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Cupcakes or Bust!

The shutdown last June of Hong Kong’s schools was doubly distressing because we had only just come out of the springtime quarantines and closures a few weeks earlier, and we had hoped they were finished for good. Students stayed mostly at home for the summer, showing remarkable fortitude in accepting restrictions on their usually active lives. I had wondered whether the summer philosophy colloquium I hold every year would work on Zoom. I need not have worried.

Three former students expressed interest in helping conduct the colloquium: a graduate of Oxford’s courses in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), a current PPE student, and a rising senior with a philosophy major at Columbia. (The first of these started the colloquium six years ago.) We worked out a syllabus mainly of their devising: Plato’s Crito, extracts from Hobbes’s Leviathan and Locke’s Second Treatise, one of Marx’s philosophical manuscripts of 1844, a lecture by Amartya Sen, an extract from Fred Hirsch’s Social Limits to Growth, and extracts from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Each of them was to prepare and lead discussions of one or two of these readings. They supplied material to help the younger students manage the readings, some of which are very difficult.

About twenty students and graduates signed up, and most of them attended through the entire programme. When we discussed the easier readings, many people became involved; when we worked on the harder ones, a few talked while most listened. The quality of discussion was generally excellent. I was happy to see, among other bits, an animated but polite discussion between the Marxist of the group and its Nozickian. I felt frustrated at hearing these discussions among the talking postage stamps on my Zoom display and wished that some students did not need to turn off their video because they had narrow bandwidth at home, but I was pleased that the talks went as well as they did.

In the past I’d bought cupcakes from the best cupcake shop in town, Sift in Wan Chai, and served them with the philosophy on ‘cupcake day’, the last session of the colloquium. This year that was, of course, impossible. But the education department decided just yesterday to reopen the schools again, and the young leaders thought it would be nice to have a reunion of the group with cupcakes later in the month. Since cupcakes are an unconditional good, serving them without philosophy will offer a nice belated end to this summer.

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