Textbook shemozzle

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 April, 2009, 12:00am

From ancient times, men have searched for an educational model aimed at fostering the development of the whole man. Confucius taught his students the 'six skills' - rites, music, archery, chariot driving, calligraphy and mathematics. In ancient Athens, to prepare students for both war and peace, students were taught athletics, music and poetry. Granted, few of us can become polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci, but cultivation of the Renaissance Man - one who is conversant with the arts and sciences, and catholic in sympathies - remains to this day a universal though elusive educational ideal.

American college education perhaps best exemplifies this tantalising goal. Irrespective of the size or ranking of the university, first-year students have to satisfy a general education requirement that mandates training in core skills such as writing, foreign language, quantitative data analysis, critical thinking, cross-cultural analysis, and instruction in key sectors such as humanities and social sciences, natural science and mathematics, arts and letters, history and tradition. Training in professions such as medicine and law is pitched at graduate level, after students have completed a rigorous college education. Typically, American students enter law or medical schools older, more mature and equipped with a much greater breadth of knowledge than their counterparts in the British system.

Whereas high school students in the US generally take six core subjects including English, mathematics, science, history and a foreign language, secondary school students in Hong Kong have long been plagued with a seemingly unending potpourri of subjects. The plethora of subjects, the early streaming, plus educational theorists' urge to reform, provided well-intentioned and reasonable justifications for a push to 'integrate' the myriad subjects into learning areas. A new 'integrated' subject, liberal studies, was introduced with this in mind. Starting this September, liberal studies will become one of the four required subjects of the new senior secondary school. A laudable effort, but also one which risks ushering in a dramatic diminution of knowledge and academic achievements on the part of senior secondary students for many years to come.

Numerous problems, some practical and some pertaining to matters of principle, dog the implementation of liberal studies as a core subject for senior secondary school students. To begin with, what do you teach as liberal studies and what texts do you use?

It ought to be noted that when liberal studies are taught in American universities, the curriculum requires reading of extracts from foundational texts central to the development of western civilisation. Stanford University's structured liberal education class requires readings of influential authors from Plato to Karl Marx. In good high schools, whether in the US or Britain, students have read extracts from such treatises as part of their history studies.

In Hong Kong's case, if we take away history or Chinese history as required subjects, what would our schools teach and which textbooks would be used? Apparently, no standard, prescribed textbooks have been set for our liberal studies courses, only reference materials concocted by textbook publishers in consultation with the government's curriculum officers.

Textbook publishers will have a field day updating compulsory modules like globalisation in the prescribed field of 'society and culture'. Given the rapid changes taking place in the global landscape, publishers would have unimpeachable reasons for updating their globalisation story every year, adding to parents' woes in paying for expensive textbooks.

Teachers would have an unenviable time adjusting to the new curriculum, the new approach to teaching, the new reference materials and marking system. Given that versatility has never been the hallmark of teachers' training in Hong Kong, it is not hard to imagine the dislocation and confusion that could follow. The road to hell truly is paved with good intentions.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chairwoman of the Savantas Policy Institute