The Qasr al Hosn Festival was a ten-day community exhibition organized by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority and held at the site of fort Qasr al Hosn, the city’s oldest building. Celebrating the history of the fort—which was built in 1761 and later became the ancestral home of the ruling Al Nahyan family—and the heritage of the Emirates following from this iconic structure, the festival boasts many pieces of material culture: traditional objects, structures, foods, and animals.
Perhaps the most prevalent, and the most puzzling, however, were the scores of people who have been appointed to work as the festival’s “cast.” While groups of festivalgoers wandered the old-timey souks, traced circles in the sand atop well-groomed horses and camels, and queued up for theatrical presentations, the cast of Qasr al Hosn performed. Some seemed in another world, focused solely on their handicrafts—among others, two men build a large dhow ship with resinous nails while a third carves palm wood into pieces for a smaller fishing boat; women in leather burkhas wove baskets and carpets with their skillful, henna-blackened fingers; and a group of fisherman sat in a circle, singing old Arabic sea shanties around a pile of wicker fishing nets. Not far away was a full bridal house, complete with a traditional Emirati “bride” and a gaggle of young bridesmaids, dancers with colorful dresses and hair that reached to the center of their backs. Young Emirati men, decked out in old policemen’s uniforms with heavy fake rifles and dusty brown keffiyeh, strolled the festival grounds. These cast members were consciously assembled, like objects in a museum, to both create and communicate a sense of Abu Dhabi’s material cultural heritage, grown from the white washed walls of the old stone fort.
Part of this distinction between person and object—even human “objects”—has to do with the other roles that people fulfill at the festival. Not everyone became an object. Each participant wore an identification tag with one of three distinctions—“Volunteer,” “Event Staff,” or “Cast.” While the cast was responsible for representing traditions of Emirati culture through certain kinds of performance (weaving, singing, crafting, storytelling, simply looking traditional), it was the staff and volunteers who interacted with the festival’s ticketholders. As I entered the festival, I was soon greeted by a young Emirati teen with a red and green armband from Takatof, a volunteer organization in the UAE. This young man, and later a group of knowledgeable high school–age Emirati girls, showed me around the various stalls, booths, and craft areas, explaining each tableau we approached—who the people inside were, what they were doing or making, and how the objects around them functioned.
Contributing to the need for mediation was the language barrier; if I spoke Arabic, I would have been able to understand the stories of the old marine storyteller. But as festival photographers snapped shots of men playing the rababa or building a dhow ship, it was easy to see that these performers were aware of their role as a spectacle of national tradition. Emphasizing this fact were the QR codes placed next to each “scene,” giving smart phone users easy access to these explanations without human contact—in most cases, one was not even required to step inside a building, much less speak to the people inside the tableaux. It was as if observers were expected to treat the cast merely as pieces in a museum, and each exhibit was carefully crafted to put us in the position of passive observers.
Some cast members were hired because of the skills they have—skills that were once an integral part of Emirati life and are now regarded as “artifacts.” The elderly fishermen, for example, weaving fishnets and drying fish in the marine area of the festival, once fed the Emirati community, and now they are “objects” used to demonstrate a historic method of subsistence. As we passed through the souk area, I saw plastic packets of dried fish at one booth, sold by a fresh-faced young Emirati man in national dress. The dried fish was once a staple of the Emirati diet, the souk vendor told me, explaining the various types of fish and their prices. As such, the fishermen would have been active participants in the economy of everyday food production. Now these men only represent daily life; they illustrate elements of Emirati culture that the Emirati girls who showed me around have never experienced. At another booth, vendors sold brightly colored woven cell phone covers. These, I saw later, were also created at the festival, this time by women weaving on a traditional loom. The fishermen and weavers were carefully chosen aspects of the past that my Emirati guides don’t actually remember—their daily lives are presumably not “traditional” enough to be displayed at the festival. So these products, the dried fish and iPhone accouterments, are tools used to remember the past while also repackaging it—literally—to serve the interests of the present.
The traditional Emirati policeman was another kind of human object. Unlike most of the other cast members, these men were mobile, found not only near the model of the police station, but also wandering the festival areas, fake rifles slung across their khaki-clad shoulders. Their minty green and dark maroon Land Rovers were interspersed throughout the heritage site in every area but the marine section, reminding us that the Qasr al Hosn was initially a watchtower and a fortress. The old-style policemen were not too far removed from today’s policemen, and while I don’t think these actors were cast to actually police the festival, they function as crowd control simply by playing the part. By patrolling the festival like policemen would have done, and by placing their trucks in the midst of the crowds, these “police” became objects that both represented order and created order. Just the presence of these men as objects was enough to create a sense of culture that not only represents what is historical, but reinforces present structures.
Using these people—the cast—as objects of material culture helps to serve the interests of the present but may also distort the image of a not so distant past. Actors in other historical reenactments—like Fort Ticonderoga, Jamestown, or Gettysburg, in the United States—are employed to make history come alive for a population that has no first-hand memory or experience of it. Visitors are led among historic rooms containing historic chairs upholstered with historic fabrics, encouraged to try their hand at historic techniques like churning butter, and entertained by performances of historic practices or events. It’s fun to plunge into the past, drawing parallels and comparisons between your life and the ones enacted by the cast with the knowledge that, unlike the American settlers, you can drive home in an air-conditioned car. In contrast, objects at the Qasr al Hosn festival were presented as “historic,” but the history in this case is so recent that it has living subjects—some of the festival’s fishermen are actually fishermen, rababa players actually play the rababa, and traditional coffee is still drunk from traditional coffee pots. This presentation of history, still remembered by some, is different than a 2013 reenactment of the American Revolution because here in Abu Dhabi, we are not looking at the past from a vantage point 250 years in the future. The people and practices showcased at the festival are part of the Emirati heritage, and part of a culture that can not and should not yet be relegated to a dusty box in the attic, or the quaint observations of the historically minded tourist. The Qasr festival put people on display to offer snapshots of a not-too-distant history and remind us of the need to remember the roots of a culture. In doing so, however, it raises the question: do these human “heritage objects” bring the past closer to us, or push it further away?
ON LOCATION IN ABU DHABI
Today the United Arab Emirates is known for its oil wealth, luxurious tourist destinations, and broad diversity of residents. There are millions of foreigners within this nation, enticed by attractive job opportunities and scholarship offers sponsored by the development of a well-endowed nation from a small tribal state to a powerful oil exporter.
Distracted by skyscrapers and shopping malls, it can be easy to forget that the UAE celebrated only its forty-first birthday on Dec 2, National Day. The history of the UAE, grounded in humble beginnings as a land of pearl divers and Bedouins sometimes seems very far away. Distracted by the decadence of skyscrapers and shopping malls, the contemporary residents of grand cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai sometimes fail to grasp the history of the United Arab Emirates and how the modern oil powerhouse emerged from a land of Bedouins and pearl divers.
David Heard’s critically acclaimed book From Pearls to Oil offers a comprehensive look at the changes in the human history of the United Arab Emirates. Heard, who came to the region that encompasses the modern United Arab Emirates as a consultant for oil development in 1963, witnessed the foundations of the country and documented them in his book. Heard was the guest of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute on Oct 14 to talk about his reasons behind the writing of From Pearls to Oil. The conversation was structured as an open question-and-answer session, beginning with designated interviewers and opening up to audience participation.
Heard gave a preview of From Pearls to Oil, reiterating the summary and scope of the book. He defined the time frame of his writings, stating that he chose to focus on the development of the oil situation in the United Arab Emirates from the 1930s to 1970s, or before the establishment of the modern nation. Heard described this time as critical to understanding the social, political, economic and cultural transitions in the United Arab Emirates, because never before had the region been made to open up to the world on such a grand scale. He explained the history of oil in the Middle East and Gulf States, and elaborated on the discovery and politics of oil within the United Arab Emirates, focusing on his own contribution as a mediator between the sheikhs and the oil companies in the process of development.
At first Heard was interrogated by the interviewers about the process behind his authorship of the book. Heard explained that he came to the United Arab Emirates before its founding to work directly with the eventual leaders of the nation in oil consultancy. He thus became friendly with key leaders in Emirati history, as well as powerful oil chairmen and political figures throughout the Gulf. Over ten years of research and three years of writing, Heard developed his understanding of the topic of oil and its history in the United Arab Emirates. Heard stressed that his book is intended as a human narrative, rather than a technical discussion; he sees the most important facet of UAE development to be the human story. Heard explained to the audience that he wanted to create characters and bring the story to life. When criticized by a geologist in the audience for leaving out large explanatory excerpts as to the technology behind oil drilling, Heard countered with the fact that he did not intend to write exhaustive texts about technology, because that wouldn’t illuminate the social progress, which is what enables today’s modern state.
Through his description, it was evident that Heard’s political and diplomatic interactions helped to engender a great openness and cultural understanding of the Emirati leaders and foreign oil companies in the foundations of the modern United Arab Emirates and its effective oil business. Heard emphasized in his dialogue with the audience the word “patience,” which was necessary in the 1960s as he mediated talks with Emirati and foreign politicians in order to forge compromises necessary for the success of the oil contracts that recognized both tradition and modernization. This patience and cultural understanding is what Heard highlights in his book, and stresses as still applicable today. Heard concluded his talk with a reference to the traditional saying: “You are in one wadi, I am in another;” we live in different cultures, levels of understanding, and general social conditions, yet we all share a commonality in our mere existence that must be respected. Just as tolerance was essential to the creation of the modern state of the United Arab Emirates, cultural understanding and acceptance must continue for this nation and its residents to flourish.
[Photo courtesy of Matthew French]
[ 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.
That 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.”
[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.]