Jeffrey S. Lehman
November 7, 2005
I am profoundly moved by the honor that you bestow upon me today. Peking University embodies a history, a tradition, and a set of values that I esteem most highly. I extend to you my deepest gratitude for including me among the distinguished group of people who hold degrees from Beida.
As I stand here this morning I feel very grateful to many friends from Beida, especially to Chairman Min Weifang of the Beida University Council, President Xu Zhihong, President Wu Zhipan, and President Lin Jianhua. I am also very grateful to many friends from other universities who are here today, including President Hao Ping from Beijing Foreign Studies University, President Zhu Chong-shi from Xiamen University, and President Gong Ke from Tsinghua University. And I am also grateful to other friends who have taken time from their busy schedules to attend this ceremony. Thank you.
I thought that I would use this wonderful occasion to speak in a new way about a topic that many of you have heard me speak about before, and that is the topic of transnationalism and its importance in our ever-shrinking world.
I spoke about this topic last year here at Beida. In that speech, I suggested that today great universities must work hard to nurture a transnational perspective in their students. We must prepare them to be effective citizens in a dynamic, interdependent world. We must prepare them to be leaders in a world where different nations must cooperate to address common challenges.
So this morning I would like to describe an example of how, over the course of his life, one student started to acquire such a perspective, by journeying across three world capitals – from Washington, D.C., to Paris, to Beijing.
But before I tell you about this student, I wanted to mention one other person who received an honorary Ph.D. from Peking University with whom I feel a special kinship this morning.
That person is the American John Dewey.
John Dewey was a great philosopher. He taught that the human mind isn’t something that stays the same throughout our lives. He taught that what we believe to be true about the world evolves and expands as we interact with more and more people and experience more and more of the world. He taught how important it is to take advantage of the opportunities for new experiences of the world, to learn through experiencing and through doing. His philosophy became known as pragmatism.
I mention John Dewey this morning because of three ways in which his life has intersected with mine.
John Dewey began his career as a professor in the same way that I began my career as a professor, by teaching at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Now after teaching at the University of Michigan, John Dewey did something that I have not done – he taught at the University of Chicago and at Columbia University. But while he was teaching at Columbia University, his life intersected with mine in a second way.
While he was teaching at Columbia University, John Dewey had as his student a young man from China named Hu Shih. The same Hu Shih would later become a leader of the May Fourth Movement, a professor of philosophy of Peking University, and President of Peking University. And that is a second point of intersection with my own life because, before going to Columbia to study with John Dewey, Hu Shih had been an undergraduate student at Cornell University. And Cornell University is the same place where I was an undergraduate student.
After earning his Ph.D. at Columbia, Hu Shih returned home to become a professor at Peking University. And he invited his teacher John Dewey to come visit him here in Beijing. John Dewey ended up staying for three years, traveling across China and teaching. And in 1920, John Dewey was given an honorary Ph.D. from Peking University, the same degree that you have awarded me here today.
John Dewey taught about how we learn from experience, and how our views of the world evolve through contact with others. And so I want to emphasize this morning how this applies to the development of a transnational perspective on the human condition. And I wanted to do so by talking about the example of one student.
This student grew up near Washington, D.C. Washington is, as you know, the capital of the United States, and the young man was always very proud to be an American.
When he was in high school, the young man studied the French language. When he went to college he took a course in French literature.
During the summer after his first year of college, the young man visited a museum in New York City and saw an exhibition of French tapestries. While he was looking at the tapestries, a group of French tourists came by. The group of tourists was being led by a French tour guide who was describing the tapestries, in French.
The young man listened to the tour guide speak and he became upset. Because even though he had studied the French language in school for many years, he could not understand what the tour guide was saying. He felt ignorant.
And so that day he decided to do something. He decided to travel to France, to live and study, so that he might learn the French language. Because he believed that he could never really understand French culture without understanding the French language.
The young man spent his junior year of college in Paris. He lived with a French family. He attended French universities. He walked in Paris. He ate French food. He became fluent in the French language. Though he knew himself to be an American, he began to understand how French people live and think about life and work and food and art and language and poetry and ideas.
At the end of his year, he returned home. And he was struck by how different everything seemed. He liked some things. But he missed things that he had grown accustomed to in France.
The young man was still very much American. But he was a different kind of American. He also felt that he was partly French, if only in his heart. He loved America the way that he always had. But he could also, at the same time, see how America looked to a French person. And when he looked at something specific, such as the way that bread is made and sold, he could see it in two ways – the way it is understood in America and the way it is understood in France.
John Dewey would say that this young man’s knowledge of the world was changed through his experiences, that those experiences changed who the young man was. And John Dewey would be right.
Of course, that young man was me. The experience of studying in France changed me in the same way that the experience of studying in America had changed Hu Shih and the experience of visiting China changed John Dewey. I like to think that John Dewey would have been proud of me for moving beyond the world in which I was comfortable and familiar. I like to think that he would have thought that my willingness to place myself in a foreign environment, to experience new and different and challenging things.
After graduating from college, I went on to study the law. And in law school I learned that this ability to see a phenomenon from two different perspectives at the same time – the ability I had acquired through my experience in France -- is the essential skill required of lawyers. I practiced law in the United States. And then I became a law professor at the University of Michigan.
As a law professor I returned to Paris, to teach French students about the American Supreme Court. I was fluent with the French language. I knew more about French culture. And once again I learned through my experience.
But this time my most important lessons were about how little I really understood about France and French culture. During my first visit, France and French culture had changed me. As a result, I had become a more complex person. But during my second visit I became more deeply aware of how much more complex French society was than I could absorb in just one year.
And I think John Dewey would have been proud of this understanding as well. He would say that a sense of humility about one’s own knowledge, an awareness of one’s own ignorance, can also be learned well through experience and through contact with others.
In 1994, I returned from teaching in Paris to become the dean of the University of Michigan Law School. And while I was dean I committed myself to making sure that as many of our our students and faculty who wished to do so had opportunities for the kinds of experiences that had changed me. Experiences that would give them contact with different cultures and different legal regimes. Experiences that would help them develop a transnational perspective on the human condition.
And so, in 1998, I made my first trip to China, my first trip to Beijing.
And once again I was changed. I recognized how important it was for Americans to experience China. American professors. American students. American lawyers. American leaders.
I worked to develop opportunities for Michigan professors to teach at Beida and at Tsinghua. And I worked with my colleagues in Ann Arbor to create a new graduation requirement so that all law students would complete a course in transnational law.
When I became president of Cornell University, I shared this message with students and professors and alumni. I worked to help Cornell to deepen its historic ties to China. And I worked to help Cornell to think of itself as a transnational university. With so many students coming to Cornell from other countries, and with so many professors working closely with colleagues around the world, Cornell’s mission had truly become one of service to all humanity.
And through all these years and all these experiences, I have continued to return to Paris, to deepen my awareness and respect for how other people live and think. And I have continued to return to Beijing.
This is my sixth visit, and I plan to return many more times in the future.
This honorary degree is, to me, several things.
First, it is a symbol of how much I have been changed through my contacts with China. Just as, at an earlier stage in my life, my contacts with France made me a different kind of American, so too my contacts with China have made me a different kind of American as well.
Second, this honorary degree is a symbol of the fact that I am still a student. In the United States, the ceremony in which a student receives a degree is called a “Commencement,” a “beginning” and not an “end.” The commencement ceremony does not mark the completion of study and learning. It marks the beginning of a new phase of study and learning. It marks the beginning of a period in which we study and learn pragmatically, by doing and by experiencing.
This morning is a commencement for me. Just as my return visits to Paris as a professor taught me how much more there was for me to learn about France, so my return to visits to Beijing have reminded me how much more there is for me to learn about China.
So I would like to conclude my remarks this morning by saying a few final words about a transnational perspective, about language, and about law.
The essence of a transnational perspective is the willingness to try to look at the world through the eyes of another person. But I believe that our eyes are connected with our mouths. How we see the world is shaped by the words we use to describe what we see. How we see the world is shaped by the way that nouns and verbs and adjectives come to our minds.
As an American, one of the most moving experiences that one can have today is to see how many people in China have studied English. It is a sign of how committed the Chinese people are to develop a transnational perspective, to describe the world both with the language of China and with the language of the United States. To see the world through the eyes of others.
And, of course, language equips more than just our mouths and our eyes. It also equips our ears. Your mastery of English enables all of you to listen to me this morning, to hear me and to understand me. And I am grateful for that.
And language equips our heart as well.
Part of why we are interested in other countries and people and societies is, as I suggested earlier, that this knowledge helps us to gain new insight into ourselves and our own society.
But part of why we are interested in learning about other cultures is because it helps us to see how the human heart is the same everywhere. When we recognize ourselves in people from other cultures, we are affirmed. When we appreciate that people everywhere share a joint responsibility to care for our planet, we are ennobled.
An ability to speak more than one language can help us better to recognize that we share one heart. We share universal aspirations, even while we pursue them in many different ways.
And so, speaking candidly with you today as a student at commencement, I recognize the benefits that would come to my own education – the education of my mouth, my eyes, my ears, and my heart – from improving my own knowledge of the Mandarin language.
Of course, having reached my current age, when new languages come more slowly, and time commitments come more quickly, I cannot become fluent in Mandarin in the way that I once became fluent in French. But every new word is a step towards a distant horizon, and I look forward to taking a few more steps in the year to come.
But there is another way in which I hope to deepen my understanding of China even more in the years ahead. Since my first visit to Beijing in 1998, I have come to recognize how much both the United States and China might benefit from deeper engagement with one another on the topics of law and public policy. Changes in technology have created many new opportunities to work together and to play together, to share economies and to share cultures.
At the same time, we also recognize how much each of our economies and cultures is built upon an infrastructure of law and government, of laws and policies. Close economic collaboration and deep cultural engagement require us to strengthen our understanding of and appreciation for one another’s legal systems.
I believe that the great universities of the world have a special opportunity to nurture such understanding. Great universities in China. Great universities in the United States. And other great universities as well.
By collaborating with one another, these universities can make it easier for ideas about law and public policy to move back and forth across national borders. They can make it easier for scholars and judges and policy makers from different countries to engage one another, to speak with one another about shared challenges, to learn different perspectives and different approaches, to see and speak and hear and feel the world in new ways.
In the years to come I look forward to working with all of you to support such opportunities for collaboration as they currently exist, and to create new ones that will provide lasting benefit for all the people of our two countries and the world.
* * *
This morning I have become the newest graduate of Beida. It is a special moment for me. A sign of how much I have learned, and of how much more remains for me to learn. It is another step on my journey as a student. A journey that has taken me from Washington to Paris to Beijing. A journey that I have been happy to share with you today.
Thank you for this honor.
Je suis profondément reconnaissant de cet honneur.
Beida, wǒ gǎn xiè nǐ.
Beida, wǒ xiè xiè nǐ.