The Peoples' Institute for Re-thinking Education and Development

The Trouble with Knowledge

[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 ÔÇ£soil of cultures.ÔÇØ  Since the development age was launched by Truman some 50 years ago (through declaring all societies outside the Western world ÔÇ£underdevelopedÔÇØ and, thus, in need of ÔÇ£assistanceÔÇØ to ÔÇ£developÔÇØ 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 ÔÇ£chrysalisÔÇØ 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.

Grading is Degrading

First Main Trouble with Knowledge and Education is Dishonesty

I do believe that one aspect which characterizes education, development and the production and dissemination of knowledge, in todayÔÇÖs world, is the lack of intellectual honesty.  This belief is an outcome of reflecting on my experience during my school and university years 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 (mirroring the values in dominant societies and serving mainly the lifestyle of consumerism): control, winning, profit, individualism 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.  (The recent reports that cheating and testing are on the rise in the Maryland and Chicago areas are just one example that came up to the surface.  And of course teachers, principles and superintendents were blamed and had to pay the price.)  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 venues.  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 a degrading to the human mind and to human beings.  Grading, in this sense, is degrading.  It is one of the biggest abuses of mathematics in its history!  Moreover, as long as the above-mentioned values remain as the governing values, education will continue to be fundamentally an obstacle to learning.  Under these conditions, talking about improving or reforming education is na├»ve at best and hypocritical at worst.  At most, it would touch a very small percentage of the student population in any particular region.  Of course, we can go on putting our heads in the sand and refusing to see or care.  But one main concern I will continue to have is what happens to the 80 some pecent of students whom the ÔÇ£compulsory suitÔÇØ does not fit.  Why imposing the same-size suit on all bodies sounds ridiculous but imposing the same curriculum on all minds does not?!  The human mind is definitely more diverse that the human body.

Labeling a child as a ÔÇ£failureÔÇØ 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 doesnÔÇÖt see any sense in the mostly senseless knowledge we offer in most schools, is unfair ÔÇô to say the least; it is really outrageous.  But few of us 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 AndersonÔÇÖs story that lost their ability to see and had to be reminded by the little child that the emperor is without clothes.

Most people in the educational world (students, teachers, administrators, scholars, suprintendents, ÔǪ) are dishonest (often without realizing it) either because we are too lazy to reflect on and see the absurdities in what we are doing (and just give to students what we were given in schools and universities, or during training courses and enrichment seminars!), or because we are simply afraid and need to protect ourselves from punishment or from being judged and labeled as inept or failures.  This dishonesty prevails at all levels.  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 ÔÇ£improve and developÔÇØ their educational systems.  Once, when he was on his way to Egypt as a consultant to help in reforming the educational system there, I asked him, ÔÇ£Have you ever been to Egypt?ÔÇØ  He said no.  I said, ÔÇ£DonÔÇÖt you find it strange that you donÔÇÖt know Egypt but you know what is good for it?!ÔÇØ  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.  Or, he may simply believe in what Kipling believed in in relation to India: to be ruled by Britain was IndiaÔÇÖs right; to rule India was BritainÔÇÖs duty!  In a very real sense, that friend of mine does not 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 ÔÇô and that he has the solution.

LetÔÇÖs take the term ÔÇ£sustainable development,ÔÇØ 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 ÔÇ£developedÔÇØ nations, then sustainable development is a nightmare.  If we all start consuming, for example, at the rate at which ÔÇ£developedÔÇØ nations currently do, then (as a friend of mine from Mexico says) we need at least five planets to provide the needed resources and to provide dumping sites for our waste!  If ÔÇ£developingÔÇØ nations consume natural resources (such as water) at the same rate ÔÇ£developedÔÇØ nations do, such resources would be depleted in few years!  Such ÔÇ£developmentÔÇØ 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 very 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 na├»ve 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 things human beings have.  The survival of human and natural diversity (and 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 scools) from having much contact with life, through stressing verbal, symbolic and technical ÔÇ£knowledge,ÔÇØ through avoiding peopleÔÇÖs experiences and surroundings, through the means we follow in evaluating people, and through ignoring history (history of people, of ideas, ÔǪ).  The main connection most school textbooks have with life is through the sections that carry the title ÔÇ£applicationsÔÇØ ÔÇô another instance of dishonesty.  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 ÔÇ£is 1=1?ÔÇØ  1=1 is true in schoolbooks and on tests but in real life it has uses, abuses and misuses, but no real instances.  We abstract apples in textbooks and make them equal but in real life there is no apple which is exactly equal to another apple.  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.  Everytime 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 NewtonÔÇÖs real contribution.  Similarly with teaching that Columbus discovered America ÔǪ.  Everyone of us can give tens 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 ÔÇ£social majoritiesÔÇØ 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 ÔÇ£flower development.ÔÇØ  Usually, when the term ÔÇ£human developmentÔÇØ is used, it usually means that people become better consumers or more useful to the consumer society or to the control system.  The only human way to understand the term is the one that has been stressed by many wise people throughout history: to work on oneself, not in the technical sense through which one keeps adding new lines to his/ her resume, but in the sense of knowing oneself better and becoming wise and good human being (which is a different concept from ÔÇ£good citizenÔÇØ which usually means loyal to a state, including the readiness to fight other human beings, often for greedy reasons.)

The value of schools and universities is related mainly to its relation to the spheres of influence rather than to any intrinsic value in them.  I will choose one example to illustrate.  When Israel closed Palestinian scools and iniversities for almost four years (1987-91), it faced a real problem.  What would it do with the students when they are not promoted 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 ÔǪ) associated with that.  The solution was to promote all students in all grades to the next grade ÔÇô without actually going to school!  This happened every year for four years.  What made things more absurd was the fact that the results on the national genaral exam at the end of the school cycle were (during the period of closures) the highest ever in the history of that exam!  I wrote an article in al-Quds newspaper, at the time, saying that a wave of geniusness was sweeping the Palestinian population: their results are getting higher without going to schools and without studying a word!  Still worse: Palestinian parents and teachers did not object, because they did not want their children and students to repeat any grade.  It was a rare instance where Israelis and Palestinians were in total agreement.  Everyone seemed to be happy with that solution.  The fact is that they all know at the deepest in their hearts 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 in a way that suited it best.

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, for example) but with the cola itself.  The solution 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.

This dishonesty permeates the thinking, language and practice in almost all aspects of development.  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 ÔÇ£expertsÔÇØ about the rights of children -- asked two questions.  One question was, ÔÇ£My government signed the Treaty in my name without discussing it with me.  IsnÔÇÖt it my right to have had it discussed with me before it signed it?!  IsnÔÇÖt that one of my fundamental rights?  I am 15 years old and I can read and voice my opinion ÔǪ ÔǪ.ÔÇØ.  [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 girlÔÇÖs second question was, ÔÇ£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 refelects my life.  Nothing is relevant. ÔǪ ÔǪ If this is what you refer to as the right to education, please protect me from this right.  If you need a job, please donÔÇÖt let me pay the price.ÔÇØ  (Similarly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was declared in the name of all peoples without consulting any).  That girl, with her clear mind and honest expression, exposed the hypocrisy of the ÔÇ£experts,ÔÇØ 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 term ÔÇ£compulsory education.ÔÇØ  It is like talking about compulsory eating.  If it is a truly natural need, why does it have to be 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.  ThatÔÇÖs why it has to be compulsory!)  That girl dismantled the logic and exposed the hypocrisy both of experts and of world organizations, with an innocent persistence, exactly like the child in Hans Christian AndersenÔÇÖs tale of the EmperorÔÇÖs New Clothes: ÔÇ£But the emperor has nothing on at all!ÔÇØ  That girl was not yet constrained by the forces that blinded and silenced the adult ÔÇ£expertsÔÇØ and caused them to ÔÇ£seeÔÇØ 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 in both of us has resisted change although we have been trying to change certain aspects in each other for those 33 years.  We are still struggling to understand each other.  If by the time I die, I succeed in understanding my wife fully, I will have accomplished a lot.  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 ÔÇô without breaking their ÔÇ£chrysalis.ÔÇØ  For a person (or organization) to go to a place as rich in culture as Egypt or India, assuming he understands it and imposing a solution from outside is arrogant and unethical.  History has not known a more destructive form of arrogance ÔÇô 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).

Talking about globalization in the sense we can understand the world is a big example of dishonesty.  A wise man with the name of Socrates challenged us all, more than two thousand years ago, to ÔÇ£know thy self.ÔÇØ  Globalization which is being talked about can only mean something in the logic of control.  It may be 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 oneÔÇÖs 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, ÔÇ£what benefit man if s/he gains the whole world but loses herself/ himself?!ÔÇØ  Talking about Jesus, He probably was the first to talk about ÔÇ£globalizationÔÇØ in a totally different sense: the oneness of human beings; that they are all children of God.  No developed vs undeveloped, and no chosen vs unchosen.

To Define or be Defined, that is the Issue

Second Main Trouble with Knowledge and Education: Lack of Connection with 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; a system that ignores their ways of living, knowing and making sense of the world.  I cannot subscribe to a system that is geared to 20% of the students and calls the other 80% failures, dropouts, misfits, unemployed (or unemployable) ÔǪ and blames them for that.  It behooves me how most people today accept a system that produces so many useless people incapable of satisfying any of their needs; all what most have learned is how to demand jobs (which in most places do not exist)!

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 a deep conviction and awareness.  One answer, which was often mentioned, was ÔÇ£because it was needed in the universityÔÇØ!  When I said ÔÇ£but only 20 or so percent of the students go to universities, what do you do for the other 80%?  DonÔÇÖt you care about them?!ÔÇØ most would respond ÔÇ£but they didnÔÇÖt work hard enough, they donÔÇÖt deserve to go to a university.  They are the ones to be blamed, they failed to earn a decent living ÔǪÔÇØ!! The way to heaven has many gates, but there seems to be only one gate to success in life in modern societies: the school!  Those who were more honest among the teachers whom I asked that question, said ÔÇ£we teach what we are told to teach, we get paid for it, and we never thought of what happens to the majority of students.ÔÇØ

In other words, the second trouble with education, development and knowledge is not only with what they offer but also with what they conceal, marginalize, make invisible, or render worthless ÔÇô the lives and ways of living of the social majorities in the world.  The example which I always give to illustrate this is the ÔÇ£discoveryÔÇØ of my illiterate motherÔÇÖs math around the year 1976.  [For details, see my article ÔÇ£Community Education: To Reclaim and Trasform What Has Been Made InvisibleÔÇØ 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 ÔÇ£bestÔÇØ 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 ÔÇ£meaningfulÔÇØ and earned money only in particular, mainly artificial and hegemonic, settings.  (It is worth mentioning here something related to that story. One of the readers for my dissertation asked that I should have a more extensive literature review.  I said that that means my mind will be totally controlled by the dominant terms and meanings, and thus most probably I would not have discovered the knowledge of my mother.  Things would have been defined for me ÔÇô even I would have been defined ÔÇô before I could even start.  I want to try to sense life before my mind gets cluttered by terms and theories; to see things as they are, rather than through the eyes of another person.  I donÔÇÖt remember I ever read a book, which depended on accepted dominant literature, that I felt had something original or authentic or creative.  OneÔÇÖs mind would be squeezed in some preconceived track before one even starts.  What I am trying to do is look at my life without any preconceptions and definitions.  I want to be as true to my experience as possible.  I need the space and freedom ÔÇô especially the freedom from dominant definitions -- to define myself, my life and my experience.)

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 motherÔÇÖs ways of doing, knowing and living).  Both ÔÇ£savedÔÇØ me and put me back on the path of life and learning and away from the plastic world I internalized through my schooling and universitizing.  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 motherÔÇÖs math, I have been working very hard to heal myself in the inside, to regain my internal natural ÔÇ£immuneÔÇØ system, to reconstruct my ÔÇ£inner worldÔÇØ and to restitch the social cultural spiritual fabric with real people and with the world around me.  It took me 25 years of working on myself, in healing myself, to be able to stand in front of people and have the courage to say that education, development and knowledge are ÔÇ£without clothes.;ÔÇØ that they are a big lie for the mjorities in the world

In short, those of us who belong to the ÔÇ£social majoritiesÔÇØ in the world need to define ourselves through reflecting on our lives, and expressing that in as many forms as we have in our ÔÇ£soils of cultures,ÔÇØ and through discussing what we do and what we are.  In the final analysis, a main issue is to define ourselves or be defined by others.

Building Learning Societies

From what has been said so far, two main approaches to knowledge and learning can be identified: (1) learning by doing; i.e. by the person being embedded in life, in oneÔÇÖs cultural soil.  In this approach, learning is almost synonymous to living, and (2) the formal approach, which usually starts with ready pre-prepared content (usually fragmented into several subjucts, and usually put together in the absence of the two most important ÔÇ£actorsÔÇØ in learning: teachers and students).  This approach also 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.  It respects the ÔÇ£soil of cultures that have been forming, and still are, throughout thousands of years.  It avoids hypocrisy and arrogance.  The second approach embodies mainly the values of competition, individualism, winning, and 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 of the social spiritual fabric of communities.

I donÔÇÖt think we can go on changing the majority of students from human beings into useless unemployable people; people who are unable to make a living or to satisfy any of their needs. The fact is most students get out of schools handicapped, unable to make a living on their own.  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.  Just imagine: a PhD holder is incapable of making a living by himself and is asking his new ÔÇ£daddyÔÇØ to find him a job.  They have learned about their right to demonstrate, demand, and express, but lost their ability to live and to make a living.

When I say these things, I donÔÇÖt 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 oneÔÇÖs own ÔÇ£cultural soilÔÇØ 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 oneÔÇÖs own skin!  It is important that we donÔÇÖt jump into horrors we can do nothing about such as the ones produced by education and development.

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 and consumerism) we donÔÇÖt need.  This is where the hope lies.  This is true whether we are talking about knowledge, food, or entertainment.

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 ÔÇ£foolÔÇØ 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 ÔÇ£world where many worlds fit.ÔÇØ  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 and to my work teaching of math in the West Bank (in Palestine) in the 1970s.  (At the time I did not call what I was doing ÔÇ£learning environments,ÔÇØ I just did what I felt I could do and needed to be done).  The driving idea in the voluntary work was how to use the tremendous energy and hope that was then in people (who were mainly students and teachers) in doing useful and meaningful work in the community.  Joy was part of the work: we would walk in the fields, sing, dance, joke, play, discuss and build within ourselves a better understanding of the world we inhabit through readings and conversations among ourselves and with people of all sorts and walks in life.  Local groups sprang naturally all over the West Bank.

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 facilitated 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; ÔǪ.  I used to go aroung visiting schools and asking students to give as many meanings and examples of mathematical concepts and ÔÇ£facts.ÔÇØ  In the clubs, I used to say to students interested in forming a club in their school, ÔÇ£There is no ready material or content.  Science and knowledge do not start with ready answers and theories, nor with book questions, but with questions that people have.  The clubs revolve around questions that you have, so bring what you have and start with that.ÔÇØ  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 teaching math to illiterate adult workers at the university; another was establishing a new course in math for entering first year students at Birzeit University.  [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 ÔÇ£plasticÔÇØ word.  In contrast, 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 hope and sense of responsibility and collectivity which people felt at the personal and collective levels.  That hope and sense of responsibility were translated into action by each person asking herself/ himself ÔÇ£what can I doÔÇØ and going ahead and doing 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 was already there!  The intifada inspired the establishment of Tamer Institute which I founded in 1989.  A main concern of Tamer Institute was how to regain learning after education confiscated it for so long!  The Reading Campaign was one manifestation of the learning environments that were developed through that Institute.  (See  ÔǪ).  Also in 1995, I wrote a small book (in Arabic) as a result of that experience, with the title: ÔÇ£The main challenge is ending the occupation of our minds; and the main means is creating learning environments.ÔÇØ

One historical example which I find very inspiring as a learning society is the experience of Cordoba a thousend years ago.  I just want to mention here one aspect of that environment: there were 70 public libraries (not 70 public schools) in Cordoba in the ninth century.  The difference I believe is obvious.  In the case of the public libraries in Cordoba, people met in small study circles, of their choice, discussed topics of their choice, sought books and people that made sense to them; no curriculum, no ready answers, no tests, no grades ÔÇô in short, no control over the process of learning.  Even Thomas Aquinas who went there to find how the Vatican could stop any discussion between religion and science, went back to Rome coverted.  Cotrary to what we preach in schools and universities, people learn even better without examinations and grades and degrees.  It was a place where Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists lived, worked and discussed things together.  The energy and invigoration which that city created in that part of the world, and later in all of Europe, is worth re-visiting today when we talk about learning societies.  We donÔÇÖt need to reinvent the wheel ÔÇô we are told.  This goes also for other aspects of life, such as creating learning environments.  We donÔÇÖt have to start from scratch; we can build on what has been done in various places throughout history; there are several very insiring and insightful examples from history.  I know that one obstacle to this suggestion and line of thought is Western prejudice, especially to the Arab Islamic world.  All what I am saying is it is worth looking at the human and cultural treasures which human beings from previous times left us with.

One aspect which is needed in the world today (and which I hope this conference will enhance) is real dialogue between people from the various ÔÇ£worldsÔÇØ which already exist.  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 ÔÇ£inner worlds,ÔÇØ stitch the human fabric among cultures and societies, and regain spaces for living within different sets of values -- just like wild flowers do in the various landscapes in the Spring season.

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, about freeing our thoughts and expressions from the junk ideas and ÔÇ£plasticÔÇØ words that fill current thoughts and expressions and obstruct learning.  Free thought and free expression, in the forms they are practiced, are 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, between free expression and freeing expression, is that of what happened when Israel closed all schools and universities in the West Bank and Gaza, for four years during the intifada.  Israel didnÔÇÖt mind Palestinians shouting and demanding the openning of schools.  It even allowed conferences to be held in Jerusalem to criticize the order of closure and demand the openning 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 oppressorÔÇÖs image by demonstrating that such expressions are allowed.  In contrast, when some people freed their thinking from demanding to acting, from blamingto creating, from reacting 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 caught teaching children at his/ her home or in the neighborhood is would face the possibility of demolishing his/ her home and up to ten years of imprisonement!  That was in August 1988.  Freeing oneÔÇÖs mind from the confines of where and how learning can take place (i.e. ÔÇÿbreaking the conditioningÔÇÖ 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.

Currently, I am involved in the Arab Education Forum, which embodies a ÔÇ£visionÔÇØ which revolves around the conviction that every human being lives in and from a human environment (culture).  The dominant a-historical and context-autonomous words and language have often robbed education and knowledge from the layers of experience through which people express what is human and real.  AEF is one way of regaining these layers and the various (personal and collective) ways of expressing them.  In short, AEF tries to give value and visibility to initiatives that embody learning and that go beyond education, initiatives that can contribute to the building of learning environments and learning societies, in the Arab world.

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

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

  2. We need to dismantle the practice of separating students from life For at least 12 years) and still claim that learning is taking place.

  3. We need to dismantle the assumption/ myth that teachers can teach what they donÔÇÖt do.

  4. We need to dismantle the myth that education can be improved through professionals and experts.

  5. 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.

  6. We need to affirm that the vast mojority of people go to school not to learn but to get a diploma. We need to create diverse environments of learning.

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

  8. We need to affirm and regain the concept and practice of ÔÇ£learning from the world,ÔÇØ not ÔÇ£about the world.ÔÇØ

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

The basic topic in learning is life and people living in its midst ÔÇô not outside it and not above it. And the basic social unit in learning is small groups engaged in real life, in some aspects of their lives, and of their choice. The basic act at the individual level is to reflect on oneÔÇÖs life, express it and communicate and discuss it with others.

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.