Near critical point

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 April, 2009, 12:00am

In today's turbulent world, few can dispute the importance of critical thinking. The disastrous consequences of the lack of such thinking are writ large on the US administration under former president George W. Bush. Not only did the Bush administration wade into a controversial pre-emptive war in Iraq on the flimsiest of justifications, its lack of regulation of high-risk, derivative financial products brought the world to the brink of financial Armageddon.

Puny Hong Kong is far from the same league as the US in causing global trauma, but critical thinking is as vital to the success of our mega projects in the offing as it is to understanding more minor controversies. Does more consultation improve our chance of making the West Kowloon Cultural District a success? Did kung fu star Jackie Chan speak out of turn on the need for Chinese people to be controlled? You might come to different conclusions from the popular view if you are able to grapple with intricate arguments on both sides of the issue.

At a recent public forum on West Kowloon, the message from experts was that it would be impossible to incorporate every single suggestion into the master plan. At the end of the day, you need clarity of purpose, vision and leadership to build iconic buildings which project Hong Kong's unique character and culture.

Likewise, in the case of Chan's gaffe, his remarks might not have appeared so outrageous if you had read James Madison, one of the framers of the US Constitution, on the relationship between the government and the governed. Or, if you had studied the doctrine of liberty as expounded by 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill, you would have noticed that liberty is not about the unfettered liberty of the will, but the nature and limits of power that a society can legitimately impose on individuals.

As our senior high schools embark on the unprecedented, historic task of teaching critical thinking through a new, compulsory subject of 'liberal studies', it is timely to revisit some fundamental questions: what is critical thinking and how best do you teach it?

According to Joe Lau Yen-fong, a philosophy associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, critical thinking is the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking, and to think clearly and rationally. That is certainly a critical skill that every person needs.

The six-million-dollar question is how do you teach it? In traditional classes, students are taught to think critically through the study of history, classics, social science or even literature. There is much to be said for teaching critical thinking through a close analysis of carefully chosen texts which discuss the human condition, whether in the form of fictional works, or historical or classical treatises. Take away such texts and you risk engaging the students in freewheeling, seat-of-the-pants discussion of topical affairs, such as Chan's anti-freedom remarks, without understanding the deeper, philosophical concepts underlying modern society's apotheosis of freedom.

There is also a serious risk of substantial reduction of the sum-total of a student's knowledge, especially in the field of history. Granted, the development of modern China is included in the 'society and culture' area of liberal studies. But if one thinks critically, you cannot help but wonder whether it is possible to teach modern China, or for that matter any country, other than as part of a historical continuum. There is also the question of what texts you use: choosing materials for the new liberal studies courses will be up to teachers, in consultation with educational officials and publishers, to concoct something in line with the government's requirements. It is not hard to imagine that downloading from websites that deliver instant knowledge would be an attractive, though devilishly dangerous, alternative.

'Learning without thought is labour lost,' said Confucius. 'Thought without learning is perilous.' Will liberal studies raise standards of critical thinking or create more perils for young minds? That's certainly one critical issue to watch.

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