Liberal studies helps open minds, rather than creating radical students
Stephen Chiu and Trevor Lee say the focus on balance may temper activism, as research shows
Months after the end of the Umbrella Movement, its student leaders continue to shine in the international media spotlight. Alex Chow, Lester Shum and Joshua Wong have become household names.
Apparently, today's students are playing a vanguard role in protest politics.
Many people have sought to explain why this "post-90s generation" have taken a radical turn politically, and some members of the political establishment have pointed to the introduction of a new compulsory subject at senior secondary level - liberal studies.
Liberal studies became part of the curriculum in 2009. Since then, it has been blamed for opening the floodgates, allowing radical ideas into the classrooms and prompting students to take their views to the street. Among its six modules, one - "Hong Kong Today" - covers the topical issues concerning citizenship, identity, rule of law and socio-political participation.
Conservative politicians and commentators have expressed serious concern over the politicising effect of liberal studies. There have therefore been calls to overhaul the curriculum in several ways, including trimming the political content and even making it an elective subject, rather than a core one.
More recently, a number of officials - in Hong Kong and on the mainland - have denounced teachers who, according to these officials, have used their classrooms to promote left-wing political causes. However, this was not what we found in our in-depth interviews with 36 senior secondary students from 15 schools and 20 core members of Scholarism who had taken classes in the subject. Liberal studies had little impact on student activism, the survey showed.
Firstly, most respondents said liberal studies helped them develop a more all-round and in-depth understanding of controversial political issues and disputes that made them "think twice" when considering taking any action.
Secondly, student activism is likely to be dampened - not encouraged - by the prevailing exam-oriented attitude towards liberal studies.
For the majority of the students, the exclusive motivation to study the subject was to secure a high grade.
Respondents were often drilled, through assignments and tests, on exam skills that encourage them to consider multiple points of view, balance the positive and negative aspects of an issue, and offer a rebuttal to each argument in an essay-type answer.
Surprisingly, even those politically engaged students from Scholarism we spoke to had similar experiences of the gap between knowledge acquisition and political participation.
While they said that the politics-related content and in-class discussions of controversial issues had enhanced their political knowledge, they also admitted that their main purpose for study was to pass the exam.
Over half of them had never participated in any protest before joining Scholarism. Looking back, none attributed their decision to join the group to having taken lessons in liberal studies. Instead, the group had got together initially to oppose the government's plan to introduce moral and national education in local schools.
In most cases, politicisation seemed to have intensified through their experiences in taking social and political action and through personal or online contact with activists.
In general, the heightening of political knowledge led to empathy towards the protesters' grievances. However, the training they received in liberal studies made them more circumspect about taking part in overt political engagement.
Only two respondents said liberal studies classes had a direct impact on their political engagement, crediting their teachers for inspiring them.
Looking at the findings, however, we believe politically radical teachers appear to be in the minority. The same could also be said of politically conservative teachers.
Despite the political significance that many observers have attributed to this new subject, one clear conclusion from our research is that liberal studies classes are far from being a hotbed for student radicalism. In Hong Kong, the school is nowhere near as effective an agent of political socialisation as the city's vibrant and ultra-open mass media, especially online and social media.
The emergence of student activism may be more a function of the increasingly polarised and radicalised political climate in Hong Kong.
In fact, the emphasis of liberal studies on multiple viewpoints, the complexity of politics, and the skills to verify dubious information (especially from the internet) may even have a "moderating" effect on student motivation to take part in political action.
Stephen Chiu is co-director of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and also the chair of the Curriculum Development Council-Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority Committee on Liberal Studies. Trevor Lee is a research associate at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies