Robin Williams, in one of his most comical movie scenes, taught a class of Asians how to swear in English. His students loved him for teaching them something useful.
I was reminded of this when the Education Bureau said it had received more than 1,000 e-mails and 150 phone calls about primary school teacher Alpais Lam Wai-sze. Most were critical of her swearing at police officers in public.
Eddie Ng Hak-kim, the education secretary, said this was unacceptable behaviour for a teacher, and Lam swore in both Cantonese and English. But surely you can't judge fairly if a teacher is good or bad, based on whether they swear occasionally or not.
Perhaps she merely committed a faux pas, so it could have been all a misunderstanding. She said, in English, "what's the fu**". We all assume she meant that well-known expletive, but maybe all she meant was "what's the fuss?" - as in the police making a big deal out of nothing - but somehow her accent made it come out terribly wrong. Either way, I hope she doesn't teach English in her school.
What did disturb me is her self-righteousness captured on video, her sense of superiority of being an "authentic" Hong Kong person.
Maybe she refrains from conveying her moral certainty to her students, our prejudicial sense that we as teachers or parents know what's right and wrong and must inculcate the same moral certitudes in our children. If she doesn't do that in the classroom and confine her moral indignation to her private life, she is a very disciplined and good teacher. Moral or intellectual certainty is counterproductive in teaching. All the good teachers I had from high school to college preferred to raise doubts and make us ask questions.
My teachers certainly knew what they believed in. But they insisted their students work through difficult, even unanswerable, questions and problems to arrive at our own conclusions and judgments. The best teacher of Marxism I had was not a Marxist, but an American neo-conservative politics professor.
Good teachers are the enemies of ideologues. A good education trains the student to live with the moral instability of tackling difficult questions, rather than accepting preset answers that paralyse and kill independent thought.