Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Global Context of Knowledge

The Global Context of Knowledge

Ali Asghar Kazemi
January 2008


The age of internet and mass communication has created an environment in which we are compelled to think beyond conventional geographic and political boundaries. Proponents of globalism believe that we have no other choice than to conform to the requisites of a democratic culture and make use of a world language in order to express ourselves and exchange views with others. Opponents of globalization are quite skeptical about this development and warn against dangerous impacts of this trend on native cultures and languages around the globe.

Today I would like to devote my commentary in a very concise manner on this issue which I think needs serious attention at this critical juncture.

Using foreign languages as a tool of communication and expression of ideas is as old as the history of mankind. In the past centuries our scientists and scholars used Arabic to expose their thoughts and scientific findings to peoples of other nations. The same was true with European thinkers who wrote their treatises in Latin. Persian scientists, philosophers and thinkers found it easier to write their scholarly papers and works in Arabic language which was an important means of communication.

This has made a misunderstanding in the West and even in the Arab world to identify renowned Persian scientists and scholars such as Avicenna, Razi and Farabi, to name but a few, as Arab citizens. Indeed, these reputed figures knew well Farsi and they even composed wonderful poems in Persian, but preferred to write their scientific treatises in a language to be understood by people of other nations.

French language has had the same potentials in the colonial days but lost some of its strength after the rise of English as a worldwide workable and practical language. Yet, French are now conscious of the fact and are working hard to regain the early vigor and position of their language.

More recently with the proliferation of English in the 20th century, even French and German thinkers and philosophers had to publish their works in this language in order to be known outside their countries. For instance, Raymond Aron was unknown in American intellectual and academic center until the time his famous book Peace and War, A Theory of International Relations was translated into English. Commenting on this book, Henry Kissinger said “from now on nobody can claim to understand International Relations without reading Aron’s book.” German philosophers of the “Critical School” did the same after the Second World War.

Today, with the astounding propagation of mass communication in all domains, English and to some extent French languages are being used in the same context. Forcibly, this process has overshadowed many native languages and has created a source of inquietude for many cultures.

With the emergence of computer and internet facilities in the course of human civilization, the world has experienced a real revolution in the expression of thoughts and ideas. This has changed both the text and context of knowledge, discourse and means of interaction. This has induced even ordinary people to use this magic tool to share their views and ideas with others. It has also encouraged public to express their demands and protests against the ruling system without the hindrance of third parties; such as official media, papers, publishers, etc.

According to international media, Iranians rank third (after Americans and Chinese) in using the internet as a mean to communicate with the world. However, not all of them use the correct language (Farsi or English) for this purpose. In fact, most of them are using a strange mixture of Persian and English (ironically called Penglish) to exchange views and communicate.

Some well-wishers have warned against such development and have criticized the matter as an unwarranted snobbish way to undermine the Persian culture and language. While I agree partially with this concern, as somebody who has been involved in this process for some time, I have always encouraged my friends and students to use the proper English in order to express them-selves in their interaction with others.

Whilst I hate to speak of my proper case in these commentaries, I must remind that personally I have been writing in English and French in my academic sites and blogs during past several years. I found it much easier and more practical to do so, given the facilities provided by handy software, including dictionaries, automatic spelling and grammatical corrections along with other offline and online services.

With respect to my native tongue (Farsi), let me stress here that Persian is a sweet and lovely language which I have always admired and adored. Its intonation is poetic and musical and its scripture is splendidly artful. Those who know me could admit that I have a hand in Persian music, poetry and calligraphy and I enjoy immensely from these entire as wonderful hobby. I handle Persian with ease and grace. My numerous books and articles published in Persian bear good witness to this claim. Therefore, quite naturally I would be the first to defend my marvelous mother tongue in these respects. But, when it comes to the matter of communication with outside world, the problem arises differently in a wider dimension.

Whether we like it or not, this whole development has increased the speed, magnitude and momentum, as well as form and substance of people’s interaction and discourse beyond imagination. In fact, when we write in popular languages such as English or French, we are compelled to follow certain norms and abide by rules governing democratic culture. Because, in publishing an article or a commentary, we should always bear in mind that we will be judged by an immense variety of interlocutors spread throughout the world. Indeed, this feeling can be both deterring and inspiring. If we are a responsible person, it should incite us to fly the bird of our thought and imagination beyond the narrow limits of self-serving political frontiers by thinking and writing in a global context.

Unfortunately, most of our writers, scientists and scholars are little known outside Iran because they are missing this fantastic opportunity. Though we are relatively much better than many countries in this respect, still we lag behind many nations in the region. For example, look at India where once the Persian was the official and literary language. Now, due to some historical circumstances which go beyond our subject here, they shifted to English as their primary academic and administrative language. Indian writers, philosophers and scholars express their thoughts and views for the world parallel to those of their peers in other continents. But, in contemporary Iran, despite many illustrious thinkers and writers, none of them are known to others in a global scale.

In today’s Iran the matter of foreign language is not yet settled. Besides Arabic which is the basic requirement of Persian language, English is thought schools but with not much weight. Despite the fact that foreign language is a serious requirement for our PhD students, unfortunately many of them have a great deal trouble with it. I am fully aware of this handicap especially in graduate studies in politics and international relations. I don’t want to blame any particular institution for this deficiency, but I think something has to be done in this regard.

For my part to alleviate this shortcoming, I have always warned my students against using corrupt translations of textbooks and materials in the unscrupulous publishing market. I always encourage these folks to read first hand sources in English as much as they can. I have also put up an academic site in English which provides students with sources and materials related to their scholarly programs. Perhaps I was one of the few first academics inside the country who endeavored to construct blogs and sites for this purpose. However, lack of adequate basic knowledge in English is still a serious impediment on their way.

We need a national resolve free from ideological, political and chauvinistic constraints to cure this educational malaise if we want to learn and contribute to the body of knowledge in a global context.

To sum up, we can conclude our commentary in the following phrases:

· Science and knowledge do not recognize political and geographic boundaries and we should arm ourselves with the necessary prerequisites if we want to acquire them first hand;
· If we are sincere in our claim of contributing to the existing body of human knowledge, we ought to change our outlook of the world in communicating with others openly and peacefully;
· Important world languages are windows opening our mind and spirit to the prevailing paradigms and episteme in the course of exchanging thoughts and ideas;
· We ought to take a bold step to exchange our thoughts with others in order to reach a common ground for mutual understanding in building a safer environment for us and our future generations./