Text of speech by the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the first Annual Eqbal Ahmad Lecture at Hampshire College, Amherst, MA
16 September 1998

Knowledge and civilisation


"Kofi Annan on the crisis of knowledge in the Third World, Hampshire College"


It is a very special pleasure for me to deliver the first Eqbal Ahmad lecture
here at Hampshire College. Professor Ahmad is known to you in the five colleges
as a distinguished teacher whose intellect and example have enriched your
lives.

I know him as a public intellectual who crossed many boundaries to engage in
struggles for liberation and human rights, a fearless thinker whose analysis of
world events has helped me to understand some of the issues with which the
United Nations must grapple every day.

Among those issues, as this audience will know, is the threat of the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Last June, the world witnessed
with deep apprehension the decisions of India and Pakistan to conduct nuclear
tests. A new and dangerous source of instability was introduced to an
environment in which sentiments of rivalry, suspicion and mistrust were
dominating all discourse. To the outside world, it appeared that within those
two nations, nuclear nationalism had won the day.

Voices of dissent were few and far between. But Eqbal Ahmad's voice was heard
by all who wished to listen: warning Pakistan of the perils of following India
down the nuclear path and urging leaders and citizens alike to choose reason
over rage, moderation over might, the future over the past. It is that
commitment to putting knowledge to the service of humankind, that example of
learning infused with a moral conscience, that we honour today.

As students, you have been told, no doubt, by parents and teachers that
education is a great privilege, that you should be grateful for the chance to
improve your minds and that you should seize this opportunity to expand your
horizons. I do not fault you for sometimes thinking that this is just a way of
getting you to study. Sometimes it is. But there is a deeper, more lasting
truth to what they are saying. Throughout history there has existed an
essential linkage between knowledge and the growth of civilisations. The
relationship between knowledge, its communication, and progress -- be it
economic, political or social -- has been permanent and organic. The
educational process as formalized through schools and colleges is at the heart
of civilisation.

Moreover, throughout history knowledge has been universal. Only with the age
of nationalism and imperialism was knowledge invested with hard boundaries. In
fact, knowledge has never recognized boundaries, but rather defied all notions,
past and present, of civilisations clashing.

The roots of Greek civilisation lay deep in Africa. And we know how the Arabs
learned from Greece, India, and China, making their own advances in science,
mathematics, aesthetics, and philosophy, how the European renaissance was
assisted by the intellectual achievements of the Islamic civilisation and how
modern western art has been influenced by the African and Japanese impressions.
History is witness to the fact that ambitions, interests and, sometimes,
ideologies clash. Civilisations rarely do. In fact, they are based on the
exchange of knowledge and artistic influence and, in turn, nurtured by that
exchange.

Today, therefore, I wish to draw your attention to the crisis of knowledge in
the Third World, to how that crisis feeds the view that civilisations
inevitably must clash and to why restoring a global culture of knowledge must
and will be a priority for the United Nations system of the next century.
The crisis in education in the Third World is, above all, a crisis of
priorities facing states with increasing responsibilities in an era of
decreasing resources. This is partly a problem of history. Third World plans of
education were drawn up, by and large, by colonial powers whose outlook and
needs were different from those of sovereign states in the last years of the
20th century.

Yet, in the post-colonial period, expenditures on arms have far surpassed
those on books and teachers. Practically no attention has been paid to
reformulating educational objectives appropriate to the requirements of these
societies. What little attention has been given to the educational enterprise
has gone into the physical output of new campuses and school houses. The need
for renewal and reform is greater than ever.

Our age -- the age of globalisation -- offers a unique opportunity to reverse
course. Globalisation, as you all know, is a subject of much discussion and
research today. But there is a tendency still to view the matter largely in
economic terms. Globalisation is affecting all aspects of our lives, from the
political to the social, to the cultural. Only knowledge, it would seem, is not
being globalised. In an age where the acquisition and advancement of knowledge
is a more powerful weapon in a nation's arsenal than any missile or mine, the
knowledge gap between the North and South is widening. Alas, education often
seems the last priority, leading too many Third World students to leave for the
West to acquire knowledge and education.

That is the tragedy of far too many Third World countries striving to escape
poverty and establish democratic rule. Too many regimes and too many rulers
govern by the gun. They allow only those investments that will prolong their
rule rather than provide for their people's progress. Indeed, education is
often seen as the enemy of tyranny for it is the means of dissent and a tool of
resistance.

We are all consumers of the products of modern science and technology.
However, a large part of the world has had no part in the process of their
discovery, invention and production. Unless we embark urgently on a programme
of globalising the generation of and access to knowledge, the unequal
development of the world will only continue.

In recent decades, international agencies have accorded some importance to
encouraging primary and secondary level schooling. This has some effect in
shifting local priorities in favour of basic education. Unfortunately, higher
education continues to suffer from neglect. Lack of resources have so drained
third world universities of good faculties that all of its Nobel Laureates in
science have won their prizes for research accomplished in the West.

That is why the United Nations will make universal access to knowledge
central to all our development activities. Next month, UNESCO will host a World
Conference on Higher Education attended by more than 100 ministers of
education. Their mission will be to join 2,000 teachers, students and education
experts in an effort to renew higher education world-wide.

They will seek innovative ways to stop the growing disparity between North
and South in access to knowledge through higher education. They will strive to
improve national educational systems as a way of preserving our global
diversity while opening new channels of communication between peoples.

By complementing those efforts in our development and post-conflict peace-
building work, we will help ensure that former combatants will become future
students, that for them, the first day of peace will be a day for school and
that in those schools they will learn to resolve differences peacefully.

Although I have spoken so far in the context of post-colonial societies, in
important respects the challenge is universal. We live in an age in which
material imperatives tend to overwhelm the moral and spiritual ones. This
affects the learning environment in ways that are harmful to societies no less
than individuals. What can get lost in such an environment is the essence of
education -- its social and moral imperatives.

Not that one expression of knowledge is to be implanted everywhere. Nor that
one tradition of learning is to dominate all others. Rather, I believe that
every society must restore a culture of knowledge that encourages the pursuit
of ideas and their application in fostering a universal understanding of the
meaning of civilisation.

Civilisations have always been enriched, and not weakened, by the exchange of
knowledge and arts, the freer and more peaceable the better. In the relations
between nations, it is rather the lack of education and the dearth of knowledge
which is a chief source of dispute and conflict.

Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda and, in most modern
conflicts, the men of war prey on the ignorance of the populace to instill
fears and arouse hatreds. That was the case in Bosnia and in Rwanda where
genocidal ideologies took root in the absence of truthful information and
honest education. If only half the effort had gone into teaching those peoples
what unites them, and not what divides them, unspeakable crimes could have been
prevented.

This is not to say that ideas and interests do not clash. They do, and always
will. But those clashes can and must be resolved peacefully and politically.
That is why the culture of knowledge which we seek will advance not only
development, but also mutual appreciation between cultures.

Perhaps there is no greater need for such appreciation today than between the
Islamic peoples and those of the West. Too often, this question is discussed
only through crude, invidious generalisations about the beliefs of one group or
the behaviour of the other. Too often, the rhetoric of resistance from one
group or other is deemed representative of the views of millions.

What is ignored is the historic and ever-growing interaction between peoples,
the ways in which individual states -- regardless of religious affiliation --
define, defend, and pursue their interests and the propensity of states as well
as individuals to form alliances and allegiances on other grounds than ethnic
belonging or religious affiliation.

What this history should and must teach us is that, alongside a global
diversity of cultures, there does exist one, world-wide civilisation of
knowledge within which ideas and philosophies meet and develop peacefully and
productively. It is a civilisation defined by its tolerance of dissent, its
celebration of cultural diversity, its insistence on fundamental, universal
human rights and its belief in the right of people everywhere to have a say in
how they are governed.

This is the civilisation for which the United Nations labours and for whose
attainment a global culture of knowledge is necessary. Socrates taught us that
there is only one good, knowledge, and only one evil, ignorance. In that
spirit, Eqbal Ahmad has pursued a life of moral and intellectual engagement as
teacher and writer. Not satisfied, however, to rest on his laurels, he has now
dedicated himself to narrowing as best he can the knowledge gap between North
and South.

He is working at establishing a center for higher learning in Pakistan, to be
named Khaldunia University, an institution that will seek to build character no
less than enlivening a tradition of scholarship and critical thought. Many of
you will know the symbolism of naming a university after Ibn Khaldun.

This last great Arab historian of the Middle Ages was a globalist long before
the age of globalisation. Born in Northern Africa, he grew up in Spain and
crossed many boundaries in search of knowledge and service. He defined the aims
of education in a timeless fashion, insisting that knowledge knows no boundary,
that its essence is man in relation to his environment, that a people's well-
being is defined by its level of knowledge and its ability to utilize it in the
real world.

He argued that civilisations decline when they lose their capacity to
comprehend and absorb change and that the "greatest of scholars err when they
ignore the environment in which history unfolds".

I can think of no higher ideal for scholarship and no better model on which
to base the pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, these are the values that underlie
all that we seek at the United Nations. It is this unity of ideals, this common
pursuit of peace through knowledge that has brought me here today.


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* Text of speech by the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the
first Annual Eqbal Ahmad Lecture at Hampshire College, Amherst on 16 September,
1998

   

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