When the great Canadian short story writer Alice Munro was asked what makes her happy, she gave this simple reply: "It's being interested." By this definition, many of our students, bored silly in school, are an unhappy lot.
The business of education is engagement. At its best, education is character-forming and transforming. Our schools, alas, exist to drill students for exams. Engaging young hearts and minds is an afterthought, if that.
We are moving mountains to reform our education. Innovative ideas and programmes flourish in our universities. But the same is not happening in secondary schools. Introducing liberal studies as a new subject does not a sea change make. What schools need is a mental reorientation.
Our exam-focused learning is answer-driven and quantity-obsessed. Both are antithetical to discovery learning. Teachers from Socrates down are great because they posed thought-provoking questions. Ours prefer the safety of pat answers and the simplicity of multiple-choice exercises.
Part of the problem is logistical. Having 35-minute lessons for classes of 40-plus students is not conducive to exploratory learning. With frequent class changeovers, made worse by the need to rein in disruptive behaviour, you are lucky to get 25 minutes of instruction time. In Canada, class size is half ours, with some schools having only four lessons per day, each lasting 90 minutes - a format favourable to in-depth exploration. Here, the pressure is on to "cover the syllabus". Our teachers become drill masters, not the mentors they are meant to be. In this pressure cooker, can there be joy in teaching or learning?
Alone among advanced societies, most of our students are without the lubrication of literature. They will never know the pathos of Yuan Mei's Graveside Eulogy for His Beloved Sister or the agony of King Lear. This goes against the human love of stories, which stoke our imagination.
The lack of literature leaves our students emotionally brittle and shallow. A local dean of education has called our students' behaviour "robotic". Educators love to speak of "outcome-based" learning. But local employers are unimpressed by the "outcomes" that wash up on their payrolls, complaining that nine out of 10 have attitude issues. Our traditional virtue of working with heart and intelligence is gone. We see it each school year: the mad dash into the annual book fair is not by book lovers but by hordes of cartoon-crazed students. Their escapist behaviour says it all.
Alain de Botton, a seminal thinker, says that humans are meaning-focused animals. But school learning is far from meaning-seeking. The focus is always on form, seldom on substance.
I am glad to hear that a local summer drama project has helped troubled teenagers re-enter society or schools, by taking part in a play adapted from Anton Chekhov's short story A Chameleon. But this good news is the exception, not the norm.
Why not give students something to sink their teeth into, such as history or literature, not some watered-down course that caters to the lowest common denominator? Unless schools change, our universities will be reduced to a remedial role. And that is half-hearted reform at best.
Philip Yeung is a senior communication manager at a Hong Kong university. firstname.lastname@example.org