Inquiring minds

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 February, 2011, 12:00am

As a regular visitor from an American university, I find a network of paradoxes in Hong Kong education. Americans are proud of their higher education system for the role it has played in national prosperity and in the global progress of science. They understand why other nations turn to the American university system as a model.

At the same time, Americans fear that Chinese brainpower will overtake them in this century. Global science and mathematics testing show that American primary and secondary education is in decline. Americans were already terrified to think that there are a thousand Chinese smart enough to be at the 'one in a million' level. And then Amy Chua explained to us that we are failing our own children because we are gutless wimps as parents. We took little solace from the Chinese mothers on both sides of the Pacific who protested that the 'tiger mum' was an exaggerated caricature.

Higher education in China itself, no longer satisfied with its old lockstep, is facing significant changes. In Hong Kong, the shift from three-year to four-year undergraduate degree programmes opens space for 'general education', rather than just one more year of specialised, pre-professional education. But why would students waste time on general studies when they could instead outpace the competition in the race to achieve in their chosen field? Who would want to be broadly but more shallowly educated when they could instead become highly skilled? The rewards, after all, go to the experts and the top performers.

For more than a century, American universities have cyclically discovered, forgotten, and rediscovered the importance of general education. Terrified at being eclipsed economically, Americans are today beset with another bout of forgetfulness.

The metaphors I have used are misleading. The human mind has no geometric area, to be configured tall and skinny or short and wide. Writing a century ago, after observing the first cycle of undergraduate professionalisation, a Harvard president wrote that a good university does not content itself with the production of 'hermits, each imprisoned in the cell of his own intellectual pursuits'.

If not experts in varied fields, then what should universities be producing? Expertise is transitory and, in the 21st century, so are careers. No skill set will be useful for a lifetime. But something else will be. Graduates should have a sense of purpose, for their own lives and for the society of which they are citizens and for the world as a whole. Being educated comes with a responsibility to other people and to the future, not just to oneself and to the here and now. A good education has a moral vector that cannot be learnt through repetition and memorisation. Education is, in fact, in the words of James Bryant Conant, 'what is left after all that has been learnt is forgotten' - values and ideals and a love of learning that inform a graduate's entire life.

A Harvard graduate wrote to me recently about his education. He had studied environmental science and policy at Harvard and, now back home in Asia, he described what in his education had been most important. Layered through the science, engineering and political science courses he had taken, he wrote, ran a 'normative argument': that there were ways to be responsible for the future of the earth, and ways to be irresponsible. This student learned something no extra physics course could have taught him: how to be a citizen and a future leader, and how the art of co-operation sometimes dominates competitive achievements.

While Americans are rightly alarmed by the decline in their children's exam scores compared to those of Asian children, I am less sure about the significance of exam scores in universities. Many of my top students have gone on to be top professors, but the two very top students I ever taught, each ranked No1 in his graduating class of over 1,500 students, have left barely a fingerprint on the world. By contrast, the two students I have taught who have had the most impact on the world both dropped out of Harvard shortly after taking my computer science course. One, Bill Gates, founded Microsoft; the other, Mark Zuckerberg, founded Facebook. What distinguished them was not so much their academic prowess as their capacity to be simultaneously eager to learn and sceptical of what they were being taught. Both were bright but irreverent, in ways that did not sit well with every one of their professors and deans.

American universities, at their best, are like philosophical and somewhat indulgent parents. They believe they have important knowledge and ideals to pass along to the next generation. But they are also humble about their ability to see where the future lies. Universities are the bows that launch the arrows, but these arrows have minds of their own.

Americans, anxious over economic competition, sometimes lose sight of the youthful imagination from which their prosperity sprang. Perhaps Hong Kong, as it thoughtfully incorporates a more liberal perspective into an exam-driven educational tradition, can avoid repeating these mistakes.

Harry Lewis is Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University and author of Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? This essay is based on lectures he delivered at Chinese University last month during his stay as Sir Run Run Shaw Distinguished Visiting Scholar