How We Learn #2 – Missed Opportunities

palmyra (Above, Palmyra, Syria)

How We Learn – Missed Opportunities

In the last post, I discussed the ways in which some of my teachers discouraged learning. I also realized that my own family missed opportunities to help me understand the world.

At home in Beirut, Lebanon we had a curious way of ignoring the very world we lived in. My parents never thought of taking us to the many historic places which were very close to where we lived. There were Roman ruins at Baalbek in Eastern Lebanon which I did not see. I also didn’t get to visit the nearby old city of Damascus, Syria with its colorful souks (markets). I also never made the trip to Palmyra, Syria, which is now all the more regrettable because many of the sights are disappearing before our eyes. We had snow in the Lebanese mountains, yet we never went skiing. Perhaps I should not be too harsh on my parents. They were strangers in a strange land and my father’s main preoccupation was to adapt and survive which he did very well.

I have since learned to open my mind to science topics thanks to reading and listening to wonderful communicators like Neil DeGrass Tyson, Richard Dawkins and Lisa Randall. I will write about them next time.

How We Learn #1

Schulhaus

On the whole, I think I had a good education. When I was growing up, I lived in Beirut, Lebanon which was then under a French Mandate giving it a status that was slightly higher than a colony but not by much.

The French considered it their duty to educate those of us who did not have the good fortune to be born French so they established “lycees” in all their dominions. A lycee is a combination middle school, high school and part college.

Each lycee throughout France had the same curriculum as all the other schools in France. A centralized and uniform system rigidly controlled everything. This meant that early grade history books invariably started with “Our ancestors the Gauls….” Whether our real ancestors were Phoenicians or Israelites was beside the point.

Our school was called “Mission Laique Francaise” which translates as “French Secular Mission” so you might say that our teachers were secular priests spreading culture and civilization instead of religion. Besides imparting knowledge in the sciences and the humanities, they taught us how to think rationally and ask questions. We did not have “true or false” tests but had to write essays in most topics giving reasons for our point of view based of course on our mastery and interpretation of the facts. This was an excellent preparation for higher education and I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

In other respects there were serious deficiencies in the mode of teaching our school espoused. Many of you have heard about the English “public schools” where teachers not only inflicted corporal punishment but mocked, ridiculed and exposed pupils to humiliation. I see now with hindsight that some of that sadism was also present in our own teachers. For instance our graded assignments were always returned to us in class publicly following a system of “worst first” and with sarcastic comments. The longer your name was not called the more relieved you felt. The best assignments were handed out last.

Our physics and chemistry teacher had a sixth sense for sensing who had not prepared the homework and unerringly homed in on those unfortunates with unanswerable questions seemingly enjoying embarrassing them in front of the class. I guess the concept of self-esteem had not yet been invented.

Editor’s note: More musings on education to come in the next post. Please volunteer your own experiences in the comments section and we will publish them.

Me and J.P. (Sartre)

J.P. Sartre when he refused the Nobel Prize

J.P. Sartre when he refused
the Nobel Prize

In 1946, when we were still living in France, I came upon a publication called “Existentialism is a Humanism” by Jean Paul Sartre. It captivated me. Sartre wrote of choice, personal responsibility and discipline. He advocated a philosophy of free will, of man being the architect of his own destiny, with no help from religion or other diktats. Sartre rejected other-directed moral imperatives and received values. I liked the idea of man being defined by his actions and their consequences, without a prescribed way of life. To Sartre, life was a succession of free choices. Jean Paul Sartre was a philosopher, a political activist and a novelist. I read No Exit, Nausea, The Flies and others and enjoyed them all.

But Sartre’s views led him to strange engagements. Like many other intellectuals of the day he had become a Communist during World War II. To him communism was an antidote to fascism. Wasn’t Stalin fighting and defeating the Nazis? After the war, Sartre traveled to Russia and wrote a favorable report, unable to see forced collectivization, and the mass executions of political “enemies” that did not fit his preconceived views.

Sartre met Simone de Beauvoir when they were both studying philosophy. De Beauvoir was a novelist and a feminist. She wrote: The Second Sex and Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter which I read and found to be a little heavy. She had no sense of humor.

De Beauvoir and Sartre had the same philosophy of life and thus a very strange relationship. They were a couple but led totally independent lives. Sartre loved women and both he and de Beauvoir had many affairs. She even introduced him to other women. They both affected to despise conventions and to reject bourgeois morality. Though she was a feminist, de Beauvoir was totally subjugated by Sartre.

In May 1968 they both joined the student revolt in Paris and marched with placards glorifying Mao Zedong. They had chosen a path that I could not follow and I lost my respect for them. It was incomprehensible to me how such intelligent people could so willfully blind themselves to what was happening around them.

Many of their peers had also fallen prey to this bizarre fascination for Mao and his little red book. How they could overlook the 36 million or more dead in the artificial famine of the “Great Leap Forward” and the tortures, massacres, and imprisonments of anyone not in favor with the ruling powers was incomprehensible to me. Why did they ally themselves with the executioners rather than the victims? I saw a yawning trench between their ideals and the path they had chosen to follow.

French intellectuals in those days also worshiped Stalin and Castro and exhibited a virulent anti-Americanism. It was their way of “epater le bourgeois,” (to shock the middle class). They seemed to enjoy this role. They had followers in the United States including Leonard Bernstein who affected this form of “radical chic” also.

Protected from reprisals because they lived in a democracy, they became “revolutionaries” from the safety of their armchairs. To me, it was blatant hypocrisy. The French author Jean Francois Revel called Sartre an impostor with his Marxist acrobatics. He wrote that Sartre was a philosopher of liberty who hated liberty and wondered why this intelligent thinker chose the intellectual night of Communism.

Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, but turned it down stating that writers should not affiliate themselves with institutions.

The Other Africa

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi

Mma Ramotswe and Mma
Makutsi

Our constant news cycle gives us a very skewed view of the world. We are at the mercy of the media which have a penchant for the brutal, the sensational and the disastrous. Take the coverage of Africa. We know all about greedy dictators who accumulate obscene fortunes while their people are destitute. We know about rigged elections and corrupt rulers who cling to power long after their terms have expired. There is chaos in Somalia and Eritrea, mayhem in Congo and Sudan. Nigeria has an infestation of terrorists (Boko Haram) and in Zimbabwe, President Mugabe has instituted a North Korea-style brutal dictatorship.

But what do we know about countries where people lead ordinary lives, going about their business, not causing trouble or bothering anybody? We never hear about Malawi, Senegal, Gabon, the Gambia, Tanzania or Botswana.

For this reason I would like to give a huge thank you to Alexander McCall Smith who takes us to Gaborone, Botswana in his series about The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. He shows us another Africa that is not torn by violence and mayhem. Granted he has idealized Botswana a little, but the good thing is that he introduces us to a different culture, one of people who show much kindness and consideration for others and who look at life in their own unique way.

He introduces us to Mma Ramotswe, the founder and owner of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, presented us to her secretary-assistant-partner Mma Makutsi, and to her husband J.L.B Matekoni, proprietor of the Tolkweng Road Speedy Motors garage. Mma Ramotswe’s name is Precious and she is euphemistically described as “traditionally built.” Mma Makutsi whose first name is Grace is the proud recipient of a 97% final grade in Secretarial School. Mma is a polite and formal way of addressing ladies. The equivalent for men is Rra. J.L.B. Matekoni’s first name has never been divulged. We are also told that Mma Makutsi has many virtues which “she is the first to admit to.”

We all have an inner voice which talks to us. Mma Makutsi who has a weakness for colorful shoes, has projected this voice onto her shoes and they talk to her and guide her choices in life.

Mma Ramotswe and J.L.B Matekone live in a comfortable house on Zebra Drive, with a verandah where they drink bush tea, and a shady garden with an acacia tree. They have two adopted children, one of whom is in a wheelchair. In Africa it is very common to raise children who are not your own, sometimes nieces and nephews, sometimes strangers, because of the large number of orphans, and to treat them as your own children. Although Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L. B. Matekoni obviously love each other, they have a curiously formal way of addressing each other.

People come to Mma Ramotswe ‘s agency with problems that she solves with a combination of common sense, determination, empathy and astuteness. The detection aspect of the story often serves to demonstrate the Botswana way of thinking and to illustrate a way of life which is essentially leisurely, old fashioned and unassuming. There are, of course, also villains, cheaters and baddies or Precious Ramotswe would be unemployed. Gaborone’s inhabitants have a circuitous way of conversing, going off on tangents and meandering before they get to the point (if they ever do.) They have a knack for making a short story long and the author loves to poke gentle fun at them. People’s wealth is measured in heads of cattle.

The country they live in has been democratically ruled since its independence in 1966. It is sparsely populated and has a modest standard of living. Once in a while we are reminded of medical epidemics (AIDS) which leave children orphans. The Limpopo River and Kalahari Desert add a note of exoticism. There are still some wild animals and human hunter-gatherers in the desert.

There are now 15 titles in this series and they are all a pleasure to read. The latest one is “The Woman who Walks in Sunshine.”

Terror Stalks Paris, Beirut, Bamako

copenhagen-denmark-shootings-memorial-AP-640x480

There were three terrorist attacks in in the world in one week carried out by ISIS and Boko Haram: They were in Beirut (Lebanon), Paris and Bamako (Mali). The magnitude, character and location of the Paris attacks captured all the media attention and managed to suck the air out of anything else that happened that same week.

In Paris, the planning by at least four groups had been meticulous. Much of the preparation originated in Brussels, Belgium. Many of the terrorists have now either died, been captured or killed but some are still not accounted for as of this writing. Saleh Abdelsalam, thought to be the brains of the operation is still at large. As a result, for much of last week, Brussels was a “dead” city. Everything was shut down, streets were deserted as people were encouraged to stay home because large gatherings were likely to be targeted. Life did not “go on.”

President Hollande of France whose job performance ratings had been very low, rose to the occasion and took a De Gaullesque stance. He announced: We are in a state of war and ISIS must be destroyed. Well, Monsieur Hollande, we have been in a state of war for some time already. The attackers were not “strangers.” Many of them are disenchanted locals, second and third generation immigrants who reached the citizen stage without ever going through the “melting pot” stage. They did not grow roots or learn how to fashion their own destiny. As a result, they fell prey to the jihadists’ siren songs. These West-haters are only too happy to do the thinking for them. They lure them with promises, give them a sense of belonging and a group identity not to mention a salary. The French have been lax in detecting the signs of this mounting discontent. They have closed their eyes to these youth’s increasing restiveness and have not been able to gain their allegiance.

Another contributing factor to this new vulnerability is that Europe does not have a common defense system. There is no coordination in information sharing and precautionary measures. So now the violence is no longer peripheral to Europe. Contamination has set in. We know now that this sort of attack does not happen only in destabilized societies. Europe is not used to living in a context of violence, suspicion and paranoia. It is also helpful to remember that France is one of the countries that has been selling arms to Qatar which finances revolutionary mosques in which much terrorist recruiting occurs.

In Beirut, forty people were killed and 200 injured at the American University of Beirut. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. Beirut once known as the Paris of the Orient has had many upheavals and a bloody civil war. It now has an absent government and many Syrian refugees. In spite of this, life had been relatively “normal” recently. However, because the country is associated with upheavals and conflict, hardly anyone took notice of this terrorist attack even though the killings were as random and deadly as the ones in Paris. They happened in crowded areas and affected young and old, Christian and Muslim alike. But in the aftermath, no monuments were illuminated, no flags flown. No outpouring of sympathy and grief were visible. There were no signs of support, solidarity or compassion and no one called it “an attack against humanity.” Was Beirut’s grief less important?

The third attack took place in Bamako, Mali at the Radisson Blu Hotel where many Westerners congregated mainly for business. They were all having breakfast when the assailants burst in and started shooting indiscriminately, randomly and repetitively. Most of the dead were Westerners including six Russians.

Mali had not quite yet recovered from an attempt a few years ago by Tuareg rebels to split the country in two. Fighting raged for months and was only stopped by an infusion of French forces which succeeded in reestablishing a fragile order. It was during this war that the shrines of Sufi Saints, those historic monuments that had stood in Timbuktu for centuries, were blown up.

Motivated probably by the terrorist attack on a Russian airliner which killed 224 people and the Bamako attack, the Russians have decided to join, at some level, the Western anti-terrorist coalition. Suddenly Vladimir Putin is a persona grata and not a pariah . He says he is quite eager to help. But so long as Russia supports Syria’s President Assad, the Syrian Sunnis will not take up arms to expel Isis. We don’t know what Russia will do and can only watch and wait.