I. ‘Home of Wisdom’ in Campus in Camps

“Campus-in-Camps” is an experiment in ‘higher education’ which I believe can have tremendous impact on learning and knowing (in a variety of ways) not only in Palestine but also beyond, including countries considered developed.

One aspect we agreed to adhere to at the Home of Wisdom is to think, act, express, relate, and perceive outside the ideology of consumption – including consumption of official meanings, professional terms, and academic categories. An integral part of the vision is to build on what people can do by themselves, with their sources of strength, with what is abundant in people, community, culture, and nature, and in harmony with well-being and pluralism. [After they strengthen their roots in community and culture – in their projects – they may want to broaden what they do to include help from outside.]

A main distinction between Campus-in-Camps and dominant universities is that knowledge in the second is mainly ideological and useful in the world of consumption, while in the first it is mainly rooted and useful in the context in which they live. The problem I see in academic knowledge is not that it is too theoretical but that it is too ideological serving power that strives to win and control starting by ignoring/ degrading people’s systems of knowledge. ‘Theoretical’ for me refers to knowledge abstracted from, and making sense of experiences, observations, experimentation, reflections, and from attentiveness to context. All these together form what we refer to as theory in the Home of Wisdom: it is very practical! It stems from practice and goes back to practice. Starting with a ready “theory” just because it comes from a prestigious university or well-known expert is ideology; theory and ideology are worlds apart.

Most people would agree (at least in words) that the basis of all knowledge is a mixture/ a mental system of experiences, observations, experimentations, and reflections; such mixture forms the foundation of one’s knowledge. This guarantees diversity and a pluralistic attitude in perceiving, living, thinking, expressing, doing, and one’s worth – where I find Imam Ali’s statement as the most insightful sentence I ever read. It says: the worth of a person is what s/he yuhsen (which in Arabic means what s/he does well, beautiful, useful, respectful, and comes from within).

In the Home of Wisdom, the stress is on what the participant searches for in one’s life. Research refers to what may deepen and clarify one’s search. Since we agree in the Home of Wisdom that knowledge is action, then the backbone of their learning are the projects that participants decide to work on, built on what is abundant and on sources of strength in people and community, and in harmony with pluralism and well-being.

II. My dream

The word for university in Arabic is jame3ah, which literally means a ‘gathering place’ that brings together people within real, rich, and pluralistic environment that helps them learn and do things, in freedom, honesty, and with enthusiasm. In this sense, Jame3ah is much closer in meaning to multiversity than to university. This is what I and the 16 young men and women are experiencing at the Home of Wisdom within Campus-in-Camps in the Dheisheh refugee camp.

Put briefly, my dream and hope is to eventually have ‘jame3ah’ (or better, ‘home of wisdom’) in as many camps and villages in Palestine as possible, where around 10 people rooted in their community, form a lively group and choose words, construct meanings, form visions, and create useful rooted knowledge through actions in their communities, in harmony with pluralism and well-being. It is crucial to stress here that what we do at Dheisheh is not a new model or a shift in paradigm but a different old/new vision whose core is wisdom. For me, a vision consists of three main components: how we see reality; how we perceive our place and role in it; and the values we agree not to violate in our actions. These require attentiveness to what is around. The only aspect of the vision, which all in the group need to adhere to, is the values. Saying that everyone has full autonomy in one’s place does not mean each works in isolation but in constant interaction, with no one having authority over another. They interact in freedom, honesty, and respect. Adopting Imam Ali’s statement as a guiding principle in ‘homes of wisdom’ guarantees every person has worth and is able to learn, which means that there are no failures, and that one’s worthiness comes from one’s relations to surroundings and not from abstract arbitrary numbers. One’s worthiness is related to the various meanings of yuhsen in Arabic which I mentioned earlier: what one does well, beautiful, respectful, giving, and good. This way we reclaim learning as a biological ability and one’s relations and actions as source of one’s worth. Perceiving every person as co-author of meanings is a basic and on-going conviction within the vision.

The 1970s and the first intifada were the most significant periods in my life, they provided me with convictions that I consider crucial in modern life. One conviction is: there is no substitute for small groups, formed in as many places as possible by their own initiative, outside the institutional framework in order to decide what they want and can do – something that is meaningful, useful, rooted, and contextual. Replacing local self-formed initiatives is destructive to human communities. (In our quest along this path, we should not go to the other extreme in the sense of trying to replace every other form of organization.) My first experience along these lines was the voluntary work movement which I started with some friends in 1971. My second experience was encouraging students in schools (in the 1970s) to form math and science clubs which revolved around questions that they had and wanted to pursue. My third experience along this path was creating a course at Birzeit University in 1979 (which I mentioned earlier) where every student or group of students try to notice patterns, regularities etc. and make sense out of them. The next experiment was encouraging the formation of groups in every possible place within the reading and expression campaign (at Tamer Institute for Community Education which I established in 1989, during the first intifada when Israel closed all schools for four years).
That was followed by Qalb el-Umour project within the Arab Education Forum. Today, it is manifested in the dream of having a jame3ah in as many villages and refugee camps as possible.

Within the House of Wisdom, we don’t have a reading list of books or articles, but people are encouraged to deepen their wisdom and understanding by interacting with the elders in their community, by reading books in Arabic from the period between the 7th and the 15th centuries (which reflected hikmah, wisdom), and get acquainted with movements that embody wisdom in modern time. [I hope it will be possible for them to visit places like Mexico, Peru, India, Iran, Egypt… where they engage with people in a process of mutual nurturing and reclaiming of wisdom… and where the spirit of regeneration is the essence of sustainability

First phase

A basic conviction within the cycle is that much of the mess and threats to life, which we witness around the world, is – so to speak – due to putting the mind on the throne and imprisoning wisdom, some 400 years ago. As someone said, man is too clever for life to go on without wisdom. The cycle is an attempt to bring back wisdom into living, learning, and knowing.

This necessarily requires looking at life as interconnected. Many aspects are interconnected in a person’s life. Thus, the subject of “study” for each participant is his/ her life – experiences, reflections, actions, interactions, and what s/he wants to do in the future; making sense of all that is the basis of one’s knowledge. The participants have gone through many experiences which can form a basis for constructing meanings, understanding, and knowledge. Every person is a web of relationships with those around and what is around. “Education” along this path is not a ready thing which one person (teacher) gives to others but something that a person does to oneself (sharpening one’s character and one’s thinking, understanding, expression – which is the literal meaning of a ‘cultured person’ muthaqqaf مثقف in Arabic).

This is in harmony with looking at participants as searchers, not researchers; at certain points, the participant may need to do some research in order to clarify certain aspects of his/ her search. Within this perspective, mutual nurturing among participants (and not competition) is the spirit within the group. Every participant is a source of meaning, understanding, and knowledge; a co-author of meanings of the words one uses. Co-authoring meanings nurtures dignity, self-worth and respect, freedom, responsibility, and collective creativity as well as pluralism (especially of knowledges). A main outcome of the cycle will be an on-going “dictionary”, which will include words that are part of the participants’ lives. Since wisdom is the overarching ‘value’, meanings would be in harmony with wisdom (the way the participant perceives it). There is no word that has a universal or fixed meaning; every meaning is contextual. This means that participants would not try to understand Dheisheh (and the larger Palestinian reality) through academic categories but the other way round: they will look at such categories critically with their lives as reference.

Second phase

In our first meeting on 25 February 2012, I mentioned there are two ways of perceiving learning: either as something ready that one person gives to another or a real and rich environment where a person sharpens one’s character, meanings, thoughts, understanding, expressions… building that on one’s experiences, reflections, etc (the literal meaning of a cultured person مثقف in Arabic).The first perception mentioned above is what we refer to as education; the second is more in harmony with what we refer to as ‘wisdom’. In the first, technology and science are looked at as miracle; in the second, life and nature are looked at as miracle. The world is saturated with education, but hungry for wisdom. In our cycle, we strive to regain wisdom in life, thinking, etc.

In education, one keeps adding information, skills, technical knowhow, etc. to one’s knowledge; in other words, it is additive. In contrast, the path of wisdom is almost always a combination of learning and unlearning, additive and subtractive… The first phase (which we have gone through during the past two and the half months) has been rethinking much of what participants have acquired in their lives so far, especially in terms of perceptions, one’s worthiness, institutional professional terms, and academic categories… and also rethinking modern beliefs, myths, and superstitions – such as the belief that there is a single undifferentiated path for progress (and consequently for learning and knowing) and the belief that a person’s (or country’s) worth can be measured by a number.

As Palestinians, we experienced various kinds of occupation: military, political, economic, financial, cultural, and knowledge. We are aware of all except for the occupation of knowledge; in fact, we embraced it and still embrace it. One way to heal from (unlearn) this occupation is to live by the conviction that every person is a source of meaning and knowledge; every person is a co-author of meaning. Co-authoring meaning is a right, duty, and natural ability. Healing from occupation of knowledge and formulating meanings/ understanding form the core of the cycle.

In a world governed by the values of control and winning, we cannot talk about co-authoring meanings or deepening our understanding without being guided by a vision. A first step along this path is to differentiate between vision and goals, and between values and tools. We did this in the first phase. Living, thinking, expressing, and acting in harmony with wisdom (as the person or group perceive it) is the vision we agreed to work in accordance with. This is not an academic concern but one that is connected to the survival of humanity, and life on Earth in general. Regaining wisdom in living, thinking, and doing is probably the main and most important challenge in today’s world. The beauty of wisdom is that, first, it has no professionals and, second, it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to co-opt it and turn it into a commodity. That’s why it was imprisoned – literally – when the mind was put on the throne 4 or 5 hundred years ago. Wisdom is like digesting food: it can only be done by the person personally. What nurtures people (in food and wisdom) is what has roots in local soil, community, and culture. The Arab civilization (especially between the 8th and 15th centuries) was vibrant with wisdom. Participants can choose sources from that period (or from other times and places, including wise people they know), and put in the needed effort to make sense (in their context and community) of whatever source they choose. It is the participant’s responsibility to “mix” the various elements in formulating meaningful and useful knowledge in one’s context.

I thought that the second phase in our cycle would be for each participant to choose words and rethink their meanings in light of one’s experiences, reflections, etc. But I realized, especially in Battir, that it still early to do that; it would be as shallow as homework or term paper. Since unlearning is usually accompanied with learning, then the unlearning that took place in the first phase should be followed by gaining depth and insight into wisdom before we move on into the next phase. One statement I quote often is: human beings are so clever that life on Earth is threatened without wisdom. This means that co-authoring meanings and gaining understanding should be in harmony with wisdom. Participants need to do the necessary work to formulate personal understanding of wisdom before they go on composing a “dictionary” or working on their own projects.

In other words, it is time for participants to indulge into the second perception of learning (which I mentioned at the beginning): something the person does to oneself in terms of sharpening one’s abilities. Thus, the retreat on June 1 and 2 will consist of each participant bringing at least one page (on whatever s/he formulated – until then – concerning wisdom) and explaining its relevance in one’s life (10 to 15 minutes for each person). In other words, participants will take full responsibility for their learning in this second phase (i.e., on June 1and 2, participants will run the show). This means that the kind of place we need for this second retreat should not be as exciting as Battir. We need to have a close-by place and rather calm and comfortable where we can put our energies in moving deeper in our understanding and in knitting fabric among the various efforts, and where there is enough time for all to present. Much of what participants will do, will be decided during these two days. [We will have other retreats, like Battir, where we gain depth and inspiration concerning Palestine.]

Creativity in the cycle is related to perception and meaning; the secret lies in how the person mixes the various elements s/he works with, especially in perceiving the world in a way that is interconnected, richer, and more diverse… and at the same time wiser.

Part of wisdom is having nature as norm. This is where Vivien can play the leading role. [It is probably worth mentioning here that “environment” as a professional academic category is a modern invention, which, like other modern inventions, distracts us from what is more basic and fundamental; it distracts us from knowing what is happening to nature.]
The phase of formulating the beginnings of a “dictionary” would have to wait until end of June.
Concept and development: Munir Jamil Fasheh

Biographical note

Munir was Born in Jerusalem, Palestine in 1941. Studied and taught math and physics for many years in Palestine and USA. I hold a doctorate in education from Harvard University. I was Dean of Students for 3 years at Birzeit University. In 1989, I founded and directed Tamer Institute for Community Education, and in 1997 founded and directed the Arab Education Forum for 10 years at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. During that period, I visited 29 countries and worked with individuals, groups, and universities involved in innovative initiatives related to learning and knowledge. A main project I currently work on with various groups (especially in the Arab world) is hakaya: regaining stories and storytelling into learning. Authored and edited several books, and published more than 30 articles (both in Arabic and English).

Reading materials

Article in Arabic in Ru’a Tarbawiyya (Qattan Foundation) on Development, Globalization, and Education[ARB]

Article on my experience with women in Shufaat Refugee Camp[ARB]

An article about development, globalization and education[ARB]

Integrative curriculum and communication of knowledge: knowledge of self first[ARB]

Palestine the illusion vs. Palestine the authentic[ARB]

Articles on Tunis Egypt and Palestine[ARB]

Arab universities AUB conference[ARB]

The Words al-muthanna and yuhsen in Arabic as Examples of Cultural Diversity and of Clarifying the Meaning of Intercultural Dialogue[ARB]

Towards a different vision concerning universities: Protecting the natural ability of regeneration and Respecting the integrity of creation[ARB]

Wisdom Home[ARB]

malaysia paper with vision and main points[ENG]


Yohsin Lecture Series: Dr. Munir Fasheh on Higher Education 1/5 2011