Professor Charles Kao: A Learned Life, A Life of Learning

Professor Charles Kao: A Learned Life, A Life of Learning

October 5, 2018

The recent passing of our founding Foundation Board Chairman, Professor Charles K. Kao, brings to a close an extraordinary life of world-shaping achievement, a life largely spent in pursuit of learning. The Father of Fiber Optics revolutionized the technologies that facilitate one of humanity’s defining characteristics: communication. Put simply, without fiber optics, we would not have the Internet or indeed the ‘information revolution’.

For the ISF community, we will remain forever grateful that in his final years, Professor Kao brought his formidable intellect and life experience to the founding of our school. At a time when the world was clamoring for his attention, Professor Kao chose to focus on school education as one of his most important tasks in retirement.

Professor Kao led a life committed to the exploration of mysteries and puzzles through learning. From inquisitive play on the floor with very young learners, right the way through to the laboratory ponderings of post-doctoral fellows, Professor Kao’s range of engagement with learning and learners knew no bounds. At ISF, we have always sought to embrace the spirit and practice of his motto – Learning! Learning! Learning! – with open minds and hearts; this is not always an easy thing to do.

The following quote, frequently attributed to Professor Kao, sums up with elegant simplicity the frustrations of the visionary:

If you really look at it, I was trying to sell a dream … There was very little I could put in concrete to tell these people it was really real (quoted in Hecht, 2004, p. 117).

In the 1970s, at a time when the world was still calculating data transmission speeds in terms of thousands of bits (103 bits) per second, Professor Kao was already exploring terabit technology (1012 bits), which would operate at speeds a billion times faster than the best technology of the day. For many, these ideas were the stuff of dreams, more like science fiction than fact. The decades-long delay in formally recognizing Professor Kao’s achievements can be attributed to the fact that it took the rest of the world forty years to catch up.

ISF was founded with a similarly perplexing aspiration. In the decade and a half since our founding, we have frequently puzzled over the complexities of turning the dream of a school full of balanced bilingual, bicultural learners into a concrete reality. Our task has often been to convince parents, educators, even ourselves that what seemed like a great idea on paper was within our grasp. Professor Kao’s fundamental belief in learning as the only way forward has inspired us to dream beyond the boundaries of what seems possible, to counter skepticism with self-belief, and to endure in the face of opposition.

Those with a belief in destiny might also point to the extraordinary historical coincidence that will forever link Professor Kao to Kong Sin Wan and the ISF. In 1871, the company that would later become Cable and Wireless Limited embarked on an ambitious plan to lay a telegraphic cable that would connect Hong Kong and China with Singapore, Europe, America, and Australia. (source: The transcontinental cable eventually terminated in a small, protected bay on the southwestern edge of Hong Kong Island. The bay thereafter became known as Telegraph Bay, a name that has endured to this very day, and which sits neatly alongside its more contemporary younger sibling, Cyberport. The original cable carried text-based communications at a speed of eight to ten words per minute with the outside world. Professor Kao made it possible to access the entire world of information in an instant through a thin whisker of purified glass. Thus, the very field of human technology that gave our home its name, telegraphy, was revolutionized by the founder of the school that now occupies the landing point of this cable. The physical evidence of this amazing connection, the Old Cable House, reminds us each morning as we arrive at school of what is possible through the power of education.

When seeking inspiration in a world that is now awash with information, we would do well to follow the lead of our founder: Learning! Learning! Learning!

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