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Unruly students in Hong Kong are the product of a failed education system devoid of rich reading 

Philip Yeung says the rowdy student protest at Baptist University shows secondary schools have failed to cultivate a moral compass in young people. A rich reading programme for both teachers and students would remedy this

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 January, 2018, 9:49am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 January, 2018, 7:17pm

Student rowdyism has erupted again in Hong Kong, this time at Baptist University with students crossing another red line while protesting against the university’s mandatory Mandarin test for graduation. Their behaviour was gangsterish, physically intimidating language teachers in a rant peppered with profanities. 

If these are the fruits of the 3-3-4 reform (six years of secondary plus four years of university), then we are in trouble. These ugly episodes speak to the dismal failure of secondary education which encompasses the formative years. By the time students arrive at the tertiary level, their behaviour pattern is set. The university is reduced to a remedial role. All talk of “whole person” education by tertiary institutions rings hollow. 

How a compulsory Mandarin course caused chaos at Hong Kong Baptist University

Where have we gone wrong? The outbreaks of offensive behaviour are more than just the exuberance of youth. They show a callousness and cruelty that underline a grave moral deficiency. While our schools and education officials are consumed by academic performance, the relentless pursuit of grades has turned teachers into drill masters, not mentors as they should be. Teachers are not seen as role models, only instructors with little moral authority. Rote learning is dysfunctional, producing students who are functionally semi-literate, tongue-tied and incapable of critical or creative thinking. 

What are we to do? For one , suspend all efforts to drum knowledge of the Basic Law into young minds. It is a dull, meaningless and ultimately futile exercise. It may even turn students against any respect for our mini constitution. 

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Effective inculcation of moral ideas happens through reading and classroom discussions guided by well-read teachers. In Hong Kong, teachers are not readers, a strange phenomenon. I hope teachers’ colleges will train teachers to form reading habits. A teacher who doesn’t read is an oxymoron.

High schools lack a rich reading programme. Reading rounds out character, vicariously filling in the gaps in experience of callow youth. I have never seen a school system in which reading is so neglected as ours. When top students from elite local high schools go overseas, they find out how inadequate they are in the company of well-read students from, say, Canadian schools. A curriculum deprived of exposure to the finest minds of the world is pathetic, deeply flawed and unworthy to be called education.

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Moral education doesn’t mean being brainwashed with Confucian ethical principles, although they won’t do any harm. It means an appreciation of the human condition in all its richness. When young minds are filled with tests and materials for regurgitation, they are ill-equipped to tackle the challenges that life throws at them.

There is another deadly side-effect when students lack a moral compass – the recent spate of student suicides. They are so emotionally brittle that in the face of temporary setbacks, they resort to impulsive, extreme solutions. Reading has the power to repair troubled lives and compensate for the privations of a broken home. Not a few writers will tell you that they owed their sanity and creativity to escapist reading. 

The horror stories of student misbehaviour calls for a rethink. When teachers are too busy testing students, they overlook their most important duty: building a healthy mind and a healthy body. Forget rankings and bandings. They are the product of little minds who have lost sight of what matters. The next time students display outrageous behaviour, go to the root. This education system requires a root-and-branch revamp, not a knee-jerk tinkling. 

Philip Yeung is a former speech-writer to the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. [email protected]