Friday, April 18, 2008

West Meets East

Just finished reading an interesting article in Saudi Aramco World called "East Meets West in Venice", which is about the trade relations between Venice and the Middle East beginning in the eighth century. Camel caravans from all over the middle east, would come to Alexandria, Egypt and merchandise would be loaded onto boats, which sailed all over the Mediterranean. Once again, I see examples of the many ways Europe has interacted with the Middle East and how little was written about this in the history books I grew up with. Did I say "how little"? I should have said "nothing". (By the way, the magazine mentioned above is available through a free subscription and you can access all their articles and back issues through the website). It is a magazine whose stated goal is to increase cross-cultural understanding by broadening knowledge of the cultures, history, and geography of the Arab and Muslim worlds and their connections to the West. I have been reading it for several years and have never detected any political or ideological agenda. It is very informative.

One issue that stands out was on the
roots of Blues music in America. If you follow the link you can listen to recordings of the athaan (Islamic call to prayer) and a traditional African-American song that are remarkably similar.

While the article about Venice is titled East Meets West..... I think the issue is rather that we in "the West", especially in America, have no idea of "the East". We have been living in a glass bubble of isolation. In general, we have no idea of what goes on in the rest of the world, we know almost nothing about history, and we don't seem to care. Until 9/11, few people even knew a thing about Islam or the Middle East. Because of our ignorance and apathy, the media was able to feed us what they wanted us to eat. We were led along like sheep, controlled by our "leaders". In the "richest country in the world", we have gone to sleep.

My time in Zaire, Africa in the Peace Corps was a wake-up call for me. My students walked several hours to school. If they brought food with them, they ate. There was no food on campus. They stayed on campus for many hours a day. If they were fortunate enough to live on campus in a dormitory, they shared one room with 4 to 6 others. They had no water or electricity most of the time. There were few books or magazines available. No media to speak of. Yet, their desire for knowledge was so great and the value they put on learning was so high, that when they did get a book, they memorized it. They knew all the States in the U.S., their capital cities, their major geographical features. Before I went there, I had never heard of Zaire. When I got my acceptance letter from Peace Corps, I had to go to an atlas to see where it was. It is now called by its historical name of Congo. My students taught themselves languages with one book, just in case they got a chance to speak to someone from that country. They all spoke at least 4 or 5 languages. Having worked in university libraries in the States, I knew how few students ever even went into the library, let alone checked out books and read them. Forget memorizing. It shamed me to realize that although we have so many resources at our fingertips, most people are complacent, lazy and uninterested in knowing anything beyond what is on T.V. People who only read the newspaper, consider themselves "readers".

California used to be known as having the best educational system in the States. This is no longer true. Most people blame government - Local, State, or Federal. That is not right. If you must blame someone or something, blame the fact that we as a culture do not actually value education. What we value is making money and God knows that has nothing to do with education. In fact, having advanced degrees often works against you in the job market. I can't tell you how many jobs I didn't get because I was "over-qualified". Yet, when I went through a bad time in my life and tried to get general assistance as a temporary measure, I was told I had too much education and thus was not destitute enough because I could get a high paying job. I have never had a high paying job. Meanwhile a family member, with one year of junior college, is making millions. Even though years ago, one of my goals was to be a university professor, and I started a doctoral program, I soon realized that all I would be doing was contributing to the problem - educating more people who would be unemployable in our current system or "under-employed" people with advanced degrees working at the post office. I did teach at the university level through extension programs where people took classes they were really interested in - for fun. That was delightful.

Or you can blame the students who don't care and are not interested in learning. Learning has nothing to do with teachers, resources, buildings, or even diet for that matter. For those who value knowledge and learnng, nothing can stop them. They don't do it because they think they will make more money. They do it because they are curious, interested, inspired. I saw this first hand in Zaire. They had a burning desire to know about the world, not just their neighborhood. For most of them, there would be no advantage in having an education except to enrich their own mind. How to motivate people to open their minds and ask questions, that is the challenge.