Bringing back wisdom into learning
By Munir Fasheh
An extremely important fact concerning universities (which is rarely, if ever, raised and discussed) is that most decisions that were taken in the US in almost all fields (economy, finance, politics, education…) were taken by graduates of the so-called elite universities. Thus, the role of these universities in creating current crises (in the US as well as around the world) cannot be dismissed. Consequently, the values that govern perceptions, actions, and relations within these universities (and which were filtered into our universities) cannot continue to be ignored. Thus, the question, “what are the values that currently govern universities around the world and, on the other hand, what are the values which embody wisdom?” is a most important and urgent one. It is related to vision.
What is constantly being pushed outside consciousness and discussions is the fact that current universities do not care about what happens to the land, to human communities, to local cultures (including the social fabric made through stories, tales and oral interaction). They ignore the role of the dominant consumption pattern and its values (competition, control, profit, and winning) in creating the mess and crises around the world. The destruction that western powers have created – not only in our countries but also in theirs and at many levels, some visible, others not – has gone beyond talking about “us” vs. “them” and start talking about the logic (which includes dominant values) that govern our perceptions, relations, and behaviors. The beginning of decadence – in my opinion – goes several centuries back when the mind ascended to the throne and wisdom was imprisoned (in western countries). We need to bring back wisdom into learning… In short, the dominant form of universities has contributed significantly to threatening life on Earth. The corruption, destruction, pollution, and tearing apart of life, nature, the human body and human communities, and local cultures and economies – all in the name of progress and development – cannot continue to be ignored. And we cannot continue to cover them up by experts’ explanations, distractions, and promises. The threat to the ability of Earth to regenerate itself cannot be ignored.
What we can offer is a vision which is wide with concise discourse (a 1000-year old articulation by An-Naffari, an Arab Islamic Sufi): ‘wide’ in the sense it encompasses the wholeness (rather than fragmentation) of life, and ‘concise’ in the sense that we do not get drowned in a new “verbal empire”. The basic value in the vision (which I suggest as the topic for the roundtable) is protecting and regaining the ability of life to regenerate itself. Part of it is Imam Ali’s statement concerning the worth of a person (what s/he yuhsen), which itself is a regeneration of worthiness. These are connected to responsibility. [Visions and wisdom cannot be taught through a curriculum. Teaching via curricula/ institutions cannot transcend orientalism; they have been the main tool through which the “Orient” was constructed as a negative inversion of Western culture.]
We won’t get very far if we go on critiquing and analyzing the dominant form in universities. We need to live by another vision. Yes, we need to reflect on what universities (that we studied and taught in) have done to us; we need to reflect on the logic, values, and perceptions that formed us; and we need to know the roots of what created the dominant form of current universities… but, what is most important is articulating a wide vision with a narrow discourse (such as the one suggested above).
Ramallah, Palestine (24 May 2009)