Page last updated at 02:39 UTC, Wednesday, 10 August 2011 PH
In a recent lecture visit to the University of Macau, I heard some university officials talk proudly of their imminent move to a campus ten times their present one. As a university professor myself, my mouths watered when they told me that the Chinese Government will be building a whole new campus in a nearby island to help them expand their enrollment. More importantly, the move will help them carry out an ambitious program of replicating the centuries-old educational system of Cambridge and Oxford in the U.K. where the future leaders of society receive a whole-person formation while living in what are known as residential colleges. In this system, the students live in residences where they are in close contact with tutors who become their mentors, friends, foster parents, and role models as they acquire both intellectual and moral virtues. It is in the residential colleges that a great deal of the intellectual and moral development of the individual student happens, outside the classroom. I listened intently to the enthusiastic description of their plans which has been refined as a result of a recent trip some of the officials made to universities in the U.K. and the United States.
As they were describing to me what they saw at YaleUniversity, which has adapted the "Ox-bridge" system of residential colleges my mind returned to my days at HarvardUniversity where I was involved as a tutor in one of "Houses", as the residential colleges are called in Ivy League universities. I remembered names like Leverett, Adams, Quincy, Lowell, and Kirkland. In fact, it was in the last-named house that the famous Mark Zuckerberg founded the immensely successful Facebook that has now more then 600 million subscribers all over the world. It was in September 2003, that Zuckerberg, as a Harvard sophomore, moved into Kirkland House with three other roommates. It was in the intellectually stimulating ambience of Kirkland House where the founder of Facebook worked with other collaborators to start one of the most successful social networking enterprises in digital history.
My experience as a tutor at Harvard is quite dated. That is why I was happy to read in "Colloguy", the alumni quarterly of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University (Fall 2010) a highly informative article about how the tutorial system now works at Harvard. The article, written by Bari Walsh, gave a historical account of the Harvard House system: "In 1929, Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell championed the ideal of a Harvard House system that was 'a social device for a moral purpose,' as Harvard College Dean Evelyn Hammonds recalled in a recent report on the Houses. Lowell believed that the College's mission was to develop the mind, body, and character of its students, and that by integrating students of various ages with affiliated tutors and faculty, Houses could break down barriers--of class and background, in those days--and encourage 'personal and corporate responsibility.' "
The tutors are usually recruited from graduate students (mostly Ph.D. candidates) "who have a zest for learning, who have a desire to talk about their scholarly work and to share that enthusiasm with students." The tutors are supervised by the House Master. For example, the current Master of Adams House is Sean Palfrey, a professor of pediatrics and public health. According to Professor Palfrey, the job of the tutors is to serve as respected role models, teachers, responsible authority figures, and friends, and in the process they have to field questions of all sorts, from pre-professional and specialty-specific academic issues, to personal, lifestyle, and philosophical ones. I remember talking to students who were grappling with the question of whether or not God exists. There were the more usual consultations on the economics or accounting courses they were taking. Then there were Americans who never went west of Springfield, Massachusetts who pumped me with questions about Asia and the Philippines in particular. The task of a tutor can be demanding because one has to be guidance counsellor, spiritual director, professional consultant, big brother or even father all rolled into one.
Inevitably, universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Columbia and their counterparts in other parts of the world become the incubators of the future leaders of societies. In the U.K., for example, a large number of those who became Prime Ministers and high government officials were nurtured in Oxford and Cambridge. The Ivy League universities in the U.S. have produced their share of Presidents and other top officials both in the public and private sectors. These universities make it a point to raise very generous endowments and scholarship grants so that they can accept the brightest students, from whatever income groups they may come, thus avoiding elitism. What the authorities of these universities must ensure is that their commitment to character and moral formation of their students is based on a conviction that there are absolute truths about what is right and what is wrong. It would be fatal if their leadership would succumb to the fad of moral relativism which teaches that there are no permanent values.
Like the University of Macau, my own university, the University of Asia and the Pacific, is committed to strengthening the whole-person education we are now giving to our undergraduate students by establishing residential colleges where our students, especially those who come from out of town or from foreign countries, can reside, together with tutors with whom they can interact on a daily basis and who will act as their mentors, friends, and role models. In our Ortigas campus, we hope to have a residential college that can accommodate some 75 students. We are now approaching generous individuals and corporations to help us in this endeavor of establishing our own "incubator" of the future leaders of Philippine society. For comments, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.