As the quality of a broad-based liberal education becomes annually more debased by the short-term careerist objectives of those responsible for teaching it, particularly at the tertiary level, the extraordinary efforts made in the past to obtain knowledge for its own sake come to mind.
Perhaps the most unusual examples of learning purely for enjoyment were the extramural classes voluntarily conducted and attended in prisoner-of-war and civilian internee camps in the first half of the 20th century.
More than 130,000 men went into captivity with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942; some 10,000 became prisoners-of-war in Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941. Constructively using the otherwise long and idle days was vital to morale. Only days after the first military prisoner-of-war camp opened in Hong Kong, extramural classes began: the command education officer, Major W. de B. Wood (a barrister, prewar), opened a lecture scheme.
A similar educational programme took place in Singapore, though it was more extensive, given that island’s greater number of prisoners-of-war. Classes there became known as “Changi University”, due to the location of the main prisoner-of-war camp on the island.
Singapore, Malaya and Hong Kong all had locally raised volunteer defence corps. These men were drawn from all walks of life, and ranged from senior government officials and university lecturers to botanists and dockyard foremen.
Those with areas of expertise were recruited to give lectures on their subjects. Major Charles Boxer, Hong Kong’s pre-war British intelligence chief – who happened to be one of the world’s pre-eminent authorities on the early Portuguese and Dutch maritime empires – lectured on his areas of academic interest. Senior bankers and businessmen expounded on economic policy, government administrators explained Far Eastern politics, academics created lecture series on their areas of specialisation and others offered what they could.
Cantonese, Urdu and Spanish; art appreciation; Eastern philosophy; yacht building; weather forecasting – to name but a few subjects – all were taught to enthusiastic audiences.
The civilian Stanley Camp enjoyed a remarkable range of professional and amateur expertise, including numerous faculty members from the University of Hong Kong, as well as school teachers and government administrators. Classes for children and teenagers were held, with examinations conducted up to matriculation standard.
Remarkably few pupils were found, after the war’s conclusion, to have been kept back scholastically by their internment.
By the war’s end, in August 1945, more than 500 lectures had been conducted in Hong Kong’s military camps alone. An interest in subjects previously unimagined had sometimes been sparked, changing a former inmate’s career path after the war.
Ingenuity, combined with a genuine desire to learn, ensured lectures were given in the most difficult conditions. In camps along the Siam-Burma railway, for example, meetings of more than four people were forbidden by the Japanese. But ingenuity found its own solution.
“Tutorial” groups would sit in a diamond pattern, with the instructor in the centre. When guards approached, individuals would turn towards each other and the lecture would dissolve into general social chatter.
Extramural lecture experiences are regularly encountered in Far Eastern prisoner-of-war memoirs All conclude that such lectures provided an overwhelmingly positive memory from the whole experience.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong