University of the West of England
Honorary Degree Conferment Ceremony
16 October 2006
Address by Professor Arthur K C Li
Mr Vice-Chancellor, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:
I would like to thank the University of the West of England for the wonderful honour that you have so kindly bestowed upon me. I greatly value, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, my association with this distinguished university resulting from this conferment, and I look forward to future interactions with its members.
Unlike non-honorary graduates, who get their degrees the hard way by having to write theses and pass examinations, I have the privilege to get mine the easy way. This leads me to ponder: what is the real difference between an honorary degree and a non-honorary degree? What’s more, there are many types of university degrees: degrees in arts, science, social science, medicine, and so on. Do they carry the same meaning and weight, or are they substantially different from one another because of the subject matters with which they are associated? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Can the same analogy be applied to a university degree? What is in a degree?
The notion that students attend a university purely for an education independent of a degree or grades is a little idealistic. To many, a university degree is a qualification that can help them secure a respectable job or better advancement prospects: a degree in business administration may beget an executive job in business; a degree in education is useful for a career as a school master. Honorary degrees, on the other hand, serve only an honorific purpose as their name suggests. I for one won’t venture to apply for a professorship in law after obtaining my honorary doctorate today. Shall we say therefore that honorary degrees are for those who are lucky enough to be educated by life’s experience?
Let’s go back to non-honorary degrees. Whereas a degree is proof that one has graduated from a university, it does not guarantee that the person is well educated. Whereas it is a qualification, it gives no indication of the holder’s non-academic calibre or capability. The reason is simple: university education is much more than vocational training. It has other important missions to achieve. But the extent to which these missions have been accomplished in a particular student is intangible and hence cannot be ascertained from his degree.
The true worth of a university degree, I always believe, never lies in the content of the subject studied. One can major in music, mathematics, sociology, computer science, or any other subject. It makes no real difference. Subjects taught at university are not an education, but the means towards an education. This is particularly true in this age of information explosion and the Internet, when knowledge is outdated in increasingly short cycles and new information is made available to all at lightning speed. We may forget everything we learn in our university days and still remain an ‘educated’ person. The major intellectual challenge of a university education is not the acquisition of facts, but learning how to make facts come alive. The true lessons of scholarship and the real goal of academic studies are how to think independently and evaluate information, how to recognize when you don’t understand something, and how to teach yourself. This is a lifelong process which will not cease after we leave university.
The test of a good university education must be whether it assists in the cultivation of an unbiased and analytical mind to face all eventualities, and the technical and mental skills to confront the many challenges that one would have to face. The fully educated person is one who is enlightened in his interests, impersonal in his judgments, ready in sympathy with what is just and right, effective in the work he sets himself to do, and willing to contribute to the common good.
How should we go about nurturing our young people so that they can stand the test? It is not enough for a teacher to collect a mass of knowledge and retail it to his class. Nor is it appropriate for him to wield the same kind of authority traditionally used to make students do what the teacher wants them to do, or to believe what the teacher wants them to believe. No subject matter is such that the mere teaching of it will produce the results we require. The aim of the teacher should be to eliminate the student’s need for a teacher, so that he becomes a self-educating man.
What is expected of university teachers nowadays is their zest for learning which can provide the spark and the inspiration for their students. It is their art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds and exhorting them to satisfy it on their own. It is their liberal-mindedness that allows students to doubt, to query and to challenge authority, to become accepted as equal partners in the pursuit of truth. It is also the teacher’s moral support and encouragement, which drive the students to persist through failures until success is achieved.
University students who have gone through this rigorous learning process under the sage mentorship of their teachers will be a truly educated lot who are adequately prepared for life. They will possess intellectual skills that allow them not only to adapt to the future but also to guide it. They can venture into life with full confidence and make useful contributions. Degree or no degree, is no longer the question.
Ladies and gentlemen, every university has a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and truth. In the history of mankind empires rise and fall but the joy of learning and the spirit of enquiry are preserved and perpetuated by generations of intellectuals at the universities. The University of the West of England is part of this glorious tradition, making a real difference to the abilities and achievements of those who have gone through its gates. I am sure that holders of a degree from the University will put to excellent use not only the knowledge and skills they have acquired there, but also the spirit of questioning and self-learning that comes from a good university education. I am proud to join their ranks; I would like to express once again my grateful thanks to this wonderful university for honouring me this afternoon. I look forward, with optimism, to its continuing success in the future.