I remember my first class on my first day of college.
“Does God really exist?” asked my French professor, a tall and skinny middle-aged man who was perpetually rolling and smoking cigarettes.
“Yes,” I said unconsciously. “Who doesn’t believe in God?
“I do,” said the professor. “I am secular.”
“Secular” word wasn’t a word I knew. After I looked it up my English dictionary, I fell silent for the rest of the class. My faith was still strong. The professor hadn’t changed that. But I didn’t have the knowledge and skills to debate him.
From that day on, I began questioning my faith, thoughts and traditions. I start digging deeply into how I lived my life, which I mostly hadn’t chosen by my own will. I started questioning everything. I started with “Who am I?” and “What I am here for?” The motto of my school, Al-Quds Bard College, is “A Place to Think.”It was certainly living up to its goals. But it took about four months for me to see that I was being transformed by a liberal education.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the topics I encountered in my studies. My required core courses were among the most thought provoking. We studied the classics, like Socrates and Plato; social theorists like Karl Marx and Max Weber; writers like Franz Kafka and John Milton; philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard and Freidrich Nietzsche. Other thinkers were harder to categorize but fascinating to read, like Sigmund Freud. We debated their politics, religious views and economic theories.
One first-year core course was a revelation. In the course, we discussed the story of Adam and Eve, with the usual task of blaming someone for getting the first people kicked out of paradise. I learned the story in kindergarten: As a Muslim I was taught to blame—and forgive—both Adam and Eve because that’s how the Quran tells the story. I didn’t imagine other perspectives about “whom to blame” until I learned the Adam and Eve story from other people’s perspectives.
At first, I refused to acknowledge their views. But before I could effectively voice my opinions in discussions, I had to familiarize myself with the debate and find evidence so I could respond to other students’ opinions. So I studied, thought about everyone’s opinion individually and tried to build up logical reasons to support my point of view.
We also read the Quran and the Bible in the core courses. Before that, I knew nothing about other religions. I realized I also didn’t also know enough about my own religion. I used to know that I had to pray, fast and be a good person. But among 12 Muslim students in the core course, there was one atheist—a former Christian. She questioned everything that related to religion. She refuted Islam and Christianity. She always voiced her atheistic thoughts. I resolved to learn enough to be able to hold my own debating her.
Media and journalism courses also taught me not to accept everything blindly. My professors taught me how to interpret news, images, films and events. They taught me that the truth is illusive changed and that everyone can be deceived. Look for connotation, not just denotation—this is a lesson I’m still learning.
This was underscored in our Palestinian studies course, when we discussed Palestinian politics. An outspoken American student often rankled me and other Palestinian students. “He is not Palestinian, he may not know about our politics and history,” we would say. But the American received an “A” in the course because he knew how to think critically and make an argument. “He learned how to interpret everything and to think logically from the first grade,” the professor said.
The experience bothered me. Had I been learning prior to college? Or was I being indoctrinated in high school in Palestine, learning what to think, not how to think? But I also realized that, if I mastered critical thinking, I could learn and question everything.
So I did.I started searching for answers and paving a new path for my intellectual life by reading and watching everything I could get my hands on. That’s because in the future, I want to choose my thoughts, ideas and beliefs. I want to be able to answer every question about myself and my ideas. I don’t want to be shallow-minded. I want to catch myself when I’m thinking superficially. I’ve learned that education is endless. Every day there is something new to know about. Everything has multiple meanings that we shouldn’t overlook or else we will be easy prey for ignorance.
My experience in Berlin, where I’m studying abroad, has made me realize how I’ve embraced my liberal education. I’m living in a culture that’s totally different than mine, and I now can easily talk with others about Islam, politics, my hijab, prayers, fasting, and other topics. In these talks, I’ve learned it’s more important to be reasonable than persuasive. If I just focus on trying to win people over to my point of view, I won’t get much out of the conversations. Of course, I don’t need to talk about religion, either. There’s plenty of other things to discuss.
* Asma’ Jawabreh a palestinian student.