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“3 little syllables”: LSE graduation, July 2007

Given how knowledge is supposed to be just world knowledge—not Korean, Japanese, British, or American knowledge—it is impressive how much gets written comparing to those in the West the sheer numbers employed in Chinese science and technology, or the levels of expertise in Indian engineering. How long will it be, it is implied, before Chinese knowledge or Indian knowledge overtake Western knowledge?

Thomas Friedman describes in The World is Flat how Craig Barret — the current Chairman and former CEO of Intel Corporation — shocks Americans by admitting Intel could well thrive as a company even if it never hired another American, although this of course is neither Intel’s intent or desire. “We still do hire lots of Americans. But today we can hire the best talent around the world and be very successful,” casting his eye over how a lot of Intel investment now takes place in Russia, China, India, Malaysia, and Israel.

Why hold back? Why not hire only the best?

The other story making the rounds is how in many Western firms now, annual prize ceremonies for top performance come with cheat-sheets to help the CEO pronounce the names of 9 out of 10 of the firm’s most outstanding employees. Now and then, of course, “John Smith” from Peoria Illinois surprises.

So it was with some trepidation in early July that, as Head of the LSE Economics Department, I looked over the list of 300 or so graduating students whose names I would have to announce, before an audience of 1,000 in the Peacock Theatre at LSE’s graduation ceremony. As I had previously blogged last December and October, that audience would include friends and family who had travelled vast distances to attend.

LSE has long been and continues to be far more international than any other university I know. Of its student population of 8,000, half come from more than 120 countries outside the European Union. Last year, for the first time ever, China and Hong Kong fielded over 950, the highest number of foreign students at the LSE. Malaysia and Singapore, even when added together manage only a tiny population at home. Yet, somehow they routinely send the LSE almost as many students as does the Chinese mainland now, and one-third more students than does all of Germany.

At the ceremony, I got up to the podium and, following protocol, tipped my hat to Howard Davies, the Director of the LSE, standing across the stage. He nodded, and looked pointedly back at me, for my Department’s students were the bulk of those waiting to be called up on stage to shake his hand. I started down the list, and got smoothly around the first bend with “Igor Cesarec”, “Christina Yuen Kiu Chan”, “Wang Sheair Chua”, “Yahan Li”, “Sulwyn Lim”, “Saravanan Nagappan”, “Hieu Nguyen”, “Sunehra Rahman”, and “Muhammad Kashif Riaz”.

I figured I was doing well. I only had 240 names that morning; some graduates had decided to go home or had had to start work, and couldn’t attend.

I could see the finish line. I headed towards it with “Adrian Zhi Da Wong”, “Sukjai Wongwaisiriwat”, and “Zhi Jia Yap”. I was on the final straightaway now with “Jiaqian Chen”, “Ilja Boelaars”, “Kun Lung Wu”, “Vasileios Gkionakis”, and “Nuarpear Warn Lekfuangfu”.

Then I messed up.

“Linda Peng”. Three syllables. From Malaysia.

These people I have named and others in the Peacock Theatre that morning are friends of mine. Of those who graduated BSc from the Economics Department, three years back I had given them and their classmates, all 850 of them, the very first lecture they ever attended at the LSE. Not by coincidence, that had also occurred in the Peacock Theatre; it was the first lecture on Introductory Economics. These people are members of an amazing and accomplished class. I wasn’t pleased to see them leave that July morning. But I was proud I got to announce their names as they left.

World knowledge it is then.

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