State of the Faculty Address 2021

13 Meritocracy and equality of opportunity So far I have talked about buildings and professors, but scarcely mentioned the very subjects in whose name we serve. We are not a technical research institute but a school. As such we must always remember that students are at the heart of our being. It is at least as important to recruit students than faculty. Therefore, we expend much deliberate energy in thinking about whom and how we admit. In the East, the Confucian moral ideal of well-educated rulers has always found syntonic echo with the Platonic concept of the philosopher king in the Athenian states. Since the end of World War II, this age-old emphasis on intelligence and ability as traits that societies should value has resulted in the rise of the meritocracy, in much of the developed world. One can understand it, at least in part, as a default by exclusion after experientially rejecting feudal aristocracy or collectivisation. Being at the intersection of the East and the West and per se an exemplar of Milton Friedman’s free market economy par excellence and very much a product of and beneficiary of globalisation, Hong Kong, like most other cosmopolitan, urbane and smart metropolises has come to represent the pinnacle expression of meritocracy. This has percolated through every facet of society, including university admissions. On the surface of it, meritocracy is a system that intends to give each new generation an equal chance to rise to the top by dint of their natural abilities and through hard work. Who could argue with that? But when educated professional elites pass on their connections, money, work ethic and ambitions to their children, while offsprings of the working class lack most of these “heritable” traits, the gap endowed by the meritocratic advantage grows into an unbridgeable chasm and becomes entrenched intergenerationally. When this apparently “fair” hierarchy hardens, like it has in Hong Kong as elsewhere over the decades, two problems inevitably emerge. First, the system is cruel because it justifies why some people fail. “Perhaps they should have worked harder and aimed higher”, so the saying too often goes. This leads to resentment and shame. Second, even for the winners in this system, there is a constant hum of anxiety that one is never good enough. Nowhere is this more true than in the preparation for university entrance examinations and interviews. The dystopian tutorial school and extracurricular activities merry-go-round suffered by every pupil is one such manifestation. Therefore many mainland teachers and parents breathed a quiet sigh of relief when the national government intervened recently, although finance types might have grumbled about the way it was executed.