Creating a Respectful Community: Lessons from the Middle East

class lecture

My family and I have had the privilege of living in the Middle East for nearly three decades. In addition to the extraordinary Arab hospitality we have enjoyed, it also has been a time of learning. Many of my parochial assumptions have been challenged, not the least being my understandings about teaching and learning.

A notable feature of education in the region (as in much of the world) is an emphasis on rote learning. I received the bulk of my formal education in Australia and United States—countries where there is a strong focus on the development of autonomy through critical thinking. With some ethnocentric arrogance, I initially viewed the local education systems here in the Middle East as backward and destructive. These systems resulted from and contributed to the sort of authoritarian dictatorships that prevail in many parts of the world.

Over time, however, I have gained a more nuanced appreciation of local learning approaches and I believe there are elements that Western educators may do well to consider or reconsider.

In his seminal work on intercultural rhetoric, Robert Kaplan offers a set of foundational questions: (1) What may be discussed? (2) Who has the authority to speak/write? (3) What form(s) may the writing take? (4) What is evidence? (5) What arrangement of evidence is likely to appeal (be convincing) to readers?

The answers to these questions are profoundly shaped by culture. In particular, I am struck by the fundamentally different understandings of the first two questions in collectivist and individualistic societies. In individualistic societies, such as Australia and United States, the normative assumption is that it is right and healthy to promote the development of a strong autonomous voice in students. We encourage students to speak with confidence, question assumptions, and challenge those in authority.

Advocacy for critical thinking has deep roots that go back to ancient times, but it is important to acknowledge the extent to which events of the twentieth century have brought “critical thinking” to the fore in Western education systems. In little more than 100 years, we have witnessed two catastrophic world wars, the subsequent Cold War, and the Vietnam War, and these have all contributed to a profound suspicion of authority figures. Our promotion of critical assessment of authority is related to a healthy desire to avoid at all costs the sort of tragic loss of life that resulted from these conflicts.

What’s less acknowledged, however, is the fact that, by definition, the promotion of autonomous critical thinking puts the focus on the individual at the expense of the community. As autonomous thinking has been increasingly expected of contemporary young people, it is not surprising that there has been a commensurate cry for a trusting and trustworthy community to which they can belong.

Communal societies differ profoundly. Educators, indeed all of a communal society, urge the young to see older people as a great source of deep wisdom. This stands in stark contrast to the dominant narrative often delivered to Western young people where aging means increasing irrelevance. A central assumption here in the Middle East is that a young adult does not have the maturity to speak with authority. They should first spend time learning from the “elders”, and perhaps at a later time they will have earned the right to speak independently and with authority. Given these assumptions, a focus on rote learning makes sense. Students begin by learning and embracing the perspective of those who have acquired the wisdom that comes from long years of living. The opinions and perspectives of the uneducated young are rarely taken seriously.

Observing highly communal societies firsthand I have realized that healthy multigenerational communities cannot function without a strong sense of authority, respect for elders, and a focus on wisdom. The idea that all opinions have the right to be spoken compromises the overall quality of conversations within the community.

And yet, although students at our school come from these sorts of communal, deferential societies, they are also being educated to assume significant Christian leadership roles. Consequently, they need to move from rote learning to developing a meaningful and studied voice so that they can work productively and be listened to in their communities and still speak with a voice that honors and respects the current leadership of their communities. At the same time my colleagues and I sense a need to develop in our students the ethical commitment to challenge leadership that is corrupt, dishonest, and abusive. Finding the balance between a voice that is tempered by less knowledge and experience and a voice that speaks up and provides leadership makes for a challenging teaching assignment. Yet, seeing our graduates in action and speaking with those in their communities we believe that we are making progress in addressing this challenge. Here are some of the many processes we use to help our students develop a clear and respectful voice in their community:

  • The perspective of the teacher is crucial. Students in communal societies defer to authority, but authority is easily abused. When students show respect for authority, it is easy for a teacher to take advantage of that respect and not return it in full measure to the students. As teachers we must model good listening. We also must work to encourage students to challenge one another and demonstrate how that can be done with respect. We want our students to leave us able to return home and respectfully challenge abusive power dynamics wherever they exist.
  • Shifting from lecture to small group discussion models an alternate form of leadership and decision-making for our students. However, rather than individual students sharing his or her own individualized perspective, feedback from small group discussion comes through a group spokesperson. Being the spokesperson gives students the opportunity to practice finding a voice that speaks respectfully for the community represented by their group.
  • We look for opportunities to train students in constructive and meaningful critique. Being a theological college, we have daily chapel gatherings, which we have intentionally made the responsibility of the students. Placing students in the position of teaching their professors is counter-cultural and intimidating for our students, but it helps them build confidence and develop their voices. Several times a week the student leaders and chapel speakers are critiqued publicly by the other students and privately by individual professors.
  • We structure our policies and official communications formationally rather than legislatively. For example, our academic integrity policy begins with a narrative acknowledging the difficulty of moving from a rote-learning culture to one that expects students to develop a personal voice while also showing respect for existing experts. When students break the policy, processes are step-by-step and pastoral, recognizing the pathway to integrity is a journey.

After living overseas for so many years, I feel a greater level of ambivalence to Western conceptualizations of “critical thinking.” I sense that much can be learned from communal societies like those in the Arab world. In particular, a greater emphasis on respect and community consciousness serves many societal needs of the twenty-first century.

With this recognition, I would like to suggest some possible practices for Western education. Our goal is the same: learners who speak with reasoned and respectful voices. At my school we start with students who have been trained not to speak, and in Western colleges and universities we start with students who have been socialized to say what they think, not always with reason or respect. I recognize that some of the following suggestions are already practiced in many Western schools, but they need to be affirmed and more fully developed.

  • There is a need for students to speak more tentatively, understanding how much they have yet to learn and that wisdom comes with life experience. A loss of intergenerational respect can be a major deficiency in many students’ learning. Perhaps a valuable exercise would be for students to share a research paper or even classroom notes with an older person in the community. The elder would be asked to respond and then evaluate the student in terms of both the clarity and respect with which they have functioned.
  • Consider more caution in “participation” in the classroom. We assume that students making comments, responding with their opinions and ideas, is a sign of engagement (which it may be) but often it’s without any concern about what students are saying, whether it makes sense, has evidence to support it, and is thoughtful. If students first discuss their ideas in small groups or even pairs that should improve the caliber of their comments and the tone with which they are presented.
  • A regular movement away from a “debate” mentality where there’s a need to “win the argument” to working in diverse teams in developing win-win solutions. Teachers need to encourage students to develop solutions that consider the impact that personal actions have on the wider community.
  • “Speak the truth with love.” As theological educators we seek to embrace these words from Saint Paul, but the principle of developing genuine care and respectful speech has applicability in any classroom. To do so requires restraint and wisdom alongside courage. Our own practices as teachers can model truth in love, as can the behaviors we require from our students.

The twenty-first century has marked a new level of global interaction and exchange of ideas. The ease with which we can connect globally makes the world seem smaller and good communication more essential. Sadly, too often our communication across cultures is contentious, and can fall short of the level of mutual respect that is needed among peoples who all belong to the same global community. In this context I feel privileged to have experienced the richness of both Western and Middle Eastern educational systems. We have so much to learn from one another as we strive for both community and individual voice that builds a mutually respectful society.

Robert B. Kaplan, ‘Foreword,’ in Contrastive Rhetoric Revisited and Redefined, ed. Clayann Gilliam Panetta (NY: Routledge, 2008).

Perry Shaw is professor of education at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon.

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