20 May 2008
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Honourable Adviser for Education
My warmest thanks to all of you who have joined in this celebration - representing so well the diverse and impressive accomplishments of this country. You honour us by being here.
Our immediate purpose today is to lay the Foundation Stone of the Aga Khan Academy in Dhaka. It is a day we hope to look back upon with joy and satisfaction for many years to come. And, if our work is done well, it is a day that future generations will also look back upon as a great beginning.
As you have heard, this new Academy will be an important node in a network of 18 schools throughout the developing world, providing world class education for young men and women from all backgrounds, irrespective of ability to pay. It will be a remarkable place to go to school.
But our commitment to this institution is not simply a matter of creating beautiful, modern facilities for some 700 to 1200 deserving students or developing a corps of several dozen gifted teachers. It is also about creating a new national asset for the whole of this country -and for its broad educational community. This work will be done through an ambitious programme of professional teacher development, attracting talented candidates, sharing best practices, developing curricular innovations, and engaging in the most current training at the Academy’s Professional Development Centre.
We could say a lot more about this new Academy. But I thought I might, instead, take a few minutes to describe what I see as the larger significance of our Academies’ initiatives. For underlying our dreams for this School is our commitment to principles which have even broader implications.
There are three such principles that I would like to mention.
The first is the centrality of quality education as an element in the Islamic tradition. It is appropriate that I highlight this matter today, for Bangladesh is the first Muslim country in which we have laid a new Academy foundation stone. It also seems appropriate to underscore the spiritual foundations of this work since this event is helping to mark my 50 th anniversary as the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims.
World and faith are inseparable in Islam. Faith and learning are also profoundly interconnected. The Holy Qur’an sees the discovery of knowledge as a spiritual responsibility, enabling us to better understand and more ably serve God’s creation.
Our traditional teachings remind us of our individual obligation to seek knowledge unto the ends of the earth - and of our social obligation to honor and nurture the full potential of every human life.
The creation of a new Aga Khan Academy in Dhaka thus grows out of rich Islamic precedents.
The second point I would emphasize today is that our Academy initiative - in Dhaka and elsewhere - is one that strongly affirms the integrity of local and national cultures.
To be sure, this new Academy will connect its students to global perspectives. But it will also respect the central role of each person’s particular heritage as a cornerstone of his or her identity and an enriching gift of the Creator.
The beauty of Creation is a function of its variety. A fully homogenized world would be far less attractive and interesting. The roots we inherit from our history – linking us to a particular past – are a great source of strength and joy and inspiration. And a sound educational system should help nourish those roots.
That is why the Aga Khan Academies, wherever they exist, will follow a dual-language curriculum. They will teach in English in order to connect to global society. And they will also teach in the appropriate local language. Here in Dhaka that means teaching in both English and Bangla. Because they will be fluently bilingual, our students will be prepared to unlock the rich treasure chests of history and culture, art and music, religious and philosophical thought, which are integral to one’s identity and one’s values and which and are such powerful elements here in Bangladesh.
My first two points of emphasis, then, concern the emergence of our Academies program from Islamic traditions, and its commitment to local and national values. My third point is somewhat different, but entirely consistent - the strong link which our Academies will provide to an increasingly globalized world.
I mentioned earlier the importance of affirming the local and the particular in the face of forces which would dilute our identity and homogenize our cultures. But I would also note the equally compelling importance of global partnership and universal understanding - in the face of forces that would dangerously fragment our world. In the process of nurturing a healthy sense of identity, we must resist the temptation to normatize any particular culture, to demonize “the other”, and to turn healthy diversity into dangerous discord.
This is why the Academies’ curricula, in addition to using English as a connecting language, will emphasize areas of focus such as comparative political systems, global economics, and global cultures, along with the importance of pluralism and a sound ethical foundation.
At the same time, we will provide thorough preparation in subjects such as science and mathematics, developing the habits of rigorous reasoning and searching inquiry. In addition, the Academies experience will be a holistic one, with a healthy program of extracurricular and athletic activities.
Let me reflect for a moment on the matter of ethics - and the importance of ethical commitments not only in government but throughout society. Competent civil society is a major contributor to development particularly where democracies are less well established, or where governmental efforts are inadequate. The absence of corruption or fraud in government is not enough. Fraud in medicine, fraud in education, fraud in financial services, fraud in property rights, fraud in the exercise of law enforcement or in the courts, are all risks which can have a dramatic impact on social progress. This is especially true in rural environments, where fraud is often neither reported nor corrected, but simply accepted as an inevitable condition of life.
This is why the serious and sustained ethical formation of students and teachers is an essential dimension of the Academies program.]
In addition, as we educate for global citizenship, we will also integrate each local school with others in the network, sharing ideas and experiences, exchanging students and teachers, and affirming in the end that all graduates have achieved a globally relevant credential in the form of the International Baccalaureate diploma.
Those, then, are the basic concepts of our program. We believe that this undertaking can flourish particularly well in Bangladesh - where a proud sense of independent national destiny is so often combined with a generous spirit of international partnership. The appreciation here for the institutions of civil society is another favorable factor - and so, may I add, is the impressive progress you have made in achieving gender parity in education.
In the final analysis, the Academies project will face an age-old challenge as it moves ahead - the challenge of balancing the universal and the particular - the global and the local - as influences in human life. It is a challenge which becomes more important with every passing year. It has been said that the most important fact about modern communication technology is that it “universalizes the particular and particularizes the universal”- which simply suggests that local and global experiences are increasingly intermixed.
Such an intermixture can give us the worst of both worlds - hostile, defensive localism on one side and a superficial homogenized mega-culture on the other. Or it can give us the best of both worlds - proud local identities living side by side with creative international cooperation. How this issue will be resolved will depend on whether we can educate future leaders, in Bangladesh and elsewhere, to live creatively in such a setting. Our new program of Aga Khan Academies is one response to that challenge.
We are very proud today formally to expand the Academies network to the country of Bangladesh. And we are very pleased and honoured that you have been able to join us in this moment of celebration and dedication.
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