A popular Hong Kong high school subject is in the crosshairs as authorities debate if it stimulates intellectual curiosity – or stokes the fires of rebellion.
Is this Hong Kong school subject doomed to fail?
Reports emerged earlier this month that the government was reviewing the place of the liberal studies subject in the education system and that it could possibly become an elective, pass-fail course.
Critics of the subject allege that teachers were being allowed to impart their own political biases, resulting in students being “too critical” about the local or Beijing government and giving rise to a spate of movements such as the Occupy protests for greater democracy in 2014.
There has been a spirited defense from students, educators and members of the public to keep things as they are, and the government has clarified that the discussion around the subject is merely part of a broader review of the education system. (The future of Cantonese-language education in schools led to a similar protest and climbdown by the government.)
But the exchange has highlighted a trend in Hong Kong of politics creeping into education.
Liberal studies was first introduced in 1992 to counter the rote learning approach that was then widespread in the city. It became a compulsory exam subject in 2009.
Topics covered range from Hong Kong society to politics, globalization, tech and the city’s relationship with China.
But with Hong Kong universities becoming the site of contentious protests, Beijing and its supporters have blamed the city’s school system for cultivating anti-government sentiment.
Last year, China’s education chief Chen Baosheng said the rise of pro-independence sentiments in the semi-autonomous Hong Kong was “linked directly” to the education system.
Setting the curriculum
Kwan Chin-ki, president of the Liberal Studies Teachers’ Association, explained that unlike other subjects, there were no textbooks designated for use by the Education Bureau. Books on the subject available for sale are reference texts.
That means that teachers tend to develop their own materials: a practice of which has come under scrutiny.
Among the subject’s most vehement critics is Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, formerly the city’s sole representative on the National People‘s Congress Standing Committee, China’s top legislative body.
She said Hong Kong teachers who hated the Communist Party were the reason youngsters also had such sentiments.
“It is not related to the Communist Party… It is related to liberal studies,” Fan suggested, adding that teachers’ biases had influenced students.
But a recent study has found that the links between liberal studies teaching and political engagement are “relatively insignificant.”
A look at last year and this year’s liberal studies exam papers, set by the exam board, showed a lack of questions related to politics, unlike previous years.
Some have questioned if this is the start of efforts to water down the subject. The curriculum guide already tells teachers to “remind pupils to use a positive attitude and consider China’s development process and current situation when teaching projects that have a negative impact on national identity.”
For the critics of liberal studies, there’s too much bias and influence at play already.