Watch the 2017–18 Hall Fellow Lecture above
When policymakers don’t take cultural work seriously, this is what Cynthia Perrin Schneider ’71 tells them. “Think of it this way: When extremists occupy a place and want to take it over — whether it’s jihadists in Timbuktu, ISIS in Syria, or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia — what’s the first thing they do?” They ban music, she said. They destroy shrines and cultural artifacts. “That’s because culture is what holds people together,” she continued. “It gives them strength. If you eliminate culture, people are much weaker and can be controlled and subjugated. So you can give people strength and resilience and help them recover from conflict by bringing back the culture.”
That’s what Schneider is attempting to do with the Timbuktu Renaissance, a platform funded by the National Endowment for Democracy that aims to aid the region’s recovery from the abuses of violent extremism by focusing on Mali’s musical and historical culture. Amid much division and mistrust, no one knowing who stood with the extremists, “a concert is the one thing that everyone will come out for,” she said during her 2017–18 Hall Fellow lecture for the Concord Academy school community on November 30. “It’s an important way for the region to recover from this occupation.”
A related partnership with the Google Cultural Institute is digitizing, preserving, translating, and releasing the texts of a treasure trove of some 300,000 Renaissance-era manuscripts that were smuggled to safety during the occupation. They will soon show the world that Timbuktu, much more than being the current most dangerous U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, and more even than its status as the cradle of blues music, was also during the Renaissance period a great center of civilization. “These manuscripts, written in the middle of nowhere, in Timbuktu, could have been written in Florence,” Schneider said. “They are all about humanism, poetry, literature, music, scientific exploration, tolerance, morality, and good governance. They aren’t very well known, but they will be soon.”
Schneider departed for Mali the following week for the concert that launched the initiative, to talk with a documentary filmmaker focusing on the manuscripts, and to help rebuild a recording studio to kick-start the area’s cultural recovery.
Schneider has spent much of her life convincing others of the vital role of culture, especially the arts, in addressing some of the world’s toughest problems. Art has always been important to her, and trusting in her own instincts is a theme she traced back to CA. It started with her art history teacher, Janet Eisendrath, who honored all students’ perspectives, gave them faith in their own voices, and cultivated a “healthy skepticism of experts,” she said. At Harvard University, she studied art history, specializing in 16th- and 17th-century Dutch painting, and her familiarity with the history and culture of the country served her well when she was tapped by President Bill Clinton to be the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands from 1998 to 2001. (She had been an early supporter of his first presidential campaign.)
“I had to convince both the Dutch and my embassy that art was important,” she said. In her ambassador’s residence, she showed visitors a collection of artwork — including an Alexander Calder mobile and a Rembrandt Peale portrait of Thomas Jefferson — that demonstrated the Dutch influence on American art. “Without me saying anything, there was already established trust and mutual respect,” she says. Culture was also a factor in her ability to persuade the Dutch to become the first European country to buy into the Joint Strike Fighter program. That earned her the highest commendation that the Pentagon gives civilians, and a quip: “Whoever thought an art historian would be so good at selling weapons?”
“Don’t make a plan, but help your friends.”It was in the Netherlands that Schneider learned something that continues to inform her cross-cultural work today. She had done something no one had before, organizing an outing for Dutch military chiefs of staff and their spouses, and their American counterparts, to see Saving Private Ryan and discuss the movie afterward. It was the first time some couples had ever talked about whether or not they wanted their own children to enter the military. “I discovered that magic moment that occurs after you have experienced a particularly moving narrative,” she said. “It provokes an empathic response, and for a short time afterward you’re in a state of emotional suspension, open and vulnerable. If you can catch that time, then you can facilitate a more honest conversation that can really shift the way people think about things.”
–Cynthia Perrin Schneider ’71
Following her return to civilian life, Schneider co-founded three separate organizations that bring together the arts and politics. MOST (Muslims on Screen and Television), recognizing the ability of the media to change perceptions for better or worse, gives free advice to showrunners and producers to help craft authentic Muslim characters. At Georgetown University, the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics harnesses the power of performance to humanize global politics. The Timbuktu Renaissance is her latest project. Schneider also teaches diplomacy and culture at Georgetown, where she is attempting to shift international relations pedagogy from a focus on security and global strategy to value the perspectives of the people affected.
Everything she has done, Schneider said, has been serendipitous and unplanned, and all of it has related to friendships. Her advice to students: “Don’t make a plan, but help your friends.”
After the lecture, she spoke for parents and alumnae/i at the Moriarty Athletic Campus. During her Hall Fellow visit, she attended a history class on gender in modern America and talked with a small group of CA Model U.N. students over lunch. These days, she told them, it’s less important for ambassadors to share American culture elsewhere, because it’s readily accessible online, and that more than any specific nation, it is ideology and sectarianism that the United States must confront. “You can’t bomb that out of existence,” she said. “You have to find what is persuasive in that context.”
Her view of an ambassador’s role has evolved. Rather than trying to force, coerce, or charm others into outcomes favorable to the United States, if we do what’s good for that country on its own terms, she says, it will be good for America. She advocates spending less time promoting the United States abroad and more time listening, devoting more resources to facilitating education, economic development, and infrastructure.
“We live in a time when diplomacy is being seriously denigrated,” Schneider told students in her lecture. “Where does America’s strength in the world come from? Yes, we have a strong military, but when’s the last time we won a war? Our strength comes, in my view, from what America stands for in the world.”
Apart from official diplomacy, she says, “It’s really important to have these kinds of NGO initiatives, to have another kind of presence, to show an alternative face of the United States. I think people are really open to that.”
Watch the Timbuktu Renaissance video from Schneider’s presentation below:
The Hall Fellowship is an annual endowed lecture named for Elizabeth B. Hall, headmistress of Concord Academy from 1949 through 1963, that was established by the Trustees of Concord Academy in 1963 to honor her tenure. Over the years, this lectureship has brought a wide array of accomplished individuals to CA, from poets to activists to politicians. Read about recent talks by documentary filmmaker Eleanor Bingham Miller ’64, hydroponic farming CEO Sonia Lo’ 84, education expert Howard Gardner P’87, ’90, ’94, planetary scientist Lucy McFadden ’70, Holocaust survivor Edgar Krasa, population geneticist Spencer Wells, and Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone.