American University of Beirut

Vartan Gregorian Acceptance Speech

Thank you very much. I'm deeply touched. Today is a special occasion for me because the one person who mattered most for me when I was in Lebanon, Antoine Kehyaian, the English teacher who tried to do everything, against all odds, to teach me idiomatic English, is here in the audience.

Fifty-four years ago I arrived in Beirut, Lebanon. I'm not going to speak much about this because I'll be speaking this evening, and I don't want to give all my speech away because you will not want to come to hear me this evening at commencement. But one story I'll have to tell you. When I came to Beirut (John's absolutely right), I had no idea about difficulties. I saw only possibilities, and through the kindness of strangers and others I succeeded to obtain an education, but most importantly of all, I developed awe towards AUB at the time. It was the most important cultural institution in the world, and all of us, at the College Armenien and elsewhere we looked with great awe at AUB. And I told my teacher, one day, don't worry, I may even get a degree from AUB. I have to tell you that I have had to spend 50 years in the wilderness in order to come and earn this degree, which I dearly appreciate.

In TheEducation of Henry Adams, Henry Adams, a graduate of Harvard's class of 1858, reminisced fifty years later about his youth as a college student. As he wrote, and I quote, No one took Harvard College seriously. Harvard, as far as it educated at all, was a mild and liberal school. Leaders of men it never tried to make. It taught little, and that little very ill. . . The four years spent at college were wasted. Harvard College was a negative force.

It's not very hard to understand the bitterness of Henry Adams criticism as he attacked the intellectual content of the college curriculum in Harvard, his teachers, and the quality of the teaching. Momentous events were taking place in Europe institutions, classes, and ideas were being challenged through the writings of Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin, to name just a few but Harvard College of 1858 with its pre-Charles W. Eliot curriculum had teachers who either were unaware of these developments, or else considered them unimportant.

Almost nineteen decades after the publication of Henry Adams book, today higher education confronts different, more complex, more awesome challenges from society, technology, the economy, and, of course, scholarship itself. But the pivotal challenge for colleges and universities, no matter how they define their individual missions, is to continue to prove that a college education is a valuable investment not just for four years, but for a lifetime.

More than ever, universities and colleges have, therefore, a fundamental and social imperative to give not only training, but education, not only education, but culture as well, not only information, but its distillation, knowledge.

Learning today is a complex process. We are told that the amount of collected information doubles every five years. Yet the ratio of information used to information available is steadily decreasing. We are unable to use, we are told, 90 to 95 percent of the information supply. At the touch of a computer keyboard we can gain scores and scores of data, access to more information than we can possibly digest, stored for us in more than 4,000 to 5,000 databases worldwide. To compound the difficulties posed by the sheer volume of information available, we face the problems of inflated, counterfeit, or obsolete information. No wonder that John Naisbitt in his popular book, Megatrends, described our world as wallowing in detail, but starved for knowledge and wisdom.

Colleges and universities also must cope with the fragmentation of knowledge into narrower and narrower specializations, driven by advances in scholarship or research.  And we must transcend the boundaries that separate the humanities from the social sciences, the humanities from the arts, or even the humanities from the sciences.  The unity of learning, the integration of knowledge, must be perceived and preserved.  Charles Frankel, the Columbia University philosophy scholar who served as assistant secretary of state for education and cultural affairs under Lyndon Baines Johnson, warned,

When the study of human experience turns entirely inward upon itself, when it becomes the study of the study of human experience, and then the study of that study, it does not achieve greater objectivity; it merely becomes thinner. . . In every generation in which the humanities have shown vitality, they have refreshed their thinking by learning from other disciplines, and they have looked beyond their books to the primary materials that have made these books. They have performed an essential public, civic, educational function: the criticism and reintegration of the ideas and values of cultures dislocated from their traditions and needing a new sense of meaning.

Another threat to the unity of knowledge is the emergence of a multiplicity of separate literacies. We now have the discrete units of computer literacy, cultural literacy, mathematical literacy, geographical literacy, and so on and so forth. So many facts, theories, subjects, and specializations. There is a longing, nationally, in the realm of education and culture, for centrality, cohesion, logic, and progress.

Clearly our world does not call for the abandonment of specialization. What is needed is synthesis. The questions surrounding the integration of knowledge highlight the importance of liberal learning and the unity of the arts and sciences. What we need to learn is how to learn how to learn over and over again.

That's why I?m happy for the fact that AUB is known for its professional degrees, but with John Waterbury and others, it's also stressing liberal arts education, because more than ever we need students who understand the complexity of life, who know how to make a living but know how to live as well. We must emphasize that education is not for hire education, h-i-r-e, but higher education. Otherwise that higher education would be constantly changing, shifting, and not worth much. That's why I congratulate AUB, which, unlike the Harvard of the 1850s, has not ignored the major international discoveries and events and its own community, because AUB, as Sir Michael said, is a beacon of light.

It has been one of the few oases in the Middle East which has chosen academic freedom, intellectual freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and above all else, excellence in everything that it does. It is excellence that will protect AUB. It is excellence that must be the hallmark of its faculty. If AUB were mediocre and cheap, it would have no problems.

I hope all of you whom I will see this evening will help AUB to remain AUB, because there are not that many AUBs in the world, especially in this part of the world, to serve this community as a bridge between the Middle East and the United States and Europe, between the Middle East and the rest of the world. No one individual institution can accomplish as much as AUB has actually accomplished. So, please, those of you who become very rich and very successful, don't forget who gave you your degree, who gave you knowledge. Don't develop an inferiority complex which makes you feel you have to give to French universities like the Sorbonne, or Ivy League universities, because they're older and more famous, but give to AUB, because AUB will sustain other generations than yours. You owe your education to AUB and you owe to Lebanese and non-Lebanese, to all the members of this region, the kinds of resources to keep life going to keep this beacon of light shining. Thank you very much.

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