Thursday, July 9, 2009

Knowledge and Education

One of the tasks that have befallen me in my new position as official NIMAR staff member is the development of a semester program in social sciences. It’s the latest addition to the in-house study abroad programs we offer to Dutch students (currently we have only programs in Arabic), and its inaugural run is to start this fall.

In its most basic set-up, this semester consists of a five-month program, divided up into four phases of about four weeks each. The third of these phases is an independent research project, for which the students will spend the first two phases preparing – by way of lectures on all aspects of Moroccan society, Arabic classes, and workshops on research methods and other matters of practical concern. The idea is to have these various classes taught by Moroccan researchers and professors, as a way to truly submerge our students into the Moroccan world of social science.

Since the research project is to be independently designed and carried out by the student, it’s mostly the first two phases of the program that my co-developer Cynthia and I have been working on. Now that it has been a year since I last taught my undergrads in San Diego, I’m apparently brimming with ideas. I’m dreaming of intimate seminars à la the University of Chicago, democratic debates, field trips to relevant Moroccan institutions, and exchanges with local students. I want to design a curriculum that’s heavy on student participation and casts the teacher more in the role of a guide than that of a lecturer.

Except where I’m the dreamer, Cynthia is the realist. At first I found it a little frustrating that she’d often put the brakes on a new idea I had – but I soon realized she’s right. After ten years in Morocco, she knows the resources and tools we have to work with in a way that I don’t. She knows that it’s all very nice to dream of democratically run seminars and teachers-as-guides, but in the end, the Moroccan educational system just isn’t ready for it.

Basically, Moroccan professors are lecturers. They teach by presenting material to a group of students, who write it all down and then attempt to reproduce it on a test. There is no culture of debate, no habit of questioning.

I think this is why. It is always true (in my opinion) that knowledge equals power and authority. But sometimes, that power exercised by virtue of knowledge makes it seem as though this is the only knowledge that is valid. Knowledge thus becomes synonymous with ‘truth’. Translating this to a classroom setting, this means that ‘truth’ is possessed by the teacher, and that his or her relationship to the student is skewed along a very steep power differential. There is no room for discussion in the classroom, because truth is not to be questioned. Learning, then, is simply a matter of receiving and absorbing. It is never about exchange and sharing.

I get the sense that it is a general tendency in this country to equate ‘knowledge’ with ‘truth’. I notice the imprint of this idea on a lot of people I meet – who see knowledge as something either to be transmitted or absorbed, rather than something to be shared. I feel it with the university students I have befriended, who never seem to really get what I mean when I talk about plans for an exchange of ideas between Dutch and Moroccan students – why didn’t I like their idea of inviting a professor who could really teach our Dutch students everything they wanted to know? I notice this tendency also with the researchers I’ve met, who have real trouble confidently presenting their research project and findings to others. On paper, they seem like wonderfully ambitious people with equally lofty research questions – but once asked to present their plans in public, they explain what they do in soft mumbles and stutters and it is as though their work instantly dissolves into a pile of ashes in the palms of our hands.

I notice it, too, among the holders of PhDs who have teaching positions at a university – and whose idea of a discussion seems to be a monologue. They have completed the transformation from student to teacher, and now possess all the authoritativeness of the more powerful knowledge-giver. Once they hear that I am an anthropology student, even the linguists and political scientists insist on explaining to me everything I need to know about anthropology.*

And finally, I notice it in the comments I pick up from other foreigners here. In the laments, for instance, about how difficult it is to really connect to Moroccan women. Not only because their lives are so different but also because it’s so hard to have a discussion with them – either they indicate that they don’t know enough about a topic to discuss it, or they cannot accept your view on something when they’ve learned something else as being true. I’m reminded also of a comment made by the University of Amsterdam psychologists who were here for the workshop at the Clinic. They’d been so relieved at the psychiatric residents’ active participation, because when the researchers had tried to conduct a workshop here before they’d all been completely mute. The difference, we all realized, was this: Dr. Chikri (the Clinic’s director) had attended this first workshop. He had answered every single one of their questions, and his residents had remained demurely silent in their seats. During this most recent workshop, the residents had been liberated from their subordinate positions by a budget meeting that claimed Dr. Chikri’s presence – as a result, they had been free to participate, and eagerly did so.

Basically, it seems as though there is no middle ground here between ‘knowledge’ and ‘ignorance’. There is only one version of the truth, and in every ‘exchange’ of thought there is always one person who possesses it, and one person who does not. This makes any plans for democratic seminars and discussions a little unrealistic.

An additional problem is the state of social science as a discipline. Departments of sociology and political science are hard to come by (anthropology being entirely nonexistent), and often hide deep within the recesses of a larger ‘faculté des lettres et des sciences humaines’ (the actual ‘sciences sociales’ here mostly refers to the disciplines of law and economics). To give you an example: Cynthia and I recently paid a visit to a research laboratory for psychopathology. It was a single room with a few empty desks, where a sole professor shared his coffee with us as he explained that there are but two departments of psychology in the country (one here in Rabat, and one in Fes) and no more than fifteen psychologists. Fifteen. The problem, he explained, was that anyone with any ambition packs up and leaves the country in search of greener academic pastures. The talented people pursue an education abroad, and once they’ve tasted academia there, Morocco is “like a cold shower,” as he put it.

A Dutch demographer, in Rabat for the conference on labor migration that Cynthia and I organized, complained of the state of research. “There is so much data!” She exclaimed to us in desperation, “but no one’s doing anything with it!” She herself had begged to be allowed to use this data, stored at a national demographic institute – and after countless letters and official stamps, her permission had been granted. She was hoping to set up a collaborative project with local researchers, but found it very heard to motivate her Moroccan colleagues.

It’s possible (likely, even?) that this underdeveloped state of the social sciences has something to do with the view of knowledge that I described above (and perhaps a little also with the limitations on political freedom?). Without a tradition of questioning, it’s difficult to really do any social scientific research – and it’s no surprise that the talented researchers wish to do their work elsewhere.

In any case, this dearth of academic individuals makes it difficult for us to recruit any potential teachers for our program. Add to this, as a third limiting factor, a language barrier. As much as I do think Morocco is beginning to realize the necessity of English for the realization of its global ambitions, the language of academia in Morocco still and stubbornly remains French. Unfortunately, this is not a language most Dutch students speak, but there is no more than a handful of faculty in Rabat who speak sufficient English to lecture in this language. Cynthia and I discovered during our meetings with other foreign educational institutions in Rabat that, likewise faced with this barrier of communication, they often partner with the same few Moroccan professors we often collaborate with. No wonder they are always so strapped for time…

The thing is – education is not unimportant in Morocco. To the contrary: I think both the public and the government realize that education is the key to development and to a better future. Both make investments in education. But the problem is that this investment is made pragmatically – in the areas with the highest rate of return. People and funds flow not toward universities, but toward private institutes of higher education, all with acronymed names like ILCS, IIHEM, HEC, or ENCG, that teach management, IT, and marketing. It becomes a vicious cycle from here, of course – more money means better teaching methods, which improves education, which attracts more students, which in turn brings in more money. It leaves very little for the universities, that are part of the public education system that the government offers to its citizens at no charge, and that, suffering from a lack of funding, have no choice but to stick with outdated teaching methods and a dearth of resources.**

So what to do? It certainly has to do with money – universities will never be able to stimulate the development of research if there are no funds to do so. But it’s also about changing the definition of ‘knowledge’ – about democratizing it, making it available to everyone and recognizing the fact that it’s within everyone’s reach (money is one way in which to ensure that availability, of course). And finally, I think institutes like the NIMAR have a responsibility here, too. Because the vestiges of imperialism are also implicated in the underdevelopment of academic research in former colonies like Morocco. After all, imperialism used the knowledge-as-truth concept in support of its mission: it used the power of scientific research to validate its subjugation of other peoples, and cast colonies in the role of subjects, of knowledge absorbers (knowledge about ‘civilization’, in this case) and never knowledge producers. Perhaps it is our responsibility, then, to make a concerted investment in the development of ‘indigenous’ research in these countries (to use a very colonial word). By initiating and stimulating collaborative projects between Moroccan and European or American researchers, for instance. As that Dutch demographer suggested, and as we realize given the limitations of Moroccan social science, this may be difficult. But it must be done, and in order to do so, we have to meet it halfway.

* It has made me realize, though, that I need to stop introducing myself as a student. I do this because in the US I am called a PhD student. In most other countries, however, you are considered a researcher in this stage of your academic training. I’m trying to get used to presenting myself as such. It still always feels a little bit like fraud, because I haven’t actually started my research yet…
** This in many ways maintains the divide between rich and poor, since only the former can afford the superior education of private institutions, and thus only those who already have money have access to the better and higher paying jobs.


Lucy Withnail said...

Very interesting. The issues of what students have been taught by society, regarding education and methods of learning, were the same during my teaching experiences in Chile and in Jordan. How do you use education as a means to erase social distinctions when its value for some is how clearly it creates such distinctions? It's a complicated issue.

Charlotte said...

Exactly! That's precisely the problem many people identify with the Moroccan education system. It should be a tool for social mobility, but instead the way it is run in practice means that the education system really maintains the social inequalities that beset Moroccan society...

Lucy Withnail said...

We should start our own school!