Chancellor Tong Shijun at Commencement 2023

tong speech banner
May 22 2023

Distinguished guests, members of the Class 2023, parents, colleagues and everyone who has worked for the first cohort of NYU Shanghai students graduating from our New Bund Campus, and everyone who could luckily call each other “同学” over the last four years:

Good afternoon, and good commencement!

You may be wondering why I used the Chinese word “同学,” which literally means "learning together."  As far as I know, there seems to be no English word exactly expressing this meaning. When Cai Yuanpei, the legendary President of Peking University of the 1910s and 1920s, invited Liang Shuming, one of the most important Chinese philosophers in the 20th century, to teach Indian philosophy at Beida at the age of 25, he managed to pursue the hesitating Liang by saying, “You may well come to learn together with others, rather than to teach others.” (“你不要是当老师来教人,你当是来共同学习好了!”)

Learning, of course, is different from teaching, but the best way to learn is to teach, in my view; and many of you, I’m pretty sure, are now particularly proud of at least one of your classroom presentations over the past four years.

Learning is certainly also different from research, but the best way to learn is to do research: that’s why, I suppose you all have known, a typical NYU Shanghai professor would urge you to provide answers to academic questions as results of your own reasoning, rather than results of searching on Wikipedia, or talking with ChatGPT.

Learning is naturally also different from other activities such as designing a building or running a business, but to some degree the best way to learn is to be a practitioner, to be a university administrator, for example, especially if you want to better understand important concepts such as “rationality” and “reasonableness,” and the important differences between, for example, the ideas of “moral justification” and “moral motivation,” or between issues concerning “what I am supposed to do” and “what I am going to do.”

Among the things I have hopefully learned most about here at NYU Shanghai together with you are concerned with two questions. On the one hand, how to get the most out of the resources available to us; on the other hand, how to avoid turning our advantages into our disadvantages.

Mentioning the rich resources available to us here at NYU Shanghai, one may easily think of the online and off-line academic resources of our school, especially our wonderful new campus, including its wonderful facilities for science, sports, and art. These are certainly very precious and important resources. But the most important resources, in my view, are your unlimited potential for personal development you brought to us when you entered NYU Shanghai, the potential that has made the job of your professors or your adult “同学” (learning together)so meaningful and so honorable. At this moment when you are leaving your developmental stage as undergraduate students, dear Class of 2023, I urge you to do a great favor for the school and for me personally, by continuing to make the most of this potential on your own after you leave this campus.

Compared with the question of how to get the most out of the resources available to us, I am even more concerned with the question of how to address the risk of our advantages being turned into disadvantages. If Goethe was right when he said “those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own;” if Rousseau was right when he said “whoever has seen only one people does not know men; he knows only the people with whom he has lived;” or, if Confucius was right when he said, “is it not pleasant to have friends coming from afar?”, the advantages of NYU Shanghai as a Sino-foreign collaborative university, where students graduate fluent both in English and in Chinese, and where students spend their university lives together with their Qilin fellows from countries all over the world, is almost next to none in helping a young person to become a citizen of the world rooted in their own traditions.

But this kind of advantage will not materialize automatically; without great efforts from all our community members, they will remain advantages in theory but not in practice. Being a student of an international school, for example, not to speak of being a student from other countries, can easily become an excuse for knowing too little about the school’s host country or the local community; similarly, being a student of an international school, not to speak of being a native student from one particular country, can easily become an excuse for knowing too little about the outside world.

Theoretically speaking, an international school like NYU Shanghai was designed to help students to better understand both their native countries and other parts of the world, or, to borrow a phrase from John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher of the 19th century, to help students not to “only know their own sides of the question.” But, again, an advantage in theory is not necessarily an advantage in practice, and in my role as the chancellor of NYU Shanghai, if I have really learned something in these years, my duty is to do my best, together with my colleagues and all of my 同学 in the school, to turn our theoretical advantages into practical ones.

And here is one more plea from me to you, my dear students of the Class of 2023: I hope you will continue to do your best, after this ceremony, to show to yourselves as well as to other people, that NYU Shanghai has successfully taught you how to make constant efforts to know better and better “both sides” of any relevant question, from both sides of the golden-silver shield in the story (金银盾), to both sides of those international affairs that are developing day and night and will affect every one of us and every one of our fellow human beings in the future.

Talking about the future of humanity, we can never exaggerate the importance of a school like NYU Shanghai as an international learning center and a group of people like NYU Shanghai graduates as both the beneficiaries and the promoters of human learning at the international level.

While in recent years some people like to talk about that part of the human history where “11 of 15 cases since 1500 where a rising power emerged to challenge a ruling power, war occurred,” I prefer to quote from Bertrand Russell, who, in the same book in which he predicted one century ago that “China is capable of being the greatest Power in the world after the United States,” said: “Contacts between different civilizations have often in the past proved to be landmarks in human progress. Greece learned from Egypt, Rome from Greece, the Arabs from the Roman Empire, medieval Europe from the Arabs, and Renaissance Europe from the Byzantines.” Here Russell appears to be talking about a more or less one-way learning. But learning between different nations in our times does not need to be merely one-way; it can and should rather be mutual and reciprocal. The key point is this: from mutual and reciprocal learning processes, like the ones practiced and promoted here at NYU Shanghai, there comes no zero-sum game.

I have to stop here; after all, at this moment, your learning experiences and achievements should be the focus. All I want to share with you is my most sincere hope that you will have a future as life-long learners and promoters of the life-long learning for the people you have the honor to serve, and that you will constantly prove the value of having studied at NYU Shanghai.

Thank you all for your attention.