A Conversation with Elizabeth Kassab

A Conversation with Elizabeth Kassab


The NYUAD Global Studies Colloquium is an interdisciplinary forum for dialogue and exchange that seeks to build ties with other universities in the Gulf and wider Middle East. Established in the Fall 2011 by Saglar Bougdeva, Dale Hudson, Lauren Minsky, Sheetal Majithia, and Sana Odeh, the Colloquium addresses the pressing need for new understandings of emerging socio-political issues in the MENA region within a global framework. Recent events in the region have challenged scholars to reevaluate assumptions and epistemological models that currently structure knowledge of this region and its social, political, and cultural development, in fields ranging from the social sciences, area studies, arts and the humanities. The Colloquium hosts MENA-based scholars whose research addresses these emerging issues. The particular topics covered by speakers will include: colonial, postcolonial and neoliberal forms and legacies of empire; comparative understandings of Enlightenment thought and universalism; social media and youth culture; women in politics; nationalism and national identity; artistic and performative cultures; civil institutions; and the role of universities.

The first guest of the NYUAD Global Studies Colloquium was Elizabeth Kassab, who has taught philosophy at the American University of Beirut, Balamand University, Yale, and Columbia. She is currently a researcher at Erfurt University. Her recent book Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective (Columbia University Press, 2009) explores various schools of critical thinking in the Arab world. She first charts the Nahda, the “renaissance” or “awakening” in 19th century Arab thought, before engaging the 20th-century struggles to achieve independence, development, cultural and religious pride or democracy.

The book grapples with the fact that Arab thought has been cast as an expression of an ahistorical and essential “Arab malaise”. In response to this scholarship, Kassab’s work shows the political and historical roots of the Arab predicament.  She goes beyond approaches that consider Arab thought as exceptional or self-referential by linking it to African, South Asian and Latin American perspectives, thereby demonstrating the similarities between various postcolonial conditions and the importance of engaging in comparative work.

In an interview with NYUAD’s Pascal Menoret on 2 November 2011, Kassab related the intellectual history of the Arabian Peninsula to her larger project. She argued that the economic, cultural, and educational development of the UAE and other GCC nations has produced a very interesting contrast to the many cases of pessimism she examines in her work. She argues that liberal arts education can play a crucial role in the years to come, and draws am enticing picture of the contemporary Arab literature. [Numbers in brackets indicate notes at the conclusion of the piece.]

My first question is about Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates: how does the country fit in the map of the Arab World you draw in your book?

I often visit the Emirates and this is an extremely intriguing place for me, because it is such a different corner of the Arab World. The very concept of Arab World intrigues me even more when I am here. First of all, there are no wars. Coming from Lebanon, I often ask myself: how come that the Emirates do not have civil wars among themselves? I am fascinated by the invention of the Emirates and by how these regions came together and function.

Another contrast with us is that this place is a success story. We have inherited a long history of defeats, failures, disasters and humiliations, all things that you don’t find here. We are obsessed by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Emirates are far away, they belong to another constellation: the Indian Ocean, the connection to Africa. The whole geographic set up is different.

Since the oil boom, anybody coming from our part of the Arab world would say that it is only about money, that Emiratis don’t have any cultural or historical depth. With this buying of museums and importing of universities, NYU and the Sorbonne, it is easy to say that they are just buying stuff. Well, I think that the story should be more complex than that. And hence to use the word I like to use in connection with my perception of this place: it is an intriguing experience, which needs to be understood and explored more.

I rarely get to talk to Emiratis and my bigger mystery here is: what are their goals in initiating this intellectual and cultural experience? In Doha, some of the slogans of the Qatar Foundation are  hilariouschallenging: think! Imagine! Does the Qatari government realize what that means in terms of political implications? And whom are these slogans impacting? The students? Governments in the Gulf want to become global, and these universities cater to students from Malaysia, Indonesia, the Far East and the U.S. But what is the place of the Arab World in all this? Are Arabs the poor relatives, the problematic agitators that the Gulf wants to forget about? Does the Gulf have an Arab ambition?

How would you map out the traditions of critical thinking in the Arabian Peninsula?

The idea that this place is a cultural desert does not hold anymore. Thinkers like Mohammed Jaber al-Ansari,[1] Mohammed al-Rumaihi,[2]  Shafiq al-Ghabra,[3]  Khaldun al-Naqeeb,[4]  Turki al-Hamad,[5] Abdallah al-Ghathami [6] are connected to and participate in the general issues of the Arab World. While working on the Mashreq and the Maghreb, I asked myself: is there such a thing as “Arab thought”? Yes, as long as there is a universal discourse and common preoccupations in which all these people participate.

There are also wonderful thinkers outside the region, like Madawi Al-Rasheed.[7]  She epitomizes the great qualities of the radical thinkers I have worked on: lucidity, sobriety, sharpness, clarity. And my question to you at NYUAD is: when you speak about Arab Crossroads, are you in conversation with these people?

Madawi Al-Rasheed was on my dissertation committee, and my students are currently reading her, as well as Abdul Rahman Munif.[8]

That is great! What is nice about Madawi Al-Rasheed is that she does not stay in any ivory tower but writes a weekly column in al-Quds al-‘Arabi and speaks often on BBC Arabic. And of course, reading them does not mean that we should agree with them, but they are engaged in critical thinking, which is of great value.

How would you describe the “Arab predicament” or “unhappy consciousness” you mention in your book?

That is a wonderful question to raise here in the Emirates, where I don’t think there is any unhappy consciousness. Coming from where I come from, it is fascinating to be confronted to this happiness! When you come here from our part of the Arab World, you see success, you see prosperity, you see openness to the world, especially in the Emirates. In these places it is strange not to be confronted to a predicament, but to witness success.

Now, what about political participation, which is the great source of unhappiness in our part of the Arab World? Is it even an issue? Do people suffer from the lack of it? Is it a priority for them? Are the rulers thinking in that direction? I don’t know, but it seems to me that what is such a heavy predicament in our part of the world that simply does not seem to exist here, or might exist in different ways.

And of course, it is different from one place to another, and one has to look carefully at individual settings. But one can be sure of this contrast between the state of mind we come from – humiliated, defeated, poor, disgustedfrustrated – and what you see here.

Is it an ‘Arabiyya sa‘ida, a new Arabia Felix?

Good question! Another interesting question is: given these differences, what impact does the “felicity” of the Gulf have on the more damaged part of the Arab World? Should it even have an impact? If we look at universities in the Gulf, what is the impact of higher education in liberal arts for instance? Imagine if it was to happen in Egypt, where 80 million people could be impacted, not a few hundred thousands. And lastly, a propos impact, of course we know that it is one thing to promote chemistry and engineering, but humanities? Ha, that is the million-dollar question.

Why are there so few humanities programs in the region, and what could be done to change that situation?

Liberal arts or critical humanities will promote critical thinking, which bears political implications. These regimes and some of the conservative societies do not necessarily want to promote that. We know what happened to social science institutes in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia: after decolonization, they tried to function but were shut down. These governments do not want to find out about social problems or hear any critique.

There is also a general mediocrity: one of the big failures of post-colonial Arab governments is education, and mediocrity breeds mediocrity, corruption, neglect, ideological indoctrination … Have you watched Omar Amiralay’s film Tufan fi balad al-Ba‘th, [9] in which he interviews a school director in the Euphrates region? The guy candidly speaks about his school, and you understand that the state has produced generations of poorly educated, fully indoctrinated, repressed people.

One of our Emirati students told me: I am happy to study in English, but I wish we had Arabic-speaking universities that attract people from all over the world.

It is an excellent remark and we could look at older experiences, in Lebanon for instance: the American University of Beirut or the Université Saint-Joseph. What is the impact of these liberal education institutions? The trouble is that they might have had an impact only on their graduates. In the past, these institutions trained an intellectual and political elite. Today, tThey tend rather to produced students who wanted one thing: emigrate. Most of them became engineers and businessmen and doctors, which is understandable: in all societies, critical thinkers are a minority. I taught at AUB for ten years and we all saw young people wanting one thing: earn the degree and leave.

If we look outside of the Arab world, how does the Arab predicament compare to other issues in other regions of the world?

Everything Arabic and Islamic is seen as being exceptional, as being explained in self-referential ways. It is a circular thing, and people typically answer the question: why is this or that so? by saying: because it is Arab, or because it is Muslim. It was important for me to open the windows and the doors and to look elsewhere. Are other peoples on this planet raising similar questions, do they face similar predicaments, similar cultural, intellectual, political challenges?

A South-South dialogue is key: to escape our focus on identity, we need to know that other peoples have suffered from similar predicaments. We tend to think that we have these problems because we are who we are, and it is not a very fruitful track of reflection. Whereas if you start looking at structural problems, at economic, political, historical problems, then this sterile focus on identity moves to the background. I am all for posing the Arab question in a comparative perspective, and a program like yours could probably do that, too.

What region of the south is the closest to the Arab world?

Sometimes it is the most remote people who tell you something about yourself. When I read South Pacific authors, I recognize concerns that I have been obsessed with. Indian subaltern literature is crucial and Indian post-colonial thinking is amazingly mature in comparison to ours! Africans have fantastic discourses too. Every place is a candidate to becoming global, and the Gulf has actually the means to open up and get connected.

But there is psychological resistance. Rather than talking to poor relatives, Arabs look at those who are faring better than them, and this explains our interest in Europe. I understand that an Arab might say: what can I learn from another miserable fellow in Africa, in India or in Latin America? But talking to miserabledowntrodden  people like us might teach us a lot about better ways of dealing with our problems. If the Emirates and the Gulf region can contribute to that, great!

Among radical Arab thinkers, who is looking at those connections to other worlds?

Not many people, which reminds me of the Arab fascination with Japan, from the 19th century onwards. Numerous Arab thinkers spoke about Japan but who among them knew anything serious about it? And we are still talking about the Japanese success story: Mas‘ud Daher recently wrote two books about Japan, [10] but few people really know the country. The big preoccupation was with Europe: Latin Americans, Africans and Indians were also fixating on Europe.

Ruth Benedict never visited Japan before writing The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. The most famous American anthropologist of Japan was une anthropologue en chambre

Yes, but for Arabs, Japan was not another field of knowledge; it was a model.

How in your view did the 2011 Arab revolutions impact the production of critical thinking?

It is too early to speak of impact, and most intellectuals are surprised, trying to follow up, fascinated, happy and also concerned. The Arab media on the other hand keeps asking: do we need intellectuals, if they were not able to predict the revolution or to shape it when it happened? I would say that a lot of intellectuals are involved in the political events, Syria being one such case in pointat least in Syria. And even if intellectual work happens on one level, and political activism on another, there still is a strong parallel between the intellectual scene and the street.

First of all, both movements are inward looking. The critical gaze is no longer towards the bad Westerners or towards Israel even, but against one’s own government, one’s own state of affairs. Critical intellectual have been moving in that direction for at least three or four decades and the street is now catching up with them.

Secondly, Arab critical thinkers focus on the political. It is something that struck me precisely because I was not studying political contestation: I was examining cultural critique. For these authors, our cultural malaise is caused by political factors. And movements on the street are primarily political: they protest against the way countries are governed, against rulers, against political disenfranchisement.

Thirdly, intellectuals and the street moved away from ideologies. Arab thinkers are greatly critical of ideologies and focus instead on the importance of critical thinking. And people walking on the street are more interested in nailing bad management than repeating slogans about this-or-that-ism.

Last thing, the whole leadership business. Arab intellectuals realized that they were no longer interested in the avant-garde role that they could have had in the fifties or the sixties. They realized that this business of one-thinker-saying-it-all-and-having-followers no longer existed, that people were not looking for that. On all these points, I think that intellectuals and the street are in tune with one another.

Why is it that intellectuals did not create the revolution? I do not think that intellectuals create revolutions, and it is not books that get people in the streets: it is a basic sense of revolt against injustice. What will ultimately push you to face cannons and thugs is really that sense of khalass, enough! you cannot take it anymore. You need guts, not a brain, to take to the streets!

What Arab books would you encourage our students to read?

If I were to make suggestions in shaping Arab studies, I would encourage students or anybody trying to understand the Arab world, myself included, to read Arab newspapers. Many daily newspapers have good opinion pages, and there is a whole debate going on. It takes a lot of time every day but you cannot have a sense of what is going on without reading newspapers, watching television, being on Facebook.

Then: read Arab literature, read fiction! My One of my great heroes is Saadallah Wannous, [11] who said it all, early on, in his theater. One has also to be aware of the art scene in the Arab world. It should be said of Arab thinkers that they are thinkers, because many people in the region and outside of the region have no idea that these thinkers even exist! They are perceived as local, not worth reading, nothing in your education exposes us to them. This battle needs to be fought if we believe in critical thinking, because nothing has helped so far to disseminate the works of these people. Or else, bon, let me read Descartes and consider myself educated!


[1] Bahraini philosopher and political thinker (born 1939).

[2] Kuwaiti political thinker and sociologist (born 1942).

[3] Kuwaiti political scientist (born 1953).

[4] Kuwaiti sociologist (1942-2011).

[5] Saudi novelist and intellectual (born 1953).

[6] Saudi literary critic (born 1946).

[7] Saudi-born anthropologist and political scientist, professor at King’s College (born 1962).

[8] Saudi-born novelist, author of Mudun al-Milh (Cities of Salt) (1933-2004).

[9] Omar Amiralay (1944-2011), Syrian director and political activist. His 2003 documentary A Flood in Baath Country analyzes official propaganda in rural Syria.

[10] Mas‘ud Daher, Al-Nahda al-‘arabiyya wa-l-nahda al-yabaniyya: Tashabuh al-muqaddamat wa ikhtilaf al-nata’ij [Arab and Japanese Renaissances: Same Beginnings, Different Outcomes] (Kuwait: Al-Majlis al-watani li-l-thaqafa wa-l-adab, 1999), and Al-Yaban bi ‘uyun ‘arabiyya 1904-2004 [Japan in Arab Eyes, 1904-2004] (Beirut: Markaz dirasa al-wahda al-‘arabiyya, 2005).

[11] Syrian playwright (1941-1997). He notably wrote Haflat Samar min Ajl Khamseh Huzayran [Entertainment Evening for the 5th of June] (1968), Al-Fil malik al-zaman [Elephant, King of all Times] (1969), Al-Malik huwa al-malik (The King is the King) (1977), Tuqus al-Isharat wa-l-tahawwulat [Rituals of Signs and Transformations] (1994).

Masdar City, Fall 2010

Masdar City, Fall 2010


Daniel Carbone is a filmmaker and writer currently living in Abu Dhabi. With a number of award-winning short films behind him, he is currently in production on Phantom Cowboys, a feature-length documentary as director and cinematographer, and Hide Your Smiling Faces, a feature-length narrative as writer and director. He is the Instructor of the Arts at NYU Abu Dhabi, where he facilitates student work in the areas of film, video, and photography, from concept to completion, and is a member of the Electra Street editorial collective.

Istanbul: Why Photos Cannot Capture It

Istanbul: Why Photos Cannot Capture It




When I looked into the mirror in the hotel bathroom on the morning of the second day, I realized that sleeping with the sight of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia fresh in my eyes had made my eyelids puff up to truly unmanageable proportions. Blinking was a painful practice, as there seemed to be bits of mosaics and minarets trapped beneath my lids, grating against my vision every time I closed my eyes for even the briefest instant.

We had been careening through the city and our speed only served to intensify the impression its sights made upon me. Within the blurred motion from wonder to wonder, certain moments stand transfixed and magnified in my eye, refusing to fade even now.

I glimpsed my first view of the city at large from the hotel balcony the morning we arrived. The seagulls that crowded the neighboring rooftops cackled at my wonderment. One in particular glared at me disapprovingly as I attempted to take a decent photograph of the city’s toothsome skyline, knowing perhaps that even if I had wielded the camera more skillfully, I still would not be able to do it justice.

Apologetically, I snapped the camera’s shutter closed, with simply the press of a button capturing a second’s worth of light, but inevitably letting escape the sight itself. My avian detractor shook his feathers at me and flew off indignantly.

But little time was to be had for loitering or lamenting the inadequacy of my methods for recording experience, and in a moment I too abandoned the balcony. Leaving the hotel, we walked up the middle of the narrow streets. The city appeared to be either undecided or in hopeless disagreement with itself upon the choice of a color pallet. Red roses bloomed against the slate color of the cold Marmara and an arrangement of houses painted in bright yellows and blues provided the backdrop for the browning leaves of deciduous trees.

When the Blue Mosque came into view above the other buildings, its countless domes of deep grey were shaped against the sheen of an overcast sky into a perfect cloud. Swift patches of sunlight cast a golden gleam here and there. As I entered the improbably delicate structure of stone, pulling a scarf round my head was as much a gesture of respect as an act for my own protection—amongst the camera-toting crowds it seemed inappropriate to become lost in awe, as I was like to do beneath the curves and intersections of color that patterned the floating arches and domes.

Cats wandered around the courtyard of the mosque—and all through the Hagia Sofia as well—fat, friendly creatures flocking to the city’s places of worship because they know man’s salvation is their own, while men feed them because they sense that even a cat’s salvation means much to theirs. It was these the moments of small magic—the cat admiring a chandelier in the Hagia Sofia, the young men hawking lurid spinning tops in the open air of the Hippodrome, the shape of a completely unnecessary arch over the window of a tower along the Theodosian Wall—that saved for me the moments of greater beauty, which otherwise would have risked the numbed simplification of a series of overwhelming images experienced in rapid succession.

Still, I feel as if I have been through a blanching and have not yet quite recovered from the shock. In flashes seen from the window of the hired car as it carried us off to the airport, the city offered all its promises of a life to be had only there, all its possibilities of intimacy if only I gave myself to experiencing it. Thus I left Istanbul as suddenly as I had arrived, taking away with me a few souvenirs, some questionable photographs, and a need to return.

Katherine James is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi and a member of the Electra Street Editorial Collective.

From Athens to Abu Dhabi

From Athens to Abu Dhabi

Map of Athens (1888)

[ On 19 September 2010, David Levering Lewis, Professor of History at New York University, delivered an address entitled “From Athens to Abu Dhabi: The Arrival of the Global University” to the NYU Abu Dhabi community at the Officer’s Club in Abu Dhabi. The text of Professor Lewis’s address is presented below.]

Vice Chancellor Bloom, Provost Piano, Ambassador Olson, distinguished guests and residents of this capital city, faculty members and staff, students of this brilliant inaugural class of 2014, we embark this month upon a remarkable educational enterprise — arguably, one of the most transformative of modern times. “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized,” said Daniel Burnham, America’s great nineteenth-century architect. “Make big plans, and aim high in hope and work….” Surely that is the purpose of education and why vision, energy, and resources were concerted by Chancellor Muhammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and President John Sexton in the service of a five-year mission to realize this historic achievement, ably assisted by Vice Provost Mariet Westermann. New York University Abu Dhabi — NYUAD — certainly stirs imaginations by the global scale of its ambitions as manifested in a location midpoint between east and west where thirty-nine countries from five continents are represented by this unique inaugural class. None of those who saw these 151 students beam down in high Ramadan season will ever forget the leadership promise of that moment. If the motto of our founding university is “a private university in the public service,” the apt UAE paraphrase might well be a liberal arts institution in service to the planet.

David Levering Lewis, Sept. 2010That it is my honor to give this convocation address is the responsibility and risk of our Vice Chancellor whose invitation to do so astonished and honored me when first we met in Washington Square. My attempt to historicize the significance of our reciprocal venture, NYU’s and Abu Dhabi’s, is offered as an earnest of my enthusiasm and with awareness of its inadequacy. The long line of precursors from which New York University Abu Dhabi descends has run a remarkable 2,400-year course. If we confine ourselves to the societies irrigated by the Aegean, the Tigris-Euphrates, and the Mediterranean, we find that the earliest idea of the university is implicit in the Platonic Academy of Athens founded in the 2nd century before the Common Era. There, for the first recorded time, geometers, ethicists, rhetoricians, physicists propounded in an olive grove called Hekademia near Athens. Notwithstanding professional diversity and disagreement, they were united by the maxim of Plato’s mentor, Socrates, that the unexamined life is not worth living. But as good Greeks they were divided on the examination method. Was the Worthwhile to be deduced from eternal ideals, as Plato contended, or was it arrived at through observation, as Aristotle insisted? Platonic deduction? Aristotelian induction? And as good Athenian Greeks, these original academicians interrogated a second existential imperative. What ends should worthwhile learning serve? To make the citizen a more intelligent servant of the established order of her day (of the polis or State) or to insure that the established order served the intelligent citizen?

The Academy of Athens, the forerunner of the university, was founded in 387 BCE. The debate about methods and ends and the shepherding role therein of institutions of learning has been ongoing ever since. Yet it was never inevitable that the ideal of universal inquiry, autonomous and institutionalized, would become widely accepted as the measure by which the values and vitality of societies are interpreted, advanced, and, in the best sense, protected. Looking back across the centuries, we discern the slow advance of the universitas ideal as it crosses the indispensable bridge of Muslim learning into the post-Roman darkness of the North Atlantic world. The road taken by universitas to Washington Square and Abu Dhabi runs circuitously from the sacred olive grove at Hekademia where, after Plato, generations of scholar teachers plied their knowledge until expelled for un-Christian ideas by the Emperor Justinian in the early 5th century of the Common Era. From there, the road transports those expelled academicians to a Persian refuge where their impact causes medicine, philosophy, and literature to flourish in the city of Gondeshapur. Then on to the Abbasid caliphs’ Bayt al-Hikma or House of Wisdom in 9th-century Baghdad where Arab scholars preserved, perfected, and amplified much of the learning of classical antiquity.

Islam became host to the seminal pursuits of philosophical speculation and scientific investigation which animated much of ancient Greece, as well as heir to the pragmatic toleration of religious differences reminiscent of the Roman Empire. Faith pared with science, empire moderated by confessional tolerance in which Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews found productive space, were the cultural and political distinctions of the Muslim world of this time. Muslim scholars journeyed unhindered from Baghdad to Palermo, Cairo to Cordoba, Khurasan to Sind in a vibrating matrix of Aristotelian speculation, Euclidian geometry, Chinese astronomy, Hindu numerals, and Arab medical advances.

By contrast, much of the Christian world was captive of a mindset far less congenial to philosophy, science, and creedal tolerance. In Dark Ages Europe, there was no causeway of knowledge, only ruts. The road of universal learning splits as it touches the European continent, and it follows an eastward arc via Cordoba in Muslim Andalusia and a northward arc from Palermo in Muslim Sicily. In al-Andalus, today’s Spain, where Arab and Berber invaders established relatively benign overlordship at the top of the 8th century, an ethos of mutuality had emerged — the storied convivencia in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews long enjoyed (if not with the prodigious success too often romanticized ex post facto) a civilized coexistence in provocative contrast to the societies east of the Pyrenees.

As learning seeped into France and Italy from Muslim Spain and Sicily, complemented by important Byzantine contributions, the first communities of scholarship were formalized at Salerno (1050), Bologna (1088), Paris (1150), Oxford (1167), and Salamanca (1218). Europe’s studia generalia or universal study places developed on a different model from the teaching mosque and the madrassa. They were trade-unions of intellectuals, degree-granting corporations, whose teaching licenses (licentia docendi) were the exclusive prerogatives of their faculties, unlike the venerable Al Azhar and lesser madrassas whose ijaza or teaching authority was bestowed by a single teacher or alim. During their first two or more centuries, students formed themselves into so-called “nations”. At Bologna and Paris, these “nations” of Lombards, Romans, English, French, Germans — functioned as self-administered entities for purposes of protection, welfare, influencing the curriculum, and even policing examinations. Those modeled on Bologna (Padua, Pisa, Orleans, Salamanca) hired and fired their teachers. A situation not seen again until the late 20th century.

These were rowdy, bloody times when town and gown frequently rubbed each others’ nerves raw and some of the reports of reciprocal melees in university towns such as Oxford, Louvain, Montpelier, and Paris read like battlefield accounts. One 13th-century father, despairing of mischievous indolence, writes his son at Orleans, “I have recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while others are at their studies, whence it happens that you have read but one volume of law….”

From the outset, the European university was entrapped in a contradiction: its privilege to pursue learning was the quid pro quo either of ecclesiastical or of secular protection. With rare exception, the studium or university owed its rights and privileges to an ecclesiastical hierarchy that expected strict allegiance from the faculty in the Church’s periodic controversies with the Holy Roman Empire, as well as in all other matters. The best graduates could hope for preferment in one of the religious orders (Benedictine, Dominican, Franciscan) — the escape hatches into upward mobility in feudal Europe’s rigidly stratified society. Canon law protection of faculty and students from civil prosecution for debts, theft, rowdiness, licentiousness, and even homicide was also a powerful quid pro quo for loyalty. Indeed, the tension inherent in this protective relationship was obvious in the first statement of academic freedom on record: Bologna’s 1158 Constitutio Habita (Constitution of Rights) guaranteeing freedom of travel and political noninterference to students throughout the Holy Roman Empire. But the Constitutio was Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s reward to Bologna’s students for supporting the emperor’s territorial struggles with the papacy.

Volume 1 of the Cambridge History of the European University (1992) makes a quintessentially European assertion about universities: “The university is a European institution; indeed it is the European institution par excellence.” And the author ups the ante of uniqueness by stipulating that the university “developed and transmitted scientific and scholarly knowledge and the methods of cultivating that knowledge which has arisen from and formed part of the common European intellectual tradition.” I share this authoritative opinion the better to flag two pertinent concerns: 1) to note that the sui generis character of the European university is not settled scholarship; and (2) to insist upon a corrective truth of especial relevance to NYUAD as a new community of teachers and students in this special time and place: namely, that while the educational vessel was shaped differently in Europe, it was filled in great part by the Muslim knowledge stream imbibed by thinking Europe.

A representative sampling of European thinkers from the 10th to the 13th centuries reveals a mixture of respect, envy, intimidation, and defiance in the face of Islamic cultural and scientific superiority. For respect, no better example exists than Gerbert, a poor, gifted tenth-century French lad from the town of Aurillac, whose studies in al-Andalus acquainted him with Arabic numbers and the new zero-based mathematics which, as Sylvester II, the first French pope, he introduced to his astonished and largely uncomprehending fellow Christians. For envy, take Heloise’s celebrated lover, Peter Abelard, Scholastic philosophy’s most brilliant mind, who said he wanted “to go live among the pagans” in Muslim Spain after his dialectical nimbleness was condemned by the doctors of the church. Abelard’s book, Sic et Non (Yes and No), revolutionized collegiate pedagogy so profoundly that you, class of 2014, will find that your professors expect you to derive informed opinions from critical appreciation of opposing viewpoints. For intimidation, note those Church doctors who repeatedly banned Aristotle’s teachings at the Sorbonne because a Muslim thinker (Averroes or Ibn Rushed of Cordoba) was Aristotle’s greatest interpreter. For defiance, there is Thomas of Aquino, educated at Arabized University of Naples where Averroes the Arab and Maimonides the Jew were read in translation, boasting that his Summa Theologica vaccinated good Christians against what he called heretical ideas of “the Jews and Moors of Spain.”

In Plato’s Athens, it had been the poets who caused trouble. In Richard Nixon’s America it would be the intellectuals. In Pope Innocent III’s High Middle Ages it was university-educated trouble-makers. Indeed, as suggested, the history of the early European university is one of paradox in which charters granted by popes and emperors explicitly to guarantee static ideas-systems had the opposite result of engendering novelty, dissent, and reform. Take Marsilius of Padua: medical doctor and political theorist, whose brilliance the Vatican rewarded in 1313 with the plum appointment of rector of the University of Paris. Ten years into his distinguished rectorship, Marsilius published the 14th century’s most explosive treatise, Defensor pacis, (The Defender of Peace) right up there with Machiavelli’s The Prince for its political-science impact.

The line from Marsilius of Padua, to Martin Luther, theology professor at Wittenberg appears almost direct in hindsight, a line heading past the so-called Renaissance into the moral uptightness of northern Europe’s awakening. Declaming from their respective universities, Luther and his 16th-century contemporaries Erasmus the humanist, Calvin the predestinarian, Zwingli the Anabaptist, and Knox the presbyter struggled for the individual believer’s right to interpret holy scripture and find salvation on his and her own terms. Their struggles helped forge a new space in a Europe uniquely divided between church and state, between religious and secular, two antipodes not to be found elsewhere. Universities became a third force in the antithetical mix: church, state, university, or faith, power, learning — a space destined to become gradually more independent in the humanities and the sciences.

The Reformation and Counter-Reformation were about finding scripture to justify the god people wanted. Hardly surprising then that people wanted their science to corroborate their beliefs. Nicolaus Copernicus began astronomical speculations as a student at Bologna with a Latin translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest, the ancient world’s final word on the cosmos. Ptolemy’s Greek treatise had become available to Christian Europeans in the 13th century only after Muslim translations passed over the Pyrenees from Toledo. In opposition to Ptolemy’s geocentric universe, Copernicus had the temerity to postulate a heliocentric cosmos and promptly dropped dead after publishing On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres (1543).

Fast forward one century after Copernicus and we find Galileo Galilei, distinguished holder of the mathematics chair at Pisa, advancing an improved Copernician hypothesis in his revolutionary 1632 book, The Two Chief World Systems. Tried by the inquisition, he was forced to recant propositions based on telescopic observation, excommunicated, confined to house arrest for life, and his revolutionary book consigned to the flames. Fifty years after Galileo’s persecution, Isaac Newton, secure in his Cambridge University fellowship, incorporated the findings of Galilio and the more fortunate Johannes Kepler into the Principia Mathematica (1687) and settled the scientific if not the religious debate definitively. “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in the night,” limned the poet Alexander Pope. “God said, ‘Let Newton be,’ and all was light.”

Historical periods have defining tag lines. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) sums up the Age of Enlightenment. Science promised the disclosure of universal laws. Mankind stood on the threshold of infinite perfectibility. Before the close of this enlightened 18th century, a hugely increased, fidgety, literate new middle class, engaged in commerce, finance, the Atlantic slave trade, and industry, grew more impatient with the old agrarian-based mentalities of dogmatic thought and divine right politics. Historian Robert Darnton’s The Literary Underground of the Old Regime serves up a vivid account of this new cosmopolitan, skeptical bourgeoisie in its coffee houses, cafés, and literary salons. Montesquieu’s theory of political power separated into the legislative, executive, judiciary appealed, as did his anthropological insights about climate, geography and human nature. The English bourgeoisie was confident that the sovereignty question had been answered by the Glorious revolution of 1688 and its Bill of Rights, only a year after the publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

But we would be wrong to imagine that the 17th and 18th-century university had finally escaped what the cultural historian Peter Gay calls the “sacred circle” of hereditary aristocracy and ecclesiastical hierarchy. By far, most universities in the West were still creatures of religious orders or denominations, their trustees guardians of status quo, their faculties’ good behavior rewarded with tenure, their students exclusively male and mostly well-born, and not much more studious than that 13th-century father’s guitar-strumming son at the University of Orleans. Nor were they places where the Deist philosophers Diderot and Voltaire could pass muster with faculty search-committees, much less Rousseau and his explosive theories of the social contract and the general will. David Hume, denied the chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh and at Glascow, famously sneered, “There is nothing to be learnt from a professor which is not to be met with in books.”

One might have expected more enlightened prospects for the university in the brave new world of the American Republic where the framers of the Declaration of Independence had stipulated that all men were created equal. Yet even as they drafted that luminous document, the Founding Fathers could well have pondered Rousseau’s disconcerting observation: “man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” To Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, the gap between the republican ideal and the lived reality of the great majority of Americans was scarcely addressed in the nine original colonial colleges. Philadelphia Quaker and self-taught polymath, Franklin founded the Academy and Charitable School of Pennsylvania in 1740 as the first truly secular institution of higher learning in the Western hemisphere. Open to male students regardless of religion and social status, though not of race, the University of Pennsylvania’s forerunner emphasized commerce and trade, and dispensed with Latin and metaphysics. Twenty-five years later, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson shocked proper opinion when, as Virginia’s governor, he called for the abolition of professorships of divinity and Oriental languages. At the University of Virginia he founded in 1819 the men were permitted to chart their own course of study. Latin and theology ceded to political theory, science, the humanities, and mechanical engineering.

Although Franklin and Jefferson’s experiments represented a fundamental pedagogical and curricular breakout, like their European peers, America’s elite universities carried on parochially much as before, finishing schools for gentlemen. The Yale University Report of 1828 insisted that one size fitted all educational training: Latin, Greek, literature and religion. Platonic education for the elite. The Industrial Revolution’s new mechanics, craftsmen, amateur scientists like Jefferson, printers and tradesmen like Franklin were ignored, as was the other half of American humanity. Women — white women — attended a mere hand full of female seminaries, the first of which, Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, opened in 1821. With the exception of precocious Oberlin College where both populations were admitted in the 1830’s, prevailing opinion held that women ought not be educated and that blacks must not be. Of America’s first Catholic University, Georgetown (1789), it could be said that at least its students were given superior Jesuit instruction in the mainstays of the old time religion — ethics, logic, and philosophy. And so, rather than changes coming from American universities, changes would sweep through them in the 19th-century with a momentum that has several times flagged since, but that would eventually give us the university we know today.

The Civil War came as apocalyptic climax to the slavery paradox at the core of the American civic creed. The nation emerged from a fratricidal war and its agrarian past into the Gilded Age of monopoly capitalism, cheap immigrant industrial labor, convoluted bi-racialism, and the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862, which eventually reshaped the nation‘s educational landscape by allotting the states millions of acres with which to finance the building of hundreds of agricultural and industrial institutions. The Land-Grant College Act of 1890 belatedly included African Americans at about the same time the other underserved population belatedly entered academe. By the 1880s, more than a third of the public colleges admitted women.

Even so, educational progress moved against the grain of culture and the economics of class. At Land-Gant University of Missouri, women were barred from the libraries during hours reserved for men. Ohio State’s president voiced a widely shared concern that co-education ”takes the simper out of the young women and the roughness out of the young men.” Whether public or Ivy League, co-educational or historically black, less than 3 percent of Americans could afford a college education before 1900. The presidents of Princeton and Yale found these numbers satisfactory. The best schools, Yale’s Noah Porter lectured in 1871, “neither pander to popular prejudices nor take advantage of popular humor.” Their students still came largely from old-line Anglo-Saxon families. An impatient Andrew Carnegie complained that the learning in the leading colleges “seems adapted for life on another planet than this [one] as far as business affairs are concerned.” When Columbia’s august historian, John W. Burgess, predicted that most of the colleges “will be largely a waste of capital to maintain, and largely a waste of time to attend them,” the great university crisis demanded audacious and imaginative responses.

Among a variety of substantive responses to the university malaise, four have superordinate significance. Fair to say, the large impact of the individual contributions of NYU, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Wisconsin along with Michigan, ultimately combined to form the foundations of the global university. If prescience is a premier virtue in higher education, then former US treasury secretary Albert Gallatin and the score of merchants, bankers, and traders who established the University of the City of New York in April 1831 have a strong claim upon it. NYU’s creation anticipated by almost two generations the coming crisis of the 1880s. Prosperous, educated New York men of affairs living in the cockpit of immigration and finance knew that they inhabited the American future. They presumed to prepare a proper educational vessel for that future. In a sense, Gallatin, who found the money for Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and planned the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was Mr. Manifest Destiny. The brand new University College London (UCL), the first secular institution in Great Britain, served as model for Gallatin and backers.

Spawned from the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, his more famous son, John Stuart Mill, and the utopian socialist Robert Owen, University College London was regarded as scandalously progressive by proper Englishpersons. John Stuart Mill denounced slavery, espoused feminism, labor unions, and pledged a fight to the death in defense of unpopular ideas. Bentham predicated his utilitarianism on a felicific calculus, an algorith that supposedly determined the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Gallatin, NYU’s visionary first president, summed up the meaning of all this as his secular, privately capitalized university (open on the basis of merit to white men of all classes), commenced operation near City Hall and not far from stodgy Episcopalian Columbia. “It appeared to me impossible to preserve our democratic institutions and the right of universal suffrage,” Gallatin insisted, “unless we could raise the standard of general education and the mind of the laboring classes near the level with those born under more favorable circumstances.”

NYU strayed from the path of “rational and practical learning” prescribed by a much disappointed Gallatin, but, as we shall see, it would recover its meritocratic and instrumentalist origins early in the next century. Meantime, Harvard had sloughed off its New England insularity to become a truly national university at which exceptional men of color such as W.E.B. Du Bois excelled. In one fell swoop, Harvard installed an elective curriculum for undergraduates (Jefferson’s original idea) and racheted up its graduate studies under the presidency of its Boston Brahmin reformer, Charles William Eliot. Eliot had studied the German universities first hand and imbibed their axioms of Lernfreiheit (student freedom to learn) and Lehrfreiheit (faculty freedom to teach). His 1869 inaugural address horrified conservatives. Harvard recognized no “real antagonism between literature and science,” Eliot declared. Yale’s Noah Porter cried “fraud.” Princeton’s James McCosh harrumphed, “It is bid for popularity.” Harvard had slipped the sacred circle of classical learning.

The American research university came of age at Johns Hopkins in the 1870s: again under the guidance of a New England educator inspired by the example of Heidelberg, Tubingen, and Berlin. However, Daniel Coit Gilman’s 1876 inaugural address as its first president committed Hopkins more to specialized research (Lehrfreiheit) than to undergraduate learning (Lernfreiheit). Gilman laid down as fiat that the purpose of the university was not “the acquisition of wealth, but the ascertainment of fundamental law.” Universities were obligated to risk offending received wisdom, Gilman ordained. “The process goes on, indifferent to plaudits or reproaches.” The Hopkins model made university research imperative, publish or perish an existential faculty condition, and indifferent teaching a student bane. By the 1890s, student complaints about “self-deceiving dreamers” who think their books make the world better “while their class work goes unheeded” had become commonplace.

Harvard’s curriculum nurtured examined lives. Hopkins’s reforms inspected life itself. But true innovation arrived when Wisconsin University’ innovative president summoned his faculty and students in 1877 to work for an organic link with civil society in order to lead the fight against the big city machines and the robber baron trusts. There was an echo of Albert Gallatin’s enlightened municipal activism in the progressive Social Service Idea espoused at Wisconsin where the Athenian debate about the purpose of knowledge was settled in favor of a well-served intelligent citizenry.

The Civil War delivered the Morrill Land Grant that made public universities a reality. The Second World War created the America middle class consumer and the federal act known as the G.I. Bill that financed its higher education. By 1960, nearly 8 percent of Americans over 25 had college degrees. A gigantic postwar infusion of federal appropriations for science and technology and physical plant largely supplanted private largesse. New concerns about university independence and integrity reinforced older ones or identified different ones. The intrusive power during the Cold War of the new national security state with its loyalty litmus tests generated a flood of anguished writing. The emergence of the multiversity in the 1980s — a new American phenomenon — troubled humanists like Berkeley’s Robert Bellah who complained in The Good Society (1991) that, “rather than interpreting and integrating the larger society,” the research university “came more and more to mirror it.”

Concern and disquiet are endemic to the academy, yet the last century ended on an inclusive high for universitas. The celebratory title of historian James Patterson’s prize-winning book, Grand Expectations (1996), honors the goals of the human rights revolution started by four African American students in February 1960 at a Land-Grantvcollege, North Carolina A & T, one hundred-one years after the start of the American Civil War. The momentum of the historic sit-ins, the nation’s recoil from the Gothic horrors of the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964; the Berkeley Free Speech Movement that same year; the Port Huron manifesto of civil rights women enraged by the sexism of civil rights men and inspired by Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique; and the seismic antiwar movement that roared across the nation, eventually ending an unwinnable Asian war — all this, plus the baby boomer demographic — undeniably raised some grand American expectations. Over the stubborn objections of those who cherished the cultural structure erected by so-called dead white males, universities became multicolored and multicultural, the de-canonized curriculum featured writings by blacks, women, Hispanics, Asians, and exponents of various life-style identities.

By virtue of the location of its history, New York University was exceedingly well prepared for the 21st century. A private university in the public service, the institution had come down to Washington Square from its imitation Ivy League heights in the Bronx to resume Albert Gallatin and Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian mandate to utilize any and all educational methods to deliver the greatest feasible benefit to the greatest feasible number of citizens, irrespective of race, creed, gender, and other persuasians. Its welcome of Jewish students in the 1920s after the shameful anti-Semitic period in American higher education, was of a piece with the university’s signature cosmopolitanism. The surprisingly modest endowment sustaining a gritty Washington Square elegance has been consistently compensated by NYU’s endowment of resiliency, and innovation under the reforming presidential trinity of John Brademas, Jay Oliva, and John Sexton.

We will surely look back upon this second 21st-century decade and upon this inaugural Abu Dhabi month as the moment when multiculturalism went global. Study abroad is not unique to NYU, certainly, but fair to say, NYU’s version of it has long been unique, for in no other elite research university is 50 percent of the student body expected to broaden its minds and methods outside the United States at any give time. As of this moment, however, we are entered upon our greatest educational experience. From this time onward, it is not only the students who travel abroad to learn. It is the university itself that travels to learn — establishing itself on the shores of a grand gulf that has been the great water causeway of much of civilization. Our new neighborhood is the old one of the Fertile Crescent where Islam preserved and amplified the learning that Bologna and Paris built on two millennia ago. To pursue the image further, our presence should be conducive to those interfaith synergies that sustained the convivencia of Muslim Spain. Why not envision Saadyat Island as the new Toledo, with NYU, groundbreaking art museums, kinetic performing arts centers, solar villages functioning as a permanent festival of culture and art?

In Washington Square, we comprise a great center of ecumenical learning that channels a marvelous supply of human capital. At Abu Dhabi we are at the planet’s geographical center, partners and guests of a proud nation whose warp speed development mirrors, in the long timeframe of history, the rapid rise to wealth and power of the United States at the end of the 19th century. Abu Dhabi in the UAE and the United States confront together the exigent challenges of finite energy resources, problematic mitigation of global warming, global markets beyond any real control by nation-states, and a menacing geopolitics on tripwire. The mother ship’s mission has no term, but John Sexton’s electronic salute to NYUAD last Friday frames our new mission as “the building blocks,” he writes, “ of NYU’s global network university, and paradigm shift in what a university could be that propelled NYU into a leading position among universities worldwide.” We began this address with the ancient Greeks. I close with the words of Archimedes, as they are a perfect expression of the complementary visions of President John Sexton and Sheik Muhammad bin al-Nayan: “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the Earth.”

Thank you.

Abu Dhabi from Space

[Photo Credits: map of Athens from Meyers Konversationslexikon, 4th ed. (1885–90); photo of David Levering Lewis courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi; satellite picture of the island of Abu Dhabu taken by International Space Station in March 2003, courtesy of the Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. Source: http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov, Filmroll: ISS006-E-32079. Click here for detailed copyright information.]