So what does it all mean?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am


Ten years at an information technology firm left computer programmer Alex Tam Chi-kin feeling bored and lost. Day after day he faced the ceaseless monotony of crunching data and setting up databases.

He started thinking about what he wanted to do with his life. 'I began to ponder issues like the meaning of life and value of work,' he says.

The existential crisis prompted him to sign up for a master's programme in philosophy at Lingnan University. Graduating in 2009, Tam credits the course for clearing up his doubts about life.

'I changed from a materialist who spent nearly all of my salary every month to a minimalist,' he says.

Like Tam, fellow Hongkongers are turning to humanities courses such as the Master of Arts in Practical Philosophy at Lingnan University as they seek to escape the pressures and tedium of everyday life. Zhang Jiji, assistant director of the programme, says it prompts students to re-examine life and the human condition in general.

'The course targets people who reflect a lot, who care not only about how things are but also why things are, and how they ought to be,' he says.

Zhang says the course minimises jargon and makes theoretical issues understandable to students with no background in philosophical studies.

'We try to teach philosophy in a popular and practical way. Issues in applied ethics such as abortion, the right to die, and the legitimacy of torture in fighting terrorism ... are all practical issues. We have less emphasis on theoretical philosophy like metaphysics and epistemology, concentrating more on practical philosophy such as social and political philosophy, ethics and aesthetics. But we also offer some courses on informal logic and scientific methods.'

While philosophy may appear to be a rather abstract discipline that has little relevance to daily lives, Zhang says the course hones students' writing, thinking and presentation skills, which can benefit both their career and life.

'We don't have many exams, but we do a lot of term papers,' he says. 'When you write something down, it helps you think things through and reason deeply.

'The course won't give you mechanical tools to solve problems or any quick fixes to crises, but it exposes students to different ways of thinking about life and lets them decide what is right.

'Young people in Hong Kong now have all kinds of opinions. They protest a lot. Relying on gut feelings, many form opinions quickly without thinking about [the reasons, beliefs and principles underpinning] their views.

'Intuition is a good starting place, but you can't stop there. When a problem arises, it's better to calm down, think it through and ask why you want to take certain actions.'

Lingnan University is not alone in offering such a course at master's level. Chinese University and the University of Hong Kong also run their own postgraduate programmes for people seeking to get in touch with life's great issues and what it means to be human.

Like Lingnan's course, Chinese University's programme leading to a Master of Arts in Religious Studies offers a practical emphasis on pressing issues in the modern age. Launched in 1998, the course underwent a curriculum overhaul recently.

Programme director John Lai Tsz-pang says they have made the course more relevant to daily life. 'We've analysed religions from an academic perspective before,' Lai says. 'Now we study modern practices that have strong religious undertones, such as vegetarianism, mindfulness training, yoga and tai chi.'

He says many of the problems the world faces can be viewed from religious perspectives.

'We have studies on environmental ethics, exploring how different religions see human destruction of the environment,' Lay says. 'Taoism sees humans as part of nature and advocates peaceful coexistence with our surroundings. Buddhism believes that humans are equal to animals and we have no right to deprive them of their right to live. Christianity sees humans as guardians of the earth who have to take good care of the planet.'

A thorough understanding of the traditions and doctrines of different religions is important to the modern society, Lai says.

'A lack of understanding will give rise to misunderstandings and discrimination, such as the bias against [Muslims], who are perceived wrongly as terrorists. Instead of pardoning suicide and terrorist attacks, Islamic scriptures see them as a big sin.

'Under the push of globalisation, societies around the world have become more multiracial and multicultural. For people of different religions to coexist peacefully together, there must be dialogues between the religions.'

And Hong Kong is the perfect place to study religions, he says.

'In spite of its small area, Hong Kong boasts multiple places of worship for various religions,' he says. 'I took my students to a mosque in Tsim Sha Tsui in April to observe Islamic praying rituals and talk to believers. There's also a sizeable community of Hindus here.'

The city's high degree of tolerance towards religions and liberal social mores also attracts mainland students. 'Ten out of our more than 30 students are mainlanders,' Lai says. 'Religion is still seen as superstition and even taboo on the mainland. Having an open atmosphere is the prerequisite for offering religious studies.'

If neither religion nor philosophy sounds appealing, potential students have a third choice: HKU's Master of Arts in Literary and Cultural Studies.

Launched in 1996, the course is popular with people who like comparative studies of art forms such as literature and film. Enrolment rose from 80 in 2009 to 137 this year.

Programme chair Esther Yau Ching-mei says students have to critically analyse how movies, pop music and literature spread through, and affect, society.

'Through the studying of images and texts, students get to understand all kinds of cultural phenomena, like queer culture, underground music and virtual reality,' Yau says.

Liberal studies teachers, in particular, are drawn to such a syllabus, she says.

'The exposure to a wide array of art forms and media better equips them to teach the wide-ranging course, which touches on a lot of cultural elements.'

Classes on cultural policies also allow students to explore what the government can do to create an environment that is conducive to the development of arts, Yau says.

'Developments like the West Kowloon cultural complex will boost the demand for cultural leaders,' she says.

'Hong Kong has a lot of cultural hardware in place, but it has yet to see a vibrant cultural atmosphere. The officials involved in the promotion of the arts don't really know how to communicate with artists as they do not have a foundation in the arts themselves. They might let monetary concerns override artistic considerations. In Taiwan, Lung Ying-tai, who became the first director of cultural affairs of Taipei [in 1999], is an author herself.

'So instead of being bureaucrats, cultural leaders who lay down arts policies should have a solid foundation in the arts.'

Not all postgraduates harbour such grand ambitions, though. Now 43, Tam, the computer programmer, is still working in the same job at the same company. What has changed is his attitude to life, having learned self-fulfilment and understanding in the philosophy classes. 'I was most impressed by the Taoist teachings. The Taoist precepts about self-enlightenment and making preparations before problems arise help me lead a better life,' he says.