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Doctor of Social Sciences
honoris causa

Mr Vice-Chancellor and President,  distinguished Provost Wong, Public Orator Professor Schencking, distinguished Faculty colleagues.

I am grateful to the leadership and the faculty of the University of Hong Kong for this honor.  I am sure that my parents, immigrants to the United States from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, could not have envisioned an occasion like this one.  What they understood and believed deeply however, was that the process of education was the pathway out of poverty, the roadway to a new and better life.  While my father died when I was not yet twenty years old, my mother lived long enough to see me as a professor at Stanford University, and would smile and remember, “I knew that education was the way….”   Her wisdom persists.

I carry two special responsibilities as a participant in this congregation.   I am the only honoree this year who is receiving the degree of Doctor of Social Sciences.  My fellow congregants are receiving degrees in the Sciences and in the Arts.  Moreover, I believe it has been rare for someone from the academic field of Education to be so recognized by the university.  I am grateful to be representing both the social sciences and education.  These are fields in which this university excels.  I hold HKU’s School of Education in particularly high regard.  Both my late wife, Judy Shulman, and I have had the pleasure and stimulation to teach and to learn with the school’s faculty and students.

That said, all sciences are social sciences, whether they are called physics or mathematics, biochemistry or neuroscience, archaeology or engineering.   All medical fields are deeply social because they ultimately both begin and find their purpose in the relations between those who are in need of healing and those qualified to heal.  There is no act of research that is not deeply social.  Every scholar builds upon the work of countless other scholars and lays the groundwork for the many who will follow.  It is no accident that the traditional location of footnotes is at the bottom of each page of a scientific publication, because those footnotes represent the extent to which our work always rests on the foundation that the work of others laid for us.  Moreover, we scholars have a profound responsibility to conduct and publish our own work with great care because other scholars and practitioners, in turn, treat our work as a foundation for their own.

We are all expected to teach and to teach well.  Indeed, the honorific “Doctor”  which the university bestows upon us today has an interesting history.   The word “doctor” means “teacher.”  The highest degree that a university can award,  indeed, the two highest degrees, are master and doctor, and they both connote “teaching.”  These words reflect, among others, the medieval European understanding of Aristotle’s observation in the Metaphysics that many individuals can become adept in the practical and the theoretical arts.  But only the most gifted among them can not only engage in such practice, they can teach others to think and act with skill and intelligence.  Those who can, do.  Those who understand, teach.

My wife of 60 years, Judy Shulman, died three months ago.  She was a scholar and teacher of a special genre of instruction, case methods.  These approaches are central to many fields, from law and business to medicine and nursing, and increasingly in Education.  Judy was never satisfied to have her students to deep dives into the details of case narratives and remain there.  She would always ask her students—and I considered myself one of them—“What is this a case of?”  What larger ideas and concepts do these narratives represent and illuminate?  While we must avoid becoming trapped in the swamp of particulars, she also warned against the temptation to float without anchor in the heavens of abstraction and ideology.  Learning and teaching require that we scramble up and down the ladders of abstraction, between theory and practice, between the ideal that inspires and illuminates and the gritty realities that challenge and frustrate.  This is the sacred mission of Education, especially higher education, and it is certainly a necessity for preparing citizens as leaders in the unavoidable complexities of democratic societies.  Such challenges are palpable both in Hong Kong and in the United States.

In Hong Kong, as in much of the world including my own, we scramble between our visions of ideology and inspiration and the painful political and social realities with which we need to wrestle daily.  Our work as teachers is often helping those whom we teach to hold on to their ideals and their visions of a better world even as we teach them to make their ways in the world in which they live.  When Judy taught teachers how to use cases in their work, as she did here in Hong Kong just three years ago, she taught such approaches to enhance the wisdom of practice.

As someone who studies and teaches that most practical and aspirational of disciplines, the field of Education, I implore all those receiving honorary doctorates today, to continue to pursue the moral work of the “doctor,” to teach and to learn, to understand and to repair, to strive and to commit.  We only succeed when we can feel confident that in significant ways the students whom we teach will emerge from our pedagogical care much wiser than are we, their teachers.  We are obliged to teach and to model the habits of mind needed to lead and to serve in a democratic society.  We must teach the skills and habits of practice needed to use our ideas in the service of others. And most important of all we must teach, model and champion the habits of the heart, those values, commitments and ideals of social responsibility that ultimately characterize the educated citizen.  

Again, thank you.

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