a healthy muthanna.

I first learned the meaning of pluralism and humility through a very special muthanna in my life: my relation with my mother. My encounter with the world that was embedded in her life – starting with when I first (in 1976) ‘discovered’ her math and knowledge that were radically different from mine – clarified for me the meaning of many words, especially pluralism, humility, culture, dialogue, and universal. The fact that my first experience with pluralism was related to math and knowledge (which are usually considered neutral, objective, and universal) had a profound effect on me; it helped to quickly unplug me from the belief in a single path in learning, knowing, and developing/ progressing – the essence of what is referred to as universal thinking. Realizing that I could neither understand nor do what she was able of understanding and doing, taught me both humility and pluralism of knowledges. The ‘dialogue’ (which was not verbal) that I had with my mother’s world (and which continued after her death in 1984) has been the longest and most inspiring dialogue in my life. She embodied a whole world/ universe within her; a world that is harmonious and not fragmented like the one I acquired in schools and universities. Using an analogy, she saw the world like she would see her full face in a mirror, while I was seeing the world like looking at my face in a broken mirror: fragmented and every piece out of place. There is a difference between a person believing in universals and that same person striving to have one’s life embody a universe. The problem does not lie in believing that what one thinks is universal as much as what one thinks does not constitute a universe/ a world. What my mother was trying to constantly accomplish/ fulfill in her life was to build a harmonious world within her. In contrast, what the knowledge I had acquired at universities tried to make me believe that what I was acquiring was universal. There is a world of difference between claiming one’s beliefs are universal AND striving to make one’s beliefs embody a universe!

Stressing that I am “made” of muthannas brings up into question another word, widely used in relation to cultures: identity. In cultures where people experience muthanna, the word identity is meaningless and alien – even contrary to the spirit of al-muthanna. It is worth mentioning here that the word used in Arabic as a synonym of identity is howiyya which literally means that the reference to who I am is not me but s/he – the other.

The other word that I mentioned in the title as an example of cultural diversity and of clarifying the meaning of intercultural dialogue is the word yuhsen. In 1998, when I first established the Arab Education Forum within the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, I came across a statement in Arabic that had a profound impact on me. This time it was in relation to the source and meaning of the worth of a person. The statement was articulated by Imam Ali 1,400 years ago. It says in Arabic: qeematu kullimri’en ma yuhsenoh قيمة كل امرئ ما يحسنه  According to it, the worth of a person is what s/he yuhsen. Yuhsen, in Arabic, has several meanings, which together constitute the worth of the person: the first meaning refers to how well the person does what s/he does, which requires technical knowledge and skills; the second refers to how beautiful and pleasing what s/he does (the importance of the senses, the aesthetic dimension); the third refers to how good and useful it is for the community, from the perspective of the community; the fourth refers to how much one gives of oneself and not what one transfers from one place to another; and the fifth meaning refers to how respectful (of people and ideas) the person is in discussions. Thus, according to the statement, evaluating a person or a person’s worth is not judged by professional committees or official bodies, or by measures that claim to be objective and universal, but by the five meanings embedded in the word yuhsen. It is only in relation to the first meaning – technical knowledge and skills – that professionals and institutions may be needed. The five dimensions of the word yuhsen naturally embody pluralism, humility, contextual meanings (personal, cultural, and community), and dialogue. However, they do not constitute another “super system”. They become obvious and crucial when life compels us to take a stance in the effective presence of others, and in realizing that it is not possible to avoid mutual interference as well as in realizing that conflicts cannot be solved by the victory of one over others. I strongly believe that the world cannot survive if we continue to measure people and cultures along a vertical line that claims to be objective, neutral, and universal. As long as one’s worth comes totally from outside the person and his/her relations with the community and surroundings, one’s inner world (including one’s knowledge and perception of self) would be fragmented and shattered, and the social fabric in the community constantly torn. Universalism and fragmentation go hand in hand: every universal claim shatters the possibility of building a universe within each person and tears apart the social fabric in communities. Within this perspective, the term ‘underdevelopment’ is not only inappropriate but it also blinds us to the richness and uniqueness which are true of every culture. It blinds us to the fact that people cannot be measured – in the sense mentioned above. This brings up the question as to whether ‘underdevelopment’ reflects reality or was invented for some undeclared reasons.

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In what follows, I will say briefly what the above discussion means in relation to policies. Some of the convictions/ principles I mentioned above run contrary to dominant practices and, thus, there is need to challenge the logic that underlies them. Such challenge requires intellectual honesty, moral courage, and social action – traits that are crucial in sustaining cultural diversity and life on Earth.

  1. The first dominant practice that needs to be challenged (which I mentioned above) is measuring people along a vertical line. Such measurement is a main factor in destroying diversity in life. The belief in a single undifferentiated path for progress and development (which is a necessary assumption that underlies such measurement) is in total contradiction with pluralism. Any talk about preserving cultural diversity and sustainable development while at the same time continuing to measure people is naïve at best. Thus, the first principle in a policy that aims at preserving cultural diversity and creating authentic intercultural dialogue is to STOP MEASURING PEOPLE AND CULTURES along a vertical line that claims to be objective, neutral, and universal.
  2. The second dominant practice in the world today is that of starting with what is lacking, with needs, etc. This in my opinion is the wrong starting point. When a body gets sick, the healthy part rushes to start the healing process. Without the healthy part doing this, a thousand physicians and all medicines cannot heal the body. Similarly, a dialogue that starts with what is wrong in oneself or in others can never lead to a mutually nurturing interaction and dialogue. Thus, the second principle is to start the dialogue with what is beautiful in THE PERSON and what THE PERSON finds inspiring in THE OTHER.
  3. The third dominant practice that needs to be challenged is the claim (and practice) that the way to protect, preserve, and vitalize threatened cultures is through official policies and plans to implement them from above. Nothing robs the spirit and essence of a culture than a formal policy to protect it. The principle here, thus, is to follow a policy in dealing with cultures which tells “experts”: get out of the way. What a culture needs in order to flourish is a space, a physical space where people live in accordance with their ways and in free associations/ interactions with others. Such a space would guarantee sustainability of that culture more than having a formal policy, and would guarantee the development of that culture in a way that is in harmony with the respectful principle articulated by the Zapatistas: changing traditions in traditional ways; i.e., without shattering the harmony within persons and tearing apart the social fabric in communities. Every culture embodies a world/ universe/ cosmology. No culture is universal, but a culture that does not constantly strive to embody a universe would be shattered from within. For ‘outside experts’ to put policies is outrageous; cultures cannot be fully understood via words and concepts.
  4. I personally believe that it would be impossible to preserve cultural diversity and create authentic dialogues as long as we go on imposing education and development in their present dominant conceptions and practices. Thus, a necessary accompanying policy (in relation to education) that guarantees cultural sustainability and true dialogue is to reclaim a good part of the budget allotted to the dominant single path for learning (called education, in all its forms: formal, informal, non-formal) and use it to support or create diverse means, MEDIUMS, and settings for learning. We need to end the monopoly of schools over learning. Learning via cultural expressions and learning from life in general require ways and settings that are radically different from school methods and settings. Al-muthanna can be inspiring in this regard. Using mujaawarah (neighboring – apprenticeship is a poor synonym) as a medium of learning is in my opinion crucial in dealing with learning as a personal and communal responsibility, and doing it in freedom.

Introducing the two words in Arabic that I mentioned above – al-muthanna and yuhsen – brings the beauty in Arab culture and invites others to bring the beauty in theirs, as part of the dialogue. This way we would be in harmony with the four principles mentioned above: no measures, starting with what is beautiful and inspiring, letting cultures flourish freely and change from within, and supporting diverse ways of learning. They form inspiring examples of how a pluralistic attitude is crucial in meaningful dialogues.

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We need to heal from universals and from the arrogance of the claim that the mind can encompass all of life/ being. The mind needs to learn to be humble again and to go hand in hand with wisdom. And we need to realize that universals are contrary to both humanity and nature. All attempts to build a “universe” rather than to deepen the “pluriverse” (where various worlds enrich and nurture one another) have not only caused much destruction and misery but also have failed (the futility of such a dream/ nightmare is now obvious). One of the few positive aspects of modern technology, in my opinion, is that it is increasingly making isolation impossible and making the pluralistic nature in life more obvious. We need to build paths that take us out of our provincialities but without dumping us all into a single global culture. The importance of pluralism arises as a living challenge; it arises from the fact that most people today experience disorientation and disunion. It does not arise from a purely theoretical source. Thus, the solution to such a challenge (and others we face in today’s world) will have to be in the praxis and not in the intellect. In this sense, peoples in the Two-Thirds World are more equipped to produce the necessary shift: most still live in pluralistic communities. This fact is usually invisible because there is very little talk about it in public discussions.

Communities and Hope: Language for fahm (understanding) vs. language for wahm (illusion)

After the dismantlement of the Soviet Union and the claim that there is only one Super Power in the world, I wrote an article entitled “The Eternal Super Power”, referring to the peoples of the world. The main “possessions” of this power are communities and hope. The history of the past 500 years (starting with the European invasion of the Americas) has been a systematic brutal attempt to wipe out both communities and hope – not only among the colonized but also among the colonizers. The story of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, which started in 1994 (exactly 500 years after the invasion), is one of the most inspiring movements in the world today: it brings out – more than anything else – the force of life and living as manifested by communities and hope.

The Zapatistas are not the only example where the force of life in communities and the spirit of hope are manifested; they are there in many places and peoples around the world. The story of the Iranian revolution in 1978 (which Foucault referred to as ‘spiritual politics’, a phrase that made most western “experts” attack him viciously) is an example of the force in communities and in hope. Living dynamic cultures form a most important ingredient of such force.

Most of my experience in Palestine has been living with community and hope. They have been the main ‘things’ we have. In this email, I would like to elaborate on this as part of the discussion towards our meeting in Iran; and, in particular, how this relates to the theme of language for fahm (understanding) vs. language for wahm/ vahm (illusion).

Power is not only defined by what it tries to impose but also (and in my opinion, more so) by what it makes invisible or deems valueless, or by robbing words of meanings used by people in the context of living. Hope is an example of words that are made invisible or valueless, while community is an example of words that have been robbed of meanings created in the context of living, and replaced by professional or official meanings.

Ivan Illich wrote in 1971: “The history of modern man… is the history of fading hope and rising expectations.” I read this statement in 2003, and like other insightful statements that moved me, Illich’s statement clarified many dimensions of my experiences and my living; it deepened my fahm. It is especially meaningful in relation to the Palestinian situation. Between 1948 and 1993, hope – as manifested by people and communities – was the main spirit among Palestinians. In 1993, the World Bank, UN agencies, and other big development organizations were allowed – for the first time – to function fully in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (after the Palestinian Authority was formed). Since then, the story of the Palestinians has been a story of ‘fading hope and rising expectations’ – we were transformed slowly from doers to complainers and demanders. It is the same story everywhere, where communities were replaced by nation-states, which robbed people of what they could do without institutions and professionals – in addition to tearing apart the fabric of communities and planting in their stead artificial and monopolizing institutions/ organizations governed by values of control and winning. (This happened even in a place where only the smell of a nation-state was allowed, like in Palestine!) Hope was replaced by expectations, and community by ‘civil society’ (which we were told is made up of NGOs). Calling such organizations ‘non-governmental’, without feeling embarrassed, is part of the wahm: we all know that non-governmental organizations need to get the approval of governments for every little step (in addition, of course, to approval of funding agencies)! The term ‘civil society’ – if I ever have to use it – would refer to being made up of communities and not NGOs.

One point is worth mentioning in relation to the idea of nation-state: it is the main loser in recent events in Palestine! Like in many other instances (such as exposing Western hypocrisy concerning democracy, where not one western country respected the choice of Palestinians), Palestine exposed the real role of nation-states: it is either to rally its citizens to invade and steal other nations or to suppress its own people. In other words, a nation-state is a tool for external occupation or for internal occupation! I don’t know of any instance to the contrary! [It is worth mentioning that people like Gandhi, Tagore, and Iqbal were strongly against the idea. We witness today how it led to the formation of 3 ugly nation-states in the sub-continent, and to 22 ugly nation-states in the Arab region! The main tools of a nation-state include: ‘national’ curriculum (that controls language, meanings, and minds); ‘national’ army (that suppresses people within the ‘nation’); and ‘national’ bank (that transfers the nation’s money to outside banks and corporations)!]

A main challenge we face today (not only in Palestine) is how to nurture hope where it is still flourishing and how to re-cultivate it where it is fading, and how to protect the fabric in communities where it still exists and help stitch it where it is being torn apart.

I am going to choose the decade of the 1970s as an example of a period that embodied hope and community. When the PLO was expelled from Jordan in 1971, the atmosphere in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was one of uncertainty and despair. We didn’t know where things were going, what to expect, and no one had the slightest idea what would happen next. At the same time, however, I don’t remember I met anyone (during that period) who did not have an idea of what to do in one’s immediate place and time. What helped that attitude to flourish was the fact that the reference of every person – in relation to what s/he should do – was himself/ herself. There was no authority to tell people what to do, which provided space and freedom for people to do what they felt they could and should do. We were left alone with no big goals (liberation during that period was more like a spirit that was lived than a goal for the future), no organizations, and no formal structures; we were left only with what we had as persons and as communities: ourselves, each other, and what was there socially, culturally, naturally – and the reality we were living in. It is in this sense that hope is connected to abundance: to what is available, inspiring, and beautiful in people, communities, and culture. The spirit was simply amazing. We were so immersed in life that we were not fully aware of that spirit – which we were creating for ourselves and for each other. No one planned what was happening, no one pre-thought it, and no one preached it; it just happened. People felt energized, alive, attentive to surroundings and ready to do whatever they felt they could do and was good to do. In a very real sense, that was the only way to go: to move in harmony with the force of life. This is what I refer to as hope: being attentive to surroundings and full of aliveness, and just act accordingly. It is very similar to the hope that exists in a poppy seed buried under hard soil, and pushing its way up towards sunlight and fresh air (an image that I chose to reflect the spirit of Tamer Institute which I established in 1989 during the first intifada). Hope, for me, refers to the ‘blind’ faith that exists in all living creatures when they act in harmony with life, and when they are left with nothing but the force of life. That feeling and spirit were widespread and spontaneous during the 1970s: we felt free, hopeful, and self-ruled (in Gandhi’s sense).

A Palestinian folklore story (which probably exists in other societies) embodies the spirit I mentioned above. It is about a fire that started in a jungle. All animals, birds… escaped and sat on the top of a hill watching with sadness and despair the jungle burning – except for one bird. It kept flying to a stream, getting wet, and flying back to sprinkle water over the fire. The animals laughed and asked whether that would extinguish the fire. The bird said that it was doing what it could and was good to do. Hope resides in doing what one can do, rather than in lamenting, complaining, demanding, accusing, and just watching.

If back in the 1970s we tried to analyze what was happening in a rational way, things would have looked very dark and depressing; we would have done nothing – we would have sat down, lamented, complained and waited for relief from outside. This is why I would not describe how we felt as pessimistic or what we did as optimistic. I would rather say that what we felt and did embodied hope. Optimism is related to some positive result in the future (an attribute of the mind), while hope is manifested by doing something in the present (an attribute of the vitality of life). This is what women in Gaza and refugee camps in Lebanon did every time the situation seemed impossible: hope (as manifested in the desire to go on living) has been a main secret of their vitality over the past 60 years.

It is worth mentioning two words in Arabic that are very relevant here: the words for culture and civilization. Thaqafah, which is the word for culture, has a root which means ‘to straighten and to sharpen’, which – in relation to humans – means to work on self and try to sharpen and straighten it constantly. The word for civilization is hadaarah حضارة which stems from the root hadara  حضرand related to haader  الحاضرand hodoor  حضور(from being present, in the present time, in the presence of others). It is bringing the past and the future into the present; one focuses on the present and what one can do at the present time and in the presence of others. The two words are connected to hope and community through working on self and focusing on what one can do at the present time in the presence of others.

In short, hope – during the 1970s – was manifested in thousands of spontaneous autonomous small acts. It was neither connected to a super goal nor to a utopia nor to an optimistic dream nor to a progressive ideology. It didn’t spring out of people figuring out in a rational way what they should do. It didn’t result from a rational decision that we should be optimistic and should not act in a pessimistic way. It was not a conscious act against feelings of despair. It was simply an expression of living in the place each one happened to be in and at the time one happened to be there. A story that I keep telling, which embodies what I said above, is one that happened during the first intifada. It reflects a common scene in the West Bank and Gaza Strip then. A number of soldiers were harshly beating a young man in central Ramallah. Several women rushed toward the scene shouting and trying to pull the soldiers away. Suddenly, a woman carrying a baby ran up and started shouting at the young man, ‘l told you not to leave the house today, that the situation is too dangerous. But you didn’t listen; you never listen to me.” Then she turned to the soldiers and said, “Beat him; he deserves this. He never listens. I am sick of my life with him.” Then back to the man she cried, “I am sick of you and your baby; take him and leave me alone.” She then pushed the baby into his arms and ran away. The soldiers were confused. Finally they left the man and went on. A few minutes later, the woman reappeared, took back her baby, told the young man to go to his home, and wished him safety and a quick recovery. I then realized that they were total strangers to one another.

Her action was a manifestation of hope in human beings: how incredible, how unpredictable, how creative human beings can be. She was simply acting humanly, as a concerned, responsible, and compassionate human being. Her power and her inspiration stemmed from this fact, and from her understanding that her survival, and that of her community, is at stake. She acted spontaneously, creatively, and courageously; feeling a sense of community and solidarity beyond the usual uttering of slogans.

At the same time, her action embodied a risk: her baby could have been hurt. She did what drove her naturally to save the young man from brutal action, without pondering where it would lead. Her action was not a calculated action, and it can’t be labeled pessimistic or optimistic action. In addition, her behavior shows that in order to deal effectively with systems of control, the meaning of words must be produced in the form of action, in the context of action. In her case, this was true of the words: hope, freedom, community, faith, creativity, and courage. Such words nurture fahm (understanding and harmony). In addition, it is clear that meanings of such words cannot be fully comprehended by minds or expressed by words; they can only be ‘digested’ through experiences and contemplations. Put simply, life is much richer than what minds and words can capture.

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.]

… … … … …

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…

… … …

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)?