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Faith, Pluralism, Globalization and Higher-Education in the 21st Century: An Interview with John Sexton, President of NYU

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In advance of Ideas Economy: Human Potential, a conference organized by The Economist for later this month, I interviewed Dr. John Sexton, President of New York University--the largest private university in the United States--on the intersection of faith, pluralism, globalization, and higher-education in the 21st century.


Rahim Kanani: When you look at the tension and controversy surrounding the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque", what strikes you as the root of this growing division?

John Sexton: It's very interesting. There's a slim volume that I read years ago by Albert Hirschman, it's called The Rhetoric of Reaction. And I was just looking at it this morning because this afternoon, I am speaking to the 5,000 freshmen that are beginning class at NYU next week. He wrote this book in 1991--some 20 years ago--and in it he analyses political discourse in advanced democratic societies. He expresses what he calls, "A concern over the massive stubborn and exasperating otherness of others." And he goes on to write of the unsettling experience of being shut off, not just from the opinions, but from the entire life experience of large numbers of one's contemporaries and how citizens in advanced democracies array themselves in a few clearly defined groups. For example in America, the two-party system, each holding different opinions and easily becoming walled off from each other. And here, I quote again, "As the process feeds on itself, each group will at some point ask about the other in utter puzzlement and often with mutual revulsion, how did they get to be that way?"

I hadn't read this book in several years, but I have the habit of periodically putting out for our NYU community what I call a "reflection". And a reflection is not a research paper, but it expresses my thoughts on some aspect of the university. In 2005, I wrote a reflection that I called Dogmatism and Complexity, the Research University and Civil Discourse. It was because I was growing concerned about the death of thought in America, and the fact that we were creating feedback loops of information, and we were getting walled off. And in that piece, it's very rare for me to quote anyone, but I quoted these words from Hirschman and I said, even then he was talking 15 years in advance. I have to say that since I wrote that piece in 2005, this capacity to fail to enter into dialogue has grown, and it's almost become a need not to enter into dialogue. And this is antithetical in my view to the worldview that's necessary if humankind is going to advance in what I think, frankly, is the critical century in humankind's evolution.

Rahim Kanani: What kind of worldview do you deem necessary to advance human civilization in this critical century?

John Sexton: I think the world at this point is miniaturizing. It's miniaturizing in every way so "gating strategies" are utterly useless at this point. We just learned that you can't gate off of an economy, something we should have known long ago. Clearly you can't gate off the flow of people and ideas and information, so the world is becoming miniaturized, and the question I think, and maybe the most important question of the century is, how is humankind going to react to that miniaturization?

Some would say that this creates a situation to be feared, that it's inevitably going to produce a clash of civilizations. And others would say this is a great moment where humankind literally can pass through a critical threshold and create a higher version of itself. I call it a great ecumenical moment. It really is, in a secular sense, not the religious sense by way of John XXIII and the Ecumenical Council, but it's an ecumenical moment. It's a chance for us to embrace this miniaturization and say: we have the wonderful gift of all the varieties of humankind and now if we learn to be in concert with each other and we learn the skills of listening to each other, we can see the wonderful reality of the world, not through the single window we've been given, but through the many facets of a diamond.

Rahim Kanani: What is the relationship between NYU and New York City in the context of this ecumenical moment?

John Sexton: I think that New York City is the first experiment in how humankind responds to this basic choice. New York City, I love to point out, is the first city in the world that can say in its public school system, every country in the world is represented by children born in that country. So we literally miniaturized the world in the city. And as I say to our students, if you go out into the boroughs and to the communities of New York, you can taste the bread, hear the language, and listen to the prayers of every nation of the world.

So New York City really is the first experiment in whether or not the world globally can create an ecumenical society. And you know, it's not perfect, but we're doing a pretty good job of it and that's how we envision it at the university. NYU is in a special relationship with the city. We were founded by Albert Gallatin nearly 200 years ago to be, in his words, "in and of the city." So we say to our students, be ready to take on complexity, cacophony, hyper-stimulation, for NYU is New York City cubed. We don't have any gates. We don't gate ourselves off. We don't have any space to which you can retreat. We don't have any grass, you walk out of our buildings, and you step on sidewalk. But we are in the city aggressively, and an NYU education is in and of that city. In fact, many NYU buildings are not next to NYU buildings. You walk out of them, look one way or the other, and you can't see another school building because we're ecosystematic with the city. That is the incarnation of a philosophy. And the philosophy is that we embrace this ecumenical experiment.

Read the full interview with President Sexton at