Address by Professor Richard Pring
Lead Director of the Nuffield Review of
14-19 Education and Training and the Former Director of the Department
of Educational Studies at Oxford University
I feel very honoured to be invited to speak
at the Graduation Ceremony for the students of the University’s
Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations. My connections with the
Aga Khan University stretch back 20 years. (And, indeed, looking
around, I seem to be one of the few constant connections with the AKU,
for the last two decades). Those many visits to Karachi, to the
University’s work in the north of Pakistan and in Afghanistan, to its
professional development centre in Dar es Salam, and then, in later
years, to the achievements of this Institute, have revealed to me an
ideal of a university which I have never witnessed elsewhere.
I wish briefly to expand on this from the
experience I have had of the Aga Khan University over the years, to
spell out its unique contribution to the world’s higher education and to
remind you of the responsibilities which now lie on the shoulders of
those who have had the privilege to benefit from it.
In pursuing this theme, I shall make two major points.
First, I shall recall my early experience and
knowledge of the University in Karachi, and of the ideals which shaped
its formation and unique form of development. That brief story, you
might say, has little to do with the studies here of Muslim
Civilisations. Such studies would seem very different from the more
practical and professional nature of the Departments of Community Health
Sciences or the Medical School or the Institute for Educational
Development, with which the University began. There I believe you would
Second, therefore, I wish to say how central
is that study of the Muslim Civilisations, from which you have
benefited, to that overall vision of the University which strives to
bring the benefits of its scholarship, teaching and research to a
divided and deeply troubled world.
The first department or faculty of the new
University was, I understand, that of Community Health Sciences. An odd
choice, you might think, in a university which aimed for international
renown and to be in the first division of world universities. The
Oxfords and Cambridges of this world do not have Schools of Nursing.
Would it not have been more prestigious to start with a Faculty of
Science or to have world renowned departments of Philosophy and
Theology? Why not begin with the Humanities – or, indeed, with an
Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations?
The aim of the University was to make a
difference to the world – to bring the fruits of civilisation (a morally
and spiritually based civilisation) to those most in need. Not long
ago, at a conference in Oman, which was concerned with the expansion of
its higher education, I was speaking about this, referring to the
example of the Aga Khan University. A major representative from the
World Health Organisation immediately took up the theme. He spoke of the
50% decline in child mortality in a poor district of Karachi due to the
work of the Faculty of Community Health Sciences – a practical and
professional engagement with the community but based on, and informed
by, medical and social research from the University. Here was an
integration of knowledge and practice, driven by a vision of a society
to be created, not by knowledge simply to be acquired for its own sake.
Then, of course, the Faculty of Medicine –
again, the early development of the University to make a difference
through the education and training of doctors who would serve society,
but would do this with the help of first class research, linked with
top-ranking universities elsewhere.
And, finally, the development of the
Institute for Educational Development, and its distinctive model for the
professional development of teachers, shared with the Universities of
Oxford and Toronto. That model has at its centre a profound respect for
the teaching profession. As in health, so in education, the raising of
standards and the improvement of life of the poor and of the
disadvantaged requires intelligent, reflective and well-researched
understanding, an integration of knowledge and practice, a community of
In a visit to see the work of the University
in the Hunza Valley, near Karimabad, I saw the fruits of this. A rather
poor rural area was served by the Aga Khan Health Centre, an Aga Khan
School and an Aga Khan Centre for Rural Development – bringing together
the fruits of educational ideals, the developments in health care and
the knowledge and skills to improve the local agricultural economy. The
school itself was the product of architectural research which made it a
possible place of refuge should the district suffer from earth tremors.
Different kinds of knowledge, different kinds
of skill, different kinds of research, all pulled together in a unique
way, for each feeds into and enhances the other. Health depends on
higher educational standards. A more scientific approach to economic
improvement depends on a healthy and educated workforce. All depend upon
research and a vision of what should be.
But what, you might ask, has this got to do with the study of Muslim Civilisations?
What I have just said reflects an idea of a
university focused on social improvement – namely, professional
preparation of those who are to teach, to nurse, to work in the
communities, to practice medicine and to improve in many ways the
societies they go back to. Such a university is shaped by noble ideals,
certainly, but they are practical. The pursuit of knowledge arises from
practical problems and from moral concerns.
The doubters, on the other hand, might argue
that the study of Muslim Civilisations arises from different concerns -
from the traditional university task of developing and transmitting
knowledge, unsullied by practical relevance. The starting point is
knowledge and understanding, not practice and doing.
But that would be wrong. The concern for the
sick and the ill-educated, the care and respect for the environment, the
desire for practical and life enhancing knowledge are themselves rooted
in a vision of humanity and society which is an inheritance. They are
the product of the wisdom of the past – of what the philosopher Michael
Oakeshott referred to as the conversation between the generations of
mankind in which we come to appreciate the voice of philosophy, the
voice of theology, the voice of science, the voice of poetry.
That vision of a university, which shaped the
AKU, did not come from nowhere. It came from a highly developed
culture, rooted in an active religious tradition, which valued the
pursuit of knowledge, which critically absorbed into its philosophical
thinking the works of Plato and Aristotle, which created the great
medieval universities of Al-Quarawiyiu and Fez in Morocco, of Al-Azhar
in Egypt, of Qom in Iran, where scholars of jurisprudence, astronomy,
theology, Arabic language, mathematics, and optics argued, researched,
wrote and taught – a long time before the founding of the ancient
universities in the West. Indeed, it is rarely recognised how much is
owed by medieval scholasticism and the great and enduring works of
Aquinas, or indeed of the Enlightenment, to the scholarship of the Arab
philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroes – in their words, to the
enduring quality of Muslim Civilisation.
But, as Jonathan Sacks reminds us in The Politics of Hope
Civilization hangs suspended, from generation
to generation, by the gossamer strand of memory. … If the guardians of
human knowledge stumble only one time, in their fall collapses the whole
edifice of knowledge and understanding.
Civilisation is, as one is only too aware
from the daily news, a delicate thing. Its achievements - in knowledge,
moral ideals, sense of community, respect for law, concern or the most
vulnerable – ‘hangs suspended, from generation to generation, by the
gossamer strand of memory’. And yet it is that civilisation – with its
vision of human dignity and of social welfare, articulated in the
writings, the way of life and the religious practices of the past -
which inspires the continuation of a tradition of research, scholarship
and teaching that will make the world a better place.
Therefore, it is essential that the vision of
the university is deeply rooted in the study of that past. We need to
be reminded of the great achievement then which make progress possible
now. The study of Muslim Civilisations here is a strengthening of that
gossamer strand of memory. It is an essential part of the conversation
between the generations of mankind. We need continually to be inspired
by the flourishing of scholarship out of which modern civilisation has
I would like to think that the graduates of this Institute become the new guardians of knowledge that will inspire others.
But beware – you are not allowed to stumble, no, not even once