The sum of learning

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 November, 2010, 12:00am

As tertiary education becomes more popular and marketable, and investment in human capital a topic of attention, education is today often equated to vocational preparation. As a result, a number of leading academics have raised the alarm. Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Macquarie University in Australia, lamented that universities nowadays focus too much on imparting knowledge and not wisdom. Living in the age of money, modern universities are trying their best to fit in, he said, so that university education is being reduced to vocational training. He urged universities to 'wise up'.

In a recent book, Not For Profit, Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, observed that modern tertiary education has lost its way. She said that if society wants to produce graduates who can empathise as a 'citizen of the world', then it should reverse the current skew towards economic productivity and restore liberal and critical values at universities.

The late professor Bill Readings, a scholar of comparative literature at the University of Montreal, said universities are 'in ruin' because culture is no longer seen as an important legitimating reference, and excellence is measured only by technological and utilitarian criteria.

Indeed, with today's growing obsession with world rankings, which are often methodologically biased, there is a risk of our universities becoming one-dimensional.

For example, research assessment is driven more by citation indices than a balanced evaluation of the impact on scientific discovery and knowledge creation, as well as contribution towards social progress and the enlightenment of humanity.

Some eye-catching ranking exercises tend to measure tangible performance such as awards, research output and citations. But they ignore equally important dimensions of a university's role and mission, such as students' learning experience, the nurturing of students' social and global awareness, and the university's contribution to community and human development, because these are not easily quantified.

Professor Schwartz calls for the imparting of wisdom. So, what is wisdom? In the East, Confucius said the way towards great learning involves the formation of high moral character, enlightening the people, and ultimately achieving highest excellence. University education, in its early tradition, in both the East and West, was about grooming scholar-leaders who excel in knowledge and culture, and who would lead society and the world with their virtuous character and mastery of statecraft.

Nowadays, university education is mostly driven by market choices in favour of 'vocational' type programmes, especially those leading to financially promising professional careers. The study of the humanities and of some social sciences is becoming marginalised, because many think that they broaden the mind but not necessarily job opportunities. Philosophy once used to be cherished as the father of all knowledge, but is now becoming an 'endangered species'.

In Hong Kong, we face similar dilemmas. The community needs to wrestle with a paradox. On the one hand, we see a yearning for broadening the mind and extending the scope of general knowledge - as indicated by the new emphasis on liberal studies in the senior secondary school curriculum, and on general education in undergraduate studies under the new four-year structure; on the other hand, a utilitarian culture prevails in today's climate of education, where many students turn away from the liberal arts and humanities because of the belief that these subjects carry little value in monetary terms.

The community may give a sympathetic ear to the plea for more public funding and private donations towards research and development in medicine and other hard sciences. This, of course, is not a problem. The problem is that it is much more difficult to convince society of the value in grooming, say, a children's literature writer, a school teacher or a musician.

As Hong Kong aspires to be a regional education hub, we should rethink the essence of university education and ask: what kind of excellence do we want to groom?

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