06 February 2010

Learning for a New Civilization

This is an introduction to a broader set of ideas. So long as I persevere with this project in the short term, this will lead into examinations of the difference between deepening and training, a fundamental critique of the concept of “Baha’i scholarship” that I think is implied in the contemporary emphasis on training, some thoughts on how in the near future Baha’is might find themselves contributing to the discourse of the broader society, and perhaps a re-visitation of the role of the human form within the mission of Baha’u’llah, a long-standing project of mine.

In my fifteen months at the Baha’i World Centre I have been blessed with hearing many profound insights from individuals who serve here. A great many of them have come from talks and personal conversations with members of The Universal House of Justice and the International Teaching Center. Others came from contact with learned and experienced staff members, pilgrims from all over the world, and youth volunteers serving beside me. However, it seems the most profound thing I have heard here came from a simple gardener who, to his and my seeming at the time, was merely making excuses for not following the commandment of Baha’u’llah to read the Baha’i Writings every day.

One Tuesday evening after a pilgrim farewell, he and I were having a warm conversation at the Pilgrim Reception Centre on Hatzionut Street. I had mentioned how happy I was to have read Ruhiyyih Khanum’s The Priceless Pearl, and Youness Khan’s Memories of Nine Years in Akka while I was here in the Holy Land. He then noted that he hadn’t done much reading while serving at that World Centre. In part, this had to do with the hard manual labor required of all gardeners tending the terraces. But he mentioned also that this was because while here he hadn’t had many opportunities to share Baha’u’llah’s message with others. He explained that the only time he would ever be inspired to read the Bahá’í Writings was when someone he was teaching put to him a question he didn’t feel qualified to answer. Reading the Writings every day was easy for him when he was at home because he was constantly engaged in the teaching work. However while serving at the World Centre the well had so to speak “dried up.” Thus, he hadn’t been keeping up with Baha’u’llah’s commandment to read the Writings every day.

Many weeks later, the profundity of what he had described began to dawn on me. Reading the Writings every day and teaching the Baha’i Faith regularly are both commands of Baha’u’llah. But he did not isolate the practice of one from the other. The knowledge he gained from study of the Writings was a direct reflection of the needs he was encountering in his interactions with others. He studied the Writings out of consciousness of the needs of others. Action and learning were integrated into one forward movement that didn’t waste energy on mere erudition.

Looking back, it seems to be that this gardener’s approach to learning and knowledge is a radical departure from the norms of the world’s dominant educational systems. For him, learning proceeds spontaneously from feelings of solidarity and the desire to see the progress of others. It assumes correctly that the motive force behind all research is to provide intellectual tools for the advancement of some particular project, rather than the mere beholding and accurate description of “objects.” This allows my friend to consciously place learning at the disposal of a project for justice, rather than unconsciously affirm false “realities” that are useful to oppressive projects at work within society, e.g. racism, militarism, sexism, free-market plunder, etc. He knows why he is learning, and it proceeds directly from his desire to be of service to others.

Fortunately for us, this gardener is not alone. The approach to learning he exemplifies is in many respects the one employed in contemporary efforts to expand and consolidate the Baha’i community. We would do well to take a broad perspective on the constellation of junior youth groups, study circles, reflection meetings, and other sites for “learning in action” with which the Baha’i world has become familiar in the past decade. More than just ad hoc methods developed to systematize the growth of the Bahá’í community, I think this mode of action is an early stage in a grand experiment, which in time could revolutionize the broader society’s approach to research and knowledge in general. As the Baha’i world sets its sights on social action and contributing to the discourse of the broader society we would do well to take the mode of learning promoted in the Ruhi curriculum as a model for building a new civilization, one in which solidarity and social progress are the motive forces of collective life.

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