Beirut, January 8, 2004
By the end of the first semester I met the Chair of the philosophy and social sciences department in his office at the University of Aleppo. Being a newly designed department, the Chair is also the only fully available professor. At the beginning I thought that there must be something “philosophical” about the intermixing of philosophy with the social sciences, but it was soon all too clear that the purpose was only bureaucratic: the university is unable to afford—in particular when it comes to hiring full-time professors—two separate departments. Located in the new and insecure building of the Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences (which, took twenty years to complete (1982-2002), and, according to rumors, should be collapsing by 2007 due to poor and fraudulent design; and, based on a student of mine, there are ten pending penal cases, with all the “accused” already incarcerated), my colleague’s office, even though equipped with the standard furniture offered by the university’s physical plant, had a nice air to it: at least it looked someone was using it, and the large desk filled with papers and files was there to testify of his activity. Few bouquets of flowers lied around on the floor, and the shelves were not fully empty as they were in my own office. As the office was busy with last-minute students, I felt awkward intruding. Like most French universities that divide many of their subject matters between the “theoretical” and “practical,” the University of Aleppo had for most of its “theoretical” courses a “practical” component known as “the circle of research” (halaqat bahth). For instance, for a topic like “modern European philosophy,” which would be structured on lectures delivered by a professor, the students would also sign in for the so-called “research” part, and would thus prepare a research paper on, say, a philosopher or a trend. They would all meet once a week with their professors to globally discuss problems with their paper drafts, prior to submitting them by the end of the semester. The students would then meet individually with their professors in their offices in order to be questioned on their papers. The “research” part is in sum the only part of the curriculum that organizes the transmission of knowledge on a give-and-take basis and where a student’s “voice” might at least get some hearing. That’s how it works on principle.
The papers are usually handwritten as most students neither own a computer, nor does the university provide any computer facilities. There’s also a particular paper format for those “circle of research” which forces the students to purchase a specific blue letter-sized booklet to meet the university requirements.
The professor’s office was busy as he was browsing through his students’ papers. He neither seemed to have read them that well, if at all, nor did he manifest any enthusiasm for knowing their contents. As he was sitting in a comfortable armchair in front of his desk, legs crossed, and thumbing across one of the (uncorrected and probably unread) papers, he began examining one of the students whose paper was on Nietzsche. Needless to say, the student was not offered a seat, and she kept standing in the few minutes that the professor was giving her an oral exam.
—Could you tell me who was Nietzsche?
—He was a European philosopher who reacted against classical philosophy because he believed in man. (Did he believe in God?) He gave a human touch to philosophy because of his beliefs in life and mankind. Blab, blab, blab.
Finding himself in a type of generic discourse that he became accustomed to a long time ago, the professor (visibly bored) began asking more “precise”—and more banal—questions hoping to nail his student over an error. He needs, after all, to grade her.
—What were his major works?
—Thus Spoke Zarathoustra, in which the philosopher assumed the role of a Prophet (with a big P?).
—And what else?
—He wrote on morality.
—What about The Genealogy of Morals, or Beyond Good and Evil? Did you read any of these books?
—Did you read any of Nietzsche’s books?
—No. I read books on Nietzsche.
Then came the final and most dreadful question of all:
—Which period did Nietzsche live in?
[Pause and hesitations]
—I can’t be very precise on that. I don’t remember the exact years.
—You mean around 1200?
—Something like that. I can’t be more precise. The exact years elude me.
The professor did not even bother to correct her. Where would he begin?
—Thank you, he replied, God be with you.
The following student had her paper on Jean-Paul Sartre. Same story, same type of questions and answers. He was an existentialist and humanist philosopher who disliked classical metaphysical problems, and instead focused on the daily lives of people—on existence. I expected her to reveal the Sartrian cliché—that existence precedes essence—but she didn’t. The student did not know any of his works, nor did she bother to read them. Her paper was solely based on secondary sources. Finally, the decisive question:
—When did Sartre live?
—Do I have to be very precise, like when he was born and when he died?
—Approximate dates, if you can.
The professor decided to help:
—Was it before or after the French Revolution?
I was wondering whether the student, lost as she was, knew anything about that “event” labeled the French Revolution, and whether she knew any date at all. Considering that the French Revolution was an “historical event” while Sartre was a “person,” the former must be even harder to grasp—at least for me.
—Maybe after the Revolution?
—Yeah, it must be after. Like few years later.
—God be with you.
Already from those two examples three regularities began to emerge. First, all philosophers lived and died at some point, and they all criticized their predecessors for being too rigid on doctrine, and for their lack of humanism. Second, reading those philosophers is not that important, considering that their ideas could be begotten from other sources, lectures, professorial notes, the Internet and media programs. Third, the period the philosopher lived in has no importance at all. Ideas seem universally placed within an abstract space-time dimension so that nothing matters anymore except the idea itself.
I was unable to stay more to listen to the third student and to verify my three-point thesis on education and philosophy. My colleague passed me a tiny piece of paper where he jotted down two proposed courses for the second semester. The two courses, one in philosophy and the other in the social sciences, would both be structured on primary English sources, but where class discussions would be in Arabic. Course planning in such a university is complex enough to require all kinds of authorizations and compromises, which in my case amounted for the first semester going back and forth between the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, the president’s office, the Dean, The Associate Dean (whose official Syrian title is “the scientific agent”), the Chair of the department, and finally, “the inspector of time,” as he is known here. When the Chair finally notified me of my two courses for the spring I was in a state of exuberant ecstasy.
That a student “misses” Nietzsche by six centuries does not provoke much of a concern in our postmodern world. Considering that modern education is unconcerned in providing students with anything concrete regarding their own culture, city, environment, personal and collective histories, so that picking up courses is like selecting items for sale in a supermarket, the educational medium has become one of high-powered abstractions. The “successful” model of the natural sciences, where theories are “logically” explored outside their epistemological and historical foundations, has also become the norm in the humanities and social sciences. For a modern layman, therefore, the world and its literatures, its politics and social and cultural activities, look all combined like an incomprehensible jungle of competing ideas and notions. The hardest thing is to place into “context” and understand why an author, idea, text, or a work of art or the sciences, belong to a particular period, or why something exists in its uniqueness at a specific historical juncture, and why moving it to other locations and times does not make sense. That Nietzsche might have been “medieval” as well as “modern” only shows that people are not concerned with other cultures simply because they have no concern for their own culture. Once a person fails to communicate to his or her own environmental space—such as the city and culture one belongs to—anything else seems far remote—centuries could then be easily swapped.
copyright ©2004 zouhair ghazzal