A place to travel in
DATE :24 June 1999
SOURCE : Al-Ahram
BY : Edward Said
"I don't mind admitting to you as a sign of my almost biblical age, that I grew up in Cairo 50 years ago during the 1940s and that the American University in Cairo was the first university I had anything to do with"
Edward Said in Cairo this week
In every known society the academy, as Plato called it, was a protected, almost utopian place. Only there could collective learning and the development of knowledge occur and, as in recent years we have discovered, it could occur only if academic freedom from non-academic authority was somehow guaranteed and could prevail. It is an extraordinary thing to discover that the origins of the modern system of knowledge that we call humanism did not originate as Jakob Burkhardt and many others believed it did in Italy during the 15th and 16th century Renaissance, but rather in the Arab colleges, madrasas, mosques and courts of Iraq, Sicily, Egypt, Andalusia from the 8th century on. And in those places were formed the traditions and the curricula of legal, theological as well as secular learning -- the so-called studia adabiya -- from which European humanists derived many of their ideas not only about learning itself, but also about the environment of learning where disputation, dissent and argument were the order of the day.
For those of us who are of Arab origin and who in the modern period have got used to the notion that the West gave rise to modes of study, notions of academic discipline, and the whole idea of what in Arabic we call ijtihad, or the central role of individual effort in study and interpretation, it is salutary indeed to realise that our Arab-Islamic culture contributed substantially to what later was to become the whole system of education which today we call modern, liberal and Western.
I have very little patience with ethnocentrism of the kind trumpeted by Samuel Huntington and others like him who claim that all ideas of democracy, freedom and enlightenment are Western ideas, since the facts of history are, as we now know with reference to education, very mixed, very various, very much a matter of the contribution made by all humankind, all peoples, all cultures. There isn't a single source for anything: all peoples share in the making of history, all peoples make history. So let us agree then that whether we look to the time of Ibn Arabi or that of John Dewey we will find serious thinkers suggesting more or less the same thing, that the place of education is a special province within the society, a place where freedom of inquiry and thought occur and are protected and where -- it must be said -- the social and political context plays an important role by defining the limits and expectations of the learning process.
Yet the status of university or school as well as what goes along with them intellectually as well as socially is special, is different from other sites in society like the government bureaucracy, the workplace, or the home. To say that someone is educated or an educator is to say something having to do with the mind, with intellectual and moral values, with a particular process of inquiry, discussion, and exchange, none of which is as regularly encountered outside as they are inside the academy. The idea is that academies form the mind of the young, just as -- to look at things from the point of view of the teacher -- to teach is to be engaged in a vocation having principally to do not with financial gain but with the unending search for truth.
These are very high and important matters and they testify to the genuine aura surrounding the academic and intellectual enterprise. There is something hallowed and consecrated about the academy: there is a sense of violated sanctity experienced by us when the university or school is subjected to crude political pressures. Yet, I believe, to be convinced of these genuinely powerful truths is not entirely to be freed of the circumstances -- some would call them encumbrances -- that impinge on education today, influence our thinking about it, shape our efforts in the academy. The point I want to make is that as we consider these situational or contextual matters, the search for academic freedom becomes more important, more urgent, more requiring of careful and reflective analysis. So whereas it is universally true that contemporary societies treat the academy with seriousness and respect, each community of academics, intellectuals and students must wrestle with the problem of what academic freedom in that society at that time actually is and should be.
The best definition of a university that I know is by John Henry Cardinal Newman who in 1854 came from England to Ireland to establish what has since become University College, Dublin. He said: "A university has this object and this mission; it contemplates neither moral impression nor mechanical production, it professes to exercise the mind neither in art nor in duty, its function is intellectual culture; here it may leave its scholars, and it has done its work when it has done as much as this. It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth and to grasp it." "Knowledge," Newman says in another place, is "something intellectual, something which grasps what it perceives through the senses; something which takes a view of things; which sees more than the senses convey; which reasons upon what it sees, and while it sees; which invests it with an idea." Then he adds: "not to know the relative disposition of things is the state of slaves or children; to have mapped out the universe is the boast, or at least the ambition, of philosophy," which Newman defines as the highest state of knowledge.
These are incomparably eloquent statements, and they can only be a little deflated when we remind ourselves that Newman was speaking to and about British men, not women, and then also about the education of young Catholics not of Egyptians or Arabs. Nonetheless the profound truth in what Newman says is, I believe, designed to undercut any partial, or somehow narrow view of education whose aim might seem only to re-affirm one particularly attractive and dominant identity, religion and authority. Perhaps like many of his Victorian contemporaries Newman was arguing earnestly for a type of education that placed the highest premium on English, European or Christian values in knowledge. But sometimes, even though we may mean to say something, another thought at odds with what we say insinuates itself into our rhetoric, and in effect criticises it. When we read Newman we suddenly realise that although he is obviously extolling what is an overridingly Western conception of the world, with little explicit allowance made for what is African, or Arab , or Latin American, or Indian, we realise that he says that education should map out the universe. Thus letting slip the note that even a British or Western identity wasn't enough, wasn't at bottom or at best what education and freedom were all about.
Certainly it is difficult to find in Newman anything like a licence either for blinkered specialisation or for gentlemanly aestheticism. What he expects of the academy is, he says, "the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence." This synthetic wholeness has a special relevance to the fraught political situations of conflict, the unresolved tension and social as well as moral disparities that are constitutive to the world of today's academy.
But what happens when we take Newman's prescriptions about viewing many things as one whole or, referring them to their true place in the universal system, and we transpose these notions to today's world of embattled national identities, cultural conflicts, and power relations? Is there any possibility of bridging the gap between the ivory tower of contemplative rationality ostensibly advocated by Newman and our own urgent need as Arabs for self-realisation and self-assertion with its background in a history of repression and denial? Can the university survive as a real university if its governance and teaching mission become the objects of scrutiny and direct interference not of its teachers but of powers outside the university?
I think not. I will go further and say that it is precisely the role of the contemporary academy to keep open the gap between itself and society, since society itself is too directly ruled by politics to serve so general and so finally intellectual and moral a role as the university plainly must. We must first, I think, accept that nationalism, whether it is the nationalism of the victim or of the victor, has its limits. For those of us just emerging from marginality and persecution, our traditions constitute a necessary thing: a long deferred and denied identity needs to come out into the open and take its place among other human identities. But that is only the first step. To make all or even most of education subservient to this goal is to limit human horizons without either intellectual or, I would argue, political warrant.
A single over-mastering identity guided by a religious or secular authority outside the academy at the core of the academic enterprise, whether that identity be Western, African, Islamic, Arab or Asian, is a confinement, a deprivation. The world we live in is made up of numerous identities, numerous ideas, lives, philosophies interacting, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes antithetically. Not to deal with that whole -- which is in fact a contemporary version of the whole referred to by Newman as a true enlargement of mind -- is not to have academic freedom. We cannot make our claim as seekers after justice if we advocate knowledge only of and about ourselves, knowledge only that is approved by a team of referees who decide what can and cannot be read. Who then will referee the referees?
Our model for academic freedom should be the migrant or traveller: for if, in the real world outside the academy, we must be ourselves and only ourselves, inside the academy we should be able to discover and travel among other selves, other identities, other varieties of the human adventure. But, most essentially, in this joint discovery of self and other, it is the role of the academy to transform what might be conflict, or contest, or assertion into reconciliation, mutuality, recognition, creative interaction. Rather than viewing the search for knowledge in the academy as the search for coercion and control over others, we should regard knowledge as something for which risks must be taken, and we should think of academic freedom as an invitation to explore knowledge in the hope of understanding and perhaps even assuming more than one kind. We must always view the academy as a place to voyage in, owning none of it but at home everywhere in it. There can be no forbidden knowledge if the modern university is to maintain its place, its mission, its power to educate.
An altogether different challenge to the concept of academic freedom is found in national universities in much of the contemporary Arab world. I speak here generally of most of the large public universities in countries all through the area. Most of these countries are in fact run by secular governments. What is important to understand, however, is that with few exceptions Arab universities are not only nationalist universities, but are also political institutions, for perfectly understandable reasons. In Palestine, Bir Zeit and Al-Najah, for instance, have resisted Israeli occupation and preserved Palestinian identity admirably. Elsewhere, the Arab world which had been dominated either by Ottoman or by European colonialism, became independent after World War II. National independence for countries like Egypt and Syria, meant that young people at last could be educated fully in the traditions, histories, languages and cultures of their own particular Arab countries.
When independence was achieved as a result of anti-colonial struggles one of the first things to be changed was education. I recall, for instance, that after the Revolution of 1952 in Egypt a great deal of emphasis was placed on the Arabisation of the curriculum, of intellectual norms, of values to be inculcated in schools and universities. The same was true of Algeria after 1962, where an entire generation of Muslims were for the first time entitled and enjoined to study Arabic, which had been forbidden except as a language in mosques while Algeria was considered and ruled as a department of France. It is important to understand, therefore, the justified passion that went into reclaiming the educational territory for so long dominated by foreign rulers in the Arab world, and it is equally important to understand the tremendous spiritual wound felt by many of us because of the sustained presence in our midst of domineering foreigners who taught us to respect distant norms and values more than our own.
Yet it is also true to say that in the newly independent countries of the Arab world, the national universities were often re-conceived, I believe, as (rightly or wrongly) extensions of the newly established national security state. Once again it is clear that all societies accord a remarkable privilege to the university and school as crucibles for the shaping of national identity. This is true everywhere at sometimes too high a price. In the US there was a great deal of pressure on universities to benefit the defence department especially during the Cold War.
In the Arab world true education has often been short-circuited so to speak. Whereas in the past young Arabs fell prey to the intervention of foreign ideas and norms, now they were to be remade in the image of the ruling party which, given the Cold War, and the Arab-Israeli struggle, became also the party of national security and, in some countries, the only party. Thus adding to the vastly increased pressure on universities to open their doors to everyone in the new society -- an extremely admirable policy pioneered in Egypt -- universities also became the proving ground for earnest patriots. Political conformity rather than intellectual excellence was often made to serve as a criterion for promotion and appointment, with the general result that timidity and conservatism came to rule intellectual practice. Consequently not only did many brilliant and gifted people leave the Arab world in a massive brain drain, but I would say that the whole notion of academic freedom underwent a significant downgrading. It became possible for one to be free in the university only if one completely avoided anything that might attract unwelcome attention or suspicion.
I do not want to make of this occasion a long, anguished recital of how demoralised a place the Arab world, in most of its contemporary aspects, has become, but I do think it is important to link its depressed situation with the lack of democratic rights, and of an atmosphere bereft of well-being and confidence in the society. Political repression has never been good for academic freedom and, perhaps more importantly, it has been disastrous for academic and intellectual excellence when such things as book banning and censorship are practised. My assessment as I said, is that too high a price has been paid where political or religious passions and an ideology of conformity dominate.
The image that must guide us in inhabiting the academic and cultural space provided by the university is that of the traveller and not the Sultan. Travelers must suspend the claim of customary routine in order to live in new rhythms and rituals. Most of all, and most unlike the Sultan who must guard only one place and defend its frontiers, the traveller crosses over, traverses territory, abandons fixed positions, all the time. To do this with dedication and love as well as a realistic sense of the terrain is, I believe, academic freedom at its highest, since one of its main features is that you can leave authority and dogma to the Sultan. Academic freedom is risk and danger. It means allowing oneself a few years where the conventions of society are suspended so that the search for knowledge can go on for the love of knowledge alone.