2120 Hindsight: Commencement Address by Dean Hasayna Silverstein

17Jun08

My fellow scholars:

I greet you at a special moment in the history of Avicenna University. This year marks the centennial of the founding of this educational institution in 2020. With you, members of the class of 2120, I feel the excitement of releasing you into the world, to share with it the marvelous gifts you have shared with us during these past six years.

As I was preparing the remarks I will be making today, I thought you might appreciate hearing a full 15-minute speech, in the style of the times when this university was founded. [Audience laughs lightly.] In those times, it was believed that wisdom came primarily from wise people. Everyone wanted to be considered wise; therefore, everyone had a great deal to say.

It seemed absurd, at the time, to imagine that one of the 22nd century’s leading centers of education would arise here in the blue grass of the district – what was then the state – of Kentucky. Places like this were backwaters, as people called them then: they were places where the water just sat, rather than rushing rapidly to somewhere or other. Backwaters were thought to be places where not much was happening – where wise people did not tend to congregate, and where, therefore, wisdom was believed to be in short supply. Water was not supposed to just sit around and do nothing. [At the mention of water, the audience grows very quiet.]

We know, now, where that leads. Funny, how the imagery changes when circumstances change. We are now more inclined to realize that, when water rushes off to some other place, you can’t keep it and use it. It’s gone. Backwater stays put, and remains available for those who need it.

The 20th century’s frothy centers of intellectual ferment brought strange fire to the hands of people bent upon misusing it. The yeast fermented uncontrollably. Finally, the batch blew up. The so-called Islamic Manhattan Project returned the strange fire of nuclear power to its birthplace, sending an exceedingly urgent message to political and intellectual leaders worldwide. Suddenly, froth was not so appealing; suddenly listening, reading, and thinking became as valuable and esteemed as speaking, writing, and teaching had been.

And so the way was prepared for the world’s discovery and embrace of Islam, enduring philosophy of the desert. The way was prepared, that is, for the interminable cycle of reflective life in which all (and university faculty most of all) are humbled before the vastness of that which they do not know. In the Judeo-Islamic backlash that followed the devastation of New York City, our thousand-year-old heritage was rediscovered. True Islam – the Islam of Avicenna, Averroes, and others of their era; of humble, openhearted, and exceedingly kind thought – reemerged.

Thus, this proud university came into existence. Here, you have found a haven from the harried practicality of everyday life, from the day-to-day struggles of those who must rely upon common sense in order to survive. I have satisfied myself, from extensive conversation with each of you, that you are well aware of the extraordinary privilege to which you have been entitled, during these years of reading and contemplating classical works in their original languages. You have acquired an education, in the very deepest and most consequential sense of the word.

You are now prepared, beyond any likelihood of temptation into practical affairs, to labor in good and anonymous pursuits, providing unpatented and virtually uncorrupted insights to political leaders and other decisionmakers whose entanglements would otherwise prevent them from achieving depth of insight or clarity of purpose. You cannot cure the desperate internal deficits that compel those unfortunate souls to seek approval in the eyes of thousands of onlookers; but, like generations of Avicenna graduates before you, you can – and you will – help those decisionmakers utilize the fruits of reflective wisdom at a level they would otherwise be unlikely to attain, within the still-benighted world in which they must function.

Avicenna, the scholar, helped to preserve the knowledge upon which Europe would later depend, during those dark centuries before Europe was prepared to use that knowledge. Avicenna, the university, likewise came into existence in a period that spanned many dark centuries, when an obsession with material goods and individual survival had left the bulk of humanity increasingly incapable of experiencing deep satisfaction and peace within themselves, with others, and with nature. In place of an individualistic, competitive divisiveness that had turned people against their neighbors and their planet, Avicenna University offered a path forward, one that will work sustainably for all of humanity, forever.

[Dean Silverstein lifts her hands. Members of the graduating class rise.]

This, then, is your fate, dear students. I welcome you to your futures. I bless your endeavors. I thank you, as my colleagues, for blessing us with your presence.

Let us now enjoy some refreshments and return to our work. But first, please allow me to append a short comment about this unusual little speech I have given.

I realize I have said many things here. These are things to which you, the graduating members of the class of 2020, have already been exposed. It will not be difficult for you to ponder and process my words, lengthy though they have been. But I do want to express my concern on behalf of those parents, family members, and other members of the audience who have not been so fully exposed to such subjects, whose daily meditations may thus be disturbed, for some time to come, by the thoughts I have expressed. Had this not been such an important milestone in the history of this institution, I would not have made such a speech. In the consensus of the faculty of the university, however, these are thoughts of such importance as to merit inclusion in your reflections. May they serve you well.

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