Don’t blame liberal studies curriculum for student activism
Surveys show that for most students it is just another subject that they try to get high marks in, and that is not likely to turn them into subversives
Few people have anything nice to say about liberal studies in secondary schools. Among the most vehement critics have been pro-establishment politicians. Many seem to think the subject is turning schools into hotbeds of anti-government student activism. The truth is probably the opposite.
The latest criticism is voiced by Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a former Legislative Council president and the city’s only representative on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. In a television interview, she said politically biased teachers were spreading anti-China views and hate against the communist state via liberal studies. “It is not related to the Communist Party ... It is related to liberal studies,” Fan said.
It’s an old complaint. If she and other conservative critics had their way, there would be an overhaul of the compulsory subject in the Diploma of Secondary Education examination. One reason for their recurrent criticism is that topics are often taken from news reports on controversial current issues around politics and the government.
A recent exam question, which seemed to be critical of the city’s tolerance for freedom of expression and protest culture, caused much controversy. In fact, study topics and exam questions have been politicised by critics from both sides who are driven by their own political interests and biases. Liberal studies courses are doubtless not as well designed as they should be. But judging from the responses of teachers and students and a recent study, they keep students moderate rather than radicalise them.
A survey was conducted in 2015 by researchers at the Chinese University’s Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, and consisted of in-depth interviews with 36 students of liberal studies from 15 schools and 20 core members of the now-defunct Scholarism – which spearheaded the opposition to national education in 2012.
It found the subject had little impact on student activism. Most students said their sole motivation was to achieve high scores. To this end, they drilled through assignments and tests to master model answers, which usually meant stating multiple points of view and presenting both positive and negative aspects of an issue. The drive for exam-oriented results dampens, rather than encourages, activism. Those who joined Scholarism said they did so through communication with peers and information from news media, not because of liberal studies.
Conservative politicians may want liberal studies to become a programme for national education. But that’s an entirely different issue. Liberal studies have serious flaws, but radicalisation is not one of them.