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Intellectuals in the Age of Globalization

Prof. Leo Ou-fan Lee, Sin Wai Kin Professor of Chinese Culture, CUHK, was invited to be a guest speaker of the University's 50th Anniversary Distinguished Lecture. Professor Lee spoke on 'The Role of Scholars/Intellectuals in the Age of Globalization' on 29 November to a full house of 300 academics, students, alumni, and members of the public.

Professor Lee began his lecture by citing the late literary theorist Edward Said's definition of intellectuals, stressing that a public intellectual is someone whose place is to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma, and whose raison d'etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.

He went on to trace the development of the concept of intellectuals in Britain, Continental Europe and China, and said that after the expansion of tertiary education in the US in the 1960s, most intellectuals have been co-opted into universities. They become professors and extra-institutional intellectuals are hard to find.

Professor Lee pointed out the fact that the role of intellectuals has been changed by the academic system. Citing Said again, he said: 'The particular threat to the intellectuals today … is … an attitude that I shall be calling professionalism, that is, thinking of your work as an intellectual as something you do for a living, between the hours of nine and five …' These academics, according to Professor Lee, are unable to play the role of intellectuals as defined by Said.

He continued, 'Professors of humanities and social sciences are especially faced with a difficult situation, which is that when we see certain important social issues, should we express our views or should we choose to busy ourselves with our studies and not to speak out?'

Professor Lee also touched upon university rankings and problems of tertiary education in Hong Kong, concluding his lecture with 'In the age of globalization, intellectuals' last line of defence lies in their duty to speak out when others are silent. If you don't speak out, you're not an intellectual.'