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【Beijing Forum 2010】Interview with Jeffrey Lehman: Education in Globalization

Peking University, Nov. 12, 2010: Jeffrey Lehman is Professor of Law and Former President of Cornell University, President of the Institute for China-US Law & Policy Studies, and Chancellor and Founding Dean of the Peking University School of Transnational Law (STL). He studied at Cornell University and the University of Michigan, and holds a J.D. degree from the University of Michigan Law School.


Prof. Jeffrey Lehman at the 2010 opening ceremony of PKU Shenzhen Graduate School (PKU News)


On the afternoon of Nov. 6, reporters from PKU News were able to interview Prof. Lehman during the Education Panel at Beijing Forum 2010. The interview focused on "Education for a Better World in the Context of Globalization."



Q: Prof. Lehman, thank you for accepting our interview. The “three themes” you brought up when you were in Cornell are very thought-provoking: "life in the age of the genome,” "wisdom in the age of digital information," and "sustainability in the age of development.” How do you interpret these three themes in the context of globalization?


A: As you can see, in each theme there are two ideas that are linked together: one is a very general and deep wish, a deep longing that we have, and the other is some more specific, more concrete features of life today. The idea of each theme is that our university, because of its unique configuration, unique set of rules, unique strengths, could help each of the three areas to find a way to bridge the longing for some deep positive value and a practical reality.


For the first theme, “life in the age of the genome,” I want to say that we live in an age of genome in the sense that biological research turned an important corner with genomics as we came to understand that we are not so different. Not only are people and people, but even people and animals are much more similar than we have thought. That could lead us to reflect in entirely new ways of what it means to be alive, and how we think about other living beings. The question is how we can use all of the sources in the university, not only the “hard” sciences but also the social sciences and humanities, to think about the phenomenon of life in an age of genome.


For the second, “wisdom in the age of digital information,” the dawn of the computer era and the information age completely transformed economic life, social life, and cultural life. How we interact with each other is very different because of the computer and telecommunications technologies. The question is how that really affects our wisdom, which is a much deeper and more complex phenomenon. Wisdom is not data. Knowledge is not even data. We have to have a way to sift through raw data and make judgments about what is significant, what constitutes reliable data, how we put reliable data together to build knowledge, and how we use knowledge to be wise, to act in wise ways. And once again, that involves the integration of natural sciences, engineering technology in the domain of information science, and the social sciences as we try to understand how digital information affects our life.


And now “sustainability in the age of development,” sustainability is a deep value, probably not one that we recognize as a challenge until just the last 15 or 20 years. We really didn’t think of the environment as being fragile as it is; we didn’t understand the consequences of climate change in the way that we do now; we did not really focus on resource scarcity and energy scarcity in the way that we understand it now. Now we say we owe it to our children and children’s children to have a sustainable universe. We cannot simply use it up and leave nothing for them. That’s not ethical; that’s not fair. The question is how we can promote this value of sustainability at the same time when we are undergoing rapid global development. Absolute sustainability is not something that we will ever attain, but we can get our modes of living more sustainable than others. So the question is, if we know that the current mode of human existence is only sustainable for the next 30 years, and then we are going to have some horrible disasters unless we do something, how can we find something that will push that hour to 100 years? What are the changes that we can make in how we live, how we conserve resources, how we minimize pollution, and how we think in green terms about everything we do? They won’t give us a world that will last forever, but at least they can get us an extra 70 years to think about the next stage in how we can keep pushing the envelope farther out.


Q: You are now the dean of PKU School of Transnational Law. How is the education in STL related to the idea of the globalization of education?


A: I think if it were not for globalization, there would not be a school of transnational law. What has happened in the last 30 years is that the pace of globalization has increased dramatically. With the emergence of incredible new communication technology and transportation technology as well as new ways of thinking about logistics in the last 20 years, suddenly there has been an explosion of global interaction, economic interaction, social interaction, and political interaction. We’ve had this remarkable period in which the boundaries that separate countries have become much less important than they were before. Not that they don’t matter, of course they do matter, but they matter much less. And with that experience of globalization at the economic, social, and political level, there has become a much greater need to harmonize the world’s legal systems because if there is no way to communicate legally, it becomes very hard to exchange goods and services economically, and it becomes hard for people to move across borders if it’s hard to get a visa or if you are going to face an entirely different legal regime. So this period has created a tremendous need for lawyers to understand not just their own legal system but also legal systems around the world. When then President Xu Zhihong and Vice President Hai Wen came to me in 2007, they said, “Look, we think that it’s time for China and for Beida to have a school that really integrates all of the best practices and learning from all over the world in the study of law at here on Chinese soil as a part of our university. Would you be willing to be a part of this?” And of course I was honored to be invited.


Q: What do think of the problem of brain drain which is usually a result of overseas study in the context of globalized education?


A: I think one of the really interesting developments we see in the last two decades is that what had once been a phenomenon of brain drain has become different now. People move around in their lives. There is much more lifetime mobility now. In the last panel here at Beijing Forum, one of the panelists said, “You know, nowadays it’s not really about brain drain, it’s about brain banking.” What’s happening is you are not draining talent who are moving outside the country, but you are making an investment. People are travelling, they are deepening their knowledge, they are broadening their perspectives, and they are becoming more valuable when they do that, and they bring that value back to their country of birth. And I think sometimes even when they stay overseas, they bring benefits to their country of birth. Sometimes they do it by sending money back home and sometimes they send diplomatic value back home. The US is an unusual country because it’s a very heterogeneous country. And if you grow up in the US and you meet someone who was born in China, you develop an image of China based on that person, and you’d say, “Wow, I want to go to China, I really like this person, and I would like to be there.” So when people move around the world, they are diplomats, and they can build understanding which might not exist before. So I think this brain drain issue isn’t really such a problem anymore, and I think the long-term benefits now for countries, when their students go and study elsewhere, can be very great.


Q: What about the imbalance between different quality levels of education in different countries? For example, we know that the quality of university education in the US appeals to many students, while possibly causing problems elsewhere.


A: It’s true that over the past few centuries, the US has invested a huge amount of money in its universities. And it has built up, over a long period of time, tremendous quality in these universities. They’ve created very strong traditions that are hard to replicate. But I think what’s happening now is that, with the development of education around the world and in Asia especially, countries like China now for the first time have the sources to invest in higher education, and they are doing it. And now China has the priority to create universities of this caliber. I have been very lucky to spend my career in great universities and I think they are world treasures, not just national treasures. Cornell is not a university that’s supposed to help only New York or the US, but it’s supposed to make the whole world better.


Q: What do you think of the theme of this year’s Beijing Forum?


A: It’s a wonderful theme. We attend the Beijing Forum not only to understand, but also to push ourselves. When we gather here at the Beijing Forum, we are not only here to learn, we are also trying to motivate ourselves to contribute. Having “Commitments and Responsibilities for a Better World” as this year’s theme combines two things. One is the notion of responsibility, the notion that we should be pushing ourselves, and the second is that the responsibilities are not simply for a locality or a country, but they are for the world.




Reported by: Chen Xi, Su Dongrui, and Shi Xiaofei

Transcribed by: Chen Xi