September 23, 2022

Keynote speech at Fulbright University Vietnam’s 2022 Convocation ceremony

September 23, 2022

When Ms. Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam, invited me to give a keynote speech at Convocation this year, she asked me to talk about how to break down stereotypes and create the world the way you want it to be. I was perplexed. I did not know what to talk to you about. There is an inherent paradox: I, myself, am against empiricism. If the goal is to break down stereotypes, why should you listen to your predecessor? And who in their right mind would want to share their experience in not following experience? To break down stereotypes, the first thing you should do is doubt predecessors like us, not follow us. 

I did live like that – I asked questions and doubted all experience my predecessors tried to teach me – and now here I am, telling you to listen to me, hear all the right things I have to say; isn’t it silly? 

This paradox exists everywhere. For example, liberalism. At the end of the day, liberalism is a system full of rigid principles, and sometimes, throughout history, people acted on behalf of liberalism to oppress others using violence. Who would want to impose freedom, with violence, no less? It is as if we, out of the blue, punch someone in the face, saying: “Who allows you to think this way? You need to think freely.”

I took a while to think, and question what the most important thing I learned in life is so that I can share it with you today.

Please allow me to share with you a German concept called “Bildungsphilister”, a concept introduced by Friedrich Nietzsche. It means “intellectual philistine.”

When I was 19 years old, I read quite a bit about philosophy. Back then, we were not as lucky as you are; the Internet was very expensive. In my first year in college, I worked part-time for a communication company and usually spent the night there because, at the office, there was A/C, instant noodles, and computers connected to the Internet. At the place where I rented, there were not these three things, especially instant noodles. During those sleepless nights at the office, I ate my noodles and then read Marx’s Das Kapital, the Teachings of Buddha, Kant’s ethics, and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra; of course, I could not understand a thing. I thought if I wanted to be an elite, I needed to read. If I were to read, I should read works from famous authors, the classics. But works of those like Kant, I could not make a word out of it. 

However, in those days, I was fortunate to learn one teaching from Nietzsche, and that is: to simply read in a petty-bourgeois-self-complacent manner will not make you better.

A bildungsphilister is someone who reads newspapers and reviews and imagines themselves to be cultured and educated but lacks genuine, introspective erudition. You will meet these people everywhere in the world, especially in a society like Vietnam, where the Internet and the open market provide everyone with a wealth of knowledge – something that everyone has the right to think it is their own. 

You can see it from all the fan pages that collect excerpts of famous works; the hot girls who share famous life quotes while showing off their bodies; speakers who don’t have practical projects but always talk about Western books; journalists, and scholars who depend on some famous people for quotes… And it does not just happen in the field of science. If you follow enough fan pages and Instagram accounts, you will receive tons of knowledge regarding life, compassion, and the way to live – all quoted from somewhere. We are living in an era of copying and pasting. 

You may turn out like one of them in the future. You may read something, resonate with it, and think that you know more than others. Tomorrow, you might ask your friends if they were to know why the real estate market and Wall Street in America crumbled in 2008, all because you just watched a Michael Moore movie. You would say: It’s very deep, let me explain it to you. My friends, that is how a bildungsphilister would talk. 

I, and perhaps many professors here, will say that even if you finish all the movies by Michael Moore, and Adam McKay, or read everything from Noam Chomsky, you still don’t know what happened in America. Only until you look into how the banking system and the real estate market in Vietnam operate – let me emphasize, in Vietnam, in 2022 – then you’d know what happened in America in 2008. I think that is how a real intellectual comes to be. 

Reading, memorizing, and restating knowledge you get from books are not wrong. But it will never be right. Knowledge can only be formed through a process of contemplation, experience, absorption, critical thinking, and self-reflection. You may think that if Noam Chomsky says something, it must be absolutely right. But it will only become your own knowledge if you observe and reflect on it with what is happening in our world. If it does not intrinsically materialize within you, it is not yours; and you only repeat someone else’s words. 

That is basically how Nietzsche described “bildungsphilister”. I was fortunate to read this when I was 19 so that I did not become an “intellectual philistine”. And one should not become a “bildungsphilister”, even though living like that is very posh. It may look as though there is nothing wrong with saying what you read, what you watched, what you remembered. If others don’t read, it’s their loss. If I spend time reading newspapers, and books, and watching documentaries on Netflix, I am allowed to repeat what was said in those things. That should be my knowledge.

The professors will tell you that knowledge, even the most basic, most cliché concept, can only be truly yours if you actually experience it and reflect on it. 

Let me tell you a funny story. I previously told you that I read Buddha’s teaching when I was young. In those teachings that Buddha said to the bhikkhus – Buddhist monks or priests, there was one thing I strongly resonated with.

That saying goes: “The mind of the world cannot be understood. If you try, you may end up in insanity and agony.” (Roughly translated)

If the goal is just to interpret it, then the young me could easily do it. For instance, we, the world around us, and what is happening around us are unenlightened. We do not need to try and define its true nature. If we try to understand the mind of everything, we will go insane.

Of course, it is. This is wonderful. Excellent. You should definitely remember this.

And here is another story. There was this phase in my life when I dated two girls at the same time and could not choose between them. I did not actually cheat since I told one of the two that the other was my girlfriend. This “third-person” in my relationship also had a boyfriend then. When you have feelings for someone, you tend to hang out together with common friends; that’s what I did. But then my feelings for this “third person” grew day by day, to the point that the two girls could not take it anymore. They decided to meet and talked it out.

I did not know how the meeting went. But afterward, I met the “third person” first. She told me: “We should not meet anymore. You should go.”

Do you know what I told her – me, a 20-year-old “intellectual philistine”, who read philosophy every night and thought that the girls loved me because I was “intellectual”? I told her: “The mind of the world cannot be understood. If you try, you may end up in insanity and agony.” I quoted Buddha to fix my love problems. I swear. 

Then she said: “I don’t understand. You should go.” And that love of mine did not materialize because I could not go back to my official girlfriend either. 

15 years later, we met by chance. What’s left were only feelings between two old friends. We talked about life, and of course, about what we should try to care less about life. I suddenly realized that only then, we understood that saying. It is true that “The mind of the world cannot be understood. If you try, you may end up in insanity and agony.” Only then I understood, as did she. We were in our middle-age years. 

And even those quotes about love or life, we sometimes need a while, 15-20 years or so, to actually understand what they are about. 

Knowledge about love is very important. But anyway, today is a convocation ceremony of a university. Let’s talk about professional knowledge. To me, no matter what their profession is, one’s biggest tragedy is to “borrow knowledge.”

I have friends who are “intellectual philistines”. They have social status; money is not even an issue. This problem exists because access to knowledge is not equal in Vietnamese society. It may be more equal in your generation; but people in the rural areas, don’t even have Netflix to watch, 4G, or a bookstore. In my generation, the gap is even wider. I was lucky to find a part-time job with free Internet. But in the 2000s, most of my friends went to bed early (because even if they didn’t, there weren’t any instant noodles to soothe their hunger).

This gap enabled some to read more than others, to have better English, to have better Google skills – and they continue using that advantage to compete in life. 20 years ago, the publishing market was dominated by translated foreign books and publications. People did not know how to search for information – and there existed a group of journalists and experts who were good at paraphrasing what they learned from the Internet and made good money doing that. A lot of money.  In my first job interview 16 years ago, the only question that I still remember was: “Which Internet site do you use for information?” Back then, knowing where to read was a desirable skill. Reading in English was much cooler.  These “intellectual philistines” still have a place in today’s society. 

On the contrary, I also have friends who only write original works – what they think, reflect on, collect, or are enlightened. They may be slow in making money because they cannot mass-produce original works. Sometimes, they are only known for one life-work. Being original is much harder than borrowing from someone else.

In my life, I only respect the latter type – those who are original. The first type, even though they can drive an S-class Mercedes, quote Immanuel Kant in German, I still feel sorry for them. I genuinely do.

You probably recognized those belonging to the second type, the originals. Besides doctors, musicians, and researchers, there are mechanics, farmers, and snail sellers. They are the experts in their field because they observe and reflect on it.

Imagine two scenarios: one in which you are squatting in an automotive repair shop. You watch on as the mechanic takes apart your Kawasaki, inspects it, diagnoses it, and tries to find out why there is a weird sound in the engine. The second scenario is one in which you are sitting in a class taught by a professor with a Ph.D. However, you know for certain that the slides are just the Vietnamese version of something foreign and that your teacher only translated it and is parroting it. Imagine these two scenarios and you will understand what I meant when I said I respect one and feel sorry for the other.

But why do we need original knowledge if borrowing it helps us make money faster with less effort? I think there are two reasons for that: one is the sustainability of original knowledge, and two is the legacy you wish to leave behind.

Borrowed knowledge is not sustainable, even in making money. If you only parrot what other people say, it will quickly become outdated. I said before that when the country was first opened, making money from translating foreign content dominated the publishing market. But here comes your generation, those who can read English, and acquire information from free platforms like Reddit. You don’t even have to read newspapers. These “experts” will soon be out of work. You cannot imagine, that when I was 21 years old, I made the equivalent of today’s VND 70 million a month just by reading and translating foreign newspapers. You can’t imagine because who would need that profession now? Today, if you only know how to read newspapers in English, then you have no skill at all.

And right now, I am witnessing how these “intellectual philistines,” “borrowing experts”, or “Googling gods” are losing their ground. 

Architects parroted “Scandinavian style”, minimalism, or “Indochine style” because other people said so, not because they understood the foundations of these cultures. They still make good money in certain provinces but will gradually lose in markets where the quality of life is improving. Writers, copying Hollywood’s or Korean motifs and putting them in the Vietnamese context without a real understanding of the people and their situations, will lose to even foreign writers – those who spent their whole lives researching one specific topic.  

Communication experts, preaching Western models, quoting Philip Kotler or David Ogilvy, without understanding Asian or Vietnamese psychology, will lose to the self-learned mechanic I previously mentioned: If he ever decides to open a series of shops, he will, more than anyone, fully understand how the Vietnamese people behave and expect from their motorbikes. He will understand Philip Kotler better than those who read Philip Kotler in English and can devise an excellent marketing strategy all by himself.

We are not talking about how we can get a job after graduation. We are talking about a 30- to 40-year career. Google cannot sustain this career for you.

Your career can only be sustainable if everything you say is what you realized for yourself. It is sustainable because when you believe in what you say and what you do when it is part of you, it is your thinking, then making a lot of money or just a bit of money won’t determine the value of your career. Your career now is part of whom you are as a person, embedded in your heart, not the ladder of money. Super sustainable.

And believe me when I say our society will come to respect original knowledge more. And it will reward you.

The second reason why you need original knowledge is that it is the legacy you leave behind. It is also the theme of this year’s convocation: to create the world the way you want it to be. Legacy is not something so great as a statue; it is any good deed you do for the world. The world only needs to be a bit better when you leave than when you come in; that means you already leave behind a legacy.

How to acquire original knowledge? You have to read. A lot. You have to remember, but not to parrot, to live like an “intellectual philistine,” or to show off with your peers. You carve it in your brain, and life will provide you with more pieces, from which knowledge will be formed. Don’t allow yourself to say something, or parrot some particular knowledge if you are not confident that it is what you realize for yourself.

Copying and pasting are not wrong. It is only wrong when you don’t understand what you are “pasting.” I only realize what an “intellectual philistine” means after years of carving it in my head.

It is a more painful journey than going on Wikipedia or Pinterest to copy so you can meet your deadlines. But the professors here will tell you that knowledge, more than often, will form through loss, pain, and even regrets.

The journey to pursue original knowledge is also an unfair one. Sometimes you suddenly realized that those who copy knowledge are making more money and getting rich faster. You may wonder: “But my goal of getting a bachelor’s degree is to have a good job and make money. Is self-actualization or creating a better world that important?”

I would say that how much you understand and what you believe in depend on you. Because: “The mind of the world cannot be understood. If you try, you may end up in insanity and agony.”

Thank you.

Dinh Duc Hoang,

Author, Journalist

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