There's more to life than just passing exams

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2008, 12:00am

One of the saddest news stories of this week has been presented as a tale of triumph. It concerns Kenneth Kan Man-fung, a 13-year-old schoolboy who has been propelled through Raimondi College so he could take his HKCEE exams at this young age and emerge with straight As.

His story is reminiscent of that concerning March Boedihardjo, a nine-year-old who became Hong Kong's youngest university student after storming through his British A-level exams and landing a place at Baptist University. There are other tales of young children squeezed eagerly through the examination system so that they can leapfrog into higher education at a tender age.

No doubt these are gifted children and they are to be congratulated for working hard and applying themselves to the demands of a rigid education system. But somehow, in the midst of all this, it is forgotten that they are children who have no need to become mini-adults so early in life. There is plenty of time to pursue further studies but no way of making up for a lost childhood.

The 'success' reflects a thoroughly Hong Kong obsession with examinations and the notion that education is first and foremost about exam performance. This sweeps aside the idea that education might have far broader aims, such as character development, the making of friendships and even the acquisition of knowledge and experience needed to produce rounded human beings. What matters in Hong Kong is: exams, exams and exams.

Often starting in kindergartens, parents and teachers focus on exams and grades. The pressure to think of education purely in terms of exam results is so overwhelming that those advancing fancy notions about character development are regarded as being slightly eccentric.

However, elsewhere in the world, it is widely recognised that the development of children is not one- dimensional and that there are more ways of measuring a child's success than by sitting them in front of a desk with a list of questions.

Because Hong Kong is so obsessed with exams, the pressure passes from children, who are least equipped to deal with it, to their parents who engage tutors, send their children to exam-cramming classes and worry endlessly about testing, while neglecting the development of a rounded personality.

Were it the case that this enormous focus on examinations ceased when young adults arrived at universities, it might be slightly more excusable. After all, universities are supposed to be places where intellectual curiosity is nurtured; moreover, they should be providing an opportunity for students to develop an awareness of society and even for participation in events that effect social change.

Lamentably, there is little sign of this in Hong Kong universities where the relentless examination juggernaut ploughs its way through campuses. Having been fortunate enough to gain access to local university libraries, I always find that publications not strictly related to course work remain on the shelves. This is wonderful for those of us who want to broaden our knowledge but is an extremely sad reflection of a general lack of intellectual curiosity, particularly among young people in their prime, when a thirst for knowledge should be a major motivating factor.

Instead of developing minds, the Hong Kong education system resolutely develops the ability to pass exams. And there are other consequences because many local university students are markedly immature in comparison to some of their contemporaries from other parts of the world. This is not because they are any less intelligent; far from it, but because they seek release from the hot-house atmosphere of exam cramming in childlike ways.

Meanwhile, what about children who do not have an exam mindset? Should they be looked down upon? Are they worthless? Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, the answer seems to be 'yes'.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur