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Philosophy student at UTSC wins top university graduation awards

GOVERNOR GENERAL'S SILVER MEDAL AND JOHN BLACK AIRD SCHOLARSHIP: Philosophy student Mark Lee is the top graduating student among all U of T students for 2009. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Mary Ann Gratton

A philosophy student at U of T Scarborough has won The John Black Aird Scholarship, given to the top graduating student at the University of Toronto in 2009. He has also won the Governor General’s Silver Medal Award for arts, earning the highest marks among all arts students graduating from U of T this year.

Fourth-year student Mark Lee has garnered these prestigious prizes, two of many earned during his four years as an undergraduate on this campus, with a cumulative Grade Point Average of 3.999 (nearly perfect). He is believed to be only the third UTSC student to win both the G-G and the Aird Scholarship, after Matthew Fellion (2007) and Wojciech Golab (2002).

Lee, 23, has also been offered a coveted spot in top philosophy programs at prestigious schools in the United States, including Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, Cornell, Michigan, and the University of California (Southern California). These schools are ranked among the best in North America for philosophy, administrators say, and the fact that he has been accepted into so many is a testament to Lee’s exceptional intelligence.

The Aird Scholarship was established in 1996 in memory of the Honourable John Black Aird, former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario and U of T chancellor. The $500 prize goes to the most outstanding undergraduate student at U of T.

Neither the silver medal nor the Aird scholarship is Lee’s first award at UTSC. The Scarborough native was also the recipient of the Katherine Nagel Philosophy Prize, awarded on the basis of grades and faculty recommendations, the Norman F. Brown Award, given to a humanities student for excellent academic achievement, and the graduation prize in Humanities. He has also been named a University of Toronto Scholar and the recipient of the Vincent Bladen Scholarship, both for two years, and has placed on the Dean’s Honour Roll for the past four years.

“I felt very pleased and taken aback when I learned I had received these awards, although this pride and joy I feel is probably disproportionate to their magnitude,” Lee said. “I was this happy when I won the other awards, although they all differ in prestige. I can’t quite wrap my head around being the top student at U of T -- it feels abstract – so I probably won’t try to. That would probably only boost my ego, and it doesn’t feel right comparing myself to others, so I’ll just stick to focusing on philosophy, my friends, and playing Rock Band.”

Philosophy professor William Seager said “Mark Lee was the kind of student that professors dream of having. He was hard working and able to absorb material quickly but with understanding. Most important, he has a fertile, creative intelligence so that when he asked a question it was right on target and often opened up new areas and further questions,” said Seager. “Good students study and understand the material in a course, but an exceptional student goes further and is able to raise real problems or apply the material in new ways. Mark is exceptional in that way. He’s definitely among the top five or six undergraduates I have taught over the past 25 years.”

Lee plans to pursue a PhD in philosophy at Rutgers, the State University in New Jersey. “I find philosophy to be really fun and interesting,” said Lee. “The other point is that the questions are really important for me. Even if I were not taking philosophy, I would ask these questions on my own: How can we live a good life? What are our responsibilities to the very needy? What is the structure of the universe and our place in it?”

“You rarely find answers that everyone will give consensus on, but I’ve found some answers for myself,” he said. “I take a utilitarian stance on ethical issues, which is that your actions should aim to maximize the good consequences. For instance, common sense morality dictates that donating to charity is noble but above the call of duty. The utilitarian view implies that donating to charity is morally required, and it has been attacked for being too demanding of us. I’m currently interested in questions about the moral demands of affluence, with an eye to what our responsibilities are to the very needy.”

Lee has been thinking about philosophical questions since elementary school, and at first they were related to religion. During high school, he experienced severe bouts of eczema, so serious that he was hospitalized and was off school for one-and-a-half years, although he did some home schooling. “I started thinking a lot about the problems of suffering and fairness,” he said. After he returned to school, he took his first philosophy course in Grade 12, which whetted his appetite to learn more.

“I began thinking about deep questions like the meaning of life, and at that time I gave up religion. In the absence of that, I searched for other structures and other foundations of morality such as reason and rationality.”

He says he enjoyed his undergraduate time at U of T Scarborough. “I was lucky to have chosen this program, and the faculty here are amazing. The more I’ve stayed in philosophy, the more I’ve come to realize that I can do a lot of good in the world by being in this field, and helping to make ethical progress. I’ve always had a concern about how I can do the most good.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough