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"City on a Rock"

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Better World Forum, Singapore Singapore

September 12, 2012

Ambassador Chan, Chairman Lee, distinguished scholars and guests:      

Upon learning yesterday that Singapore’s extraordinary Minister of Education, Heng Swee Keat, had just been appointed to head a task force to help envision Singapore’s future, the dreams and idealism of early American settlers came to mind, particularly John Winthrop’s 1630 shipboard address to fellow colonists in which he paraphrased the Sermon on the Mount and called for creation of a new “City on a Hill.” 

Analogous perhaps to fledgling Boston four centuries ago, or perhaps Athens two millennia earlier, Singapore stands today as a “City on a Rock,” the “Manifest Destiny” for which is neither westward expansion nor eastward recourse to the sea, nor downward drilling for minerals or oil, or the planting of fertile fields.  Singapore’s “Manifest Destiny” is internal and model setting.  This “City on a Rock” is where the only thing to mine is the mind itself, where education is the key to the future, where there is no madding crowd because despite a sparse urban land mass, abundant gardens have been carved out, trees have been transplanted from every continent, and orchids cultivated, even a new variety named yesterday for William and Kate.

Late in the Cold War it was fashionable for international relations theorists, particularly in Europe, to use the term “convergence” to suggest that Western political liberty could somehow be melded with Soviet-style socialism to produce a society both affluent and just.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall revealed the frailty of this thinking.  Between Stalin and Jefferson, there was no credible middle ground.  In a radically different setting and with a different philosophical paradigm, this city-state we call Singapore is where Confucius meets and sometimes tussles with Jefferson on every street corner and Buddha watches benignly from a balcony.

This small island republic where East melds with West is important for the leadership role it has carved out for itself in trade and diplomacy and, even more so, for the model of social integration and commercial and political professionalism that it has established for the world.

Singapore is a rock of corruption-free stability and entrepreneurial innovation in an era of unprecedented change.  Its future in an idea-driven world hinges on the collective knowledge of a talented people and the collective wisdom of their leaders.

Since the Enlightenment, the issue of equality has been looked upon as a political ideal tied to techniques of social organization and governmental policies of the moment.  But in the modern world, access to knowledge is becoming as central to advancing social equality and opportunity across the globe as access to the ballot box has proven to be the key to advancing political rights.  Liberty is inseparable from opportunity, and opportunity is directly correlated to the quality of education provided the public.  Education is the lynchpin of economic growth and the heart of human fulfillment. At issue is more than STEM,[1] where Singapore so impressively leads the world.  In your spectacular new “Gardens by the Bay” a stem without a flower withers.  Likewise, science and technology without the humanities lack both inspiration and perspective.

Accordingly, my thesis in today’s address is that one of the unfortunate aspects of world statecraft is that  the power of culture and the role of the humanities in the life and thought of peoples everywhere is underappreciated.

Before expanding on this theme, let me briefly describe the institution I represent, the  National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Endowment is a relatively small federal agency with an inspiring billion-word track record.  In accordance with our mission to help build an infrastructure of ideas and expand our country’s capacities to disseminate knowledge, NEH has supported research that has resulted in thousands of books, scholarly treatises, film documentaries, and museum exhibitions.   Through preservation initiatives and application of digitization technologies, we have helped embellish and broaden public access to the holdings of American museums and libraries, and through fifty-six affiliated state and territorial councils, we have become the largest humanities outreach organization in the world.

The premise of the work of NEH is that the humanities are critical to democratic citizenship, to national security, to job creation, to managing, and expanding the store of human knowledge.  Few public policy errors could be graver for any society than to undervalue the humanities at a time when they have never been more essential.  Ideas, after all, have muscularity, usually for good, sometimes for evil.

In advancing this thesis about the muscularity of ideas, I would like to make several quick points about theories identified with two Harvard scholars that have received international attention over the past several decades:  Samuel Huntington and Joe Nye.

Huntington has warned about a potential clash of civilizations, a warning that I consider both valid and misleading.  He suggests that various peoples of the world have different ways of thinking and acting and that just as there have been historical dangers of conflict between nations, there are increasing dangers of conflict in the modern world between cultural groupings that extend beyond nation-state borders.  Some social anthropologists have even gone so far as to suggest that there is a natural human evolutionary distrust of any creature or person who looks and acts differently.   Nevertheless, clashes between peoples of different cultural backgrounds are not inevitable.  There is a self-evident antidote, an antidote that can’t be taken like a quick inoculation pill or shot because it demands sustained discipline and for some a psychological jolt.  The discipline is simply a commitment to study and learn to respect the languages and cultures of others.  The psychological jolt is perhaps more profound: the open-minded embracing of the notion that life is more interesting and fulfilling if one comes to know and interrelate with individuals of diverse background rather than simply those with a similar upbringing. 

The history of man is a chronicle strewn with wars of many kinds. Broadening mutual understanding is no guarantee that conflict can be avoided, but it reduces the prospect that inevitable tensions lead to war.  This is why studies and appreciation of the humanities are so critical.

As for Nye’s emphasis on “soft power,” I have no critique except an objection to the label.  “Soft power” is a misnomer.  Short of human annihilation, nothing is more powerful than culture.  The word “soft” with its implications of lack of importance should be dropped from geopolitical vocabulary.  “Cultural power” is a vastly more apt description of efforts to increase mutual understanding through the sharing of values and social outreach, for four broad reasons:

  1. The adjective “cultural” is more commanding and factually depictive than “soft”;            
  2. Culture, the noun from which the adjective derives, embraces the breadth of society— how people live, think, work, and dream;
  3. Governance is a component of culture, not vice-versa; politics and governmental policies are fleeting, reversible; culture is more enduring because it is more profound and socially encompassing;
  4. Effective governance as well as constructive relations between countries requires comprehensive understanding of the cultural pinions of one’s own society and the place of individual societies in relation to others; cultural considerations in policy making must therefore be considered central rather than ancillary concerns.

There can, as Huntington fears, be cultural umbrages but, like the Olympic Games, cultural exchanges, even competitions, are more likely to be uplifting than almost any other dimension of human relations.  It is hard to imagine not being inspired if every country vied to showcase its history and cultural traditions—its scholarship, poetry, dance, music, and varieties of art-making.  Indeed, it would be my hope that the next Olympic Games would, like the competitions of ancient Greece, include the awarding of medals in poetry as well as for athletic prowess.  Reviving a poetry medal, last given in the Amsterdam Games of 1928, would be an inspiring symbol of the appropriateness of complementing mind-driven creativity with the human drama involved in the will power and the stretching and straining of the muscles of the greatest athletes in the world. 

One of the myths of our time is that geo-political realism is exclusively about military and economic might.  Actually, realism must also encompass concern for the human condition.  If national security is to be secured, peoples and their concerns in various parts of the world must be understood empathetically wherever possible, the earlier and more comprehensively the better.  Where there is no mutual regard and minimal hope for a better future, there is little to lose.  And if life, as Hobbes so imaginatively described, becomes nasty, brutish and short in a jungle of hopelessness and humiliation, it too easily becomes expendable, sometimes through martyrdom.

When policy makers assume they can interact effectively with peoples and leaders of other places without both sides understanding the history and culture of the other, errors of judgment are inevitable.  

This is not a casual concern. The times are perilous.  Civilization is on trial from two extremes:  the looming prospect that weapons of mass destruction might be unleashed, and the reality that the very openness of a free society makes it more vulnerable to terrorism.

In this setting, the health of nations is directly related to the temperance of statecraft.  Individuals in public life have an obligation to inspire hope rather than manipulate fear, to appeal to the better angels rather than the baser instincts of their own and other body politics.  Whether the issues are social or economic, domestic or international, the temptation to appeal to the darker side of human nature must be avoided. The stakes are too high.  

The catch-22 of international relations today is that politics in closed societies has a tendency to be out of step with domestic publics as well as the world at large, whereas the politics of democracies has a tendency to be short-term, vote driven. Errors of judgment in almost any corner of the world can be compounded by shallowly crafted, counterproductive reactions in distant places.  What we have in common is that controversies of the day, politics of the moment, as important as they may be, are generally surface concerns. To understand problems on the surface it is necessary to know the depths below: the history and culture of one’s own society as well as that of other regions of the world.  

Each of us must continually ask ourselves:

How do we understand our own country and people, our place and national values, if we don’t study our own history, political theory, jurisprudence, art and literature?  And how do we come to understand the thinking of others and apply logic to challenges of the moment if we don’t have a sense for the world? 

A smart person, we are frequently told, learns from his or her own mistakes. Of greater relevance, perhaps, is a corollary: a really smart person learns from the mistakes of others.   

To look presciently forward we have no choice except to look carefully back.

Every circumstance is, of course, different from any that came before.  We don’t ever walk in exactly the same way in the same physical or social environment.  People and situations change, particularly in this world where accelerating change is the hallmark of our times.  Hence it is important to think imaginatively as well as pragmatically and historically.  “Imagination,” as Einstein once said, “is more important than knowledge.  For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world.”  Einstein himself was a living embodiment of the imaginative mind trumping “skill-set” exclusivity.  He was considered the greatest physicist of the modern and perhaps any era, but in a math-based science, he was not considered a first-tier mathematician.  Instead, he was an unparalleled imaginer.  His greatest insights were based on imaginatively constructed thought experiments where he posited challenging questions that he then proceeded to answer.

One dichotomy between science and the humanities is that the former lends itself to definitive answers.  The latter is often more relative and abstruse.  For instance, Einstein’s profoundest political insight – that splitting the atom had changed everything except our way of thinking – posits a series of challenges that can be met only by a myriad of actions of our own and subsequent generations.   Many of these actions will be logical, consistent, and humane; others will be less well-intended; some will simply be counterproductive.  How people manage their own affairs and adjust to the actions of others will require imagination-infused judgment.

Of all the disciplines, the humanities do the most to tap into and expand the imagination.  Literature, art, history, religion and philosophy give meaning to concepts of justice and goodness, and shape our sense of beauty.  They allow us to walk in the shoes of others in bygone ages and different contemporary circumstances. They invite us to ask questions and seek answers.

For most people the essential elements that tie other studies and bind the human experience together are history and storytelling, oral and written.  What makes life so interesting is that ambiguity rather than clarity often reigns and perspectives often differ even when addressing the past.

Two millennia ago, the Christian apostle St. Paul noted that we all look through a glass darkly.  Metaphorically, he may have made the ultimate case for humility.   While faith may be absolute, Paul suggests that man simply doesn’t have the capacity to know the will of God or apply perfectly the wisdom of His apostles on earth.  An analogous lack of certitude applies to history. There can be clarity about certain historical facts like names and dates but the whys and wherefores of events can be elusive.  It is no accident that history can be more controversial than current events.  Nonetheless, despite the fog that always hovers over memory and history itself, it is clear that the deeper our understanding of the past, the greater our capacity to cope with the present and mold the future. 

The life of society and the individual is a continuum.  History may be the story of the dead but it never dies. It continues to shape who we are and how we think. 

Because the humanities are about the present as well as the past, it is important to apply perspective to how we interact with others.  Rubbing up against neighbors who have different manners and different ways of speaking can sometimes spark friction.  Modern communications—the speed of travel and the virtually instantaneous capacity to transfer individual thought great distances—have made potential neighbors of every citizen on the planet.  They provide a means to advance mutual understanding.  But trust is not as easily elevated as technology is upgraded.  That is why cultural exchanges that allow participants to join those who see the same or different things with eyes trained from nurture and perhaps nature to see in different ways are so significant. 

Another myth of our times is that relations between countries are principally a function of government policy and that diplomacy is exclusively a government-to-government dialogue. Actually, it is businessmen and businesswomen, unelected people of good will—be they artists or scientists, athletes, students, or scholars in the humanities—who are usually more integral to defining the tone of relations between states than public officials.  The cultural engagement that is sometimes referred to as citizen diplomacy generally precedes and in intensity often supersedes government-to-government contact. 

Governments in their relations with each other understandably dwell on power and security challenges, especially in a fractured world.  Cultural engagement, on the other hand, is more about the centrality of values and the breadth of the human spirit.  And, importantly, in the business world, it is about seeking mutual advantage, common interests.

Since there will always be disagreements between people, the challenge is to see that they are resolved in civil, rather than coercive, ways. 

Whether violence is an integral element of the human condition or a learned response is a matter of conjecture. But non-violence is almost certainly a practice that must be learned.  If people are to develop mutual respect, values must be brought to bear on a human scale. Without humanization—handshakes of understanding—there can be no more than minimal trust, minimal family or national security.

Shelley once described poets as unacknowledged legislators. The great 19th-century American poet of the common man, Walt Whitman, went further and implied their authority stretched beyond traditional political realities.   Intoxicated with the notion that poetry could be an antidote to violence, he once wrote that his greatest dream was for “an internationality of poems and poets binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties and diplomacy…”  

A third of the way around the world from Washington, D.C., Dostoevsky affirmed something similar: “Beauty,” he said, “will save the world.”

A third of the way around the world in the opposite direction, Confucius suggested that “when music and courtesy are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war.”

All of this sounds rather naïve but there are few people in the political realm who ever understood the human condition better than Shelley, Whitman, Dostoevsky and Confucius. 

I mention these great men of literature and philosophy because the thinking of man must be uplifted. Words and ideas matter.  When pieced together in the logic of works like Mein Kampf, they may be used to instill hate and divide, or they may, as in the poetry of Shelley and Whitman, the novels of Dostoevsky and the wisdom of Confucius, be used to reach out and unite.  These are our choices.

In making these choices, care has to be taken to recognize that seldom is there only one proper path determinable by one individual or one country.

Whether a person knows a great deal or very little, caution should be taken about being certain of very much.  To know a lot may be preferable to knowing little, but the best and the brightest are not immune from great mistakes.  Imperfect judgment characterizes the human condition.  That is why humility is such a valued character trait, and why shared learning is so important to a civilized world.

Half a century ago, the British author Lawrence Durrell wrote a set of novels called the Alexandria Quartet.  Each one was a first-person narrative covering the same cluster of minor events between the two world wars in Alexandria, Egypt.  An individual may wonder, Why read about the same happenings four different times?  It ends up that while the events are the same, the stories are quite different.  One person’s perspective proved to be only a snapshot of reality.  The moral Durrell implicitly sets forth is that a clear picture cannot be pieced together without looking through the lens of a multiplicity of eyes and experiences.  If such is the case in one town in one time frame, doesn’t it take many eyes and many perspectives to develop a bare inkling of understanding of a moving kaleidoscope of world events?

In Western civilization’s most prophetic poem, The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats observed that the center cannot hold “when the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  Yeats was reacting to the seemingly senseless carnage of World War I trench warfare.  But the chaos of modernity has produced a crisis of perspective as well as values that give his words contemporary relevance.

Another myth of our times is that the humanities are good for the soul but irrelevant to the pocket book.   Actually they are central to the creation of jobs and the long-term competitiveness of any society.  To compete in a global economy it is essential that individuals understand their own values as well as those of foreign cultures.  The basics – what in America are sometimes referred to as the 3 R’s: ‘readin, ‘ritin, ‘rithmatic – are critical but so are the disciplines that provide perspective and nourish innovative thinking.   

Humanities studies including the creative arts are disciplines that stretch the imagination and boost capacities to analyze and express.  Over this past year I have been arguing that they constitute a fourth necessary “R” which for lack of a better moniker I have dubbed “reality”— knowledge of the world, near and far, past and present.  The more globalized and change-intensive the times, the more important these Fourth “R” disciplines are.

Rote thinking is the hallmark of the status quo.  Stimulating the imagination is the key to the future. The principal rationale for the humanities may always be that they make the life of the mind broader and more interesting.  This rationale is so powerful that it too easily obscures the utilitarian case which is also compelling. 

How can individuals compete in their own markets if they don’t write, think, and communicate well and understand their own culture and its variety of subcultures; or abroad if they don’t understand foreign languages, histories and traditions?

How can individuals understand their own era and the place of their own values if they don’t understand other faith systems—Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Islam and the relationship of diverse religions to the Old and New Testaments?

How can we together contain prejudice and counter forces of hatred if we don’t come to know more about each other?     

The most meaningful discovery in humanities studies is that everything is related to everything else, although we may not know it at the time.  Wisdom involves the tying together of threads of learning. The challenge is to discover and then correlate discoveries, the most important of which relate to perspective: values, methods of thinking and doing, rather than facts.

The insights provided by humanities disciplines and the capacity to think broadly and correlate cogently which they inculcate are not dismissible options for society. They are essential to defining and inspiring citizenship and lessening the likelihood of mistake-making in public policy as well as private life.

A skeptic once suggested that the humanities are little more than studies of flaws in human nature.  Actually they uplift on the one hand and warn on the other. The power of a few to commit acts of social destruction and the contrasting capacity of a few to precipitate uplifting change has grown exponentially in the last century. A race is on. Without the perspective of humanities studies and the multiplier effect they have on individuals and societies, the edge could easily be given to those who channel destructive change.

Here, let me conclude by describing a cultural distinction between China and the United States that may have origins in ancient as well as more modern philosophy.  Confucius argued as a philosopher and ethicist that individuals should not do unto others what one would not want done to oneself.  This may seem to be no different than the Golden Rule in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which calls on the faithful to do unto others what one would want done unto oneself.  Nonetheless, there are differences in these two exhortations that may in part be reflective of certain cultural tensions between our two societies today.

When it comes to the subject of human rights, for instance, Confucius and Jefferson would likely be in full agreement on a case by case basis.  Both, after all, put pen to paper in opposition to excesses of existing authorities.  But several important distinctions exist.  Jeffersonian democracy is rooted in Creator-endowed values that applied not only to the colonists but individuals everywhere in any time frame.  The American Declaration of Independence is not simply a nation-building creed; it is a set of universal principles.  Accordingly, it is a natural instinct for the sons and daughters of Jefferson to advance these values abroad as well as at home.  It took a Civil War a century after our independence struggle and then a follow-on suffrage and civil rights movement to fulfill our promises to ourselves.  Confucian doctrine likewise centers on public accountability.   Where Confucius’s teaching might depart somewhat from Jeffersonian thought relates to the question of whether an individual should advocate a social cause in another society.   The ethical “do not do unto others…” prescription is, after all, inherently less intrusive than the theologically based call “to do unto others…”

These may be country specific cultural distinctions complicated by 20th century ideologies.  But what is clear is that just as various peoples see and react to the same issues and circumstances in different ways, so countries perceive their roles and their futures uniquely.  Cultures rub up against each other, sometimes sharing and learning together, sometimes differing.  In a setting in which the world is in desperate need for a statesmanship ethic, Singapore has crafted a unique niche in world affairs, providing a coehesive, knowledge-based social model and at the same time leading in international fora to expand the rule of law in pivotal arenas such as the law of the seas.  I am honored to pay tribute.   Thank you.

[1] Acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.