Perspective: universities must encourage students to read broadly

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 9:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 9:21pm

In his 2010 inaugural address as vice-chancellor of Chinese University, Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, made us face some facts that aren't generally discussed by higher-education administrators.

The message in a nutshell: it is resource funding, not our curiosity or thirst for knowledge, that drives us to research. Too much emphasis is placed on institutional rankings, rather than on cultivating young souls. And rewards for professors are based on their "productivity", not their scholarship.

Educated people should be knowledgeable, and not just specialists in their own fields

If this trend continues, Sung says, it would serve only to manufacture money-minded students, not responsible citizens, who, while taking their own stance, are tolerant and open to others and have a compassionate heart. We would also become less imaginative and creative, our scientific research won't carry humanistic concerns, and critical thinking will fade away. We will gradually lose sight of all our education values. Such words of warning have not been heard for a long time from a university leader. The fact that he could honestly preach them had, undoubtedly, a lot to do with his own long service and observations; but he also gave special credit to his reading habits.

In a recent interview with Books4You Magazine, Sung said he loved reading fictional martial arts stories as a child. In high school, he read reference works - "outside reading". Medical school was too intense for him to do leisure reading. However, one moment when he was conducting research in Canada had a profound impact on his life. He says he would frequently join classmates for coffee breaks, and he found them discussing a wide range of topics - from astronomy to zoology. One day, his fellow physicians were discussing the French Revolution, and he felt left out. "The best part of the conversation is the dialogue after dessert," he said.

The lesson was clear: educated people should be knowledgeable, and not just specialists in their own fields.

People around him often talked about books or their themes, not money. He saw book clubs, not gambling groups or stock-betting circles. Looking back at life in Hong Kong, he says this was a "big contrast".

Then he developed an interest in reading biographies, including those of Martin Luther King Jnr, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill.

Sung was saddened to learn from a survey that many university students did not care about reading. In last year's commencement speech, he urged students to read books unrelated to their grades or majors. He wants them to read about humanity, civilisations, history, anything. In this way, we can learn more about the world around us and about ourselves.

Regarding some parents who pressure their children to make money, he had misgivings. Young people should have their own dreams, whatever they are. Life begins when you pursue your dreams, not when you go after money. He was not against making money; he just felt that young people should be allowed to shoot for their own goals first.

So what is an ideal university like? He said an ideal university should give us young people who can truly exercise their independent thinking, as well as their critical judgment. We may well ask ourselves whether our universities are successfully producing these, or even pursuing them.

And we may well ask: how much are higher learning institutions encouraging their students to read?

Ronald Teng is the founder of MEA, a promoter of liberal arts education