by Martin Yip
In Hong Kong there is a saying that there are five things every university student should do: that is, study, date, live in halls, join committees of clubs and societies, and work part-time. Some might conform to this apparent social norm and desire to do all five, as if that would affirm their success as a student. Yet this begs the obvious question: why should anyone allow others to define university life for them? Why should somebody impose on them a concept of what they should look for during these vibrant and fulfilling years?
The saying has its value in being easy to apply. It is often easier to go about realising desires than to reflect on why they exist in the first place. But we must acknowledge that desire might well be the strongest motivation for human behaviour. Hobbes claimed that the ‘fundamental motivation of all human action is the desire for pleasure.’ If we agree that our desires are a powerful influence on our behaviour, then it must be worthwhile to look at them with a magnifying glass. To this end, the selection or inclusion of the five things in the saying appears to be an empirical process. People do them, so they must be the right things to do, so people do them. But I contend that this thinking is flawed in two ways.
The first problem is that just because many people do something does not mean it is beneficial. The positive claim of what many university students do has, albeit weakly, been conflated with the normative claim that that is what all university students should do. One might argue that there is a correlation between the inherent value contained in an activity (or at least, the degree to which the population considers there to be some inherent value) and the proportion of the population undertaking such an activity. This is entirely valid. However, the fact that there only exists a correlation and no logical link between the two variables reveals a necessity for doubt.
The second problem is that instead of desiring specific results, we would be better off desiring long-term processes. The operationalisation of the saying most likely hinges on simple yes-no questions: is my grade-point average above some level? Do I have a romantic partner? Am I holding any committee positions? These are all short-sighted and result-oriented questions. They may pertain to perfectly understandable desires, but I argue that there are more fundamental desires that we should have, and if we have those desires already, they deserve more attention than the paradigm in the saying suggests. After all, desires define us.
This is where processes come in. This can be understood in terms of mental and physical processes.
Mental processes concern mindsets and values. Whereas in younger years, the most important ability of a student was to memorise (even the so-called ‘evaluation points’ are memorised in the humanities subjects), that will not suffice now. The academic rigour and diversity of identities within this university provide the ideal environment in which students can determine and debate their beliefs.
Physical processes refer to habits. Habits are vital in realising any non-trivial desire. Given our limited mental capacities, the mechanism of habits let us automate repeated actions to our subconscious to free up brainpower. Thus, the effect of every change in habitual behaviour is exemplified over time. One might be able to cram for an exam and get a high score; but it is far more prudent to build study skills and routines to maximise chances of success for all and any exams. Such is the difference between results and processes.
Many have provided their alternative suppositions to the saying; there is no need for me to join them. I hope you, dear reader, will discover and realise your dearest desires.