Foundation stone-laying ceremony of the residential campus, Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa
The Honourable Professor George Saitoti,
Honourable Member of Parliament,
The Provincial Commissioner,
Your Worship the Mayor,
I am most grateful to all of you for joining in this celebration. It was just one month ago that my Golden Jubilee observances began. It seemed appropriate to mark this Jubilee year by visiting some of the places which have been most important to the story of the past half century.
Our meeting today is among the first of those visits - and that is as it should be. For one thing, Kenya is the country where I spent a good part of my youngest years. It is also a place which has played a central role in the life of the Ismaili community - and in so many activities of the Aga Khan Development Network. When I come to Kenya, I always feel especially at home.
The project which brings us here is one in which I have taken a special interest, and for which I have especially strong hopes. I refer of course to the Aga Khan Academies programme, which was launched here in Mombasa some four years ago.
What was described as a dream when we gathered to open the first Academy is now much better described as a concrete plan –one which extends out in time and space—to a day some ten years from now when the Academy network will embrace some 18 campuses across 14 countries in the developing world. But when that day comes, Mombasa will be remembered as the place where it all began.
But even as the Academies program moves on to new beginnings in new locations -scouting out sites, purchasing land, creating partnerships, planning campuses, and laying cornerstones—we continue to expand its work in Mombasa. Here too we are laying a new cornerstone—the first step in the building of a residential campus which will take this school into a new era—as it broadens its own geographic reach. We do this now with special confidence—based on what this school has already achieved.
The latest evidence is just a month or two old—the results of the recent International Baccalaureate exams -- which are used to measure academic accomplishment at some 1800 schools around the world. To have our very first class of students perform so well –as you have heard—is a great tribute to the students –and to their teachers. And it is also good to know that their academic prowess is matched by their accomplishments in athletics and other co-curricular activities—as well as the qualities of personal character which they exemplify.
A central premise of the Academies program is that students will enter based solely on merit-- not because of financial resources or family background. Our central hope for the program is that when students leave the Academies, they will move on to high quality universities—and then to positions of social leadership. As they go through life, we expect them to reflect the central values of the programme--a strong ethical orientation, a sense of personal discipline and civic obligation, and an appreciation for diversity and pluralism.
You may have heard about a recent survey of public attitudes throughout the world conducted by the Pew Foundation and the New York Times—and released just three weeks ago. The results for Africa, in particular, came as a surprise to many, because they showed an unexpected degree of hope for the future—despite a realistic awareness of present problems. The people of Kenya, in particular, ranked among the more hopeful of African citizens in feeling that their children would someday be better off than people are now. What is it that explains this optimism? Among other things, it reflects a faith in the inherent capacities of the younger generation—a sense of what their natural talents can accomplish if they are given the right opportunities.
And that of course is what the Academies program is all about. That is why we want to do everything we can to extend this programme to include more students – and an even broader range of experiences. In this ambition, we are heartened by an important new World Bank study which indicates that it is not the quantity of time or money that leads to educational success, but rather the quality of specific educational experiences. The stimulus provided by extraordinary teachers and exceptional companions is most important.
The World Bank study confirms a central tenet of our Academies planning, our confidence in the value of a residential campus. We believe that students draw valuable life lessons not only from learning together but also from living together—especially if the mix of students is broadly diversified. The laying of this cornerstone symbolizes this commitment to a residential experience. In addition, we are also committed to building an international network of similar schools—so that those who are enrolled on any one campus will also be able to be study at other Academy sites.
These plans constitute a bold step into the future. But they also reflect a deep respect for the past. The commitments we are discussing today grow out of values which have been central to the history of the Ismaili community in particular and of Islamic cultures in general. My personal interest in education as a key to future grows out of my family history—including the precedent set by my late grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, who began just a century ago to build a network of some 300 schools in South Asia, the Middle East and East Africa.
These efforts, in turn, extended a tradition which stretches back over a millennium and third-- to the very first hereditary Imam of the Shia Muslims, Hazrat Ali Ibn Abi Talib, and his elevation of Knowledge as a central quality in the life of faithful Muslims. As early as the 8 th century, the original Abbasids honored that prescription by creating a series of academies and libraries where new knowledge was honoured. The Fatimids continued this work from Cairo in the 10 th century. Later Ghazni, in Afghanistan became an important learning center. By the middle of the next millennium, an international culture of Knowledge and Learning was thriving under Islamic influence—ranging from the Safavid centers in Iran to the Mughal courts of India and the Uzbek court in Bukhara. In the 19 th century, the Ottoman caliphs added another chapter to this story. And so did my grandfather in his role as the Ismaili Imam.
Against this background, you can understand why the promising start of our Academies programme here in Mombasa means so much to me—and why this ceremony is such an appropriate part of our Jubilee celebrations.
A Golden Jubilee naturally calls on us to rise above the concerns of the immediate present—and to extend our historical vision. As we do so, we recognize that even the small beginnings we undertake today may make a profound impact in decades to come.
One of my institutional commitments has been to help the developing world explore the keys to social and economic progress. But sadly, over these fifty years, I have seen too many developing countries search for those keys in disappointing directions. For a while, it was thought to be enough to simply throw off the yoke of colonialism and to reassert an indigenous cultural identity. Education, from that point of view, became largely a matter of tapping into ancient wisdom. In other cases, the promises of a charismatic ruler would capture the public imagination, reducing the role of education to relative insignificance.
Over time, other potential cures would have their moments in the sun, 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 as a wise observer once said, it’s not so much what we don’t know that hurts us, but also all those things that we are sure we know—but which are just not so. And so it was with many of the so-called certainties of the past.
What the modern world requires, however, is an approach which is the polar opposite of indoctrination. As world affairs have been steadily transformed by the process of globalization, the ability to command and control has become less important than the ability to anticipate, connect and respond. And educational institutions which can instill and enhance those capacities have become essential to effective development.
If the Aga Khan Academies are to fulfill their mission, they must work in these pragmatic directions. To this end, the Academies curriculum seeks to instill a habit of intellectual humility which constantly opens young minds to what it is that they do not know, and which sends them on a wide and rigorous search for new knowledge. In my view, the most important thing a student can learn in any educational institution is the ability to keep on learning.
At the same time, our curriculum also places a strong emphasis on the ethical and spiritual dimensions of life, as well as a more complex understanding of how global economics work, a focus on comparative political systems, and a broad exposure to a variety of world cultures, including the Study of Muslim Civilizations.
Let me address at this point one of the questions which is most often asked about the Academies programme, and that is whether its emphasis on educating future leaders in some way ignores or misserves the interests of a broader public
My response rests on the conviction that the key to the success of democratic societies in the years ahead will be the effectiveness of democratic leadership—not only in government, but also in the private sector in civil society. In a world of bewildering complexity and a mind-bending pace of change, no institution can succeed without wise leadership—and specialized expertise. Yet, too many of those who ought to be effective leaders in years to come are being left behind in the here and now. Because good schools are not available to them early in life, they are often excluded from such opportunities as they grow older.
Does this mean that we should focus only on educating a leadership elite? Not by any means. Broad public education is still a basic obligation of a just society—and I commend all those who are engaged in that noble enterprise. Public education and private education should not be seen as rivals in building a better society—but rather as important collaborators.
But I also believe that the interests of society will be best served if its outstanding future leaders can be given a truly outstanding education—and often it is a specialized private school which is best positioned to fulfill that goal.
How should a healthy society determine who will lead it? For much of human history, leaders were born into their roles, or fought their way in – or bought their way in. Leadership traditionally has depended on physical power, or accumulated wealth, or inherited claims to authority.
But I strongly believe that 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 rather to open the doors of opportunity to students from a broader array of backgrounds. Our goal is to provide a truly exceptional education for truly exceptional students. And we hope that the Academies, by embracing this principle, can also become role models for many other schools.
Educating effective future leaders is a high responsibility. To do it well, we must look beyond the world which is passing from sight and turn our eyes to the unchartered world of the future. We must rise above the antiquated approaches of earlier days and instead infuse our students with what I would call three “A’s” of modern learning - the spirit of anticipation, the spirit of adaptation and the spirit of adventure. This will happen best in learning environments which are both serious and focused on the one hand, but which are also joyous and inspiring places, operating on the cutting edge of pedagogy and knowledge.
To create such environments will be the central mission of the Aga Khan Academies in the years ahead. We are proud of the beginnings which have been made here in Mombasa in pursuing this vision, even as we are thankful to all of those who have contributed to this progress. And we look forward to continuing to work with you in pursuing the great educational adventures of the future.