2021 Fall Graduate School Degree Conferment Ceremony Remarks (24 September 2021)

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Nagahiro Minato, 27th President

Nagahiro Minato, 27th President

Today, Kyoto University is proud to award master's degrees to 95 students, professional master's degrees to two students, and doctoral degrees to 229 students. Of these graduates, 170 are from overseas. Let me begin by offering my sincere congratulations to all of you on your accomplishments.

With today's ceremony, Kyoto University will have awarded 85,945 master's degrees, 2,177 professional master's degrees, 2,519 juris doctorate degrees, and 46,655 doctoral degrees to date. On behalf of the University's faculty and staff, I would like to extend my congratulations to each and every one of you on receiving your degrees.

A significant portion of the research that you conducted to earn your degrees was undertaken amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, which began early last year, and which caused your on-campus research activities to be severely restricted. Despite all this, however, you pressed ahead and brought your projects to completion. I would like to commend and congratulate each and every one of you on reaching the tremendous milestone of officially receiving a degree from Kyoto University. You are about to embark on a new journey, either within or outside of the academic world. The conferral of your degree today is therefore both an endpoint and a new starting point.

The "graduate school" as we know it today, as a department centered on educational curricula leading to academic degrees, was first established in the United States in the late 19th century by Johns Hopkins University. This was a time when rapid progress in science and technology began to significantly impact global politics and economy, as well as individual lives. Against this backdrop, the Johns Hopkins University graduate school offered a place for those who had completed undergraduate university programs, which at the time were focused on liberal arts, to pursue more advanced and specialized academic research.

Toward the end of the 19th century, this graduate school system spread to other institutions in the US, including Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago, resulting in a substantial number of students receiving degrees each year. The United States' global leadership of scholarship and research since the 20th century is certainly attributable to this degree-based graduate school system and its success in attracting talented students from around the world to engage in cutting-edge research.

In Japan, this US-style system of graduate schools, centered on educational curricula leading to degrees, was institutionalized with the post-World War II enactment of the School Education Act. The first schools of this type were established at national universities in 1953, and each was authorized to award degrees at its own discretion based on the candidates' knowledge and achievements in specific disciplinary fields. Doctoral degrees did exist in Japan prior to those developments, as evidenced by the fact that the common saying "be sure to become either a great academic or a Cabinet minister", which expresses lofty aspirations for a child's future, dates back to before the war. Those earlier degrees, however, were mostly just honorary titles. As such, degrees awarded for completion of academic programs have a relatively short history in Japan when compared to the United States.

In the US, meanwhile, major universities initially enrolled mostly people from distinguished and wealthy families. This began to change in the mid-20th century, when those institutions set out to promote equality of educational opportunity by expanding their scholarship programs and making sure that they admitted academically qualified candidates regardless of their family backgrounds or financial capacities. Those who thus gained admission to those highly competitive universities were "the Best and the Brightest", many of whom would go on to assume crucial leadership roles not only in academia but also in politics, economy, and many other spheres of society. At the pinnacle of this highly educated elite were degree holders, who had received high-level, specialized training at graduate schools. An academic degree therefore became an assumed prerequisite for entry into the elite ranks of power in American society.

On the other hand, a recent book by Harvard University Professor Michael Sandel, titled The Tyranny of Merit, calls attention to the negative effects of "meritocracy", a phenomenon that he asserts has become pervasive amongst those with high educational credentials. His concern is that members of this highly credentialed elite tend to attribute their merit entirely to their own abilities and efforts, ignoring factors such as family circumstances, and as a result they can lose their sense of empathy with the majority of ordinary citizens, and their commitment to contribute to public welfare can be diminished.

This concern may not necessarily apply to today's Japan, where the more serious problem, in my view, is that degree holders are not valued highly enough. This difference may be related to the two countries' different social environments and higher and postgraduate education histories. That said, I believe that it is important to consider the question that Sandel raises about how to evaluate the true worth of those who have undergone advanced education and training. He writes that "we are most fully human when we contribute to the common good and earn the esteem of our fellow citizens for the contributions we make. According to this tradition, the fundamental human need is to be needed by those with whom we share a common life", an idea he describes as "contributive justice". So, true "merit", according to this view, would be the ability to serve the common good by utilizing the academic knowledge and scientific literacy acquired through higher education, based on empathy with fellow citizens. Similarly, Professor Andrew Scott of the London Business School writes in The 100-Year Life, co-authored with The Shift author Lynda Gratton, that "what will separate people is not what they know, but rather what they have experienced using this knowledge". Based on this idea, perhaps we can say that your true value will depend on how you choose to utilize the knowledge and scientific literacy you have cultivated in your fields of study.

While working on your dissertations, you were probably driven by your spirit of inquiry and passion to create, more than by anything else. Contributing to the common good through scientific and academic endeavor does not necessarily mean producing results that are of direct benefit to our everyday lives. I am sure that as students, especially in our graduate schools, you learned time and again the importance of creativity and inventiveness. It has long been said that "necessity is the mother of invention", but UCLA Professor Jared Diamond asserts that revolutionary technologies and innovative solutions are products not so much of necessity, as of creative scientific work, and that history has actually shown "invention to be the mother of necessity". Meanwhile, Hideki Yukawa, Japan's first-ever Nobel Laureate and a Kyoto University professor emeritus, wrote in his book Shi to Kagaku [Poetry and Science]: "Of all the creative endeavors that you undertake as a theoretical physicist, the most important is to search for rationality in what, from one perspective, appears irrational. This involves a radical shift in perspective, as I have learned through experience. As long as you only deal with phenomena that are clearly rational from the outset, you will have no opportunity to fully unleash your creativity." Yukawa was one of the 20th century's giants in the world of physics who pioneered the field of quantum mechanics. Today, in the 21st century, quantum computers, built thanks to the work of those early scientists, are revolutionizing our information society.

There are certain qualities that I believe are expected of degree holders of all disciplines. Among them, one that I think is particularly important is the ability to creatively tackle challenges based on extensive scholarship, accurate knowledge and techniques, and logical research literacy. Today, humanity faces a wide variety of grave issues, including climate change, large-scale natural disasters, pandemics, global food insecurity, relative poverty and other forms of social disparity, and demographic aging in the developed world. Each of those problems is exceedingly complex and fraught with uncertainty, involving a great number of stakeholders and requiring consideration from all angles, regardless of the academic disciplines with which it is primarily associated.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in his Critique of Pure Reason: "Philosophy . . . cannot be learned; we can at most learn to philosophize". He went on to explain that to philosophize means to "exercise our powers of reasoning in accordance with general principles". All of you have developed your "powers of reasoning" in the course of your rigorous research in graduate school, not by philosophizing but by practicing science — by experimenting and investigating. It is surely in times of great change, such as now, that society has the greatest need of people like you, who have learned to practice science and have continued to hone their powers of reasoning. I believe that, even though it may take some time, as you begin to make a difference for the global environment and international community with your academic knowledge and creative thinking, Japanese society will begin to recognize the true value of academic degrees.

Now you are about to set out to assume new roles in society. Returning to what I said earlier about the conferral of an academic degree, it is more a starting point than an endpoint. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors, and I hope that you can put the abilities you have honed here at Kyoto University to full use.

Once again, let me offer my sincere congratulations to each and every one of you on your accomplishments.