Opinion: Blaming social unrest on Liberal Studies teachers won’t quell political extremism

(It is the first time I published in South China Morning Post. Here is the article about why it is dangerous for politicians to blame education and teachers for the mistake they made. I’m now posting the original version here, which is less reader-friendly.)

Instead of bashing teachers, why don’t we think of what this subject can offer in the midst of political crisis?

Last Wednesday, the former Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa described Liberal Studies as a failure, even though the large-scale reform paving the way for the subject was under his tenure.

The scapegoating of Liberal Studies for political meltdown that the ruling elite created is simply barking up the wrong tree. If LS may indoctrinate students into extremism, shouldn’t we take out Chinese History, which covers much more political content such as the Boxer Rebellion and the 1911 Revolution and may inspire revolutionary fervour? There is no doubt about the fact that the subject is fraught with challenges. A recent review on the broader senior curriculum recommends clarifying the content knowledge of the subject and making the school-based project optional. If the subject survives, have we thought about what it can offer in the midst of political crisis?

As a former LS teacher and teacher trainer at university, I would argue the LS curriculum actually provides more rigorous tools than other subjects for teachers and students to wrestle with thorny political issues such as the anti-extradition bill protests and the unfortunate case of storming of the Legislative Council building. One problem of the current LS syllabus is that very often the relativistic call for ‘multiple perspectives’ is sometimes mistaken as ‘critical thinking’. In public exams, students may not necessarily be tested on the fundamental concepts or knowledge relevant to the six constituent modules but are only assessed by exhibiting their techniques of essay writing structured in a mechanical order. Also, we need to ask how much prepared and confident the LS teachers feel when they deliberate on controversial issues in classroom, given the fact that not all LS teachers have solid pre-service teacher training in relevant pedagogical content knowledge. There is also no consideration of how the subject coheres with the entire design of the already tightly crammed curriculum.

Knowledge cannot be picked up by a process of osmosis through reading online news only. Explicit and systematic instruction is indispensable. The new LS curriculum is merely adopting a ‘smorgasbord’ approach to social issues and dumbs down complex knowledge into a list of diverse views from ‘stakeholders’, with no clear empirical evidence mapping out the progression of concept learning from lower to higher-order thinking. How knowledge is paced in the curriculum and how comfortable pupils feel about their progress and achievement is of utmost importance. The same logic applies to other school subjects. For example, in English literature, students don’t know how to appreciate Shakespearean sonnets unless they possess an advanced level of the English language, and teachers also feel frustrated when their students are unable to catch up with the pace set by the official curriculum. If students experience academic failure on a daily basis, frustration, anger, and hopelessness is the inevitable outcome. It is not that they lack intelligence to understand political knowledge, but the curriculum fails them.

The way forward to curriculum and social renewal is not to keep controversial knowledge at bay, to reduce knowledge into disparate views, or reverse the trend to ‘pub quiz’ style of rote learning as we did in the past. But if the subject-matter knowledge is handled well, LS may defuse political extremism and thus will serve the regime well.

For example, in the 1991 LS syllabus, there is a clear section on law enforcement. Several provocative enquiry questions are raised. ‘How important is the role played by the Royal Hong Kong Police Force in ensuring that Hong Kong remains a safe, prosperous and stable society? How is this role exercised?’ ‘What powers do the police have over individuals in Hong Kong? What prevents these powers from being abused? Does Hong Kong have the potential to become a police state?’ The content also highlights important points such as

• the importance of a police force committed to the rule of law, and the mechanisms that operate in Hong Kong to ensure that a sufficiently large proportion of police officers carry out their duties without fear or favour in accordance to law to maintain the confidence of the general public;
• the consequences for Hong Kong of a significant deterioration in law and order;
• an understanding of the role of the police as revealed by how police time / resources are employed both in ordinary times and in emergencies, and what this reveals about the relative importance of prevention and detection;
• an understanding of police powers in Hong Kong with respect to the individual in terms of…
(1) the right of the police in public places to stop, search, demand identity documents, question individuals and to require them to accompany them to a police station,
(2) the right of the police to enter private property to conduct searches or to arrest individuals,
(3) the right of the police to detain individuals before / after charging them prior to taking them to court.

These points do not slant towards or against a particular ideology, but they are more relevant to a post-Occupy Hong Kong today than in 1991. So, why are we afraid of the subject?

The scenes of protestors fighting with riot police have already run people ragged. Further condemnations over their reckless actions are of no avail to the broken society. If education does not provide this space for learning proper political knowledge, probably more students would turn towards anonymous keyboard warriors, rely on other sources and ‘fake news’ on social media, instead of school knowledge.

If one day LS is removed but social disturbance escalates into a full-scale riot, will Mr Tung blame other subjects and teachers for the problems politicians create at the beginning?

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