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The Secular and the Sacred in Higher Education with Dr. John Sexton

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Event Name: The Secular and the Sacred in Higher Education with Dr. John Sexton
Transcription Date:Transcription Modified Date: 4/27/2019 10:58:42 AM
Transcript Version: 2


Transcript Text

Smith out on the team in the name of God

the most merciful the most compassionate

person piece on all the prophets and on

our Prophet Muhammad I want to first of

all thank the NYU and dr. Sexton and

also dr. serene Jones all the people

involved in enabling this event I'm

honored to be here

dr. Sexton actually honored us by coming

out and supporting our College recently

and so this is a wasn't quid pro quo but

I'm happy to be here the the topic

tonight the the idea of the sacred and

secular is obviously a perennial topic

secularism is the dominant modality by

which we view our world today in many

places although there are still several

societies that are Theo centric that

tend to view through the lens of the

sacred certainly the India is one of

those societies where Hinduism still

deeply pervades the culture and

certainly in in many parts of the Muslim

world turkey is in a way there is a type

of sacred consciousness that's being

reawakened if it was ever dormant but it

was certainly suppressed for a long time

under a type of lay assist government

the United States although we are a

secular government we have never seen

the sacred as something that was not

permitted or even encouraged to be part

of the public sphere certainly we have a

long history a very devout public

servants presidents if you read Abraham

Lincoln's second inaugural address if

somebody tried to get away with that

today you would be completely ridden out

of town as a religious fanatic but when

we talk about the liberal arts for me

this is the the subject is certainly a

subject that involves the sacred because

the roots of the liberal art are

profoundly sacred roots in the Muslim

community when you talk about the

liberal arts there's often a blank stare

I think a lot of Muslims think that

liberal arts means that you're gonna

vote for Bernie Sanders and that you're

learning basket weaving or painting or

some craft and so it's very difficult

especially in a culture that was

defeated by in the view of many many

Muslim superior technology and so the

stem areas of study have become an

obsession in the Muslim world despite

the fact that it has a profoundly

humanistic tradition and in the rise of

colleges George mekdeci actually argues

that much of the humanistic tradition

that comes into Western civilization

came through the vehicle of Muslim

civilization George Sartain is another

one that makes similar arguments and

Matt Dean Augustine who did a very

important PhD at the University of

Colorado called the Islamic origins of

Western education and there is certainly

a huge influence so what I'd like to do

is just look at this idea from a Muslim

perspective the liberal arts providing a

forgotten tradition amongst the Muslims

the the origin of the liberal arts is a

a mystical origin some will attribute it

to Pythagoras who was certainly working

in a esoteric tradition that was a

hidden tradition even Plato the Platonic

tradition which is heavenly heavily

involves the liberal arts Plato in his

seventh letter actually says that he

never spoke openly about his real

doctrine which obviously leads to a lot

of speculation but if you look at the

history of the liberal arts in the

Muslim world one of the earliest

colleges established was a tuna College

in Tunisia which still exists it was

established in 731 the kata Wien

University in Morocco some consider it

the oldest university in the world it

was 859 in the

you're the Common Era it was founded by

a woman faulty Medea she was an educated

woman allows her University founded by

the Ismaili Fatima dynasty and later

becomes a SUNY College it's still

functioning as a university founded in

1970 in Egypt one of the most

extraordinary universities is the

University of Timbuktu and if you read

what Rodney's book on how Europe

underdeveloped Africa an argument he

makes is that Africa was actually a

highly educated society and that's

certainly true for West Africa and

Sahara and sub-saharan Africa and North

Africa and you will find that Timbuktu

was an extraordinary center of learning

and I just want to call attention to

certain people this is a picture of dr.

Mahmoud Zubair who studied with my

teacher in the 1950s in in West Africa

in Mauritania he's originally from Mali

he went on to get a PhD from the

Sorbonne and his PhD dissertation was on

one of the greatest scholars that

Timbuktu produced I'm a Baba Tim bhakti

but he also was one of the badass

librarians of Timbuktu because this book

by Joshua hammer is about how dr. Zubair

and his student in Timbuktu actually

saved over 300 manuscripts three three

hundred thousand manuscripts of all

different knowledge --is handwritten

manuscripts many of them hundreds of

years old they were smuggled out when

the Black Flag's took over Timbuktu because they were so fearful that they would burn them so as the as these fanatics got closer to Timbuktu they hid all of the manuscripts in people's houses under beds and to preserve them because they were so fearful of them being destroyed well with the help of some Europeans that provided containers they smuggled three hundred thousand manuscripts out of Timbuktu down to the capital of Mali where they're there.  They have not been restored to Timbuktu but the library of Timbuktu was a famous library.

I actually visited Timbuktu.  I almost died in Timbuktu by getting amoebic dysentery was saved by some French tourists who had flagyl with them.  So I owe my life to a French tourist.  I must always speak kindly about the French.  the Varia

College is a great college in Damascus

and I could go on there are many

colleges throughout the Muslim world but

the subjects that were taught

obviously revelation was a very

important subject but revelation was

predicated on an understanding of what

we call in the West the Trivium the

Muslims called them the three arts soon

act with Seth

they called him the instrumental arts

and Roman alia and this was absolutely

foundational it is still taught I

studied this in in the Muslim world when

I did my college studies in traditional

madrasah people wonder what goes on in a

madrasah they're actually studying the

the Trivium in most mattresses and and

so it's unfortunate that they have this

idea that somehow they're producing

terrorists the quadrivium is the other

half and people unfortunately because of

Vilhelm dilthey who was a brilliant

scholar from germany about over a

hundred years ago he divided knowledge

into the the Natural Sciences and the

humanities which unfortunately is a

false dichotomy because the humanities

humanity ATS was actually the Latin

translation of Paideia from the Greek

and it was actually both sides of the

knowledge the qualitative the

quantitative but this was lost with this

demarcation that has led people to think

now that the liberal arts are the

humanities meaning literature and

philosophy and these things but

traditionally the liberal arts were seen

as both sides the qualitative and the

quantitative sciences so this was

extremely important the Trivium was

grammar logic and rhetoric grammar

involved not simply grammar learning the

parts of speech but also literature

and the idea of what they call in

rhetoric copia of learning through

reading getting a vast fund of

expression because you've read great

literature so it was very important and

then obviously logic and rhetoric the

revealed religion involved law

jurisprudence theology and then

understanding the Quran and the hadith

through these interpretive skills

prophetic tradition but the quadrivium

and Nasir Athena through C says that all

of knowledge is based on these two

fields of knowing the three arts of

language and the four arts of number

arithmetic geometry harmony and

astronomy this led in in the pre-modern

world this is true for the Muslim world

as well as Europe and and and the

Christian tradition and and the Jewish

tradition to a large extent it led to

three specializations this was called a

piston or ciencia which was the

specialization after Paideia after this

foundation in these arts and law and

politics was to heal the social body

theology philosophy which involved

ethics and psychology Freud did not

invent psychology a lot of people don't

realize that psychology is an ancient

science if you read some of the ancient

writings on the Muslims had incredible

insights into CD at mizzou

scholar died in 1492 talks about his

obsessive compulsive behavior people

that wash their hands constantly and he

talks about it being a type of mental

pathology but this was to heal the

mental and spiritual body and then

medicine was to heal the physical body

and this was a holistic understanding of

what the specialization involved in

order that you had a healthy social body

a healthy spiritual body and a healthy

physical body as the liberal arts moves

in to Europe a rediscovery of these

sayings you get these great teaching

institutions that Makdissi argues are

probably the result of Europeans going

into the Muslim world during the

Crusades and dis

hovering these incredible institutions

and bringing these ideas back to Europe

and there's a great deal of evidence I

would I would recommend reading his book

if you're interested in pursuing this

but all of these great institutions in

in Italy in England places like Oxford

and Cambridge

they were rooted in the sacred and this

led to the great imitations in America

the idea we forget this is New York we

forget that Cambridge which is where

Harvard is is called Cambridge Princeton

these these were attempts at replicating

these great institutions John Harvard

studied at Oxford and donated his

library in the land to start Harvard

College because he wanted to produce

scholars so that we didn't have to go to

England to learn the liberal arts and so

these are the great liberal arts

institutions but they were sacred

institutions all of them were founded as

seminaries primarily to train people of

the cloth it was very interesting

Harvard was teaching Arabic 200 years

ago and George Bethune English the very

first Muslim that I found that the

American who converted to Islam George

Bethune English I discovered him by

reading the letters of Jefferson and

Adams Jefferson actually mentions that

he read Bethune's English's book on his

travel log up the Nile River and in a

footnote it said this is an early

convert to Islam he was born in 1787

distinguished himself at Harvard with a

PhD a master's degree which was the

highest degree then but he learned

Arabic at Harvard and if you want to see

something fascinating Noah Webster the

first American Dictionary published in

1828 has several Arabic words in it

because Noah Webster was trying to prove

that English went back to Hebrew but he

actually found that there were many

cognates from Arabic and so he would

actually mention the Arabic word with

Arabic script and I wondered where they

got such good typography in in the

United States at that time

so another aspect is these great

african-american liberal arts colleges

that were founded the the great Atlanta

University Morehouse College Tuskegee

these were these were great colleges

where they were training African

Americans in this tradition w/e be

Dubois who I love and I think he's a

voice that's very important today

he said the riddle of existence is the

college curriculum that was laid before

the Pharaohs that was taught in the

groves by Plato that formed the Trivium

and the quadrivium and as today laid

before the freedmen sons by Atlanta

University and this course of study will

not change its Meza methods will grow

more deft and effectual its content

richer by toil of scholar and sight of

seer but the true College will ever have

one goal not to earn meat but to know

the end and aim of that life which meat

nourishes and that is a beautiful

articulation of the purpose of a liberal

arts education he was a great liberal

artist he actually left a relatively

progressive environment in Massachusetts

to go to the south to teach in Atlanta

and spent several years there teaching

he disagreed with Booker T Washington

who wanted African Americans to learn

trades and and become technicians and

study the Industrial Arts WB Dubois had

this idea of the talented tenth that one

out of every 10 African Americans should

master the liberal arts and show their

intellectual prowess so that they could

become equal intellectually to a people

that were telling that they were

inferior I think this is it's it's it's

it's a popular book but one of the

things that struck me about this book

was Fareed Zakaria said that when he

left India which is education by largely

by rote memorization not much critical

theory and came to Harvard he was

shocked to be introduced into this idea

of a liberal education and he said at a

time when America is abandoning this

type of education and putting more

emphasis on vocational and stem research

he said it places like India

realizing maybe this is the secret of

America's power and they're getting more

interested in studying this we forget

that 2% of people in the United States

are studying at liberal arts colleges

and yet almost 20% of the most

influential people in the United States

have Liberal Arts degrees and so this is

a very significant point that that I

think needs to be emphasized so I could

go on I'm going to go through these

Daniel de Nicola argues that there's

five paradigms for the liberal arts and

I and it's become a contested term but

the traditional idea was largely the

acquisition of the skills of learning

and the transmission of cultural

inheritance across generations there are

other now understandings that really

come from those first two understanding

the world that you're in the forces that

shape your life self-actualization which

is now more popular and finally activism

and engagement so a lot of liberal arts

colleges now produce a lot of activists

and people that are more engaged with

the world so stay tuned ecology is is

our attempt at reviving this tradition

which was very powerful and I think gave

the Muslim world incredible creativity

and Arnold Toynbee argues that

civilizations rise and fall based on how

they respond to the challenges if they

have critical if they have a critical

mass of a creative minority this is what

he called them a creative minority that

are able to grapple with the problems

that are facing them then they can find

creative solutions to those problems

that creative imagination comes through

deep reflection a contemplative period

of time is needed to do this and and

Joseph Pieper who wrote a beautiful book

on leisure makes an argument for the

contemplative that every society needs

people to think deeply about their

problems this is also Susan Cain wrote a

beautiful book called quiet about the

importance of the introvert that so much

of our culture now is about extraversion

it's about presenting yourself it's

about becoming a winning personality and

learning all these tricks to influence

people I read a

recently and one of the lines in it was

it takes real practice to appear

authentic and and I just thought that

was just so bizarre but this is the idea

that is really pushed on so many young

people now to learn this the liberal

arts tradition is actually it's to

discover your authentic self it's not to

practice authenticity it's to actually

go into the self and so we've

established Zaytuna College we were

fortunate to buy a beautiful red brick

building which was part of the Pacific

School of religion and then we bought

also a seminary of the Franciscans that

was originally a Jewish frat house then

it became a Franciscan College and now

it's an Muslim College so it's gone

through the Abrahamic progress so the

crises of knowledge the the real crisis

that we have I believe is a metaphysical

crises one of the