Monday, July 26, 2010

My illiterate mother's math: power, hegemony and knowledge

"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.
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; when, like the math I valued, it is believed to transcend class, gender, culture, and national boundaries.

Ideology is a worldview that embodies a particular language and certain conceptions, values, relations, and interests that are translated into daily practices and that produce a certain consciousness. Consequently, 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 in the Third World, 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. My mother, for example, was unable – and was never given the chance – to articulate her work and her thinking. Meaningful education, or community education, thus reclaims people’s lives, their sense of self-worth, and their ways of thinking from the hegemonic structures, and facilitates their ability to articulate what they do and think about in order to provide a foundation for autonomous action."

This is a very important article on education and knowledge and learning by Mounir Fasheh for which I have to thank dear Marcy...

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