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
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
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
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
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
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