Hong Kong schools must teach respect for different views to heal divides in society
Kerry Kennedy argues for the need for a common curriculum of civic education that prepares students for the rights and duties of being a citizen, bearing in mind Hong Kong’s unique status as an SAR of China
Recently, there has been much talk of laws concerning the national anthem, the teaching of Chinese history, the jailing of activists (followed by abuse heaped on judges for doing so) and the rightness or otherwise of co-location arrangements for immigration controls for the new high-speed train connection.
In these contexts, people inevitably take sides in what are complex political disputes, out of which there must inevitably be winners and losers.
This is not the way to create a civil society, where there is a tolerance for diverse views, a respect for differences of opinion and a willingness to listen and consider ideas from different perspectives.
Forgotten in all the rhetoric is the need for societies to treasure the broad range of views within them and benefit from them. This starts in the home and should be carried on in the schools.
Yet, at the moment, Hong Kong’s schools reflect the troubled nature of Hong Kong society.
Some support the moral and national education curriculum that was shelved in 2012, while others support a more pro-democracy approach using a variety of sources. Yet others back the continuation of the direction of the 2001 curriculum reforms that established civic and moral education as a key theme. This was reinforced in 2009 with the introduction of the new senior secondary curriculum.
This means the kind of civic education students experience depends on the school they attend: there is no common approach to the civic education of future citizens, no agreed-on content and no common platform for students to listen to, analyse and evaluate different perspectives.
This is why Hong Kong’s civic education has been referred to as “fractured”: it lacks coherence, and reproduces the divides that are evident in society. It cannot help to create a civil society.
A different kind of civic education could address these problems. But is this the direction in which we wish to head – and who will decide? After all, the city is part of an authoritarian political system that in general does not value tolerance and multiple points of view.
This is the fundamental issue for Hong Kong to address.
Should it accept the basic fact of its political existence or should it hold onto its “special” status within the People’s Republic of China and retain a commitment to democracy, openness and the rule of law?
If it chooses the latter, then civic education will need to be reformed to meet the needs of future citizens who can contribute to and sustain democratic principles within China’s authoritarian political system.
What form might this civic education take? There must first be an emphasis on helping students understand the political structures in which the city is embedded, how they work and how they can be influenced.
Research on young people’s civic attitudes makes it clear that civic knowledge is an important predictor of future conventional civic participation (such as voting, running for political office, expressing views publicly).
At the same time, it is also an antidote against illegal and radical political behaviour (such as illegal protests and occupying buildings).
While electoral participation is important, civic education should also facilitate other forms of civic engagement, including volunteering, involvement in non-governmental organisations and contributing to community groups. This kind of engagement is often called “social capital”, which creates bonds and develops commitments to building a better society.
Such engagement can start in schools, including participation in school councils, taking part in mock parliamentary debates and joining drama, music and sports clubs, where experience and confidence about participation can be gained.
In Hong Kong and many other Asian societies, civic education is often linked with moral education. In a reformed civic education, this link should continue.
Encouraging the development of “good citizens” who know right from wrong, who value truth and who stand up for social justice and equity will serve Hong Kong well in the future. There has been much emphasis this century on “21st-century skills”: it is time to assert such values and their role in the civic life of the city.
It would take will on the part of the government and its citizens to move towards a vision of a Hong Kong that is securely a part of China, but with its distinctive characteristics. A common civic education for all schools can help to provide a platform on which this vision might be achieved.
Such an education can be inclusive of all views, build respect for different views, develop the capacity to listen and respond, and, above all, to regard different views as positive contributions to political debates. Surely this is a vision worth considering for Hong Kong’s future?
Professor Kerry Kennedy is adviser (academic development) at the Education University of Hong Kong