Hong Kong Baptist University - Honorary Degree Keynote Speech

Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong, China

Monday, November 14, 2016


Let me begin by congratulating all who are graduating today.  On behalf of my fellow honorands, I salute you for the curiosity, hard work, and ambition that have enabled you to reach this important milestone in your educational journey.  To President Chin and to the officers, faculty, administrators, staff, and students of Hong Kong Baptist University, thank you very much for honoring me with the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters.  I am also grateful to Professor Huang, Associate Vice President and Dean of the School of Communications, along with his daughter Linda Huang (a member of the Swarthmore College Class of 2008), who nominated me for this degree.  This recognition is not only an honor for me personally.  It also acknowledges the role that Swarthmore College, its faculty, and its alumni have played across the globe.  I look forward to building on the relationship between our two institutions that share a common mission.

Today I want to speak for a few minutes about three ways that liberal arts institutions prepare students for life.  First, and most significantly, liberal arts colleges and universities have as their primary mission the goal of teaching students to think, and to think critically.  No other type of institution so effectively prepares students to do the work necessary to sort out fact from fiction, valid arguments from specious claims. We teach students to think critically, to write and to speak persuasively, to solve problems, and to work in collaboration with others. Contrary to all-too-common assertions, employers across a wide range of areas -- finance, engineering, business, public service, media, and cultural institutions (to mention only a few) -- are eager to hire graduates of liberal arts institutions precisely because they possess these talents and abilities.

Equally important is the gift of developing the life-long habit of intellectual engagement. As Fareed Zakaria has written: “Because of the times we live in, all of us, young and old, do not spend enough time and effort thinking about the meaning of life. We do not look inside ourselves enough to understand our strengths and weaknesses, and we do not look around enough - at the world, in history - to ask the deepest and broadest questions. The solution surely is that, even now, we could all use a little bit more of a liberal education.” Our students graduate with a love of learning and a sophisticated understanding of how they learn that enables them to appreciate art, music and dance and to assess arguments about the fundamental claims of scientific discovery, political propaganda, or economic models.

Secondly, our institutions prepare students for the unexpected – for life’s unanticipated disappointments, developments and opportunities. In contrast to the linearity of the vocational, technical, or arts model, liberal arts institutions offer students a less targeted, more expansive preparation.  We proceed from the assumption that students are better served by being introduced to a broad range of disciplines before selecting a specific area of concentration.  We push them beyond their zones of comfort and require them to gain some familiarity with multiple ways of knowing.  At a liberal arts institution, a student who wants to study economics to prepare for a career in business or finance, for example, would also be required to take courses in the humanities, the creative and performing arts, and the natural sciences.  This approach expands the students’ intellectual horizons and makes them better in whatever vocation they might ultimately choose.

I make this claim with confidence because I have met alumni who have shared with me how their broad liberal arts education has enhanced their skills in their chosen profession.  For example, I have met alumni who say that they are better doctors because a requirement to study psychology made them more attuned to their patients’ complex inner lives. Others attribute their interest in public health to their background in sociology or anthropology. It is thus little wonder that some of the strongest medical schools in the United States are seeking applicants whose liberal arts backgrounds offer a well-rounded approach that will better serve both the medical profession and their patients.

The third goal of a residential liberal arts institution is to ensure that students develop into productive and responsible citizens through opportunities beyond the classroom.  Students learn from each other in their residence halls, in athletic competition, and in student activities.   In a club they may learn how to become a project manager, to lead a team, or to manage a budget.  In the residence hall they meet lifelong friends or learn to negotiate differences in personalities, values and living habits. These co-curricular interactions often provide opportunities for personal, intellectual and ethical growth that may be as significant as the lessons they learn in the classroom.

Another dimension of developing productive and responsible citizens arises from the commitment of leading liberal arts institutions to both recruit an increasingly diverse population of students, faculty and staff, and to cultivate more inclusive communities.   We recognize that higher education is an engine of social mobility that has the capacity to improve the life chances of individuals from less affluent backgrounds. To achieve excellence, we must seek and recruit talent from across the nation and the globe and from every socio-economic group.   

Perhaps even more important, at a time when our local and global communities are all too often fractured by racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and religious differences, and when people from opposing ends of the political spectrum seem increasingly unable to communicate across their differences, residential liberal arts institutions provide students with rare opportunities to work, play and live in communities with people different from themselves.  This is a meaningful opportunity, especially in the United States, because across the US, communities and school districts remain strikingly segregated. As we cultivate these types of inclusive and nurturing communities, we inculcate in our students the qualities that will help them become engaged citizens of the world whose perspectives have been enriched by interaction with those whose backgrounds and experiences differ from their own.

A liberal arts education is valuable, then, because it teaches students to think critically, prepares them to adapt to change, and empowers them to collaborate effectively at work and in their communities. These life skills are not easily measured by conventional metrics, such as the salary earned at the first job after graduation.  A more proper measure of a liberal arts education is how well that exposure to different ways of thinking, knowing, and experiencing the world broadens our students’ perspectives and inspires their creativity and resilience.

I encourage those of us who have benefited from or who have dedicated our lives to teaching at liberal arts institutions to tell the powerful story of this educational model. As we share our stories, others will see how a liberal arts education can transform the lives of those it touches and prepare them to solve the most persistent and complex challenges that face societies around the world.