Congratulations AMES '18 Graduates

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Prof. Shai Ginsburg (DUS), AMES Graduation Ceremony

AMES Graduation 2018

AMES Graduates, Parents, Families and Friends,


I wanted to open by saying “our students”, but you are no longer that, at least not in the institutional sense of these words. This very moment is a moment of transition for us all. As such, it is special, full of excitement, sadness, and anxiety, not only for you, but for us as well. What I am about to say is both true and trite:


We have spent so many hours together: in classrooms and in offices, in hallways and in dining halls, talking and conversing, asking questions and searching for answers, watching films, listening to music, and eating (as you know, food is central to the Duke culture); and we (as I am sure you, as well) are so very excited to see you here: you are done with all of your classes and have completed all of the papers and projects and tests and exams we have tasked you with; and we are very proud of what you have done and accomplished, and we are proud that we were part of it.


On the other hand, we are also sad to see you go, and also a bit nervous: have we taught you well? Have we made your time at Duke meaningful? And, as importantly, have we made your time here joyful, coursework, papers and exams notwithstanding? In truth, in my eyes, this is the key question, the one by which our success or failure should be measured: have we imparted to you the joy we, your teachers, derive from learning and from thinking? Have we persuaded you that learning and thinking is a worthwhile occupation, no matter what occupation you end up choosing for yourself? You have now graduated, and no longer would there be teachers and instructors to coax you and impel you (or, at least, do their best to do so); it is up to you, now, to “pick up the tab” and make sure that the moment of graduation is not the moment in which learning and thinking stops; make sure that this moment becomes but a stepping stone for a life-long pursuit.


I believe that I speak for my colleagues as well: this is what we ultimately aim at in all of our classes. We teach nine languages and their related cultures, a selection—admittedly small—of the vast number of languages and cultures of the people of Asia, from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Pacific Coast: Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Tibetan and Turkish. And we see special value in this double emphasis on the study of languages, on the one hand, and on the study of cultures, on the other hand. Particularly at this day and age.


Our times are contentious as we face forces that appear to be pulling us in different directions. Interconnected as the regions of the world have become or, to be more precise, our emerging awareness that the divergent regions of the world are (and always have been) interconnected, means that it is no longer enough for us to engage merely with our own local communities; we must engage with the world. Yet, different languages and different cultures have different notions of the meaning of the world. To understand what the world means—what its interconnectedness means—we have to explore and study these languages and cultures.


In doing so, we gain insights into how other people—different from us—give meaning to the world. We gain insight into how they perceive the world and how they see their place in it. At times we discover that we are very much alike; at times that we are bafflingly different.  We need not share their views and sentiments, nor exchange our values and feelings for theirs. Yet, in learning their languages and in exploring their cultures we come to appreciate the multiple senses they give to their experiences, to themselves as humans and to the world they live in. Such appreciation is crucial if we wish to engage with people elsewhere, if we indeed wish to become global citizens.


A case in point: in English, the word we use to describe such engagement, as I have just noted, is citizen. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term comes to English from the Latin via the French citoyen, which means “inhabitant of a city or town who possesses civic rights or privileges.” In Hebrew, on the other hand, the term used is ezrach, which the King James translation renders as a “a green bay tree.” What would happen, I wonder, if we replace the urban terminology of European languages with the botanical terminology of the Hebrew, if we would be called to become trees of the world rather than city dwellers of the world, if we would endeavor to extend our roots into the earth rather than seek special privileges? Would the way we see the world and experience it change?


In considering other languages and other cultures we thus learn not only about so-called “other” people but, first and foremost, about ourselves. We begin to see ourselves in new light and evaluate anew who we are and what we do, what we cherish in our pasts and what we hope for in the future. And this is key to the development of critical thinking, the most important characteristic of the citizen, local and global.


The role of the university in general and of the humanities in particular is—has always been—to develop critical, thinking human beings, and the study of foreign languages and cultures has always been at the center of this project. Our communities and our societies, not just here in Durham or in the US, but globally, around the world, depend more than ever before on our ability to think critically. And to think critically means to engage with other human beings, not just on our own terms, but on theirs as well.


I am sure that you are able and willing to do this, because for the past four years you have immersed yourself in languages and cultures not your own. We, your teachers, know that has not always been easy: the languages we teach are considered among the most difficult to learn, especially for those whose English is their native tongue; and the cultures we explore appear at times very strange and alien. Yet, you willingly put yourself to the task, and now can reflect on your time and experience in AMES with great satisfaction.


I think there is an important lesson to be drawn for such an experience—an experience all of us, your teachers, have gone through before you: how laborious, yet rewarding it is to acquire an understanding of a culture removed from your own. By the same token I might add that it is as difficult to understand one’s own culture, though on a different level. And yet, you all proved yourself up to the task.


I said it earlier, but let me repeat it: we are so proud of all you have done and achieved and we feel privileged to have had you as our students.