In 1888, Edward Bellamy published a remarkable American classic,Â Looking Backward. It was a tale of an imagined change that had befallen the United States between the high Gilded Age and a utopian future.
The novel’s hero, Julian West, falls asleep in the year 1887 and awakens to the brave new world of the year 2000.
In Bellamy’s imagined world, the industrial warfare, class conflict, and political corruption that characterized the late Nineteenth Century had given way to a planned society of rational cooperation.
What is most remarkable about Bellamy’s tract was its immediate popularity and influence. Nationalist Clubs sprang up throughout the United States, advocating Bellamy’s prescription for social change based on home-grown, American values.
If industrial and class warfare was the name of the game in Gilded Age America, then the culture wars and the struggle over public schooling is a major focus of conflict in our own age.
The price that we pay for a heterogeneous society is wildly differing notions of what our common schools should do and what values they should instill in our youth.
In a distinct departure from our history, some have suggested that we have no values in common and that it is not the school’s place to teach anything that is not purely technical and connected to the American occupational structure. In other words, there are some who loudly suggest that the only legitimate purpose of education is to prepare students for the workforce.
Kieran Egan is a “big picture thinker.
So pronounces Harvard’s Howard Gardner on the book’s back cover. To be sure, Professor Egan is neither a traditionalist nor a progressive.
He begins with the most fundamental question: what is the purpose of education? He rejects the purpose of delivering to students the received wisdom of the past in terms of drill in the canon. He also rejects the role of primary socializing agent on behalf of society.
Painting with a broad bush, Professor Egan rather coyly states that “Education is a process in which something good is done to the mind.
He proceeds to explain why the education wars have been so nasty, how the goals of our current system are inherently contradictory, and how education might take a direction that avoids some of the either/or suggestions so prevalent today and in the past one hundred years.
In the second half of the book, Egan takes the reader on a decade-by-decade imagined journey in which, like Bellamy, he shows how the utopian future evolved from the contentious past.
* * * * *
A number of educational writers have commented on the incompatible goals of American schools.
We mean to socialize children, acculturate them, and allow them to develop and self-actualize. These goals were seized upon at very specific moments in our history, and they can’t be integrated in a manner that is acceptable to all their adherents.
They are, Professor Egan argues, mutually exclusive, so the schools usually fall back on some mÃƒÂ©lange that nods in the direction of all three at the same time – an awkward gesture to say the least. “Our three defective ideas, he quips, “prevent each other from doing too much damage.
This is the kind of intellectual flabbiness that causes many, including the academic higher education establishment, to hold the schools in contempt. Piling on, Egan continues: “Ah what a wonder of compromise is our modern conception of education!
* * * * *
Egan professes at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, a school well known for its activism in the 1960′s and 1970′s and for its academic excellence today.
His university work has led to a vision of secondary education that he calls “imaginative education (IE). This vision is some sort of “third way that allows us to avoid the stark black and white views characterized by modern educational theorists.
To use imaginative education one must recognize that education is broadly cultural and involves what Egan calls a “cognitive toolkit.
And what is in this toolkit?
According to Professor Egan’s view, there areÂ fiveÂ different kinds of human understanding that develop somewhat sequentially in the life of a young person.
The first isÂ somaticÂ understanding, a pre-lingual form that enables a child to make sense of the world in his or her earliest years. As language develops, this mode is eclipsed by, but does not completely replace, something that Egan calls “mythicÂ understanding,
The presentation of reality in narrative form connected to a strong emotional component and tied to concepts that involve polar opposites or dichotomies.
This mode of understanding is connected to metaphor and involves abstract thinking, so it gives the lie to the commonly held notion that children are only capable of “concrete thinking. (Jean Piaget)
In fact, teachers who subscribe to the ideas of imaginative education would try to utilize the human proclivity for this mode of understanding by using rich narrative as a tool.
RomanticÂ understanding, the third mode, comes about when the child intuitively tries to define limits to the mythic qualities described in the polar opposites of mode two.
Romance, is defined as the “desire to transcend the boundaries of reality while recognizing that one is constrained by those boundaries.
The art of the teacher is to recognize what engages such a newly literate mind and to utilize it to present knowledge in an acceptable and useful way.
A preoccupation with heroes is a typical condition of this mode.
The fourth mode is a quantum leap from the other three. It involves the use of concepts made up of general ideas that grow out of the everyday world of particular events. This is called “philosophicalÂ understanding.
This important leap allows a person to develop very sophisticated theoretical thinking as well as the anomalies and contradictions these present. It also allows for the construction of “meta narratives that enable the grouping and classifying of complex patterns of thought.
Finally, after all of this cognitive growth, the mind is ready for the ability to discern the difference between what is said and what is meant: “ironicÂ understanding.
This last mode enables the activation of humor, an invaluable tool for the educator.
* * * * *
Good schools and talented teachers, if they understand this scheme of development, can couch their lessons in developmentally appropriate language, using myths, stories, and metaphors to dress up material in order to facilitate learning.
Of course, teachers have been doing this for years without the developmental language of IE, but it’s always nice to have a theoretical scheme to justify practice.
Kieran Egan has a keen eye for the workings of institutions. His account of the six decades between 2010 and 2060 is wickedly delineated.
Particularly sly is his account of the parry and thrust of the various factions of reformers as they interact with politicians and the public over that fifty-year period.
For example, in the period between 2030 and 2040, reformers find themselves reintroducing structures that they have long since abandoned such as separating classical education from simple socialization in response to a set of political dilemmas.
Teachers are even trained differently for the different purposes, and that sets off a struggle over perceived status of the two sets of professionals.
In this way, some of the baggage of an outmoded style of education makes a reappearance due to structural pressures. His utopia is not devoid of the annoying struggles that have characterized our own era.
As with Bellamy’s tract, there is a ring of truth to the scenario as it unfolds. A modern reader knows in Bellamy’s case that the imagined utopia never materializes.
This modern reader must also have doubts that we will be delivered into a future world in which the good guys triumph.
Just so that we are not too comfortable with the utopian outcome, at the end of the book Professor Egan describes the fragmentation of the IE movement, and the continuation of the education wars, albeit on a less intense footing.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Still, according to this interesting tale, the future looks brighter than the present.
* * * * *
The Future of EducationÂ is a worthy addition to the literature about the purpose of schools. The general question of what we are educating childrenÂ forÂ is an important one and must not be forgotten in the rush to measure and quantify learning. Getting there in an efficient and effective manner is very important, but so is the question of where we are headed.
Governments frequently dehumanize their enemies in times of war. It is the only way that soldiers and politicians can overcome their basic human instincts to engage in the inhuman and inhumane actions that war demands.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has raged for over half a century now, and both sides have gone far down the road of dehumanizing the other in order to more effectively continue the struggle. Israeli soldiers are compared to Nazis and Palestinian “gunmen” appear faceless and devoid of the human characteristics that might allow us to empathize with them and consider their plight.Â Sari Nusseibeh’s autobiographical story of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle runs against this trend. Â Â Â
It is a refreshingly personal account of events told from the point of view of an intellectually rigorous child of both the 1960′s and of a respected Palestinian family of ancient times. Professor Nusseibeh is exactly my age. The photographs that he includes in the book could have been ripped from my own family album. Comparing albums one can see his hair and my hair expand to ethnic versions of the “Afro” at the same moments in time and predictably turn to thinning mounds of white at another.
We are living the same life in a parallel universe, but he is a Palestinian, and I am a Jew. His relatives controlled the land for many years, and my relatives came new onto the scene, escaping from certain death in Poland and Ukraine. Perhaps his life story is the missing narrative piece that gives definition to my rather flat understanding of events in the Middle East as I was growing up.
This book is a worthwhile read to enhance our understanding of that part of the world, and our own lives.
Although Professor Nusseibeh lived most of his life within fifty miles of East Jerusalem, he also lived for many years in both Britain and the United States. He was educated at Oxford (P.P.E., Politics, Philosophy, and Economics), and married a fellow Oxford student, Lucy Austin, daughter of a notable Oxford don, who converted to Islam and agreed to return home with him. They also lived in the Boston area both during graduate studies at Harvard and during a recent Radcliffe Institute fellowship.
Both have a strong commitment to the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state.
Professor Nusseibeh’s roots in Jerusalem go deep. His parents were substantial people. His father was a western-educated adviser to King Hussein of Jordan, and a man held in high esteem by the Palestinian community of East Jerusalem. His mother was active and politically sophisticated as well. Both parents had a strong influence on their son who showed a more philosophical than political orientation.
Sari Nusseibeh became an academic, first at Hebrew University where he learned to like and respect Jewish intellectuals with whom he frequently interacted, and then at Birzeit University where he witnessed the growing influence of the Islamist movement among students. Inexorably, he was pulled into politics, first as a leader of the university faculty and eventually as a personal envoy of Yasir Arafat.
He had a strong tendency to stake out positions that were elegant and ethically sound: a proclivity that isolated him from most of the groups in the Palestinian political scene. Usually he was condemned by all sides as a maverick, who was a “traitor” to “the cause.” At one point he was badly beaten and almost killed by students who were in the employ of the Jordanian secret police.
Unlike most political leaders, when Professor Nusseibeh saw examples of behavior that he found to be morally indefensible, he would condemn the activity–no matter which side the perpetrator was on. Thus, he tended to publicly condemn bombings that resulted in civilian deaths even if they were the actions of Palestinian suicide bombers as well as well-planned assassinations by right wing Israeli paramilitary groups.
This even-handedness made him no friends in any camp. Shin Bet, the Israeli security force, was highly suspicious of him, and his own people saw him as an unreliable ally.
The backdrop to the story of Professor Nusseibeh’s ideological evolution is the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the 1967 War, through Camp David and the antifadas. The reader of his memoir can see how world events caused changes in his outlook. Always a realist, Professor Nusseibeh took the position of pushing for Palestinian rights within a democratic Israel to illustrate the fact that Jews themselves wanted a two-state solution, even while Israeli leaders dragged their feet at the implementation of such an outcome.
Professor Nusseibeh is quite candid about his frustration at Palestinian behavior that exacerbated Israeli foot dragging: the sporadic violence and, particularly, the corruption among traditional elites. His posturing leads to both increased scrutiny by Shin Bet, and death threats from fellow Palestinians who refuse to give up the goal of a Palestinian state encompassing the entire area of present day Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.
Always a favorite of Arafat and a small faction within the PLO (when the need arose to put an academic face to the organization), Professor Nusseibeh was enlisted in a number of peace initiatives. At one point, he was approached by a former Israeli security chief who wanted a back door channel to peace negotiations with the PLO. Israeli politicians affiliated with both Labor and Likud similarly try to take advantage of his connections within the PLO to work with him, when the opportunity suited them, to open back channel talks. Arafat always encouraged these discussions but never acknowledged Nusseibeh publicly.
As one can imagine, this state of affairs was extremely frustrating. Finally, in 1994, Professor Nusseibeh resigned his role as back channel yo-yo and took on an academic job as the head of Al-Quds University. As a private citizen he began work on a two-state solution to the conflict in conjunction with allies on the Israeli left, primarily Peace Now. Israelis wanted both security and a Jewish state, and Palestinians wanted freedom from occupation.
All told, his solution was relatively straightforward: two states, more or less divided along the 1967 border with East Jerusalem as the capital of a demilitarized Palestinian state. Palestinians had to acknowledge the moral right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state and to renounce the blanket “right of return” to Israel of refugees.
Professor Nusseibeh became a marked man with this proposal. Palestinians were furious that he “gave up” the sacred cow of the right of return. Shin Bet also saw him as dangerous, “the most dangerous Palestinian we have…a wolf in sheep’s clothing” said one security man during a routine interrogation.
It is Professor Nusseibeh’s contention throughout the book that the fate of Israelis and Palestinians is linked and that no erstwhile allies truly understand this – neither the Americans nor neighboring Arab states. Therefore, he contends, there is no alternative to real peace talks. Without them there will never be peace. Israel can only have a democratic Jewish state if it helps bring into being a Palestinian state.
The extremist camps of Palestinians and Israelis are curiously linked, he argues. Neither group truly wants a Palestinian state to come into existence: the Israelis because they wish to expand territorially into the West Bank, and the Palestinians because they refuse to accept the reality of Israeli existence. Professor Nusseibeh believes that a silent majority of both peoples would assent to a plebiscite along terms that he outlined above, but he believes that they will not have the opportunity to do so because of the agreement among Israeli and Palestinian extremists to avoid this.
Indeed, a strong current running through the book is that the Israeli government cynically and consistently encouraged Palestinian radicals as an alternative to dealing with moderates.
Early on, they encouraged and possibly funded Islamist student groups who were originally against political action in order to weaken the more secular and activist Fatah groups–only to see them evolve into Hamas and become politicized. When radical groups resorted to violence, Shin Bet would ignore the perpetrators, the author contends, and retaliate against the moderates.
He pointedly accuses Ariel Sharon, in particular, of goading Palestinians to actions of disorganized violence, to which, much to Professor Nusseibeh’s dismay, they invariably responded.
While acknowledging Arafat’s weaknesses, he delineates a portrait of a moderate trying to balance the pressures of a myriad of Palestinian factions. It is clear that Professor Nusseibeh has great personal affection for Arafat, even while seeing his failings as a leader.
The problem with the book is precisely what makes it appealing.
Sari Nusseibeh is a prophet who is never recognized in his own land. He has no standing, and he has no following. I am somewhat troubled by the fact that it is co-authored, and I am left with the questions about which beliefs are those of Anthony David.
Nonetheless, the book has given me insights into “the other,” and I come away with genuine admiration and affection for whichever author’s views are expressed. I wish that the two or three of us actually had constituencies and could sit down and by fiat declare peace.]]>