The President’s unexpected teachers

Terry Lam

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Professor Way Kuo
, President of City University of Hong Kong (CityU), delivered a talk titled “My Teachers” at the inauguration of the 12th Council of the Federation of Hong Kong Writers (FHKW) on 25 June.

Citing real-life examples, he shared his views on the importance of humanity and academic studies with more than 100 FHKW members, literature lovers, scholars and writers.

Professor Kuo revealed that many young people had been his teachers. He recalled one example when he was a department head at Texas A&M University in the US in 1995, and a young man 10 years younger than him came for a job interview. The young man said he hoped to win a Nobel Prize as early as possible. While many professors thought that he was foolish and arrogant, Professor Kuo felt that he had the vision and potential to become successful. In the end, against the opinions of all his associates, he decided to hire the young man, who went on to become one of the highest-paid chair professors at the California Institute of Technology.    

“Some may have learned early how to acquire knowledge effectively and others may have talent in specific fields,” Professor Kuo said, quoting a line from the essay On Teachers by Tang essayist and poet Han Yu (768-824). “We should respect young people who have attained high academic achievements. They can be our teachers too, as we can learn a lot from them. However, they are often ignored in society.”

Professor Kuo said there was no direct relation between schooling and a person’s humanity, character or temperament. He related the story of an older man, a member of an ethnic minority in Xichang City in China’s Sichuan Province. The man sold corn for a living and insisted on letting his customers try his corn for free. He even allowed them to try it again if they were not satisfied. The old man upheld his business philosophy of guaranteeing satisfaction despite his hard life.

Another example he gave was a student at CityU, who in her first year of studies was diagnosed with cancer and told she would live no longer than six months. Her dream was to complete her university studies, and receive her degree wearing the graduation gown and mortar board. With her strong will, she persevered, taking painkillers to allow her to attend classes. After enduring this for four years, she fell seriously ill and could not attend the congregation. Professor Kuo was deeply moved and brought the graduation gown to her in the ward.

Professor Kuo considered both the older man and the young CityU student to be his teachers, enlightening him. “A person who reads a lot without acquiring knowledge is no more than a dictionary. The worst case of all is for an educated person without humanity to commit a crime,” he said.

He pointed out that many people like to comment on social phenomena without having the relevant knowledge. They often disseminate bad information and create confusion in society. These are the opposite of what we consider teachers. He suggested that we should not comment on things that we do not know much about or understand, as our knowledge is limited.

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