Information Services Office   19.1.2013


Prof. Leung Mei-yee
Dr. Julie Chiu
Dr. Wong Wing-hung
2012 GE Student’s Best Work Award Ceremony cum GE Student Seminar
Newsletter No. 411 > Feature > Freshmen's Dialogue with the Classics

Freshmen's Dialogue with the Classics


From this semester, if you hear people discussing whether form is emptiness on the University Mall, or arguing what makes an ideal nation quoting Confucius and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they may be members of the first cohort of 3,600 first-year students who are taking the General Education Foundation (GEF) programme. As the ‘3+3+4’ normative curriculum is now in place, over 60% of the 2012–13 entrants are now taking two mandatory courses ‘In Dialogue with Humanity’ and ‘In Dialogue with Nature’, marking the formal launch of GEF programme. Hopefully, the tradition of dialogue will gain new strength on campus, providing fertile ground for reason and wisdom to flourish.

New Insights from Old Books

The study of classics in the undergraduate curriculum is another new feature of general education at CUHK. The 21st century is a challenging era in which knowledge is highly differentiated and ever-evolving, and the situation is further complicated by economic globalization. In view of that, general education should not only focus on widening horizons, but on instilling in students cross-cultural perspectives. Prof. Leung Mei-yee, Director of University General Education, said the GEF programme is tailored precisely for that. ‘The GEF has high standards. Students need to read classical texts, get to know the key topics in eastern and western cultures, and understand the fundamental concerns behind arts and science studies. After discussions in the classroom, students write papers to summarize what they have learnt.’ Since the University’s Senate’s adoption of the GEF course outline in 2006, general education teachers have developed the teaching package. Feedback was collected through different channels and revisions were subsequently made to fit the needs of students.

Dr. Wong Wing-hung, associate director of University General Education, said students yearned for the courses, ‘Some told me that they felt lucky they were taking this course. They were excited to read the originals of classical texts and said it made them feel they were conversing directly with the authors. Small group discussions were their favourite, and they were eager to share their insights with teachers and classmates.’ During the two-year soft-launch, over 1,800 places were filled and student feedback gathered in focus groups were mostly positive.

Learning How to Think

The two GEF mandatory courses provided a common platform for interaction for freshmen students, which the organizers believe will benefit all concerned. Dr. Julie Chiu, associate director of the GEF Programme, said, ‘Edwin Chau, a former student who became one of our part-time teaching staff, once pondered over Socrates’ saying that “An unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” He thought it over and related it to older family members at home who had led a hard life and never had a chance to reflect on life. Does it mean their lives are unworthy of living? His experience is fantastic! He took the statement to heart. We have 12 excerpts from classics for each course, and none of them is easy. They throw out questions that require profound thinking.’

Dr. Wong found it encouraging that some business students said they now read popular science books. ‘And quite a number of science students who used to think science comprised dry formulas and rigid methods now realize science is closely connected with life and society. This was the first time they reflected on the origin of scientific methods.’ Tapping into students’ mentality is crucial for teaching. Professor Leung said each text carries a main theme, ‘Plato’s Symposium is on love, Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics on friendship, and students were inspired. These works led them to reflect on what friendship or love meant, and whether, for example, anyone we add as a “friend” on Facebook is our friend.’

Be Brave to Make Changes

So far, the most popular texts are, namely, Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding which expounds on the teachings of emptiness in the Heart Sutra; Homer’s Odyssey, especially the part on personal growth; Plato’s Republic, for students loved the cave parable; and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring on how pesticides ruin the ecosystem. Dr. Wong said he was impressed by the students, ‘The quality of essays was better than I expected. Some of them were quite insightful and demonstrated their ability to apply what they learnt to life. I didn’t expect them to be able to do that.’

The most outstanding of the students’ essays have been published in a collection and students were given recognition by the first and second GE Student’s Best Work Award. To enrich learning, the Fourth GE Student Seminar was held at the end of 2012. Professor Leung said though some students complained about the study load, if they could somehow grasp enough meaning to enter into the world of the classics, they would see new vistas. ‘In the student seminar held last October, Chen Wenxin (Risk Management Science, Year 2) cited the Heart Sutra and used the concept of “interbeing” to interpret the tragic lives of Cambodian children, and how she could help. She wished to dedicate herself to serving the community rather than chasing fame and wealth. GE teachers are glad to see students starting to reflect on their own lives.’

Study Tips for Freshmen

The selected readings in GEF programme contain classical texts of several thousand years. How can a freshman understand and digest the essence of these difficult texts? Professor Leung said mindset comes first, ‘Don’t be lax. Be serious in learning. Remember you have a “date” with Plato, so be prepared or you’ll miss out on a lot.’ Dr. Chiu said the key is to think carefully, ‘Spare some time to think about one point in the text every week. Make it a habit, and your insights will grow bit by bit.’ Dr. Wong said confidence is essential, ‘Don’t be scared by “In Dialogue with Nature.” Last semester, another student majoring in English language and literature received a distinction. Arts students definitely have the capacity to understand science concepts. All you need to do is dare to try, to speak up and to express yourselves.’

Although named ‘foundation,’ the contents of GEF programme are quite profound. Undergraduate students in their late teens are given the chance to engage in dialogue with giants like Zhuangzi, Shen Kuo, Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. Hopefully some day, they will be able to stand on their shoulders.

What Do Students Say?

‘I read many classics, not only from a literary point of view, but I also put them in the contemporary context to think about questions about life and society. During the discussions, the different ideas my classmates brought to class were thought-provoking, and I learnt to approach texts critically. Moreover, the way we read the same text from different perspectives brought about very interesting results.’

‘Having classes with arts and science students at the same time allows us to have freer association. Sometimes you don’t really get used to one another's thinking mode, but it's good to have such an experience. If there had been separate classes for arts and science students, we would not have had such an opportunity.’

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