Recently, my three-year-old son came home with his first report card from his local school. Was he as advanced in English as we hoped? Did he have the potential to be a music wunderkind? It turns out, of all his subjects, the two areas he did the best in were understanding his sex and national identity. My son apparently knows only two things - that he is a boy and that he is Chinese.
National identity education in Hong Kong schools is not new; it is already part of the curriculum for many. So why the sudden controversy over 'national education'?
Perhaps it is because, under the new curriculum, local schoolchildren will have to spend two lessons a week learning to appreciate China. The Education Bureau pointed out that teachers will have a lot of freedom to discuss any topic. While the idea of teacher autonomy is great, what about the pitfalls? We know that many teachers don't know quite how to teach the new liberal studies curriculum yet. This could result in confused students.
This begs the question: exactly how do we teach students to appreciate their national heritage? One of the main goals of the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education curriculum is critical thinking. The bureau has reiterated the need to move past rote memorisation and promote critical thinking skills in an effort to better prepare students for the future. However, critical thinking means asking questions. How do we reconcile that with teaching patriotism towards a country that is allergic to questions?
Also, if pupils are judged on whether they feel happy to be Chinese, as the bureau states, will they be penalised for not being happy to be Chinese? What if they are not happy for legitimate reasons? And what if this national education is so successful that even when pupils grow up, they can never be anything but thrilled with China? Will we have successfully educated them? Or failed?
Indeed, prominent politicians have claimed that this may be 'brainwashing'. But is that title fair? After all, many other countries teach children to appreciate their country. Why are we so alarmed that our children are learning about their country and their fellow citizens? It's about time, some would say.
Are we upset simply because that country happens to be China, or because schools should not be teaching children in this way? After all, shouldn't education be about giving facts and being objective so that the children can make up their own minds about what to appreciate?
The reality is that children are 'brainwashed' every day. Most of the time, it's by their parents. How we adults feel about expats, mainland people, Filipinos and other ethnicities in our home city shape how the children feel.
Which would be worse - having children grow up feeling that their relatives across the border are not good enough, or having children warmly accept their national heritage, even if it is at the expense of critical thinking? To me, national education may be the lesser of the two evils. But that could just be because my son is currently getting an A in it.
Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. firstname.lastname@example.org