Return to the age of reason

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2005, 12:00am

It is that time of year again, when anxious parents meet earnest teachers to talk about examinations, homework and their child's unfortunate habits. They focus on children's personal strengths and weaknesses: the curriculum is taken as a given over which neither has much influence.

But this year, as Hong Kong moves towards much-heralded curriculum reform - and as expectations for the new chief executive reach new heights before his first policy address - it is time to reflect on what we actually want our children to be taught, and to compare that with what is happening in the classroom.

Like many parents, I am scared by the rootlessness of modern youth. The ties of family, religion and nationalism have weakened. Adults may welcome the greater choice of lifestyles that is a result of the loss of past certainties. But the ability to exercise this choice wisely requires discipline, a solid core of factual - that is, academic - knowledge and the ability to reason from it. This is what our schools should give children; this, together with the love of knowledge for its own sake.

Against these criteria, what is Hong Kong's score card? Bearing in mind that the classroom is no panacea - that good manners, good health and common sense are for the family, not the school to inculcate - let us look at four key disciplines.

Most Hong Kong schools still fulfil the famous requirement of Plato's academy: no entry without mathematics. And although some of the teaching methods adopted, especially at the primary level, have become a little fuzzy, the inherent nature of the subject limits the amount of 'dumbing down' that is possible.

Language is more complex. The nature of the Chinese language is such that it has to be taught rigorously: this remains an important safeguard for the whole curriculum. English fares less well, and it is unrealistic to expect improvement, now that students even in England are deprived of much of their heritage by a failure to teach English literature.

History is a greater cause for concern. Many of our students derive their knowledge of their own country's history from television soap operas. There is also an unfortunate confusion between history and current affairs.

Then there is religion. As nearly all great art, music and architecture is incomprehensible outside a religious context, it is unfortunate that so many young people cannot tell the difference between Sunni and Shi'ite, Buddhism's greater and lesser vehicles, Orthodox and Roman Catholicism. This kind of ignorance is dangerous: it produces the terrifying indifference towards civilisation shown by both Osama bin Laden and US President George W. Bush.

Will the government's well-intentioned changes to the curriculum help? Alarm bells should go off at the increasing use by senior educational officials of cant terms such as 'colonialist', 'elitist' (used in a negative sense), 'knowledge-based economy' and 'integration of theoretical and applied learning'. This is the result of muddled thinking and risks equal confusion in the classroom: confusion between education and vocational training; confusion between what should properly be extra-curricular activities and the core curriculum. The threat to introduce a six-year secondary curriculum with only one major public examination is another worrying sign.

Above all, we must resist any suggestion that our schools exist to provide cannon-fodder for the economy, or that a child's education should be a direct form of training for his or her future job. This is not only intellectually impoverishing, but impractical. Job skills change constantly. The ability to reason clearly does not. Schools exist to provide the latter.

Andrew Wells is a former senior civil servant and a freelance writer