Address by Prof. Thomas Hun-tak Lee
A Beacon of Hope
April 14, 2018
Dear Dean Leung, colleagues, students, parents and friends,
As we celebrate excellence in teaching and learning on this special occasion, I would like to first congratulate our teachers and students who receive the awards this year for their accomplishments. I should also like to take this opportunity to convey some of my own reflections as student and teacher.
Imprinting effect of good teachers
The relationship between a teacher and a student is a very special one, and could be as strong as what ethologists describe as ‘imprinting’. We are all familiar with the classic experiment of Konrad Lorenz about newborn ducklings following the first receding object and identifying it as their parent. The attachment is long-lasting, imprinted on the behavior of the ducks. I feel that good and dedicated teachers have an imprinting effect on their students, shaping their students’ behavior in big and small ways.
In the newsgroup of my high school classmates, there was recently a lot of discussion about the late Father Moran, a Jesuit priest who taught us English in Form 4. A classmate recalled him being so conscientious that he would return to us our compositions collected in the first morning class right after the first recess, scribbled with detailed comments—a kind of dedication that would put me to shame. Another classmate recalled how Father Moran would be so passionate in his teaching that drips would be flowing off his mouth onto the classmates sitting in the first row, clearly an unforgettable experience. I recall how Father Moran read aloud passages from Fowler‘s Modern English Usage to discuss the fine difference between ‘continually’ and ‘continuously’ or between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’. I’ve since had a lifelong interest in the various editions of Fowler’s classic, and the habit of understanding the nuances of words.
How scholarly ideas should relate to truth and meaning in life
From my college years, the images that stuck in my memory were those of two teachers: my late philosophy teacher Daniel Bennett, a socialist who specialized in the theory of action in the Anglo-American tradition, beloved student of Donald Davidson, and Lila Gleitman, a psychologist who was a pioneer in empirical verification of innate ideas in language. Both were spontaneous and stylish in their delivery of ideas, and made effective use of the Socratic method in the classroom, always holding in their hands some burning tobacco, a cigar in the case of Bennett and a cigarette in the case of Gleitman. They went very separate ways, Bennett leaving academia for political action, and Gleitman to become a world-renowned scholar in psycholinguistics. These teachers in their diverse ways have shown me how ideas should relate to truth and meaning in life, what it means to engage in intellectual dialogue, and how talent, scholarship and learning may not always be rewarded by rank or wealth.
Students select their mentors and are influenced by them in inexplicable ways. They may go for well-established, distinguished scholars, but they may also prefer young and energetic teachers new to the field. Some students like the challenges of demanding teachers while others welcome professors who are responsive to their needs and difficulties.
Mr Fujimo, a beacon of hope for Lu Xun
I was much inspired by a recent biographical reanalysis of Lu Xun’s celebrated essay “Mr Fujino” (《藤野先生》), which describes how the great twentieth century Chinese writer was inspired by the dedicated teaching of Mr Fujino Genkuro (藤野嚴九郎), an anatomy lecturer of the Sendai Medical School which Lu Xun attended, later to become part of Tohoku University. Mr Fujino was a conscientious teacher who would check Lu Xun’s notes without fail every week, correcting the latter’s grammatical errors and sketched diagrams, and adding further details. For many years after Lu Xun left Japan, the photo of Mr Fujino hanging on the wall of his study would give him courage and strength in times of struggle. We are all familiar with the famous ending lines of the story: “At night if I am tired and want to take it easy, when I look up and see his thin, dark face in the lamplight, as if about to speak in measured tones, my better nature asserts itself and my courage returns . Then I light a cigarette, and write some more of those articles so hated and detested by ‘just minds and gentlemen’.” (tr. Yang Hsien-yi)
At the same time when Mr Fujino taught Lu Xun, there was another anatomy teacher by the name of Mr Shikinami (敷波重次郎), a glamorous westernized figure who taught anatomy in German and was very popular among the students.1 In contrast, Mr Fujino was the old-fashioned underdog able to speak only Japanese, and was often slighted by students. The grade records showed that Mr Fujino was more demanding than Mr Shikinami; he gave no As but a lot of Ds and Es. Lu Xun got a reasonable score from Mr Shikinami but was flunked by Mr Fujino in the last term. Interestingly, the person who left a deep imprint on the student and became enshrined in history as the most famous Japanese figure in China was not the glamourous and popular Mr Shikinami but the awkward Mr Fujino, as Lu Xun’s classic essay is not only read by every Chinese, but also by every Japanese, being part of the Japanese high school curriculum.
As students, we feel encouraged to receive good grades from our conscientious and demanding teachers. As teachers, we feel gratified to receive high course evaluation ratings from our increasingly demanding students. But in the longer scale of things, I believe it is how we stay on in the memories of our students and teachers that probably matter most. It would be gratifying for a teacher to be remembered in the way that my high school teacher Father Moran has been remembered by my classmates, the way my university teacher Dan Bennett has lived on in my moments of reflection, and the way Mr Fujino served as a beacon of hope for Lu Xun to carry on his cultural mission.