University of Sri Jayawardenepura
March 18, 2021
Good morning. Venerable Theros, Vice Chancellor, Deans, faculty, participants and students who may be present, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for the invitation to speak with you this morning at IRCHSS 2021. I have a longer version in my speech, but I thought I would shorten it up a little bit.
As you’ve heard the U.S. Embassy and the University of Sri Jayewardenepura have a long and ongoing relationship. It’s one of which we are very proud and very proud to have supported through our Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation the work to conserve and preserve traditions. Not just of sites but traditions of historical significance. The forest monastery complex at Rajagala has been mentioned, and we also work to support the preservation of endangered forms of music and dance. We’ve done a number of things with this university and other partners in the country. We think it’s very important and it really demonstrates the value the United States and Sri Lanka place in preserving the history of different cultures including very important cultures here.
Since this is a conference about humanities and social sciences I’d offer some observations in my short remarks this morning from the perspective of a non-academician. By learning about history we are able to shape and understand the many perspectives that form a society. This in turn allows us to better navigate the challenges we face now and in the future.
Another cornerstone of our relationship are people to people connections. Also mentioned were our Fulbright exchanges, our International Visitor Program exchanges. Participants in these programs, some of which are long and short, have touched on topics like politics, religion and government, and through these in-person visits to the United States we hope that there is an opportunity for deeper study of a subject that interests the participants, but also a better understanding of the people of the United States. In turn there are long-lasting relationships that are established not through any formal program but developed through cultural ties. These create that very important people to people connection.
To me, actually, these exchange programs are one of the most significant investments that our country has made in our bilateral relationship here. And I firmly believe as a diplomat for 30 years that the ties between countries do not start and stop when you talk government to government, it’s really the P to P, the people to people ties that make or break that relationship, and here we have very strong connections. The ties really become durable when they involve people to people. It gives us personal rather than institutional reasons to nurture and support our relationship in the future.
And as the pandemic recedes I hope we will be able to foster more exchanges with Sri Jayawardenepura as well as other institutions and individuals and we’ll be doing more face to face interaction. We’re all thrilled over that and that this conference continues in this type of format.
The pandemic has slowed much work, in fact, many things. You’ve noted concern about trying to reopen the university itself, but some things have proceeded. Some of these things like the democratic processes in both Sri Lanka and the United States. You may have known recently in the United States we had presidential elections in November and recently inaugurated a new president in January, Joseph R. Biden, as a result of the election.
At the inauguration of President Biden there was a young American poet named Amanda Gorman. She happens to be a sociology graduate, not taking sides here, but a sociology graduate, and she was invited to speak. She offered her commemoration at the event in a wonderful poem called “The Hill We Climb”, and I commend it to you. A quick Google of it will pull up the whole text. It’s a very moving and reflective poem. One very suited for the times of the United States and I think around the world – and I’m not going to share the entire work but I wanted to share with you a particular line that I thought was very relevant to this event. It is worth repeating as we inaugurate this event. One inauguration to another. This event is meant to deepen our understanding of ourselves by breaking down barriers among academic disciplines and Amanda Gorman I think was channeling a little bit of this spirit when she said on a very cold January day in Washington, DC, “For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.”
I couldn’t think of a more fitting reason for the gathering today and for this conference to move ahead. History has its eyes on us. And as we seek to avoid the mistakes of our grandparents and create a better world for our children and for the illustrious history of the university and the breakthroughs and the innovations that come from it, the science and the thinking and the creativity of people here, we’re always searching for better ways to improve. In fact, we have to search for ways to improve or I think we’re probably really lost. We certainly lose prospects for peace and prosperity and the conditions in which we want to raise our children.
We are really forced and compelled to remember that what we do today will become the history of future generations. Our decisions, our treatment of one another, our successes or our failures in interpreting from a variety of perspectives of what has come before writes our history. And history has its eyes on us today.
So the theme of this year’s conference I think provides an opportunity to better understand ourselves and our history by facilitating cross-disciplinary approaches to study of the humanities and social sciences. I think in the future there will be a combined rubric for that. As an undergraduate student many, many years ago I took courses in history, religion, philosophy, sociology and language and at the time it seemed like just a little bit of everything. But studying these disciplines that today we would group together broadly as the humanities with a little social science thrown in, I think we learn to think logically. We learn skills from this study and this sharing that we give to our students. We learn to think logically, we learn to reason, we learn to apply our creativity to the problems that are in front of us. These studies allow us to weigh evidence critically and consider multiple sides of the issue. They generate an insight into our past and permit us to evaluate with the rigor of science and with the compassion of the arts what this means for us in the future that we wish to create.
As we move deeper into the 21st century I would argue there should be a future respect for the rights of all people and the opportunity for people to participate inclusively in their governance free from fears, discriminations, and marginalization. This is a future of peace for all creativity and all the things that inspire us about the human spirit, and I’ve heard much about that today and the spirit of this university.
In the 21st century the study of the humanities and social sciences, also gives us ultimately those critical thinking skills. These skills I think are more vital today than they ever were in the past. They were needed back then and are very much needed now as history has its eye on us. These skills are necessary to parse and understand the vast amount of information available to us. Not just generated from our studies and the data we collect that inform some of our science or academic adventures today, but just the information available to us as human beings that we receive on our smart phones through our smart apps and that are very difficult to parse and understand. This information is often subjective, incomplete, and very imperfect and this in turn requires us to apply our critical thinking to limit our susceptibility to disinformation. It allows us to mitigate the harm that it causes, the harm we may do one another by believing what is not true, and gives us a chance to take information and apply it in ways that are going to yield good results for our societies and humanity in general.
I think studying the humanities and social sciences results in a skill often lacking in us. And that is as we consider some of the conflicts of the past we look at our history and have to understand how people worked together and how they didn’t. And this skill which I think is critically important, is the skill of empathy. Fostering empathy among us particularly as we look at the distant past where we don’t have much of a record of how people thought or behaved. It’s what some lucky person wrote down and got to interpret history before for us and we have to struggle to understand the context. And I think understanding how different people make moral, religious and intellectual sense of the world is a way in which we identify common ground and can contribute to respect for others while reducing the potential for strife in the future. It certainly helps create conditions for innovation and for that incredibly positive creativity that people are capable of.
I think one of the reasons that democratic societies embrace the study of humanities and social sciences with such vigor is that the skills and understanding developed through studies makes for a much more informed citizenry. Any skill I might talk about is one I’m using practically in my everyday life which is not in an academic setting but these are the same skills that all of you apply in your academic work and as you teach and impart your knowledge and wisdom to your students. Citizens who can dismiss disinformation, who recognize the value of equal treatment of all people, who can see through the ploys of those who attempt to manipulate us through our emotions and warped understandings of our histories. The study of the humanities and social sciences really makes us powerful because it gives us our intellectual framework through which we can appreciate the information that comes to us and gives us the critical thinking and skills of empathy so that we can apply our own understanding to what’s coming to us.
Since the humanities and social sciences also gives us space to think, it allows us to draw our own conclusions, to learn from the past, to help us guard against biases conscious or unconscious that can stand in the way of inclusive and diverse communities.
I think breaking down barriers between the studies of humanities and social sciences is one way to ensure that we have a better future. Academic disciplines establish their own guard rails and context but as I find in life most things are actually cross disciplinary. Very little stands on its own. Most things have a relationship, to other things, and frankly, benefit from the influences of understanding and insights that can be shared across those disciplines.
I think by increasing our understanding of one another, improving communication, fostering opportunity for interaction are all necessary to increasing our understanding more generally. It’s something we need to work on in Sri Lanka and the United States. As Amanda Gorman observed, history as it has its eye on us. And it’s our responsibility to do our utmost to gift our children a peaceful and prosperous future.
To close my remarks, I can’t actually help but share with you another quote from Ms. Amanda Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb.” Her poem really explores the challenges in front of us. Our burden in having to address the challenges with the eyes of history upon us.
Her poem also offered a lot of hope and inspiration about our ability as human beings to do so. She spoke in a very American context but I think her words actually have meaning to Sri Lanka and beyond. So this is why I share them with you.
As some of you may know, in the United States we have a constitution. Also our constitution begins with the words “We the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union establish this constitution for the United States.”
Amanda Gorman referred to this commitment to a more perfect governance that promotes justice, peace, and welfare of all. She says, “We are striving to forge our union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man. And so we lift our gaze not to what stands between us but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must put our differences aside.”
Humanities and social science students and scholars are particularly well equipped to provide a greater understanding about the differences within our societies and to help us chart a course towards a more harmonious future.
You are the flag bearers of critical thought, of open discourse, and of empathy. Breaking down barriers of separate academic disciplines so that we can break down the barriers that divide us beyond the world of study and scholarship is something that you can uniquely contribute to.
So I wish you success with this year’s conference and I thank you again for the invitation to join you this morning and to share these thoughts.