Worldly wisdom

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 June, 2012, 12:00am


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Last week, four of Hong Kong's universities were ranked by Times Higher Education among the world's top 50 young universities (under the age of 50), affirming once again Hong Kong's status as a higher education hub.

Indeed, Hong Kong possesses one of the strongest clusters of universities in the region. And, along with other rapidly growing universities on the mainland and in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Singapore, they constitute a booming East Asia belt that may well rival the greater Boston region someday.

The East Asian school systems, including Hong Kong's, have also been highly rated. Both the Pisa (the Programme of International Student Assessment) survey and the McKinsey studies of recent years have pointed to certain traits that seem to have made Asian students successful. The 2010 Pisa results even caused US Education Secretary Arne Duncan to warn that 'America needs to urgently accelerate student learning to remain competitive in the global economy of the 21st century'.

Amy Chua's 2011 best-selling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has also added force to arguments for adopting more Asian ways to turn the new generation into successful achievers. Many in Europe and the US are looking East to draw inspiration.

The rise of Asia has made the world view Asia differently, and pointed to an urgent need to rediscover its rich and diverse cultures and legacies. As Kishore Mahbubani, dean of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, forecast in his provocative book, The New Asian Hemisphere, just as the rise of the West transformed the world in the past two centuries, the rise of Asia will bring about an equally significant transformation.

For a long time, many branches of knowledge developed in the process of Western civilisation have been recognised as 'universal' knowledge, whereas Asian knowledge and scholarship have mostly been treated as only Asia-specific. As the meeting point between East and West, Hong Kong's universities should be capable of bridging Eastern and Western scholarship, philosophies and discoveries. They should innovate and not just replicate Western knowledge, whether in science or the liberal arts.

What can Asia and Hong Kong offer to the world, and what kind of learning approach should be promoted in the new global age? It all depends on how we interpret the challenges of today's societies, and what we consider adequate preparation for a global citizen.

Between the Eastern and Western educational traditions and practices, or between Confucius and Socrates, as one may put it, which is better? Some have suggested that it would be ideal to expose students to both - preferably to Confucian education at an earlier stage to acquire basic knowledge and build character; and then to Socratic scholarship later to acquire critical thinking skills. The dichotomy of educational traditions, however, does not need to be overemphasised.

Across the globe, universities and schools have suffered from adopting a one-dimensional perspective with too much emphasis on economic productivity and human capital theories, at the expense of recognising and grooming diverse talents. This has constrained the education of students who seek purpose in life and meaning in what they study, and who embrace imagination and creativity unbound by conventional wisdom and mainstream thinking, or cultural and social prejudices. There is growing concern among university leaders about the loss of purpose in universities, resulting in 'excellence without a soul', in the words of Harry Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College. It is time for educators and scholars to go back to basics, to rediscover the essence of education from the rich legacies of both the European and Asian cultural traditions, where there is considerable common ground.

The European tradition of higher learning was grounded in the ideals of reason, morals and culture. Similarly, Confucius saw the way towards great learning as 'the formation of high moral character, enlightening the people and ultimately achieving the ideal realm'.

We need more reflections on how and what to learn and teach, and on the fundamental purpose of education. The need for education to be more multidisciplinary and cross-cultural is beginning to gain ground. University College London, for example, has launched an innovative Bachelor of Arts and Sciences programme that emphasises interdisciplinary skills and the study of a foreign language.

Drawing wisdom from both the Western and Eastern cultural and intellectual traditions is essential to holistic human development. Education should raise people's awareness of cultural differences between nations, and between East and West. It should nurture our capacity to both preserve cultural heritage and to transform society towards higher humanistic goals.

The great Confucian scholar Han Yu once said that 'being a teacher, one should propagate doctrines [of the ancient sage], disseminate knowledge, and resolve doubts'. Our teachers should be a modern sage who can inspire their students as a role model and who can impart wisdom in interpreting the world and the purpose of life.

How this can be facilitated by our schools and universities is the greatest challenge to educators worldwide, beyond what is measured by mundane performance indicators.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and president of The Hong Kong Institute of Education