Yale Bulletin and Calendar

May 25, 2001Volume 29, Number 31Three-Week Issue

China on My Mind

The following is the text of the Baccalaureate Address delivered by President Richard C. Levin in Woolsey Hall on May 20.

You are the 300th class to graduate from Yale College, or so it will say in tomorrow's Commencement program. Some of the more mathematically-inclined among you might wonder: how could this be so? If Yale College is 300 years old this year, and it takes four years to graduate, why isn't this the 297th commencement?

The surprising answer to this question is that some of our first students didn't require four years to graduate. Although the Collegiate School chartered in October 1701 held no commencement in the spring of 1702, there were two graduation ceremonies during the 1702-03 academic year. One of the first two students to be admitted came to the new college so well prepared that he was given both the B.A. and M.A. degrees in September 1702, while one of the six others who entered in the fall of 1702 graduated in the spring of 1703. Thus by the end of our second academic year, we had already held two commencements, and we have had one each year ever since.

We have chosen to mark this Tercentennial year not only with on-campus celebrations in October and April, but with events in Europe and Asia as well. Having progressed from local to regional to national institution during our first three centuries, we wanted to signal our intention to become a global university in our fourth. It is no coincidence that during the course of this year we announced the expansion of financial aid for international applicants to Yale College, the creation of new interdisciplinary professorships of international studies, the establishment of a new Center for the Study of Globalization and the launching of the Yale World Fellows Program for emerging leaders.

Seeking to spread the word, I spent your examination period on a two-week visit to China, accompanied by a delegation of University officers, faculty members and representatives of the Yale-China Association. In Hong Kong, we celebrated the Tercentennial with a symposium attended by nearly 500 alumni, parents and friends from all over Asia. Then we met government officials and visited leading universities and schools in Beijing, Changsha, Ningbo and Shanghai.

Yale's history of involvement with China is longer and deeper than that of any other university. Yung Wing, a member of the Yale College Class of 1854, was the first Chinese to receive an American degree. Remarkably, he was one of only 10 international students in the entire University; today we have 1,500, including more than 300 from China. When Yung Wing returned home, he became a strong advocate for the modernization of China, and he persuaded the emperor to establish an educational mission that sent more than 100 Chinese boys to preparatory schools in the Connecticut Valley and then to colleges throughout New England. More than 20 came to Yale College, most notably Zhan Tianyou, who became a national hero for his role in building China's railroad system.

Later in the19th century Yale became the first American university to teach the Chinese language, and at the time of our bicentennial a group of graduates launched what became the Yale-China Association. Yale-in-China, as it was originally called, established the Yali Middle School and the Hsiang-Ya Hospital, Medical School and Nursing School. Over the years, legions of our graduates have had the opportunity to learn from the Chinese while serving as English teachers and health care workers at these and other locations. They invariably return with a deep appreciation and respect for the achievements of a culture that spans not just three centuries but six millennia.

Despite the long history of Yale's involvement with China, we were surprised by the enthusiastic response to our Tercentennial visit. Our first day in Beijing was the lead story on the television news throughout China and front-page news in every newspaper. Such attention is not ordinarily showered on university presidents visiting the United States.

Perhaps the media attention had some connection with recent political developments, but I believe that the warm response that we encountered all over China signaled something deeper and more profound: how much and how intensely others aspire to share in the best of what we have in America.

This aspiration is one aspect of the many-faceted phenomenon we call globalization. The instantaneous transmission of ideas and images is bringing the world closer together. Cross-cultural influences have always been with us, but today they are more powerful because of their immediacy. This much is clear: the opening up of China that began in 1979, abetted by the advent of CNN and the Internet, marks a distinctive new chapter in the long and complicated relationship between China and the West. This relationship has been brilliantly traced by Yale's distinguished scholar of Chinese history, Jonathan Spence, whose lectures have been enjoyed by many of you, as well as many of us here on the stage.

I know that some of you have serious concerns about certain aspects of globalization. In some parts of the world, the fear of absorption by a common global culture has precipitated a strong reaction to protect local values and ethnic identities. I know far too little about China to predict where and in what form reaction to globalization will occur, but surely a 6,000-year-old culture will not yield easily to a mindless homogeneity, nor should it. Still, we learned from our own experience that the Chinese are embracing certain Western ideas and values. High school and university students alike are eager to learn more about our universities and how they might gain access to them, and faculty and administrators at China's leading universities are determined to reshape their institutions in the image of ours.

Our trip also reinforced for me the important lesson that there is a powerful complementarity between academic learning and direct experience. As an economist, I had read about Shanghai's astoundingly rapid growth, but, on the one hand, seeing the impressive new buildings rising in the Pudong district added something to my understanding that I could not have absorbed through reading. And, on the other hand, knowing something about economic development and urban planning enhanced the value of direct experience.

Here's a very simple example. Where others might have seen only beautiful skyscrapers, I could see how their beauty was enhanced by intelligently setting them apart from one another with green spaces and smaller-scale buildings in between. This is what I mean by the complementarity of academic learning and direct experience. You will learn something if you go to China, but the more you know, the more you will learn.

For an American steeped in the Western tradition, China is at once exhilarating and disturbing. As the market economy grows, the government is creating a legal framework to support and regulate it. But the emerging rule of law, which is still a work in progress, has not been extended to protect freedom of expression or the rights of the accused to the degree expected in a Western democracy. The press remains tightly censored, and there have been numerous recent reports of arbitrary arrests and prolonged detentions.

Whether economic liberalization will lead to greater personal freedom and expanded human rights remains to be seen. Western governments will continue to press for this, but history suggests that Chinese leaders will not quickly agree to constraints on their own span of political and social control. Professor Spence's brilliant new narrative, "Treason by the Book," serves to remind us of the exceptional efficiency with which the emperor tracked down and arrested dissenters nearly three centuries ago. Still, students and administrators at the universities we visited reported that they experienced little inhibition in speaking their minds, and business leaders expressed confidence that political liberalization would follow economic development, as it did in Taiwan, with a significant lag. One would have to conclude this: on the future of human rights in China, the jury is still out.

I am well aware that you may find these reflections remote from the pressing concerns of the moment, such as finding a job and a place to live. Down the road, however, you will need to think about the wider world. It is an inevitable consequence of globalization that the careers you build and the friendships you form will not be confined to our shores. In business, law, medicine, education or social services, you are far more likely than your parents to spend part of your life abroad and to have worldwide networks of professional associates. In this context, China matters because one-fifth of the world's population lives there. It matters whether freedom or repression prevails there.

Many Americans are not well equipped for the task of world citizenship. The mayor of Shanghai asked me why it is that every schoolchild in China can identify the author and date of our Declaration of Independence and so few of ours can identify when the Qing dynasty fell, when the Long March occurred and when the communists took power. The mayor makes a telling point. I suspect that even some of you, unless you are among those devoted to Professor Spence, might fail the mayor's test.

Pass or fail, it is our hope and expectation that your Yale education has prepared you well for the challenge of understanding the world we inhabit. It is ultimately not the facts you know but what you make of those you learn that matters. What you need, and what we have tried to encourage in you, is the capacity to think critically and independently, to master new bodies of knowledge as you confront them and to fashion the principles that organize the facts. From reading your publications, meeting with you over lunch in your colleges and participating in town meetings, I have plenty of evidence that you've learned to think for yourselves.

As you move on, I advise you to make use of this discipline .to deepen your understanding of the wider world. Many of you have already made a substantial commitment to this task. Nearly 10% of you participated in Junior Year Abroad programs, and another 13% of you have benefited or will benefit next year from fellowships for research and study abroad. But I would encourage all of you to travel, read and reflect. Live abroad for a time if you can. The increasing interdependence of nations makes it all the more important to understand each other's values and perspective. Try to understand and respect cultural differences, even as you shape and seek to live by your own principles.

Women and men of the Tercentennial Class of 2001: As your University commits itself to more intensive study and deeper understanding of the world beyond our shores, commit yourselves to becoming informed global citizens. Remember that you share a common humanity with six billion people. If you embrace that perspective as you build your careers, raise your families and serve your communities, your own humanity will be enlarged. Cherish your freedom, share with others the bounty of prosperity and earn the blessing of peace.

C O M M E N C E M E N T2 0 0 1


Baccalaureate Address

Honorary Degrees

Senior Class Day

Teaching Prizes

Scholastic Prizes

David Everett Chantler Prize

Elliott and Mallory Athletic Awards

Robert E. Lewis Award for Intramural Sports

Roosevelt L. Thompson Prize

William H. McKim Prize

Other Undergraduate Awards and Honors

Graduate Student Awards and Honors

Wilbur Cross Medals


Yale Celebrates 300th Commencement

Festival to feature everything from opera to aerial dancers

Alumni returning to campus for reunion weekends


Exhibit recalls Snowdon's 'irreverent' photographic visions

British Art Center hosting talks, trips, music during International Festival

International Festival of Arts and Ideas: Events on Campus

International Festival of Arts and Ideas: Tours


Outreach program bringing seniors to the Peabody

Campus Notes

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