Knowledge and Civilization

16 စက်တင်ဘာလ 1998
Article
President Prince, Professor Ahmad, Students, Ladies and Gentlemen, Thank you for that generous introduction. It is a very special pleasure for me to deliver the first Eqbal Ahmad lecture here at Hampshire College. Professor Ahmad is known to you in the five colleges as a distinguished teacher whose intellect and example have enriched your lives. I know him as a public intellectual who crossed many boundaries to engage in struggles for liberation and human rights; a fearless thinker whose analysis of world events has helped me to understand some of the issues with which the United Nations must grapple every day. Among those issues, as this audience will know, is the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Last June, the world witnessed with deep apprehension the decisions of India and Pakistan to conduct nuclear tests. A new and dangerous source of instability was introduced to an environment in which sentiments of rivalry, suspicion, and mistrust were dominating all discourse. To the outside world, it appeared that within those two nations, nuclear nationalism had won the day. Voices of dissent were few and far between. But Eqbal Ahmad's voice was heard by all who wished to listen: warning Pakistan of the perils of following India down the nuclear path; urging leaders and citizens alike to choose reason over rage, moderation over might, the future over the past. It is that commitment to putting knowledge to the service of human kind, that example of learning infused with a moral conscience, that we honour today. As students, you have been told, no doubt, by parents and teachers that education is a great privilege; that you should be grateful for the chance to improve your minds; that you should seize this opportunity to expand your horizons. I do not fault you for sometimes thinking that this is just a way of getting you to study. Sometimes it is. But there is a deeper, more lasting truth to what they are saying. Throughout history there has existed an essential linkage between knowledge and the growth of civilizations. The relationship between knowledge, its communication, and progress -- be it economic, political or social -- has been permanent and organic. The educational process as formalized through schools and colleges is at the heart of civilization. Moreover, throughout history knowledge has been universal. Only with the age of nationalism and imperialism was knowledge invested with hard boundaries. In fact, knowledge has never recognized boundaries, but rather defied all notions, past and present, of civilizations clashing. The roots of Greek civilization lay deep in Africa. And we know how the Arabs learned from Greece, India, and China, making their own advances in science, mathematics, aesthetics, and philosophy; how the European renaissance was assisted by the intellectual achievements of the Islamic civilization; and how modern western art has been influenced by the African and Japanese impressions. History is witness to the fact that ambitions, interests and, sometimes, ideologies clash. Civilizations rarely do. In fact, they are based on the exchange of knowledge and artistic influence and, in turn, nurtured by that exchange. Today, therefore, I wish to draw your attention to the crisis of knowledge in the Third World; to how that crisis feeds the view that civilisations inevitably must clash; and to why restoring a global culture of knowledge must and will be a priority for the United Nations system of the next century. The crisis in education in the Third World is, above all, a crisis of priorities facing states with increasing responsibilities in an era of decreasing resources. This is partly a problem of history. Third world plans of education were drawn up, by and large, by colonial powers whose outlook and needs were different from those of sovereign states in the last years of the 20th century. Yet, in the post-colonial period, expenditures on arms have far surpassed those on books and teachers. Practically no attention has been paid to reformulating educational objectives appropriate to the requirements of these societies. What little attention has been given to the educational enterprise has gone into the physical output of new campuses and school houses. The need for renewal and reform is greater than ever. Our age -- the age of Globalization -- offers a unique opportunity to reverse course. Globalization, as you all know, is a subject of much discussion and research today. But there is a tendency still to view the matter largely in economic terms. Globalization is affecting all aspects of our lives, from the political to the social to the cultural. Only knowledge, it would seem, is not being globalized. In an age where the acquisition and advancement of knowledge is a more powerful weapon in a nations arsenal than any missile or mine, the knowledge gap between the North and South is widening. Alas, education often seems the last priority, leading too many third world students to leave for the West to acquire knowledge and education. That is the tragedy of far too many Third World countries striving to escape poverty and establish democratic rule. Too many regimes and too many rulers govern by the gun. They allow only those investments that will prolong their rule rather than provide for their peoples progress. Indeed, education is often seen as the enemy of tyranny, for it is the means of dissent and a tool of resistance. We are all consumers of the products of modern science and technology. However, a large part of the world has had no part in the process of their discovery, invention and production. Unless we embark urgently on a program of globalizing the generation of and access to knowledge, the unequal development of the world will only continue. In recent decades, international agencies have accorded some importance to encouraging primary and secondary level schooling. This has some effect in shifting local priorities in favour of basic education. Unfortunately, higher education continues to suffer from neglect. Lack of resources have so drained third world universities of good faculties that all of its Nobel Laureates in science have won their prizes for research accomplished in the West. That is why the United Nations will make universal access to knowledge central to all our development activities. Next month, UNESCO will host a World Conference on Higher Education attended by more than 100 ministers = of education. Their mission will be to join 2,000 teachers, students and education experts in an effort to renew higher education world-wide. They will seek innovative ways to stop the growing disparity between North and South in access to knowledge through higher education. They will strive to improve national educational systems as a way of preserving our global diversity while opening new channels of communication between peoples. By complementing those efforts in our development and post-conflict peace building work, we will help ensure that former combatants will become future students; that for them, the first day of peace will be a day for school; and that in those schools, they will learn to resolve differences peacefully. Although I have spoken so far in the context of post-colonial societies, in important respects the challenge is universal. We live in an age in which material imperatives tend to overwhelm the moral and spiritual ones. This affects the learning environment in ways that are harmful to societies no less than individuals. What can get lost in such an environment is the essence of education -- its social and moral imperatives. Not that one expression of knowledge is to be implanted everywhere. Nor that one tradition of learning is to dominate all others. Rather, I believe that every society must restore a culture of knowledge that encourages the pursuit of ideas and their application in fostering a universal understanding of the meaning of civilization. Civilizations have always been enriched, and not weakened, by the exchange of knowledge and arts, the freer and more peaceable the better. In the relations between nations, it is rather the lacK of education, and the dearth of knowledge which is a chief source of dispute and conflict. Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda, and in most modern conflicts, the men of war prey on the ignorance of the populace to instill fears and arouse hatreds. That was the case in Bosnia and in Rwanda where genocidal ideologies took root in the absence of truthful information and honest education. If only half the effort had gone into teaching those peoples what unites them, and not what divides them, unspeakable crimes could have been prevented. This is not to say that ideas and interests do not clash. They do, and always will. But those clashes can and must be resolved peacefully and politically. That is why the culture of knowledge which we seek will advance not only development, but also mutual appreciation between cultures. Perhaps there is no greater need for such appreciation today than between the Islamic peoples and those of the West. Too often, this question is discussed only through crude, invidious generalizations about the beliefs of one group or the behaviour of the other. Too often, the rhetoric of resistance from one group or other is deemed representative of the views of millions. What is ignored is the historic and ever-growing interaction between peoples; the ways in which individual states -- regardless of religious affiliation -- define, defend, and pursue their interests; and the propensity of states as well as individuals to form alliances and allegiances on other grounds than ethnic belonging or religious affiliation. What this history should and must teach us is that, alongside a global diversity of cultures, there does exist one, world-wide civilization of knowledge within which ideas and philosophies meet and develop peacefully and productively. It is a civilization defined by its tolerance of dissent, its celebration of cultural diversity, its insistence on fundamental, universal human rights, and its belief in the right of people everywhere to have a say in how they are governed. This is the civilisation for which the United Nations labours and for whose attainment a global culture of knowledge is necessary. Students, Ladies and Gentlemen, Socrates taught us that there is only one good, knowledge, and only one evil, ignorance In that spirit, Eqbal Ahmad has pursued a life of moral and intellectual engagement as teacher and writer. Not satisfied however, to rest on his laurels, he has now dedicated himself to narrowing as best he can the knowledge gap between North and South. He is working at establishing a center for higher learning in Pakistan, to be named Khaldunia University, an institution that will seek to build character no less than enlivening a tradition of scholarship and critical thought. Many of you will know the symbolism of naming a university for Ibn Khaldun. This last great Arab historian of the Middle Ages was a globalist long before the age of globalization. Born in Northern Africa, he grew up in Spain and crossed many boundaries in search of knowledge and service. He defined the aims of education in a timeless fashion, insisting that knowledge knows no boundary, that its essence is man in relation to his environment, that a people's well-being is defined by its level of knowledge and its ability to utilize it in the real world. He argued that civilisations decline when they lose their capacity to comprehend and absorb change, and that the "greatest of scholars err when they ignore the environment in which history unfolds." I can think of no higher ideal for scholarship, and no better model on which to base the pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, these are the values that underlie all that we seek at the United Nations. It is this unity of ideals, this common pursuit of peace through knowledge that has brought me here today. Thank you. Kofi Annan