September 15, 2003

Collective genius in the 21st century

Laurie Patton is Winship Distinguished Research Professor in the Humanities and chair of religion.

As you begin your college careers at Emory, many of you will discover an intellectual call—a deep interest that you never knew existed—and your professors will be the doorways to that discovery, the approachable guides you can trust for your uniquely 21st century journey.

What is uniquely 21st century about your journey? There are two important things: First, in the 21st century, genius is collective. Second, in this century, genius is also global.

Let me take Ramesses as a primary example of what I mean. You might imagine the discovery of Ramesses by a somewhat paunchy middle-aged archaeologist with a team of assistants, barking orders and making analytical assessment of bones brought into his tent. Or you might imagine The Lord of the Rings, fighting off priests of obscure and violent religious cults, to get to the magical stone buried in a cave under the sand. In both cases, you would be wrong.

If you imagine any intellectual task this way, you are not giving yourself credit. Why I am I saying this strange thing? I say you are not giving yourself enough credit because, in both of these scenarios of archaeologists—individual geniuses or individual heroes—there is a false idea.

Such images do not include the kind of collaborative, global thinking that you, the Class of 2007, are particularly called to do.

One of my favorite writers and thinkers, Catherine Stimpson, recently gave a lecture here at Emory where she argued that genius takes shape in the subtle, everyday interactions between people who ask different questions about ordinary things. Those people would be you.

Aside from being dean at New York University, Catherine Stimpson gave out MacArthur “genius” grants for decades, so she knows whereof she speaks.

In case you were wondering, MacArthur genius grants give particularly creative and original thinkers enough to live on, and just be creative, for five years. Also, you can’t apply; you have to be chosen.

In her study of people we call individual geniuses—Einstein, Lord Byron, Tennyson, Ramanujan the great Indian mathematician—she shows that these people had solid, dynamic and generous communities behind them most of their lives. Such communities helped them think differently, do their work better. Stimpson then argues something even more radical: that MacArthur genius grants should now be given to communities who are geniuses, not individuals. And the foundation should give them especially to global communities—intersections of people who work across the odd, vexing and exhilarating human boundaries we call “cultures” and “nations.”

But let’s go back to Ramesses. It also took an entire community to bring Ramesses to Emory, and that story, the story behind the story, is also one of collective, global genius—a community filled with generosity. Believe it or not, until a few years ago Ramesses lived anonymously as an Egyptian curiosity at the Niagara Falls Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame for more than 150 years, a rather amusing change of residence for someone used to a royal tomb in the sands. He did, they say, have a good view of Niagara Falls.

Every once in a while, folks familiar with Egyptian history who visited the Niagara Museum remarked that this mummy might be more than a curiosity—that it might be, in fact, a royal mummy, mainly from the way his arms were crossed but also the way in which his hands and feet were once preserved with gold pieces. But no one had the energy, or the community sponsorship, or the generosity, to encourage them to follow through on their hunches.

But the Carlos staff was part enough of the global community to know that there were speculations and murmured possibilities (from Germany, Canada and Egypt itself) that the mummy could indeed be royal. The Carlos staff also was part enough of the vibrant Emory community to realize that the University medical staff had the tools and resources to help decide the matter. The CT scans, the X-rays and the interpretations of those tests helped us to come to a determination.

No one single person, no one single fact, gave us this determination; it was rather a collection of people, a collection of facts, working together.

And even more dramatically, the Carlos staff were global citizens enough to understand and be committed to the idea that if this quiet coffin inhabitant was indeed royal, then he belonged in Cairo, where the rest of his family resides. The staff debated amongst themselves, shared their knowledge with each other and with Egyptian, American and European scholars, and came to this decision. I know the second-floor offices where such conversations took place, and they are ordinary offices—not the stuff of the paunchy archaeologist nor of Lord of the Rings. Yet those offices were the places of great generosity of collective, global genius.

What we now know is that this former curiosity is most likely Ramesses I, and we have promised, to the government of Egypt’s great delight and gratitude, that he will go home to Cairo for a royal reception. This is a remarkable instance of global cooperation. The Egyptian government did not have to ask for its ancestor back. As Peter Lacovara, curator of Egyptian Art at the Carlos, has said, “If you heard George Washington was accidentally on display somewhere in Belgium, wouldn’t you want him home?”

The government of Egypt did not have to explain that, even in the 19th century when everyone thought differently, these royal graves were not Europe’s and America’s for the taking. And in this, Emory is virtually unique. The government of Egypt had never worked with anyone like the Carlos Museum staff. Imagine, in this post 9/11 world, the moment this fall when Ramesses arrives on Egyptian shores—imagine what his arrival will do for relations between America and the Middle East, and even more, for relations between Islam and the West. A small decision, with huge, positive consequences for this broken world.

There are many more of the stories of collective and global genius that I could tell you, spectacular discoveries involving people your age who simply asked different questions of ordinary things. I could tell you of the Arab shepherd Mohammed El D’ib who, at about your age, was looking for a stray goat with his friends and found a cave. They didn’t feel it was an ordinary cave; they crawled farther and found the jars that contained what we now know as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Mohammed and his friends told a store owner, who told a professor, who then published a report that changed our basic ideas about Biblical history.

I could tell you about the railroad workers in what is now Pakistan, also your age, employed by the British colonial government to build a railroad. These workers persuaded their supervisors that the pile of superbly made bricks they were using were not simply junk to be recycled for the railroad beds. Their insistence that these bricks were different led to the discovery of the Indus valley, one of the earliest civilizations of the world and whose discovery changed Indian history.

The point is that, here in universities, these kinds of stories are not exceptions. Cooperative genius is the way of the 21st century, and you already are part of that story. You are the ones who will be like the artists, the medical staff, the antiques dealers, the railroad workers and even the specialists who say to your colleagues or to your supervisors, “Maybe we should look at things this way.”

The story of Ramesses’ arrival at Emory tells us that we have become responsible for the globe, and for imagining differently.

This essay is edited from Patton’s address at the 2003 Freshman Convocation.