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The Trouble with Knowledge
The Trouble with Knowledge

EXPO 2000: A Global Dialogue on “Building Learning Societies –
Knowledge, Information and Human Development”
Hanover, Germany (September 6-8, 2000)


[A wish


Along a dusty road in India there sat a beggar who sold cocoons. A young boy watched him day after day, and the beggar finally beckoned to him.

"Do you know what beauty lies within this chrysalis? I will give you one so you might see for yourself. But you must be careful not to handle the cocoon until the butterfly comes out."

The boy was enchanted with the gift and hurried home to await the butterfly. He laid the cocoon on the floor and became aware of a curious thing. The butterfly was beating its fragile wings against the hard wall of the chrysalis until it appeared it would surely perish, before it could break the unyielding prison. Wanting only to help, the boy swiftly pried the cocoon open.

Out flopped a wet, brown, ugly thing which quickly died. When the beggar discovered what had happened, he explained to the boy "In order for the butterfly wings to grow strong enough to support him, it is necessary that he beat them against the walls of his cocoon. Only by this struggle can his wings become beautiful and durable. When you denied him that struggle, you took away from him his only chance of survival."

May the walls of your cocoon,

Be just thick enough,

To allow you to struggle,

Just long enough,

to emerge,

The beautiful person,

I already know you to be]

Many societies met a fate similar to the cocoon through development and assistance programs, which lacked the wisdom embedded in life and in the “soil of cultures.” Since the development age was launched by Truman some 50 years ago (through declaring all societies outside the Western world “underdeveloped” and, thus, in need of “assistance” to “develop” them), education, development programs and knowledge have been the main tools used in breaking the back (chrysalis) of societies (though not with the same innocence that the boy had). The story of the boy and the cocoon also tells what we (as parents and teachers) often do: we break the “chrysalis” of our children and students by trying to help them, thus denying them to learn and build the internal natural strength they need in order to be the beautiful persons they are.

First Main Trouble with Knowledge and Education: Dishonesty

I do believe that one aspect which characterizes education, development and the production and dissemination of knowledge, in today’s world, is the lack of intellectual honesty. This belief is an outcome of being true to life as I experienced it, through my years of schooling and my almost 40 years of work. The dishonesty is connected to the values, which govern the thinking and practice in the fields of education, knowledge and development: control, winning and competition. Having a syllabus and textbooks, and evaluating and judging people (students, teachers, administrators, and academics) through linear forms of authority and through linear symbolic values (such as arbitrary letters or grades or preferential labels), almost guarantee cheating, lack of honesty, and lack of relevance (1). I taught many years and put exams both at the level of classrooms and at the national level, and I labored and spent a lot of time and effort in order to be fair. But, then, I discovered that the problem is not in the intentions or the way we conduct things but, rather, in the values that run societies in general and which are propagated by education, development and knowledge -- among other means. Thus, the main trouble with knowledge and education, is not so much their irrelevance or process of selection or the issue of power (though these are definitely part of the trouble) as it is with the lack of intellectual honesty in these areas. Giving a number or a letter to measure a human being is dishonest and inhuman. It is probably the biggest abuse of mathematics in its history! Moreover, as long as the above-mentioned values remain as the governing values, talking about fundamental improvement in education is a contradiction in terms; simply, it is not possible. Labeling a child as a “failure” is a criminal act against that child. For a child, who has learned so much from life before entering school, to be labeled a failure, just because s/he doesn’t see any sense in the mostly senseless knowledge we offer in most schools, is unfair – to say the least. But very few around the world seem to be outraged, simply because we usually lose our senses in the process of getting educated. We are like those in Hans Christian Anderson’s story that lost their ability to see and had to be reminded by the little child that the emperor is without clothes.

People in the educational world have to be dishonest (often without realizing it) either because they are too lazy to reflect on and see the absurdities in what they are doing (and thus they just give to students what they themselves were given in schools and universities, or during training courses and enrichment seminars by the experts of course), or because they are simply afraid and they have to protect themselves from punishment or from being judged and labeled as failures. I had a friend who was working in a prestigious university in the U.S. and who often went as an educational consultant and expert to countries to improve and develop their educational systems. Once, while he was on his way to Egypt as a consultant to help in reforming the educational systemthere, I asked him, “Have you ever been to Egypt?” He said no. I said, “Don’t you find it strange that you don’t know Egypt but you know what is good for it?!” Obviously, the richness, the wisdom and the depth of that 7000-year civilization is totally ignored by him, or more accurately, cannot be comprehended by him. In a very real sense, he doesn’t only abstract the theories he carries along with him everywhere but also abstracts the people by assuming that they all have the same deficits and, thus, the same solution.

Let’s take the term “sustainable development,” for example, which is widely used today and it is used in the concept paper for this conference. If we mean by development what we see in “developed” nations, then sustainable development is a nightmare. If we all start consuming, for example, at the rate at which “developed” nations currently do, then we need at least five planets to provide the needed resources and to provide dumping sites for our waste! If “developing” nations consume natural resources (such as water) at the same rate “developed” nations do, such resources would be depleted in few years! Such “development” would be destructive to the soil of the earth and to the soil of cultures, both of which nurture and sustain human beings and human societies. The price would be so high at the level of the environment and at the level of beautiful relationships among people. Thus, those who believe in sustainable development (in its current conception and practice) are either naïve or dishonest or right-out indifferent to what happens to nature, to beautiful relationship among people, and to the joyful harmony within human beings and between them and their surroundings. Nature and relationships among human beings are probably the two most precious treasures in life; the most valuable of what human beings have. The survival of human and natural diversity, even of human communities, are at stake here.

We do not detect dishonesty in the fields of education, knowledge and development because usually we are protected (in schools) from having much contact with life, through stressing verbal, symbolic and technical “knowledge,” through avoiding people’s experiences and surroundings, through the means we follow in evaluating people, and through ignoring history (history of people, of ideas, …). During the 1970s, for example, and as the head supervisor of math instruction in all the schools of the West Bank (in Palestine), one question I kept asking children was “is 1=1?” 1=1 is true in schoolbooks and on tests but in real life it has uses, abuses and misuses, but no real examples. We abstract apples in textbooks and make them equal but in real life there is no apple which is exactly equal to another apple. When students and teachers protested, I said “just use your senses and your experiences. 1=1 is not a universally true statement. Similarly, 1+1=2 is true only in very limited cases. Saying otherwise is simply part of the dishonesty in teaching! The same is true when we say that Newton discovered gravity. Almost every child by the age of one discovers it. (When my grandson, for example, was 15 months old, I was watching him once pick up pieces of cereal and put them in his mouth. Every time he lost a piece, he would look for it down, never up!) By teaching that Newton discovered gravity, we do not only lie but also fail to clarify Newton’s real contribution. Similarly with teaching that Columbus discovered America …. Everyone of us can give hundreds of examples on dishonesty in the way we were taught and the way we teach.

Dominant forms of education, development and knowledge (as I mentioned earlier) abstract the “social majorities” in the world and dump them all under one name: developing nations. This could have been a laughable matter if we did not, and still do not, pay a high price for this dishonesty; it is in a real sense a crime against the social majorities in the world.

Human development is another term that sounds positive and well- meaning but inhuman. How does one develop human beings without ruining them? It is like help developing the cocoon in the Indian story. Or like talking about “flower development.” Usually, when the term “human development” is used, it usually means that people become better consumers or more useful to the consumer society. It could also mean more useful to the control system.

The value of schools is related mainly to its relation to the spheres of influence than to any intrinsic value in them. The best example I can give is the closure of Palestinian schools and universities by Israel for almost four years. As a result of the closure, Israel faced a real problem. What would it do with the students when they don’t move from one grade to another? It had to do something; otherwise it would have faced four times the number of students waiting to enter the first grade with all the repercussions (economic, political, social …) associated with that The solution was to promote all students in all grades to the next grade! This happened every year for four years. What made things more absurd was the fact that the results on the national general exam at the end of the school cycle were the highest ever in the history of the exam! I wrote an article in al-Quds newspaper then saying that Palestinians seem to be on the verge of being all geniuses without studying a word!! Even worse: Palestinian parents and teachers did not object to this dishonesty, because they did not want their children and students to repeat any grade. Actually, everyone seemed to be happy with that dishonest solution! The fact is that they all seem to realize that education is a farce and that economic and other considerations can easily take over, without any objection from any soul, including concerned educators! Each party justified it easily.

Equating education with learning is part of the dishonesty; so is calling the casting of votes every few years democracy; and so is calling cola a drink, or potato chips food. In this sense, the call to improve education is like the call to improve cola or the call to improve elections. The problem is not with the brand or the quality of the cola but with the cola itself. The solution in such cases is simple and obvious: to reclaim water as the main source for drinking, to reclaim our lives and cultural spaces as the main source for learning, and to reclaim our responsibility in running our affairs as the main source for governing.

In February 1999, I was in Yemen participating in a workshop on working with youth. There were about 40 young people from 5 Arab countries, in addition to some adults. A school principal (who herself is involved with groups on the Right of the Child) told the following story about a 15-year old Yemeni girl. In one of the meetings that took place before our arrival (which was one of many meetings held to introduce and advocate the rights of children), that girl -- after a long and elaborate introduction by several “experts” about the rights of children -- asked two questions. One question was, “My government signed the Treaty in my name without discussing it with me. Isn’t it my right to have had it discussed with me before it signed it?! Isn’t that one of my fundamental rights? I am 15 years old and I can read and voice my opinion … ….”. [Her question would not have carried much weight if the government of Yemen was the only government that ignored this fundamental right: consulting people and youth before signing anything in their name. Almost all governments did.] The girl’s second question was, “You talk about education as a right. I go to school every day, and I get bored and insulted in it every day. Nothing in the curriculum reflects my life. Nothing is relevant. … … If this is what you refer to as the right to education, please protect me from this right. If you need a job, please don’t let me pay the price.” That girl, with her clear mind and honest expression, exposed the hypocrisy of the “experts,” of the treaty, and the way it is legitimized around the world through hegemonic organizations, sweet packaging, and sometimes through force (just think of the expression “compulsory education”! It is like talking about compulsory eating. If it is a truly natural need, why do we need to have it compulsory?! We seem to have forgotten that learning is as natural as life itself, almost synonymous to living. But that natural process does not exist in education. Something unnatural and horrible exists instead. That’s why it has to be compulsory!) That girl dismantled the logic and exposed the hypocrisy of both experts and world organizations with an innocent persistence, exactly like the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes: “But the emperor has nothing on at all!” That girl was not yet constrained by the forces that blinded and silenced the adult “experts” and caused them to “see” what is not there, and not to see what is there.

A last example about the dishonesty is embedded in the term globalization. I have been married for 33 years and as a result a lot has changed in me and a lot has changed in my wife. But a lot has refused to change although we have been trying to change certain aspects in each other for those 33 years. We simply failed. We are still struggling to understand each other. Thus, talking about globalization in the sense we can understand the world is an example of dishonesty as big as the word globalization itself! If by the time I die, I succeed in understanding my wife fully, I will have accomplished a lot. Accordingly, understanding the world has only one meaning: an illusion. It can only mean something in the language of control. Moreover, it is true that a person can communicate with millions of people around the world, but most probably lose the ability to communicate with those living in one’s home. That person, probably, has difficulty in communicating with real people; s/he probably has difficulty in striking a meaningful conversation with another person. Two thousand years ago, a famous Palestinian with the name of Jesus Christ, said, “what benefit man if s/he gains the whole world but loses herself/ himself?!” Talking about Jesus, He probably was the first to talk about “globalization” in a totally different sense: the oneness of human beings; that they are all children of God. No developed or chosen ones.

People are autonomous human beings, full organic creatures, with their ways, habits, etc, that resist arbitrary change. We cannot just impose change without breaking the very essence of people and societies – without breaking their “chrysalis.” For a person or organization to go to a place as rich in culture as Egypt or India and impose a solution from outside is shear arrogance. History has not known a more destructive form of arrogance – done in the name of help, assistance, development, and progress, i.e. coupled with hypocrisy. In this sense, an expert is a person who has lost his senses and is driven by an illusion, by self interest, and by plastic words (that may look shiny but have no life, and usually are distortive and destructive).

Second Main Trouble with Knowledge and Education:

Lack of Connection to the Lives of the Social Majorities in the World

I cannot subscribe to a system that ignores the lives and ways of living of the social majorities in the world. I cannot subscribe to a system that is geared to 20% of the students and calls the other 80% failures, dropouts, misfits, … and blames for that! It behooves me how most people today accept a system that produces so many useless people; in fact, in most societies, it changes them from people who potentially are able to deal with most of their needs into useless people incapable of satisfying any of their needs.

I asked hundreds of teachers why they were teaching what they were teaching and no one really seemed to know -- in the sense that they did not have an answer that came from their innermost convictions. One answer, which was often mentioned, was “because it was needed in the university”! When I said “but only 20 or so percent of the students go to universities, what do you do for the other 80%? Don’t you care about them?!” most would respond “but they didn’t work hard enough, they don’t deserve to go to a university. They are the ones to be blamed, they failed to earn a decent life …”!! The way to heaven has many gates, but there seems to be only one gate to success in life in modern societies: the school! Among the teachers whom I asked that question and who were more honest said “we teach what we teach because we are told to do so, we get paid for it, and we never thought of what happens to the majority of students.” This fact seemed to be true about various aspects in the world today; education just mirrors that fact and help justify it.

In other words, the second trouble with education, development and knowledge is not so much with what they offer as with what they conceal, marginalize, make invisible, or render worthless. The problem is with the values that they embody in their assumptions and practices (which are very different from what they espouses in public). The example which I always give to illustrate this is the “discovery” of my illiterate mother’s math around the year 1976. [For details, see my article “Community Education: To Reclaim and Transform What Has Been Made Invisible” in the Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 60, No.1, February, 1990.] What was particularly significant about that discovery (in relation to the discussion here), is that it is almost impossible to teach her type of math and her type of knowledge, using the means, methods, concepts, and structures of what we refer to as education, no matter how much we improve it! Her type of math and knowledge can only be learned and acquired through life itself; through living and doing in real settings. It would be impossible for me, thus, to do what she was able to do, even if I spend another 20 years of study in the “best” schools and universities! Another significant aspect of her type of knowledge is the fact that she was able to make a living out of it in almost any setting, while mine was “meaningful” and earned money only in particular, mainly artificial and hegemonic, settings.

The assumption that people are born ignorant and that they need education to make them able to function well in life may be true about a place like the USA, where people are usually kept separated from real life and detached from the daily means of living. In contrast, in a place like Palestine, where people were accustomed to producing most of their essential needs, it is ridiculous to talk about education as a need; it was more of a hindrance and a dismantler than a need. Increasingly, Palestinians are losing this ability. To mention one small (but illustrative and significant) example, it is extremely difficult to find in Palestine today the type of bread which was the only bread when I was growing up: bread made totally of healthy (naturally organic) whole wheat with all its natural nutrients. Within the Palestinian tradition, that kind of bread was treated as sacred. When a piece, for example, fell on the ground, we were made as children to pick it up and kiss it. Today, not only this ritual has disappeared but also that kind of healthy bread, and with it a whole way of life which provided people with most of their basic and essential needs. We are becoming almost as handicapped as the Americans in providing for our daily needs – thanks to education, universal declarations and development programs! Today, we probably rank among the top peoples in the world in terms of skills of demanding rights, begging for jobs, and writing funding proposals!

What helped me get out of the dominant mode of thinking was not a superior intellect or a divine revelation, but my life as a Palestinian and my culture (as embodied for example in my mother’s ways of doing, knowing and living). Both “saved” me and put me back on the path of life and learning and away from the plastic world I internalized through my schooling and universalizing. Obviously, that did not happen overnight, but through a continuous struggle for almost three decades (and which is still going on within me). Since the discovery of my mother’s math, I have been working very hard to heal myself in the inside, to regain my internal natural “immune” system, to reconstruct my “inner world” and to restitch the social cultural spiritual fabric with real people and with the world around me. It needed all that time, effort and healing for me to be able to stand in front of people and have the courage to say that education, development and knowledge are without clothes.

Often, we are given the impression that people in the “Third World” welcomed western education with open arms and with no critical attitude. Far from it. The story of the history of Palestinians’ conceptions of ‘education’ is very telling in this regard. It probably mirrors the history of peoples’ conceptions in many other places. Education was first introduced into Palestine by missionaries and religious organizations in the late 19th century and early 20th century. After WWI, the British occupiers of Palestine imposed their curricula, books, structures and ways as well as their systems of measures and evaluation on people (such as the London Metriculation). This was resisted by important segments of the Palestinian society who saw its alien character, its political agenda, and its irrelevance and hegemony. One segment was exemplified by the Palestinian educator Khalil Sakakini, who lived and practiced his concept of learning in Palestine during the first half of the 20th century. (In 1990, he wrote a book in Arabic with the title “Wearing Someone Else’s Shoes.”) The other segment was exemplified by the peasants of Palestine who organized a conference in Jaffa in 1929 and asked questions about the relevance of the new curricula and what do we want education to do. These questions and concerns (which were manifestations of resistance to the blind adoption and implementation of ready curricula and solutions) were dismissed by the Palestinian elite in the towns and cities in Palestine, such as Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa and, gradually, education became a “need” felt by most Palestinians, and a “universal right” demanded by most! Today, it is almost like an addiction! At the same time, however, in spite of all appearances to the contrary (such as Palestinians continuing to build more schools and universities, and to generate more certificates) many Palestinians today are increasingly doubtful about the promises of education, and critical of its assumptions. Today, many see it as a false Messiah, as a dismantler of life, as a fragmenter of the mind and society, and as a crusher of dignity and self worth for the majority of people. If warplanes and army tanks flatten houses, education along with development programs and universal declarations flatten people’s minds and souls, through linear thinking (such as the concept of progress), through scientific/ mathematical “facts” (such as 1=1), through universal claims (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and through killing diversity and ignoring the richness and wisdom in cultures and communities. More people seem to see the danger and, thus, are ready to entertain alternatives to what is presented today as “natural," and to work within different assumptions, values and paradigms. This reminds us of how a member of the Zapatistas (in Mexico), who are struggling to regain their lives and cultural spaces, responded to a question, “Changing the world is very very difficult, almost impossible. What we are trying to do is create a whole new world, where many worlds fit.”! This, in my opinion, is the real challenge facing us in the 21st century. What makes the task easy is that these many worlds already exist!

Building Learning Societies: Approaches to Learning

From what has been said so far, two main approaches to knowledge and learning can be identified: (1) learning by doing; i.e. by being embedded in life. In this approach, learning is almost synonymous to living, and (2) the formal approach, which usually starts with ready pre-prepared content, and which embodies tests and grades.

The two approaches differ mainly in terms of values (whether one is aware of them or not). The first approach values life (as people/ learners experience it, and not as experts define it); it values, diversity, lack of fragmentation, relatedness of the various aspects in life, human dignity, honesty, freedom, truth, and linking words and thoughts with actions. In addition, it avoids hypocrisy and arrogance. [In short, the values mentioned in Tagore’s quote, which appears underneath the title of this Workshop 21.] The second approach embodies mainly the values of competition, winning, control (control of meanings, people, measures and outcomes). These values usually lead to fragmentation, cheating, self-defensiveness and, thus, to the tearing of the inner world of people and tearing the social spiritual fabric of communities.

If we use our senses and regain our honesty as human beings, we cannot but see the crime we are committing in changing three quarters of students from human beings into useless unemployable people; people who are unable to make a living or to satisfy any of their needs. They are useless to their communities and education is useless to them. Many capitals around the world (but mostly in what is termed as the Third World) are increasingly witnessing demonstrations by holders of Masters and PhD degrees, demanding jobs from governments. This is a new phenomenon in history. Just imagine how much we have deteriorated: a PhD holder is incapable of making a living by himself and is asking his new “daddy” to find him a job. They have learned about their right to demonstrate, demand, and express, but lost their ability to live and how to make a living. The fact is: any one who has gotten nothing but education is basically handicapped; he cannot make a living by himself.

Education produces a majority that is uprooted from their soil of culture and give them false promises and empty expectations. It deprives them of hope and has absolutely no respect to that kind of soil without which human beings just lose learning how to break their “chrysalis” and live on their own in life. Breaking their “chrysalis” is the only way to give them internal strength. Instead of learning this, and going through that natural and healthy struggle, they learn how to fight one another over meaningless and lifeless symbols as diplomas. They grow up not even being able to see or comprehend the richness in their own soils; they learn to despise them. They learn how to import chemicals, hormones and plastic concepts, thinking they can save their peoples. For some and for a while, things may seem to improve. Soon, however, they discover the high price that had to pay at the level of the community, the environment and human relationships. In this sense, my mother’s knowledge was not only different but radically different: I was not able to see it for a long time. And when I saw it, I was not able to comprehend it. It was so embedded in life like salt in food: it is impossible to see them separate.

When I say these things, I don’t mean that everything in the soil of culture is good. The best example I can give for a person who was grounded in his own culture and at the same time not being blind to some of its horrors (like the cast system) is Ghandi. His adherence to his Indian culture did not stop him from doing something about that system. Living in one’s own “cultural soil” does not mean being blind to some of the horrors that it has. But to run out of it would be like trying to get out of one’s own skin! It is important that we don’t jump into horrors we can do nothing about such as the ones produced by education and development.

Development and education are geared towards 20% of the population, those who can be absorbed into the machine of consumption and compete over its mainly plastic gains. The rest is doomed to the labels of failures, unfit, dropouts, unemployed, underdeveloped, … They are made to believe that they are to be blamed. The solution, however, is not to go on complaining but to regenerate the soil of their cultures. One hopeful fact along this path is that 80% of what we need is available to us and that 80% of what we currently consume (the junk of modernity) we don’t need. This is true whether we are talking about knowledge, food, or entertainment. This is where the hope lies. In all of these areas, protecting our children becomes a much needed challenge rather than acquiring more of these horrors. Too much information, food, and entertainment (even when it is good, which usually is not) causes indigestion, lack of clarity and ability to comprehend.

I know that by saying all what I said above, and by not conforming to the dominant paradigm in thinking about education and rights, I am risking the possibility of appearing marginal, out of my mind, unfit, or merely stupid. But somebody has to play the role of the “fool” and the innocent if we are really serious about saving ourselves and our children from something as hypocritical and as junky (not to say also as dangerous) as universal education and universal declarations. It is about time to shake the dirt off our minds and souls and look at life face to face again: to touch it, smell it, listen to it, live it, and feel its joy and pain. (By the way, this shaking off of the dirt is the literal meaning of the word intifada in Arabic. The Palestinian intifada is a manifestation of reclaiming our lives and regaining spaces.)

I feel I need to clarify one point here. I am not against improving schools and education. I have been involved in doing that for almost three decades, and I still am. A good school is better than a bad school, and every teacher who works on himself/ herself in order to better themselves and improve their ways of relating to students and to knowledge, and thus create better learning environments, definitely form an important part of the process of building a better world. All what I am saying is that it is not enough. It is important that we do not fool ourselves by believing that improving education is a magical recipe for creating a “world where many worlds fit.” Education cannot do it. At least some of us need to talk about more fundamental issues and develop and practice different sets of values, different ways of relating to one another and treating each other, different assumptions, and different visions; i.e., to strive to live their various worlds and regain their various cultural spaces.

My Attempts to Create Learning Environments

My first attempts to create learning environments were related to the voluntary work movement in the West Bank (in Palestine) and my work with improving the teaching of math in the schools of the West Bank region. Both were in the 1970s. (At the time I did not call what I was doing “learning environments,” I just did what I felt I could do and needed to be done). The driving idea in the voluntary work was, first, how to use the tremendous energy and hope that was then in people (who were mainly students and teachers) in doing needed work in the community. Joy was part of the work: we would walk in the fields, sing, dance, joke, play and also build within ourselves a better understanding of the world we inhabit through conversations among ourselves and with people of all sorts and walks in life. Groups sprang naturally all over: in schools, universities, …. (I wrote more about it in Arabic).

My work with math in schools involved several aspects that I would consider today part of learning environments: small groups in various places and settings, each doing their own thing; a core group that facilitate communication among the various groups and also to articulate some of the common concerns, common vision, and organize common activities; math and science clubs in various schools; open meetings to discuss the new syllabus and any related questions; …. I used to go around visit schools and ask students to give as many meanings and examples of mathematical concepts and “facts.” In the clubs, I used to say to students interested in forming a club in their school, “There is no ready material or content. Science and knowledge do not start with ready theories and book questions but by questions that people have. The clubs revolve around questions that you have, so bring what you have and start with them.” That first experience for me in creating learning environments opened up ways and possibililities in my imagination which I employed in my work later. One of these was establishing a new course in math for entering first year students at Birzeit University. (2) [FLM]

Then was my experience as Dean of Students at Birzeit University. The atmosphere at Birzeit University during the 1970s was the closest I have experienced in terms of learning environments in any university I studied or worked in. The place was always buzzing with all kinds of activities which included various forms of expression, most of which was the creation of the students themselves. In addition, the spirit and atmosphere in the University was very open, democratic and healthy. At the time, no one called it democratic; there was no need for this “plastic” word. [Unfortunately, like many other aspects around the world, things have deteriorated so much that right now, for example, Birzeit lost that spirit of real democracy and, instead, Birzeit now has a masters program in democracy and human rights!!

Then came the intifada with its most inspiring aspects as a learning environment. Probably the most significant among these aspects is the sense of responsibility and collectivity which people felt at the personal level. Each person asked “what can I do” and went ahead and did it. People learned how to survive with what they had and what the environment provided. It was then that many of us discovered that more than 80% of what was in the market was not really needed, and that 80% of what we need is already there! The intifada inspired the Tamer Institute which I established in 1989. The reading Campaign was one manifestations of the learning environments that were developed through that institute. (See HER …). Also in 1995, I wrote a small book (in Arabic) as a result of that experience, with the title: “The main challenge is ending the occupation of our minds; and the main means is creating learning environments.”

One aspect which is needed is real dialogue between people from the various “worlds” which exist around the world. Currently, such dialogue does not seem to exist. I am talking here about dialogue, not only as an exchange of ideas and experiences, but dialogue through which we build our “inner worlds,” stitch the human fabric among cultures and societies, decide to live with a different set of values and regain spaces for our various worlds in a way that makes it possible for them to live with one another -- just like the wild flowers of Palestine do in the Spring season.

Dominant discourses and assumptions do not, in general, enhance real dialogue. Terms such as “developed” and “developing or underdeveloped,” for example, reflect a dichotomy in the mind between givers and takers. And it is obvious that there can be no dialogue between givers and takers; there can only be begging. This conference can act as a spring board for a real dialogue to take place – with the explicit purpose of regaining a space for all peoples; a space where people celebrate the diversity which exists in human life, and learn from one another, rather than have the attitude of the “developed” educating the “underdeveloped.” England stayed in India for hundreds of years and they seem to have learned nothing from the wisdom of that sub-continent. They – it seems -- didn’t even notice it! Actually, they brought nothing back to England except tea and called it “Earl Grey”! Similarly, missionaries who entered our home in Palestine, never tried to learn from my parents’ Christianity. These are examples of the fact that learning and arrogance can’t go together. Is the situation any better today? Is arrogance on the way out? I don’t know. But there seems to be enough people who are fed up with institutions and organizations that claim to save the world via ready recipes and with attitudes like “I am chosen” and who are ready to join efforts to build a happier and saner world; “a world where many worlds fit.”

In a sense, what I am talking about here is not free thought and expression (as current discourse and dominant ideology have it, and as experts on civil society, democracy and human rights preach it) but, rather, I am talking about freeing our thoughts and expressions from the junk ideas and “plastic” words that fill current thoughts and expressions. Free thought and expression is like telling people that they have the full freedom to choose what they want to eat from a table that has nothing but junk food! The example which I usually give to illustrate the difference between free thought and freeing thought is the example of what happened when Israel closed all schools and universities in the West Bank and Gaza during the intifada. Israel didn’t mind Palestinians shouting and demanding the opening of schools. It even allowed conferences to be held in Jerusalem to criticize the order of closure and demand the opening of schools and universities. That was a manifestation of free thought and expression that does not bother any oppressor; in fact, if anything, it beautifies the oppressor’s image. In contrast, when some people freed their thinking from demanding to acting, and started teaching children at homes and in the neighborhoods, Israel issued one of the most notorious military orders in its history: any one who is caught teaching children at his/ her home or in the neighborhood is liable to face the penalty of demolishing his/ her home and up to ten years of imprisonment! That was in August 1988. Freeing one’s mind from the confines of where and how learning can take place (i.e. ‘breaking the conditioning’ process, in the words which my 22 year old son reminded me of) is a totally different and much more fundamental act and a beautiful manifestation of freeing thought and expression, in contrast to free thought and expression.

In today’s world, what controls people and communities are the market, the police and ideology as embedded in universal education, universal declarations, and dominant mass media. The governing values in such a world are obvious: winning, controlling, feeling superior to others, defining the world unilaterally and linearly, and greed. In such a world, reclaiming our cultural spaces with various sets of values is a main challenge. It is the real challenge today.

* * * *

Finally, I would like to affirm -- as a form of summary -- certain points and point out to the need of dismantling others:

We need to dismantle the claim that learning can only take place in schools.

We need to dismantle the assumption that teachers can teach what they don’t do.

We need to dismantle the hegemony of words like education, development, progress, excellence, and rights and reclaim, instead, words like wisdom, faith, generosity, hope, learning, living, happiness, and duties.

We need to affirm that the vast majority of people go to school not to learn but to get a diploma (exactly like the permit from the Israelis which I need in order to leave Palestine. There is no intrinsic value in either, both are part of oppressive inhumane systems.)

We need to affirm our capacity for doing and learning, not for getting degrees.

We need to affirm and regain the concept and practice of “learning from the world,” not “about the world.”

We need to affirm that people are the real solution, not the obstacle and not ignorant.

We need to spend more time in conversations face-to-face with one another, in doing things together, in dreaming beautiful dreams, and in building shared visions. In short, we need to reclaim our lives and regain our cultural spaces.

Two thousand years ago, a wise Palestinian with the name of Jesus Christ asked us to see the wood in our eye before we see the speck in the other person’s eye. Another man from the same region with the name of Mohammad defined religion as the way we treat one another. We will do well and good if we reclaim a space in our lives for those types of wisdom, and make them part of our guiding principles in creating “a world where many worlds fit.”

The challenge in building learning societies, thus, does not lie in the realm of introducing new technology or changing policy or talking about technical matters but, rather, in the realm of values: to reclaim honesty in thought, practice and expression; to develop again qualities of generosity and responsibility; to regain respect for people and for the diversity and richness in life and cultures; and to reclaim our senses (to learn again to see, listen, feel, care, …).

This paper is a personal testimony of part of my story with language, literacy, and knowledge.

Munir Fasheh
Director, Arab Education Forum





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