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Communications and Marketing

TEDx Talk: Transcript

“I am sure you know Rumi, the prolific the 13th-century Persian poet and mystic. What you probably don’t know is how he wrote his six-volume magnum opus: the Masnavi. You see, he didn’t exactly write it, as much as he went to class and extemporized it. That’s right. Rumi lectured in rhyming couplets.

This is a great method that I wholeheartedly recommend to all teachers in the room. I am sure you’ve noticed that when your lectures don’t rhyme students tend to check their messages under the table every ten minutes. I don’t think that ever happened to Rumi!

But, that is not even the most remarkable thing about Rumi’s Masnavi. That would be the fact that the more than 50.000 single lines of Masnavi is the record of one single conversation he held with one of his students by the name of Hosām el’din.

Rumi scholars have note that after the completion of the first four volumes, there was a hiatus in composition of Masnavi. That’s when Hosām el’din’s wife died and he was inconsolable. He couldn’t go to class, so… Rumi stopped teaching. That is why the fifth volume of Masnavi starts with this line:

King Hosām el’din, who is the light of the stars

Calls for the resumption of the fifth volume of ours.

Note how he addresses his student and interlocutor as a king and literally praises him to high heaven!

Rumi’s way is what I  call “Pure Learning and Collaborative Thinking.” Socrates did the same thing. Some may think this method of instruction is too arcane and impractical for the 21st century. And that’s what I thought until I finished my graduate work and found myself in a strange American setting called a “Liberal Arts College” with old knurled oak trees, ancient buildings, a even a Latin motto. And soon it dawned on me that this uniquely American tradition comes pretty close to the ways of Rumi and Socrates. These masters didn’t think of education as unloading a ship onto containers on some wharf. It was more like raising a barn: They engaged their students in a process of thinking and learning together. And what was taught was as much about that method of collaborative thinking as it was about content. 

I am no luddite but you can’t get that in narrow job-training programs for profit institutions, in auditorium size mega classes of big universities or in the cubicles of remote learning! This kind of education is more about personal transformation than transmitting data.

I never forget when the concerned parent of my advisees whose daughter had expressed an interest in majoring in philosophy asked me: “But what can my Bria do with a degree in philosophy?” I didn’t say this for fear of appearing glib, but the right answer would have been: “The question is not what Bria can do with a degree in philosophy but rather what a degree in philosophy can do with Bria!” 

Let me be candid. When I wax poetic about this kind of education (and I tend to do that from time to time) I don’t mean to imply that we should ignore the careers of our students. Nor am I suggesting that we are doing enough to prepare students for careers in our Liberal Arts Colleges. Indeed I firmly believe we need to do much more on those fronts. All I am saying is that we should not reduce education to job trainings aimed at landing that first job out of the gates of college.

I am saying that there should be a place for “pure learning and collaborative thinking” in higher education, not only for its innate sweetness that the students of Socrates and Rumi – and hopefully some of ours – have enjoyed, but also for its many dividends.

What are those dividends? For starters: A well-functioning democracy, and an innovative work force. After all democracy is not a constitution written a piece of paper. Nor is it just about “people power.” A democracy can’t survive if its run by mobs and unthinking crowds. And it sure doesn’t need obedient, tax paying “subjects.” A democracy is a democracy by virtue of a true public composed of citizens. And citizens aren’t born. They are made. A citizen is someone who doesn’t vote her pocketbook, someone who welcomes participation and cares for the common good. She participates in the affairs of the society not as an altruistic chore but as an opportunity to work out and tone that part of the mind that makes us fully human. Aristotle had this one right and I am fully with him on this point.

But who is charged with educating and training these participators practitioners of democracy? It is only through proper intellectual exercise that we can foster the habits of disinterested search for truth and competent negotiation of differences.

Now these days we have a flare up of an old debate that pits “Liberal Arts Education” against “Vocational Training.” We have had permutations of this discussion since the days of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. But I think this is a false dichotomy. Good Education must prepare us for both citizenship and a vocation. Note that I used the word “vocation.” I didn’t say a “job!” 

Frankly, don’t like word “job”. Since that word was coined around 16th century it has always been associated with things like “mass” and “lump,” “piddling” and even “dishonest” work! It brings to mind an empty suit waiting to be worn. We talk about a temporary job, a second job – not to mention a “con job!” We have dead end jobs. But we don’t have dead end vocations.

Unlike the word “job”, “vocation” has always had an inspiring connotation. It has a respectable pedigree in both Catholic and Protestant theologies. Catholics thought of vocation as a calling to serve God. But that was not the only meaning of the word. They also taught that at a more basic level, “love” is the true vocation of every human being.

Protestants too believed that a vocation or a calling is divinely ordained. But they expanded the meaning of vocation to include any human profession. The assumption is that every single person has a divinely ordainged vocation… just as surely as he or she has a bellybutton. Young people must be given time to discover their true vocation. But I don’t urge young people to look for it in Wanted Adds. 

To the young people in the audience I say: Look inside to discover your vocation… and take your time. I love the word that my freshmen use when I ask them about their major: “Undecided!” How universal! How open! What a luxury to be able to go into the academic world, stop by various departments, take a course or two and kick the tires to see if the sound echoes in your soul! It is then that you go on to learn the skills for the work for which you feel an innate affinity.  

So, far from an adversary, vocational training is (and if it isn’t, should be) the name of the game in Liberal Arts Education. By contrast, “job training” will only ensure that we prepare students for the markets of yesterday instead of opportunities of tomorrow.  A generation of narrowly trained, if full employed, automatons will not be versatile enough to think outside the proverbial box.

Indeed, you can’t teach students to think outside the box any more than you can teach them to be leaders. Let’s face it: There is a paradox here. We cannot teach innovation and leadership because by definition these abilities defy canned lessons. All we can do is prepare students for innovation and leadership by opening up their horizons and teaching them to swim against the tides of habits and clichés.  And of course we should be able to demonstrate that we are able to do this by careful assessment of our students and by tracking their career paths.

Now the cult of reductive pragmatism would demand that everything we teach have some known practical application. What if someone, God forbid, decides to major in something as impractical as, say, astronomy or paleontology? I mean these folks just wonder about in the wilderness and look at rocks or gaze at stars! They don’t find water, make food, build machines, sell stuff or count your beans! 

No, they don’t.

Except… recently paleontologist discovered that every sixty five million years our planet is struck by a giant asteroids that causes mass extinction of species. Our species doesn’t remember any such hit because if we witnessed it, we wouldn’t be here to talk about it. Our species has been around only for a million years or so. Oh, and did I mention that these paleontologists also remind us that we may be overdue for one of those strikes?

That prediction got their astronomer colleagues thinking. And now, thanks to these pure, idle thinkers, we have a science to detect and a technology to deter one of these uninvited heavenly guests that could barge and ruin our entire day.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I submit that it is thanks to centuries of very impractical speculation that now we are in a position to protect our spices from sudden annihilation.

So… Let us keep pure learning and collaborative thinking alive in our higher education so we can ensure that we have a generation of communicatively competent citizens, innovative workers and dedicated scientists to look out for the interests of our society and planet.

I will close with another Persian poet, Naser Khosrow, who says: 

Allow your tree to hang low with the fruits of pure knowledge and skill

And you’ll be enabled to bring down the blue dome of the heavens at will.”

Ahmad Sadri