Convocation of the first graduating class of Morningside College, Chinese University of Hong Kong, November 21 2013

By Gerald Chan

I would like to congratulate you for successfully completing your studies and receiving your degrees today. This is a major milestone in your life for which you must have worked so hard. I should also commend you for being the adventurous ones. When Morningside College had no campus and no building, you opted to be part of this nascent institution. You endured the discomfort of rather Spartan conditions in the temporary living quarters. You contributed to the life of the college as it took shape. No doubt, the college will bear the marks of this class. Your legacy will continue as part of the culture of Morningside College.

Now that you have finished your studies, let me say something provocative, knowing full well that what I say will not demoralize you. Someone told me once about a survey done on recent Harvard College graduates. Within six months of graduation, they had forgotten 80% of what they had learned. I have little doubt that the same will happen to you. Your retention of what you learned in the last three years will undergo an exponential decay. If you had to retake today the exams which led to your degree, your grades would probably be brought down a few notches.

Let us consider two questions which arise from the decay of knowledge retention.

The first question is how big is the damage of losing knowledge you have learned. My answer is, “not very big.” The reason is that in all probability, the value of the knowledge you have learned and then forgotten also decays with time. We live today in an age of knowledge explosion. This multiplication of knowledge will erode both the scarcity value of any knowledge and the value which comes from its being at the leading-edge of what is known to man. This is particularly true in the sciences. What was once a Nobel Prize winning discovery is today high school science or undergraduate curriculum material. What was once precious is today pedestrian.

So I have good news for you. Forgetting what you have learned is not that big a deal and it becomes even less so as time passes. If losing a certain sum of money in economically stable times is onerous, losing the same amount of money in a hyperinflationary environment is much less consequential. When it comes to knowledge, we are definitely living in hyperinflationary times.

My second question is whether forgetting the knowledge you have learned makes you less of an educated person. To answer this question, I’d like to consider the ways in which knowledge is constitutive of an educated person.

Knowledge in its most elementary form is informative. It enables its possessor to have a mental grasp of facts and to operate with those facts. This informative function of knowledge is foundational to the development of a person’s intellect, but as a person’s intellect develops, knowledge evolves from being only informative to informing one’s way of thinking and actions. In this richer form, the role of knowledge is transformed from being informative to being formative. Knowledge acquisition is no longer an additive exercise where the final outcome can be accounted for by an inventory process. The knowledge that a learner acquires exerts a force on him that is formative – it shapes how he thinks, it enriches how he feels, and it propels him to certain actions. It has the effect of bringing form to what was amorphous, development to what was latent and maturity to what was inchoate.

Once again, I have good news for you. Forgetting what you have learned is not that big a deal. The knowledge that you struggled to acquire, and will soon forget, has already had a formative effect on you.

I hope I am not viewed here as corrupting the youth by encouraging them to forget what they have learned in school. I am not at all encouraging that, but I do know it will happen. It is therefore all the more necessary that you continue your knowledge acquisition and renewal after you leave school. In even more practical terms, my charge to you is to keep up with your reading. Set aside time in your busy life to read. Over time, your interests may change and therefore your selection of reading material will also change; mine certainly did. When I was in university, I read mostly the physical sciences. When I was in graduate school, I read the life sciences. It was not until twenty years later that I began voraciously reading the humanities and the social sciences. I too, have forgotten much of what I read over the years, but my continuing education has been both informative and more importantly, formative. It has impacted who I am, how I look at the world, and what I choose to do.

On this day that you are receiving your degree in the fiftieth year of this great university, notwithstanding that you have probably forgotten much of what you learned in the last three years, I welcome you to the company of the learned. You are the pride of Morningside College and I send you all my best wishes.

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