Lesson in bias

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2012, 12:00am


The compulsory national education curriculum has been the subject of much dissent in recent weeks. It is important to understand the issue within the broader context of political autonomy and nationhood.

Statehood is a matter of political autonomy; states are administrative units with sovereign boundaries. Nationhood, by contrast, is more fluid, denoting a shared language, history, culture and sense of belonging.

The distinction is not merely academic: not all existing nations possess statehood. Quebec, for example, is a distinct nation within the Canadian state, and many states are composed of a number of nations. The United Kingdom comprises four nations: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

While some governments have been willing to grant minority nations a greater measure of autonomy, the disjuncture between national and state boundaries has historically been the source of great conflict.

Hong Kong, too, is part of the Chinese state, but it remains a different nation. Hong Kong's collective memories, societal culture, language and ways of living differ quite sharply from those of Beijing or Shanghai.

Indeed, the University of Hong Kong's public opinion polls have since 2008 demonstrated a steady decline in the number of Hong Kong people who view themselves as purely Chinese, as opposed to Hong Kong-Chinese or Hongkongers, particularly among younger age groups. The continued social and political discrimination towards mainlanders merely reflects this determination to sustain a distinct identity from China.

The national education initiative should therefore be viewed as a strategy for incorporating Hong Kong into the Chinese nation.

It is worth noting that many liberal democratic countries have some form of national education that is taught in schools in addition to being incorporated into citizenship tests. The content of a national education can range from information about laws, language and history, to knowledge of civic norms, rights and obligations.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with an increased understanding of national culture and history and it makes sense that citizens should have some knowledge of dominant values and norms, even if they don't necessarily subscribe to them.

In the same way that we cannot really begrudge people's devotion to particular creeds, ideologies and football clubs, there is also nothing intrinsically wrong with patriotism.

For those who pretend that national identity is a thing of the past, a cursory survey of recent political, economic, social, sporting and entertainment events indicate that - from the Arab spring and the euro crisis, from the Oscars to the Olympics - nationalism and national identity continue to play a significant role in structuring our perceptions of the world around us.

The issue concerning the national education curriculum is not whether we should have one - this is a foregone conclusion - or even whether it is biased. National education is by its nature biased. The real issue is the extent of this bias.

Bias can occur through both content, by exaggerating, playing down or even fabricating certain facts, as well as omission, such as June 4. Many of the curriculum's detractors have gone so far as to say that the initiative amounts to brainwashing, by turning future generations into devoted, obedient and docile Sino-philes.

There are a number of problems with this argument, however, and reasons why these worries may be largely unfounded.

Firstly, the view that children will be brainwashed bears an uncanny similarity to the arguments that have been used against democracy; namely, that certain individual freedoms, such as political autonomy, are simply inappropriate for the Chinese people. These views seem to indicate that people are somehow incapable of thinking for themselves and certainly don't set great store by their children's intelligence.

Secondly, while it is true that young children can be charmingly gullible and taught to believe almost anything, parents - in addition to schools - still have a vital role to play in the moral upbringing of children.

Thus, while children may be taught certain things at school, there is nothing to prevent parents from teaching their children otherwise outside of school. Learning the value of different opinions and that teachers, books and even politicians can sometimes get things wrong are in themselves valuable life lessons.

Thirdly, brainwashing relies upon the repetition of a single coherent narrative. For the time being at least, Hong Kong continues to welcome a relatively free flow of information across its press, in libraries and over the internet. Access to a diversity of ideas and accounts about national culture will undermine any possibility of complete indoctrination.

Finally, common sense suggests that an overwhelmingly positive and patriotic syllabus is unlikely to be very successful. Indeed, a curriculum that exaggerates national glory and plays down mistakes and traumatic events is likely to have the opposite effect: inviting scorn and parody.

A recent spoof of Hong Kong's official anniversary song, which has garnered over a hundred times as many views as the original on YouTube, highlights the dangers of an overly sentimental national narrative. In this regard, a national curriculum may only serve to alienate the Hong Kong people from China.

Thus, if someone would like to draw up a national curriculum of the sort envisaged by worried parents and other stakeholders, we can only wish them the best of luck. Social commentators and comedians will have a field day.

Rachel Tsang is a PhD candidate and has taught political theory at the London School of Economics