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

Munir Fasheh

Munir Fasheh is a learning theorist and practitioner, who taught mathematics and physics. Based in Ramallah, Fasheh founded the Tamer Institute for Community Education during the first Intifada as a center for developing learning environments outside of schooling in Palestine. After receiving his PhD in education from Harvard University in 1988, he founded the Arab Education Forum (AEF) at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies in 1997 and directed it for ten years. Since 2007, he has been working with groups in Palestine and Jordan to develop new ways of collaborative learning.

The author’s mother. – Image: Munir Fasheh

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.

Iwas 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.

This article was first published in Harvard Educational Review, February 1990.