Invisible Good(s) — Taalu 2020

Dean Hatim Eltayeb’s remarks to the entering class of 2020 at Taalu, 21 September 2020.

Good afternoon academy.

Today is a treasure, but a strange and difficult one. On the one hand, I am mourning the sunshine laughter of our typical Taalu. The quad resplendent with bright and hopeful fabric. Everything and everyone and everywhere pulsating proudly with potential. On the other hand, I am grateful for a feeling of entanglement. Although I am physically alone on a quickly flattening bouncing ball in my bedroom, spiritually — I feel enmeshed, entangled. Held in something invisible.

It turns out that the most powerful forces in the universe are invisible. The strong and weak nuclear force, electromagnetism, gravity — all of these are invisible to the naked eye and yet they literally hold the fabric of the cosmos together. Also invisible is the virus, which has upended so much of human society. We cannot see it, and yet it locks us up, holds us apart and stalks the air between us.

Several months ago, when the crest of the pandemic wave was first breaking, Google chose to honor a doctor from the 19th century in their doodle. Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician who studied and worked in Vienna. In 1847 he joined a teaching hospital: the Allgemeine Krankenhaus. During his time there it would come to be at the cutting edge of medical science. Physicians and trainees at the hospital would spend parts of their day training, and part of their day delivering babies.

Sometime into his work at the Krankenhaus, Semmelweis observed that deliveries which were attended by physicians and medical doctors had a dramatically higher rate of death than those attended by mid-wives. Almost 1 in 5 of the deliveries handled by doctors would result in a death. These deaths were mysterious. Shortly after the delivery mothers would succumb to violent fevers and other complications. The cause of death was an unclear malady referred to as puerperal fever. Stranger still, amongst the mid-wives the number was closer to 1 in 50. Although the doctors were supposedly better trained and almost certainly better compensated, their results were 10 times worse than those of the mid-wives.

After observing this trend for some time, Semmelweis developed a theory. Doctors and students were spending their days dissecting and working with cadavers. Then, as now, the remains of human deceased were used in the teaching of anatomy and surgical technique. Semmelweis theorized that when the doctors came across to the maternity ward, they were transferring some kind of deadly material with them which was causing the pregnant mothers to become ill. To test his theory, Semmelweis required all doctors and students to adopt a simple ritual: before beginning a delivery, doctors would now be required to wash their hands. Almost instantly, the rate of death would plummet to match the 2% which mid-wives were experiencing.

Today, of course, we understand that hand-washing eliminates much of the risk of infection. At the time, however, germ theory was yet to be developed and Semmelweis was viewed as a fraudster and loon. The prevailing medical theory of the time was something called miasma theory, an idea that “bad air” was the cause of many illnesses. The thought that modern, sophisticated doctors — agents of healing — could somehow be unwitting vectors of death was unthinkable. It didn’t help that Semmelweis was also quite rude to his peers. He wrote angry, insulting letters berating them for their murderous habits.

Semmelweis would ultimately lose his place at the hospital, he descended quickly into ill health and would die shortly afterwards in an insane asylum, at the age of 47. At around the same time Pasteur would begin publishing work that would lead germ theory to dominance. Laying the foundation for our present-day understanding of the invisible enemy which Semmelweis had warned against. Although his understanding was incomplete, and his ability to influence others was abysmal, Semmelweis can still be respected for introducing a life-saving ritual into modern medicine. A ritual to ward against an invisible evil.

As an aside, it does feel a little cheeky to say, as did the podcast I cribbed this story from, that Semmelweis invented hand-washing. There are many thousand year-old traditions throughout the global south that include ablution and antiseptic plants in their religious and medicinal practices. Hand-washing was not invented in Vienna, nevertheless, the story is fascinating.

In my unabashed pursuit of metaphor, I stumbled upon this thought: if hand-washing is a ritual for warding off invisible evils, then today — Taalu — is a ritual for welcoming invisible goods. The first powerful yet invisible good that we welcome today is learning. Like a virus, like gravity, like the nucleus of an atom — learning is invisible to the naked eye. Yet it is undoubtedly powerful. Our ability to acquire, develop and transmit knowledge within and across generations; our ability to learn; is the cornerstone of human civilization. It is invisible but, like Semmelweis’ germs, we theorize about it. When Dr. Demilade asks a question, and listens to her students’ responses, she is trying to draw reasonable conclusions about what her students may or may not have learned. She is looking for evidence of something which she cannot observe directly. As a trained scientist, she will use this evidence to adjust her approach, to dig deeper or move faster, to help her students arrive at their potential.

This is part of what makes education such a fascinating undertaking. We know that it matters, we know why, but we cannot observe it directly. In fact, reasonable people can disagree quite vehemently over what even counts as evidence. This should give us pause, invite us to question our assumptions and encourage us to think carefully about the evidence we collect.

Year 1’s, the most powerful changes you will undergo in the next two years, will be invisible. The more that you can do to collect and gather evidence (by journaling, by talking things through with peers and mentors, by capturing the work of which you are most proud) the more visible you will make your own growth. These are the rituals, the habits, the tools that you can use to invite and nurture this invisible good.

Year 2’s, as you begin to chart your paths beyond ALA, ask yourselves: what have I learned about learning? What is my evidence?

The second invisible good that we celebrate today — is community.

Most of us, and especially our Year 1’s, are experiencing this ceremony sitting somewhere by ourselves. In a room, on a couch, maybe somewhere strange we’ve had to visit in order to get online. For some, the nearest ALAian is many, many kilometers away. When the ceremony is over we will close the window, unplug our earphones and there will be no direct sensation left of this place, these people. The entire thing may just as well be imaginary.

But the force is there.

Community is predicated on separation. Without individuals, a community cannot exist and, according at least to some humanist African philosophers, without community, the individual cannot be complete. I point in this direction because I want you to think about what it means to practice community. Like love, faith, hope and curiosity, community is deeply powerful but only made visible through practice.

For one thing, learning about and coming to know yourself, choosing what from yourself you want to share — that is an act of community. So read, write, clarify your thoughts, and share them. Moreover there is community in conversation. Perhaps the greatest teacher is a friend, a true trusted friend, who is different from you. Someone who has and will continue to experience life in ways vastly different from your own. So listen. Listening is a practice of community.

Unlike nuclear forces, learning and community do not operate inevitably. Sure, we can learn accidentally, and community can spring up organically, but it is with intention that they arrive at their full potential. Today is a celebration and a calling together of ALA as an intentional learning community. Each of us practicing alone and together the rituals that invite the invisible good.

Every year at around this time, I try to remind everyone of a phrase which I think captures much of my message. I have recently learned that in rhetoric, this device is called: antimetabole. Thank you Mr. Morake for sending me down that delightful rabbit-hole of discovery. Antimetabole is when you invert the grammatical structure of a phrase in a way that can be cheesy or cute but that hopefully prompts further reflection: so for example, Aristotle is said to have shared: Eat to live not live to eat; some other wise person shared “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” You all know what I am going to say.

Welcome year 1’s.

You deserve to be here, and here deserves you to be.

Let me close by paraphrasing this week’s seminal author, the inimitable Ms. Adichie: may you all enjoy a journey that leaves you full of opinions, and may those opinions come from an informed, humane and broad-minded place.

Good luck.

These remarks are adapted from the virtual Taalu ceremony held on September 21st, 2020 at ALA. Taalu this year is happening over two episodes, the second will take place in person, in January, when campus has reopened.