Liberal studies lesson yet to be learned

Pro-government politicians want the mandatory subject to be replaced by Chinese history on the grounds it isn’t working, but critical thinking is not allowed under the current curriculum design 

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2018, 4:44am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2018, 4:49am

Compulsory liberal studies in secondary schools is being turned into yet another political battleground. 

Pro-government politicians want to make the subject elective, with Chinese history, currently elective, mandatory. Many opposition figures, however, object and prefer the status quo under the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exam.

Both sides are wrong, driven as they are by their own misguided political agendas at the expense of the education of our young. Instead, after almost a decade of operation, we should be able to judge liberal studies on its own demerits. 

Critical thinking or bias? Row over liberal studies rumbles on

A stated goal of liberal studies is to train students to be informed about current events and think critically about them. Laudable, if they were achievable under the current curriculum design.

Pro-establishment politicians are right to argue that the subject isn’t working, but for all the wrong reasons. Yes, the introduction of liberal studies roughly coincided with the rise of radical localist politics among Hong Kong youth. But correlation is not causation. 

Despite many such claims, there is no evidence to show the compulsory subject has encouraged student activism. According to a study at Chinese University’s Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, pupils are primarily driven to score high marks, just as in any other subject; the drive for exam-oriented results dampens, rather than encourages, activism. 

Pro-establishment politicians also want to make Chinese history a mandatory DSE subject, under the mantra that knowing more about China would encourage pupils’ love of the country. But just as liberal studies didn’t turn our children into radicals, Chinese history would not make them gung-ho patriots.

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Meanwhile, opposition figures don’t want change. Many are afraid making Chinese history mandatory would turn it into a national education-like programme. Perhaps a few even think liberal studies is helping to produce young rebels, or keeping some “yellow ribbon” teachers employed. So they prefer to tolerate a deeply flawed subject.

Without a clear agenda and an established academic standard, critical thinking is a vacuous goal and a directionless aim. No wonder pupils end up trying to guess what the examiners want, and the best strategy is to state the premises of a subject and then argue both sides or state the pros and cons. Criticality or just banality?

The first step to a solution is to recognise there is a problem at all. There should at least be a bipartisan consensus on that.