Recent uproar over the many so-called PhD’s among HK’s politicians and corporate board members have me thinking. I feel the obligation to comment simply because I feel that this trend of cheap PhD’s has been happening for a while and has finally now come to a head. The recent news started when someone was digging around the origins of some of the doctorates held by some of HK’s politicians and higher society. The end result is very dire. i don’t we’ve had more people with more higher degrees but know less in recent history than now. The church is no different. Christians don’t really read the Bible much. Neither do they have informed Bible studies because they simply don’t read. Forget about theology.
I believe our problem comes from two sources. First, with increasing competition in a society, people need a measuring stick to look at qualification for promotion. This problem is prevalent in the US. We have so many sorts of “doctorates” running around that just about everyone’s a “Dr.” something. This renders the degree almost meaningless.
Second, many in the Chinese culture are taught that getting whatever “doctorate” is the ultimate academic goal. It makes for good family conversation. “Meet my son. He’s a medical doctor specialist in internal medicine.” “Meet my daughter. She has a doctorate in law and practices in a large firm downtown.” etc. The problem is that a PhD isn’t the pinnacle of academic achievement.
We have an educational crisis here.
How can we figure out what is what? One way to find out is to look at the academic pedigree of the person. Did s/he earn the degree from a top-tier university? This is important not because every top-tier university doctorate can guarantee quality or every second-tier university doctorate is automatically subpar, but the university does matter. Top-tier universities usually have stringent requirements in order for the candidate to be admitted. Top-tier universities also get their rankings from research. A place of good research breeds good PhD’s.
Another way to figure out whether a person’s doctorate is worth its salt is to change the entire mentality that has plagued the Chinese community! PhD ISN’T THE PINNACLE OF ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT BUT IS THE BEGINNING OF IT. There’re measurable yardsticks to look at the the quality of a PhD besides the academic pedigree. The quality I’m referring to is publication. I don’t mean any kind of publication but academic publication. Any PhD worth his degree should be able to publish academic work to contribute to the field and to stimulate new way of thinking. This is the crisis facing HK right now.
Writing academic work is a thankless job. It doesn’t pay the bills for either publishers or the writers. It doesn’t even make one famous unless one is in the academic world (which is a very small circle of egg heads). There’s an alarming decrease of meaningful academic work being done in HK. Without this kind of work, indigenous theology will die a painful death. Many have turned to short few hundred word blurbs on social media to try to create impact. The problem is, any intellectual problem that can be solved by a 200-word update with a catchy photo isn’t a real issue. Can some long Facebook update really talk much about the theological development locally or globally? Can a blurb really dig into why Paris got bombed or why certain animosities exist between groups? Can a half sarcastic little satire really address why China is in such control of HK politics? Nope, nothing is ever that simple. Social media hoodwinks us into thinking that sound bites equal to reality, and we’re buying into the lie hook, line, and sinker. Any person who has half a brain knows that sound bites aren’t reality, and to propagate that impression is criminal.
Among those who have long-term impact in HK and whose work we consult when we’re stuck in our studies, two names stand out in HK: Ronald Fung and Arnold Yeung. Let’s take Dr. Fung for an example. His Pauline studies, although read from a different perspective than mine, is unsurpassed. It’s because he’s published both in the western world (the NICNT Galatians commentary) and the Chinese world. To that end, he continues to labor away even when he’s already well over 70 years old. He’s a true role model for all PhD’s. If anyone who’s getting a PhD only to get a bragging right or to get famous fast without the desire to contribute academically, that person is a user and a consumer. He isn’t a contributor. The last thing the church needs is more consumers.
Another example I use is Gusto Gonzalez the famous Cuban-born liberation theologian. Although he’s famous for his Hispanic theology, my first encounter with his work was when I did my MDiv. He wrote a great and readable work on church history called The Story of Christianity. This book changed my view of history. I’m thankful to my professor who assigned this book. Gonzalez’s grasp of so many different characters and their works in this gigantic undertaking showed to me that in order to do meaningful indigenous theology, it isn’t enough just to specialize in a few theologians here and there. Gonzalez propelled me to read all of the church fathers in their original sources which I finished in that one 12-week semester of church history (yes, both the Nicene and Ante-Nicene fathers). It’s primarily because of Gonzalez that I read everything from Turtullian to Rene Girard even while I was in my MDiv. While he clearly shows that his own context needs to be decolonized, he still understands the greatness and importance of the Christian tradition. He does theology in conversation with the forefathers and his contemporaries. He does so in community with them and not apart from them in some la-la land of his own fantasy. These books I read have a deep impact on my own understanding of biblical interpretation, a subject I’ve been teaching for years along with preaching. Gonzalez shows to me that depth of scholarship doesn’t start at the specialized PhD level. It starts way before and continues way after. Without that depth, indigenous theology is just rehashing of local ideology with very little progress. Calling anything local ideology indigenous theology is then just a cheap game.
What solution do we have? We must send people with intelligence, creativity, integrity and discipline to get their doctorates from the best universities of the world. When they come back, we need to require them to do real academic publication before they get rank. Otherwise, we’re going back (indeed we’re already on our way) to the 70s and 80s where Chinese publishers only know how to translate safe, popular and outdated western work. As teaching professionals, we can only use books the publishers give us. Of course, many HK’ers can still read English textbooks and we can force them to use English textbooks but again, the problem with English textbooks is that they don’t solve indigenous problems. The end game is still in the hands of HK academics who can publish in Chinese strong academic work and if possible, also do so in English (like Fung and Gonzalez) in order to dialogue with non-Chinese contexts. Only then will we make progress. Otherwise, within 10 years, we’ll revert back to 20-30 years ago.