Academics deserve equality, so get back to the classroom

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2008, 12:00am

One of the key figures in last year's Hong Kong Institute of Education inquiry has re-entered the debate with an intellectual broadside calling for a clear definition of academic freedom and for it to be given greater protection in law.

In his six-page page submission, Professor [Bernard Luk Hung-kay] warns the [Legislative Council education] panel against opting for a 'narrowly focused definition of academic freedom', which might limit it to scholarly pursuits.

SCMP, January 12

About this intellectual broadside business, I think I know what a broadside is. That's where the cannon on the sailing ship are pointed out the side, the captain yells 'Fire!' and they all go 'Boom!' at the same time, which makes the sailors jump up and yell: 'Huzzah, death to the French!'

This is of course a very intellectual activity, the presentation of an argument that, although somewhat shallow in nature, is undoubtedly persuasive in its normal context. It does indeed remind me of the highest intellectual standards to which academic debate rises in this town but is somewhat deficient on the broadside aspect in that it doesn't persuade me.

The trouble, to start with, is that I happen to live on the third planet in orbit around a minor star called the Sun in the Orion Belt of the Milky Way galaxy. Where some of these academics live, I haven't a clue. They seem to think that they are the only people who inhabit their world.

Professor Luk, for instance, wants academic freedom to protect the 'conscientious, rationally articulated, peaceful and orderly dissent of members of the academic community in exercising their basic freedom as citizens' and adds: 'This is a matter of right as of utility: it is valuable for the long-term wellbeing of society that such dissent be heard.'

Very good, Sir, I applaud, clap, clap, clap. But ... ahhh ... do you think that perhaps other members of society might also benefit from this sort of freedom? What about giving it to teachers in grade schools rather than universities alone? What about freedom of the press? What about the freedom of every member of society to dissent? Is your planet truly inhabited only by academics?

And pardon me, Sir, for questioning you on this point, but in your researches on this matter of freedom of expression in Hong Kong, did you ever chance upon a document called the Basic Law?

Because, if you haven't, may I suggest that you look it up? Article 27 states that 'Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration ...'

Are you suggesting that this is not a sufficient guarantee of freedom for you? If it's not, then you won't get anything better, you know, at least not in law. Legco cannot pass anything that supersedes the Basic Law.

I grant you that the Basic Law does not grant special privileges to the lords of academia, none of those all-are-equal-but-some-are-more-equal-than-others rights, and you may consider this a deficiency. It is a common view in academia. But I wish to tell you, Sir, that others think real equality is actually a good idea.

The fact of the matter, Professor Luk, is that I suspect it is not the supposed infringement on your impulses to say what you want that really bothers you. I think it is rather your wish to have absolute control of your own budget, including being given as much money as you want and to be guaranteed a lifetime iron rice bowl.

I happen to think so because every time that I have ever heard academics invoke academic freedom, it has been done only to demand more money for themselves or to try to stake a claim that they are answerable to no one and no one has the right to sack them. Strange, isn't it, how so wide a freedom is always so narrowly invoked.

But it's fine by me, Sir, if you can find someone to hire you and pay you on those terms. That someone, however, is not me.

If you want my tax money to pay your bills, then you will have to be answerable for it to my representatives, the Department of Education, and if the department decides to sack you for incompetence or laziness, well, that's no less than my boss can do to me and I see no reason why you should be accorded a higher standard of equality than I get.

And if it happens to you some day, don't come bleating to me about how you actually got the chop because you spoke your mind. That's what everyone says when they want to cry about being sacked and it's very, very rarely true, so rarely that I no longer offer my shoulder for these people to cry on.

I am answerable to others and so are you, Professor Luk, and that's exactly the way things should be.

So go back to your classroom at the Hong Kong Institute of Education and devote your efforts instead to training teachers. That's what we pay you to do. Get on with it.