The recent public uproar and mass rally to protest the government’s plan to launch the national education program in schools serves as an imminent wake-up call. It is a challenge for all to decide what they really want to do with national education in this city. And of course, what is it they are for or against?
It is no doubt that when tens of thousands of people braved the sweltering heat to take to the streets on Sunday in protest against national education, it gave a clear indication that they have lost faith in the city’s constantly-changing education system.
I surely understand the misgivings of some parents who are greatly concerned about whether the introduction of national education can foster critical and independent thinking, or is it simply a brainwashing exercise as some critics call it?
Whether we are happy with the teaching approach is one thing, but to condemn it as brainwashing is simply an exaggeration. After all, any form of education involves some kind of indoctrination. The media and religion alike instill preconceived ideological values in people. If we brand national education as brainwashing, the same goes for colonial rule fortified by the British colonial government. The colonial rules sought every means to alienate Hong Kong and the mainland, sow the seeds of estrangement between us, and cracked down on pro-Beijing organizations.
It can also be said that some media and political groups are brainwashing their readers and members. The new government is targeted because it is considered an easy kill and ready prey in exchange for votes. The protesters are simply tools for them to garner political support and bargaining power.
The question is whether parents are protesting against the new government for the sake of protesting. It is simply not fair to blame the Chief Executive or the education chief, Eddie Ng. It was Leung’s predecessor Donald Tsang who pushed ahead with national education and gave the go-ahead to the proposed teaching approach and the designated content. We need to be rational over what we want to pursue. Parents should ask themselves, what are they really against, the new government, national education or its approach and materials?
I guess no one will oppose the idea of enhancing deeper understanding of the mainland, as well as fostering a greater national sense and love for our motherland. So the matter is not about whether we should have national education, but what teaching approach or materials we aspire. Simply calling for class boycotts will not resolve the conflicts. Rather, this will only put students, parents and teachers between a rock and a hard place, and pointlessly turn the current debate into a no-win battle.
Now two issues need to be addressed. First there is the China Model: National Conditions Teaching Manual subsidized by the government and published by the National Education Services Centre. Then there is the “Patriotism Evaluation” questionnaire prepared by the Education Bureau for the evaluation of the subject’s efficacy in schools.
For China model, the manual to be circulated freely in schools has come under criticism by many academics as biased, one-sided and badly-written. While even Eddie Ng disapproves of its contents and stresses that the manual is not compulsory teaching material, the center says otherwise. Ng should simply notify all schools that they may disregard the manual and instead prepare their own materials after consulting parent-teacher groups.
The questionnaire will invite students to profess their patriotism and to grade each other without asking questions about other universal values such as human rights, democracy and integrity. The bureau will then publish the arithmetic mean of student’s scores in “patriotism”. Parents are of course afraid that this will put pressure on schools, which will in turn pressure students into “cooperating” against their will. This kind of questionnaire will do nothing more than to discourage critical and pluralistic thinking. The government should devise a more comprehensive way.
To have a greater sense of national identity, people should have a good grasp of China’s history, the basis for us to appreciate Chinese culture. But this fundamental subject has been turned into an elective in secondary schools, resulting in many students not having a choice of study. How then, can the city’s children develop patriotism? Not only the students, but also the teachers and local publishers are ill-equipped. Even though Leung Chun-ying declares that all schools are free to devise their own teaching materials, mainstream textbook publishers are not ready with appropriate materials. To placate public animosity, it is better for the government to revise the scheme and put forward an acceptable approach to parents.
The author is a current affairs commentator.