Troubled gestation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 August, 2009, 12:00am

Liberal Studies is an unknown quantity in Hong Kong. But what is known is that the Education Bureau is dead serious about making it tutor-proof, with no model answers or even textbooks to give tutors the bragging rights. But gung-ho tutors are losing no time in calling themselves born masters of an unborn subject. It looks like the cat-and-mouse game between code-cracking tutors and their usually outfoxed adversaries at the exam authority has already begun.

Liberal Studies is being asked to subserve two contradictory aims: a broad-based exposure to current issues, and a taste for in-depth treatment of a subject offering discovery in learning.

Achieving both aims will be a ticklish affair. All too often, and for far too long, Hong Kong schools have favoured quantity over quality. The temptation to tick all the boxes appears to follow the path of least resistance in taming what is an amorphous subject. But if so, we run the risk of offering too much and asking too little.

I recently asked a Cambridge alumnus to define the Cambridge experience for me. He boiled it down to one word: 'intensity'. Passion often piggybacks on intensity. Pedagogically, the method that lends itself most effectively to an intensive approach is through 'case studies'. Education need not be the exclusive domain of the Education Bureau. Other government departments or bureaus could be cajoled into summarising a social issue, such as health care coverage, or urban renewal, with different factors at play. Present the conundrums to the students and let them come to grips with them.

Sadly, history has been tossed out as an academic subject. But that doesn't mean that students should be denied a taste of historical inquiry. For this purpose, I highly recommend Barbara Tuchman's wise book The March of Folly. Its opening chapter alone will open their eyes to understanding the roots of folly throughout human history.

In a shrinking global village, cultural empathy is a political necessity for peaceful co-existence - empathy not just for other religions and peoples, but for our own indigenous culture as well.

With three years to go before the Liberal Studies 'D Day', we still have time to rummage through the subject and canvass its possibilities. But I truly believe that giving our students a taste for intensity is a both a liberating and empowering experience. I still recall with fondness my own days at La Salle College where we spent six months savouring every word of Shakespeare's King Lear. It lit the fires of a literary romance that still burns bright after all these years.

As a civil society, Hong Kong needs to offer its younger generation a chance to sample mankind's cultural legacy, including knowledge of Beethoven, George Bernard Shaw or Van Gogh. Otherwise, the museums, and the thousands of theatre or concert hall seats in our planned West Kowloon Cultural District will be left empty, leaving us with a herd of white elephants.

Already, the rigidities of the new senior secondary system have severely curtailed students' choices of their cluster of subjects, splintering many natural cohesive groupings, such as French-taking students. There is greater concern over the academic mobility of our high school graduates.

There are two big gaps in our new configuration. Western school systems have a literature programme up until the age of 16. Ours has none. Many universities, such as the University of British Columbia, require at least one high school science subject for admission, a non-requirement for arts students in our system.

These design flaws may leave our overseas-destined graduates in educational limbo.

For all our talk of becoming an education hub, the truth is that we are a net student-exporting city. As such, it behooves us not to be too outlandishly original, misaligning our system with those in major student-receiving countries.

Failure to do so may mean more nervous parents sending their children abroad as educational refugees from a messed-up system.

Philip Yeung is a Hong Kong- based university editor