Last Friday, June 13, we held our annual Commencement ceremony at the Hopkins–Nanjing Center. It was bittersweet for me, as we prepare to move on to a new life in Berkeley, CA, USA.
This was my last chance to address our students. Below is what I said.
This portion of the program is called “farewell words from the American Co-Director.” The intention is that I bid farewell to the graduating students. Which I will do. But this time there is an additional farewell, which is my farewell to the Hopkins–Nanjing Center as American Co-Director.
Let’s get me out of the way first: Thank you, Johns Hopkins University, for hiring me. Thank you, Nanjing University, for teaching me so much about the true meaning of partnership. And thank you, students, faculty, staff and alumni for being my sisters and brothers in the 中美中心大家庭。
Now, students, soon-to-be alumni:
For three years I’ve had the great privilege of serving this deeply special institution, and I’ve had much occasion to reflect on what it is that makes the HNC so unique and so valuable. After three years I have a long list. What I’d like to share with you today is something that I hope will be of value to you as you launch yourselves into your post-HNC lives and careers.
We begin by taking a look back in history, to the Age of Enlightenment, which was essentially the discovery of the possibility of human progress through rationality. We owe so very much to the Enlightenment: human rights, democracy, rule of law, science and technology — in fact, the entire practice of rational, objective inquiry into the world around us.
I think of what we call the Enlightenment as the first Enlightenment, because it hasn’t yet reached its full potential. I believe that we are now in the early stages of a second Enlightenment.
To enlighten means to bring light to. What if we, as a species, were to take the logical next step after the first Enlightenment and shine a light on ourselves? What if each of us were to approach our own thought system — our own unconscious prejudices, and our petty hatreds; our perceptual biases and our unfair conclusions — what if each of us approached these with the same honesty and objectivity that we bring to the study of phenomena outside of ourselves? What might become possible?
Humans have begun doing this in various fields. Psychology has led the way, both through clinical approaches like psychotherapy, and through more academic channels made famous by the likes of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, David Eagleman and many others. Small subsets of my field, linguistics, have followed close behind. Anthropology, history and the humanities more broadly have also made contributions. The field of intercultural communication and training has shown tremendous potential in this vein.
And I’m sure I’m leaving out a lot, so please forgive me.
On the whole, though, honest introspection is not a priority of the academy, really anywhere in the world.
Except, that is, in a very few places, and the one I know best is the Hopkins–Nanjing Center.
Here, head and heart are encouraged to form and sustain the virtuous circle they have always had the potential of sustaining. Here, as we flex our head muscle in the classroom and in the library, we flex the heart muscle in the dorms, in the cafeteria, and in so many other places and settings.
When we look at the state of the world — at all the cruelty, at all the needless suffering, at all the hopelessness and anguish — it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and it’s easy to give up.
If we don’t consider giving up as an option, though, then we have to ask the question: What, truly, is the hope for humankind? I believe the HNC is on the front edge of the second Enlightenment, and I believe the virtuous circle of head and heart that we live here at the HNC is a model for the entire human species.
Once you have left the HNC, I encourage you to keep enlightening yourselves about yourselves. I believe it’s the hardest learning there is, because when we enlighten, we may not like what we see, and it can often feel like we’re at war with ourselves.
Tibetan Buddhists have powerful imagery around this: wall paintings in monasteries often depict violent “helper deities,” slashing evil thoughts to bits so violently that the images are often covered with opaque cloth. This metaphor may not work for you; if not, choose another. Anything to keep you constantly engaged in the search for knowledge and understanding about yourself.
Once you leave here, you will go out into the world, and you will have so many opportunities to make a difference. That big head–heart combination muscle that you have been developing here? Keep developing it. Keep flexing it. Flex your own muscle, and teach others when and where you can.
You may hear people call what you have “soft skills.” I encourage you to embrace the softness. Goodness knows there’s enough hardness in the world already. We don’t need any more of that.
If those who came before you are any indication, you will always remember the HNC, and you will indeed bring these rare and invaluable skills everywhere you go.
Thank you for having me as your co-director. I will never forget you.
And now, one last time: 中美中心加油！
 “Big family of the Hopkins–Nanjing Center.”
 Go HNC!