Foundation stone-laying ceremony of the Aga Khan Academy
Your Excellency the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh,
Ladies And Gentlemen:
Let me begin by thanking all of you for honoring us by joining in this celebration – at this truly magnificent site. We are most deeply grateful to all who helped to make this site available to our Academy program. Your generosity will be a continuing inspiration to us all.
Our celebration today is part of a long, unfolding story. It is, for me, a highly personal story – growing out of my family’s active involvement through the years in the field of education – especially in the developing world.
It was just about a century ago that my grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, began to build a network of educational institutions in places where the Ismaili community had settled. This network would eventually include some 300 schools – 200 of which my grandfather opened personally.
In addition, he was the founding figure of Aligarh University, and I have continued that tradition through the establishment of the Aga Khan University and the University of Central Asia.
The tradition I am describing, however, goes back much further than one hundred years. For it was some one thousand years ago that my forefathers, the Fatimid Imam-Caliphs of Egypt, founded Al-Azhar University and the Academy of Knowledge in Cairo. For well over a millennium, the pursuit of knowledge has been a central element in our tradition.
Against this background, you can understand why this new educational beginning means so much to us.
But even while we renew a rich tradition inherited from the past, we are also looking deeply into the future. What we begin here may not have its full impact in any of our lifetimes. But the beginnings we undertake today may well be among the most important things we will ever do.
I would like to speak initially about the logic behind the Aga Khan Academies program – to look at its philosophical underpinnings. For unless those foundations are sound, whatever we build will be inherently vulnerable.
We are taking our time in laying those foundations. We are designing for the long-range future and we have thought long and hard about our goals and how to achieve them. We have launched research projects and surveys. We have done our homework.
At the very heart of our conclusions – is one, central conviction: the key to future progress in the developing world will be its ability to identify, to develop, and to retain expert and effective home-grown leadership.
In our lifetimes, the developing world has looked in various directions for the key to progress. For a while, it was thought to be enough that indigenous peoples simply throw off the yoke of colonialism – which for some was the most important barrier to fulfillment and progress. This viewpoint often evolved into a hope that reasserting cultural identity would unlock the future – and education sometimes became mainly a matter of tapping into ancient wisdom, expressed in distinctive languages. In many places, the promises of a charismatic ruler also captured the public imagination – the mystique of the romantic hero – and public education sometimes slipped into relative insignificance.
Over time, as frustration mounted, other cures were entertained in parts of the developing world. Ideologies of the left and the right came into vogue – ranging from the siren songs of state socialism on one side to the allure of unrestrained capitalism on the other. The demands of dogma came to replace the disciplines of reason – and education too often turned into indoctrination.
But none of these approaches proved adequate to the demands of their times – and all of them seem increasingly inadequate to the demands of the present. A different approach has been needed. I would note that the people of this city and this region were among those who first came to realize this fact – and to respond impressively to the challenge.
That response – here and elsewhere – has had, as its centerpiece, a distinctive intellectual style and a creative approach to leadership. As the pace of history has accelerated, agility and adaptability have become more important qualities than mere size or strength, and the race of life has gone increasingly to the nimble and the knowledgeable.
As the economic arena has been globalizing, openness and flexibility have become prerequisites for progress, and success has gone more and more to those who can connect and respond.
Specialized expertise, pragmatic temperament, mental resourcefulness – these are increasingly the keys to effective leadership – along with a capacity for intellectual humility which keeps one’s mind constantly open to a variety of viewpoints and welcomes pluralistic exchange.
In such a world, the most important thing a student can learn is the ability to keep on learning.
What these developments mean is human resources have become more important than natural resources in determining the wealth of a society. And yet, there are still too many communities in which the true potential of the human resource base is sadly underdeveloped.
Too many of those who ought to be leading their communities in the hopeful world of tomorrow, are being left behind in the real world of today. Because good schools are not available to them early in life, they are often blocked from such opportunities as they grow older. And even those who do break through, into a world of wider educational opportunity, too often also break out – and leave their home regions. The result is a widening gap between the expert and effective leadership these communities need – and the leadership their educational systems are likely to deliver.
Am I saying that we should focus only on educating a leadership elite? Not by any means. Broad public education is still an essential obligation of a just society. But I also believe that the best interests of every society will be best served if its future leaders can be adequately prepared for an unusually demanding future – if its outstanding students, in short, can be given an outstanding education.
Every society develops and depends on some set of leaders – but the great question is how those leaders are developed and chosen. For much of human history, leaders were born into their roles, or they fought their way in – or they bought their way in. Elites were normally based on physical power, or accumulated wealth, or inherited claims to authority.
But social progress can be greatest when aristocracies of class give way to aristocracies of talent – or to use an even better term – to meritocracies.
The well-led society of the future, in my view, will be a meritocracy – where leadership roles are based on personal and intellectual excellence.
Our goal, then, is not to provide special education for a privileged elite – but to provide an exceptional education for the truly exceptional.
This is the fundamental philosophy undergirding our Academies program.
How, then, will these goals be realized in practice? In all candor, some of our plans may have few precedents in this country and may strike some observers here as new and distinctive. But we have seen them tested in other contexts and believe they represent worthwhile challenges.
Our plans begin with the realization that governments alone cannot meet the educational challenges of the 21st century. Nor can private institutions which are constrained by the necessity to earn a profit. The answer lies in the expanding role of civil society – in voluntary institutions which are not governmental but which are nonetheless dedicated to community values and the public good. We hope that the Aga Khan Academies will become leading exemplars of civil society’s potential role.
Access to these schools (each of which will enroll 700 to 1200 young men and women) will thus be based solely on merit – not on financial resources. Intellectual capacity and intrinsic character will determine not only who is admitted, but who is actively recruited – for matriculation at these schools must go beyond passive selection and include an active outreach effort.
Once admitted, students will pursue a diverse and balanced curriculum, one which will evolve constantly as learning expands at an unprecedented pace. The best schools of the future will be those which select wisely just what learning will best help prepare students for an unpredictable future.
Our curriculum will be designed to qualify students for the widely-respected International Baccalaureate degree – and beyond that, for admission to the very best university programs that may interest them – in India and in every part of the world.
The International Baccalaureate program will help us prepare students to meet world-class standards – joining a community of some 1800 other schools who use the IB framework, including highly respected institutions here in India. Using that framework, we can ensure that the education we provide will be tied to global concerns and keep pace with global developments.
But the Aga Khan Academies will also have their own areas of special emphasis, including: an explicit concern for the value of pluralism, a strong emphasis on the ethical dimensions of life, a more specialized knowledge of how global economics work, and a focus on comparative political systems.
We are often told these days that tension and violence in much of the world grows out of some fundamental clash of civilizations – especially a clash between the Islamic world and the West. I disagree with that assessment. In my view, it is a clash of ignorances which is to blame. The Academies will seek to remedy such ignorances through the broad study of a variety of world cultures, including the Study of Muslim Civilizations, a subject which is often overlooked in some parts of the world today.
The principal language of instruction will be English – today’s primary language of global connection. But connectedness will also be enhanced in other ways. Every graduate will at least be bilingual, for example, and many will be trilingual. In his or her home Academy, a student will not only meet other students from a variety of cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds – but they will get to know one another as friends and neighbors – something that residential schools are well-equipped to foster. And many will study for at least a year outside their home cultures, as well.
Each of our Academies can be thought of, in sum, as a center for cross-cultural education. And the City of Hyderabad, with its rich history as a meeting point for different cultures, including the Christian, Hindu and Muslim traditions, will provide a particularly appropriate setting.
The spirit of pluralism will be further enhanced by the fact that each Academy will be part of a larger network. All of them will be linked electronically and will serve students and faculty throughout the system through video-conferencing and other distance learning technology--as well as through programs whereby teachers and students will work for a time in a distant setting.
Building a global network of Academies will enable us to pursue simultaneously two sometimes divergent goals. On the one hand we want our students to understand and appreciate the variety of the world and the diversity of its peoples. On the other hand, we want to ensure a certain consistency in the quality of instruction and in the pursuit of core values. Building a wide network of schools around the same fundamental principles will allow us to pursue both of these objectives.
There will be one teacher for about every seven students at our Academies, and the teachers will not only be actively recruited, carefully selected and equitably compensated, but they will also be expertly trained and continually retrained. World class standards are ever-evolving standards—staying on the cutting edge is a not a static process. Not only will we need highly professional instructors, but we must also be sure that our instructors are well-instructed. State-of-the art teaching technologies will help our faculties as they reach for this goal.
In short, we seek not only to train the next generation of expert leaders, but also to develop a professional corps of world-class teachers. Emblematic of this commitment is the fact that a Professional Development Center, focused on the improvement of teaching, will be part of the central Academic Building on each of our campuses. If all goes well, teachers at the Aga Khan Academies will become role models not only for their students, but for other teachers in their communities.
We also realize, as I have already suggested, that much of what our students will learn over time they will learn from one another – not only in formal classroom settings but in residential and social contexts, in a wide range of extracurricular activities and in community service projects, as well. The Academies will be concerned with the whole of the human being – mind, body and spirit – and with the broad range of human aspiration – intellectual, moral, artistic, physical and spiritual. The fact that these are residential academies will contribute enormously to these broad objectives, encouraging students to identify more completely with the school, to help lead it and shape its environment.
We envision that our graduates will emerge as well rounded men and women, enriched by their participation not only in rich learning communities but in rich living communities as well.
All of these commitments imply a special emphasis on the quality of our physical resources – on the built environment, as it is often called – including the quality of architectural design. As it has so often been said, we first shape our buildings, and then they shape us.
In sum, the Academies will be serious, focused, rigorous environments – but at the same time they will be spacious and joyous places. They will operate on the cutting edge of knowledge and pedagogy, but they will be rooted in history and steeped in tradition.
It is such an institution that I hope to bring to the city of Hyderabad.