Saturday, August 09, 2014

Learning To Live And Living to Learn

 I was talking to a friend today about this blog post and he told me that there is an Egyptian saying "If you do something, you might make a mistake and be punished, but if you do nothing you can't make a mistake."

Once a social psychologist, I suspect always a social psychologist. I went off to graduate school at the University of Waterloo in the mid 70's with a lot of illusions, but mostly I went there because they had a very short application form and one of my peculiar oddities is a horror of filling out forms. I can always think of other ways to answer the questions on them, ways that won't fit into little boxes, so I'm always left with a feeling of failure and confusion. Probably Waterloo wasn't the place for me academically, but it was where I met many beloved friends and where I met my late husband who was, in traditional Egyptian fashion, an engineering student. The social psychologists were experimental social psychologists, people who basically played experimental tricks on people to find out things about social behaviour. My advisor, Dr. Melvin Lerner, was an archetypal Jewish psychology professor and specialised in a field that studied victim blaming. He would undoubtedly be turning in his grave these days seeing my stand in social media for a just peace for Palestinians, but that is neither here nor there, because the parting of our ways came as I decided that I wasn't cut out for academia. I was interested in studying the development of verbal concepts of fairness in children, a topic that he didn't find very exciting, and his lack of support made me realise that this was not to be my life. When the graduate officer in our department asked what I was going to do next, I told him that I was considering opening a Mexican restaurant in Toronto...which, by the way, I never got around to. But much of what I learned to question and the concepts that helped me to formulate questions have continued to be useful to me in my very checkered career as a corporate wife, mother of multinational children, unwilling prisoner of corporate life and now living on the farm.

Dr. Sergio Forapani demonstrating dentistry to my staff
Before January 2011 many people in Egypt and beyond the borders never thought that the Egyptian people would rise up against the military rulers of the country. The reasons for this assumption were usually framed in terms of the "eternal patience" of the Egyptian people, citing millennia of authoritarian rule. But having watched methods of childrearing in Egypt, I had my doubts.  My in-laws, who were more or less upper middle class educated Egyptians, found it odd that I spoke to my children from the time that they were infants, explaining the reasons for my decrees as to what was acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.  I was living in Canada most of the year but would spend a month or so every winter with them in Cairo, during which time I drove my mother in law in particular rather mad by insisting that children under the age of three had no need of additional sugar in their diet, so her boxes of candies went untouched, or by refusing to allow a child who passed up a sandwich at lunch a couple of cookies later.  "But he's hungry!" she would cry. "If he were that hungry, he would have eaten lunch, but in the meantime he can have a carrot or a piece of fruit." was my cold-hearted response. I was terrible, I know, by refusing the request for a random toy when we went to a store. "But you have plenty of money!" "But they have to learn that you don't get everything you want it when you want it. Sometimes you have to work for rewards; it's called delay of gratification." She was utterly unappreciative of the value of a master's degree in psychology and thought that everything I did was completely mad, until one day she complimented me on my 16 year old son's skill at being a host at a family iftar and told me that she'd always thought that I was crazy but had decided that perhaps I knew something. I took the compliment with good humour, knowing that was as good as it ever was going to get.

Even one of my husband's uncles, a celebrated gastro-enterologist, told me flat out that it was pointless to talk to children under the age of four because they couldn't understand anything. I asked him how children were taught behaviour in Egypt and he just shrugged. Obviously, he'd never troubled himself with this problem, but his wife certainly had since his children of his first marriage, who were good friends of ours, were lovely people. When I moved out into the villages, my children were independent adults living and studying in the US, but I enjoyed the chance to watch parent/child interactions in the villages. One of the patterns I noticed was a sort of benign neglect. Children ran about under the more or less watchful eyes of parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and older siblings, but they were not engaged in conversations by individuals older than them. They might talk to each other, but in general they would answer a simple question from an adult with a wide-eyed stare and no comment. This was true of my questions and I noticed that it also happened with most other adults. In my book of upbringing, not to answer a direct question in some fashion would be a major fault, but it seemed fairly normal to most of the adults. The children could speak when they wanted to, that was abundantly clear watching them together, but they rarely spoke to or were spoken to by adults. When I asked how the rules of life were learned, one father told me that people figured that by the age of ten or so a child was assumed to have learned them and would be punished for breaking them.

This fascinated me. Rules were almost never delineated or explained but breaking them brought punishment. It reminded me of the old learned helplessness experiments I'd learned about many years before. Basically, these experiments involved shocking or imposing other unpleasant experiences randomly to individuals in a learning task with the end result that the individual seemed to decide that it was irrelevant what he/she might choose to do because something bad was going to happen no matter what. The individual would no longer seek to do "the right thing" or try to avoid "the wrong thing" because it didn't matter. Essentially outcomes were random and uncontrollable, so why try. That essentially was the life for many children. They weren't told what sort of behaviour would bring a particular response....they had to find out for themselves and the outcome might not actually have anything at all to do with what they'd done. If Dad came home in a bad mood, you'd get hurt, no matter what the behaviour. Since the parents had also been raised in the same fashion, it all made a sort of perverted sense to them.

When I began looking around at day to day life in Egypt, the same random response pattern showed up. Even things like taxes for companies have no cut and dried rules, but are negotiated with someone, with the outcome completely unpredictable unless you figure out the right amount of lubrication to be applied. Students at universities and people competing in sports often find that who you are related to has much more to do with your success than what you do. One of my friends who visits me in Egypt from New Zealand on a regular basis always posts a blog of her trip and one year it was entitled "Egypt: We Do Random Well", so it isn't me who notices the tendency to random outcomes, punishments and rewards. The Egyptian school system is a prime candidate for the imposition of learned helplessness. In the first place, most teachers are just people who couldn't get another job. They aren't trained in any way at all. They are certainly not qualified to impart knowledge since their main qualification is a lack of qualifications for any other work. The curriculum could honestly be said to have been created by that famous room full of monkeys with typewriters. I've tutored village children with their English homework, and it is utterly insane. One little boy was given a text to read that went something like this:
"Fatima and Hamza are brother and sister. Their father is a doctor who works in a hospital and their mother is a teacher who works in a school. Every day they go to school, study their lessons and come home to do their homework after school. On Friday their father washes his car and then the family goes out to the park or perhaps to the swimming pool."

My first job was just to see if any of this made any sense to this boy. No women in his household worked outside the home. It is considered shameful if they do. Of course the fact that there is little in the way of transportation that could take women to jobs and even less in terms of jobs out here might also be a factor. None of the children in our village have a doctor for a father. Most of them rarely see doctors. Their fathers are labourers or farmers. In Egypt, NO ONE but possibly a cab driver washes his own car! If you can afford to buy a car,  you can afford to have someone else wash it for this part of the story is fantasy. And finally, the little boy had to ask what a park was. He'd never seen one. He's seen pictures of swimming pools and maybe even seen one once but he's never been in one.  How could a primary school child make any sense of this, especially considering the fact that probably the teach was mispronouncing the words so much that the language hardly resembled English at all? And then,  even now corporal punishment is still common in schools and most of the people I've spoken to from our area experienced it and, in fact, quit school because of it. When I asked them why they quit, often the answer was something along the lines of "I could get hit at home, so why go somewhere else and have a stranger do it. I was too stupid to learn."

Dr. Sergio Forapani chatting with Dr. Mohsen Mohsen (right)
Dr. Sergio (left) and Dr. Mohsen (right) at a clinic
I have a staff of ten at my farm, five young men in their mid-twenties, three younger boys whose parents asked me to take them on to teach them, a housekeeper and my late husband's driver who is now my right hand after twenty years. Only Mohamed has any education. The rest never finished school and were convinced that they were too stupid to learn. I had often talked to them about going back to school but the answer was always the same....they thought there was no point.  After the revolution, when there was no work in tourism for us, I noticed that the guys were getting really, really bored with just the daily chores, so I sent them  out in ones and twos to work with the Donkey Sanctuary to learn to trim donkey feet. At first they were very reluctant, sensing another evil experience with the dreaded learning situation, but they came home energised and enthusiastic. The vet they were working under Dr. Mohsen Mohsen, is a skilled teacher who encouraged their learning instead of punishing their every mistake. They were happy to realise that the training I'd given them in horse and donkey care actually made them quite experienced in the field, which gave them more confidence.

Italian farriers showing the best treatment for a donkey at a clinic
Egyptian and Italian farriers demonstrating for my staff at a clinic
One of the biomechanics classes with farriers, vets and grooms
A biomechanics class with Dr. Sergio and vets, farriers, and grooms
After some months, after talking to some large animal vets who were saying how the gas price increases and increases in veterinary medicine prices were making it almost impossible to work with farmers who didn't have the cash to pay increased fees, a vet friend and I decided to try setting up a veterinary charity in our neighbourhood to help the farmers with their animals. We got a number of vets to work with us, both experienced and fresh from school. My guys were amazed to find that while they didn't have the technical knowledge of the new graduates, they did have much more experience and much more comfort in handling the animals, who ranged from pigeons to even the odd camel, with the majority being donkeys, goats, sheep, cows, water buffalo and poultry. This again was an enormous morale boost. We've been doing our work now for two years and every day farmers and cart drivers bring animals to the farm for treatment. We've had master farriers and a professor of veterinary science from Italy come to stay and give classes and practical lessons, often extremely technical work, and the guys are there for every class and every lesson, even coming in on their days off.  One of my gardeners has set up a chicken raising project for his wife and other women in his family to supplement their income, and they are raising some wonderful chicken. Friends from town make the trip to come to buy them, and there is an ego factor in knowing that professors and such are making a special effort just for your produce. Their veterinary knowledge is being used to raise better, cleaner, healthier animals and to teach others how to do it too.

I've watch typical learned helplessness victims turn their lives around and change their attitudes completely with giving them the chance to learn and use their knowledge to help others. One of the most impressive things, and something that I think has been extremely important, is the fact that they are not being paid for their veterinary work. It is all voluntary, even the work that occurs almost every day after working hours at the farm. This is a point of pride. Not only do they know things, but they can help people and do so without benefit to themselves. It isn't enough to give them knowledge...much of it they had before we started the veterinary work...they need to use it too.

copyright 2014 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani