As if it were his last lecture, Professor Ross Brann focused on the importance of the personal life journey, touching on culture, Mediterranean travel and his life as "a child of the sixties."
In his April 26 talk in the Last Lecture series, sponsored by Mortar Board, a national senior honor society, to more than 200 people in Phillips Hall, Brann said that his early life was shaped to some extent by his father, a civil rights and labor attorney "with very wide-ranging intellectual and cultural interests." As a teenager, Brann said he felt that he "lived in a family that seemed to embody all of the social change and promise of that era of the sixties. ... I'm a child of the sixties and San Francisco."
Brann and his family were very politically active, and they sought to learn from others' cultural differences, he said. From an early age, Brann was sensitive to diversity and culture. "I relished being the only white kid who patronized the local black barber shop," said Brann, a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential fellow, the Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies and Alice Cook House Professor and Dean.
These experiences influenced Brann's journey to academia and eventually to Cornell, he said. He hopes he never has to leave "the incomparable environment of the college campus."
To illustrate the importance of "the journey" in history, Brann talked of the travel writing of Abu Al-husayn Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Jubayr, a late-12th-century travel writer who went from Iberia (Spain) to Mecca and back. Among other details, Ibn Jubayr wrote that many Muslims and Christians coexisted peacefully during the Crusades.
Ibn Jubayr's account "does not support any simplistic interpretation of this period," said Brann. Rather, Ibn Jubayr's text shows how complex cultural interaction and the personal journey can be, said Brann. "Travel expands the horizons of the familiar, the unusual, the misunderstood or the unknown," he added. This is true in history and today, he said.
Brann concluded with advice to students: "Here at Cornell and in your life's journey beyond it, take every advantage of opportunities to cross cultural boundaries and to break down whatever social barriers you may encounter. You will find your life profoundly enriched and transformed, and your intellectual horizons expanded by engaging people of other backgrounds and different experiences."
Brann's Last Lecture received thunderous applause.
"He talks in such an enthralling way. He's very concise; he's very detailed," said Kira Gidron '13, a mechanical engineering major and one of Brann's students. "I knew his area of interest is Spain and the combination of the three monotheistic cultures, and I'm from Spain. I was really interested in hearing what he had to say," she said.
Hanna Roos '10 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.