Learn to rediscover the purpose of studying

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 September, 2011, 12:00am


Without playing down the importance of universities in human capital formation and in leading to new knowledge that lifts human productivity, it is time to seriously reflect on the mission of a university. Do we only go for the numbers game (grant numbers, citation numbers) and international rankings?

Or do we care more about the grooming of our new generation to be active and responsible citizens who seek purposes in life in what they study, learn not just for the sake of earning, and are ready to serve the community?

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, President, HK Institute of Education, Insight page, September 20

On the day that I wrote my last exam for my university degree and submitted my last paper, I had several hours free in the afternoon but hardly knew what to do with such time any longer.

I chose for some reason to wander in the stacks of the university's main library and at random picked out a biography of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, a man whose life intrigued me.

Within minutes I was lost. It was night by the time I checked that book out of the library to finish it at home. I had discovered reading again, a habit lost through university practices of neural acquisition of required study materials.

What a joy the rediscovery was. I was doing again what Anthony Cheung wants his new generation of active and responsible citizens to do - seek purposes in life in what they study, to learn not just for the sake of earning.

And what I had really discovered was that you don't need university to do it, that, in fact, you may be better off doing it away from the classroom.

The conviction has never left me. Academics like to think of university as society's obvious centre of intelligent discussion but, while this may have been true 400 years ago, it is so no longer. Go ahead, you scholars, deny it. Let the wider world hear how narrowly you have defined yours.

And this is where I differ from Professor Cheung. Yes, it is a very worthwhile mission to groom a new generation to be responsible citizens but it is not the mission of our universities. They have parted ways with their monastic roots now. For instillation of moral values find a church.

Or, better yet, pick it up at your mother's knee. It's too late by the time you get to your first year. You're fixed in your ways by then.

Nor can it be done in our school system. Our teachers have become curriculum slaves. Dare they any longer steal time to tell stories that fascinate their pupils by enlightening the human condition? No, they dare not. If this is Thursday, September 22, it is the appointed time for the introduction to sine and cosine. Teachers now part from the prescribed daily curriculum at the risk of their jobs.

Like it or not, schooling has become the acquisition of required study materials for the purpose, as Professor Cheung puts it, of human capital formation. And if the formal education system will not conform to this requirement then the kids will have their evenings destroyed in crammer centres until it is done.

It's a bleak portrayal of education, I agree. I always preferred the stories. The children still do. Equally, however, organic chemistry requires specific knowledge, as does civil engineering, accountancy, law, medicine and many other occupations.

It can't be done with story telling. People have reason to want a cramming element in education. Parents want to set children up to earn a good and secure income in later life. It's what they expect from education and educationalists will just have to accept it.

But when more than a third of our workforce has tertiary education, up from less than a fifth 15 years ago, I have to wonder whether we haven't overdone it. It just isn't possible that more than a third of our jobs require that many years of education.

What has happened, I am sure, is that most of those students have been sidetracked into Sociomedianthropoliticology Studies, my name for time-wasting non-disciplines that hold out a promise of 'purposes in life', but do not deliver even these, let alone decent jobs.

They don't belong in university, Professor Cheung. They're just fodder for the education machine. We put too much money into education now and all it does is betray the hopes of tens of thousands of young people and steal their best years. Go tell them to read a good book instead.