Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Teach Basic Law in liberal studies in the true spirit of inquiry

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South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Kerry Kennedy

Kerry Kennedy says including the Basic Law in liberal studies could help develop enlightened thinkers, as long as the aim is to broaden, rather than narrow, the school curriculum

Now, it seems, Occupy Central is to be blamed on liberal studies. There has been too much teaching about politics and this is what has brought students onto the streets. At least this is the implication of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong’s advice to the Education Bureau that the politics component of liberal studies should be reduced.

Instead, there should be a greater focus on the Basic Law rather than the rule of law and socio-political participation. In other words, a more conservative school curriculum will produce more conservative citizens.

There are many problems with the DAB argument. The main one is that only two cohorts of secondary school students have completed liberal studies, representing those currently in the first and second year of university. Most of the students involved in the Occupy protests have probably never heard of liberal studies.

A second problem is that students are not necessarily passive learners soaking up everything teachers and schools tell them. Study after study has shown that students think for themselves and make their own judgments about issues.

A third problem is the tendency to regard the school curriculum as an instrument of propaganda, as was the case in the national education debates in 2012.

Nevertheless, the issues raised by the DAB and what appears to be a not unfavourable response from the Education Bureau deserve further consideration: the need to consider the role of the school curriculum in these particular times and the suggestion to focus more teaching on the Basic Law.

The DAB argument is basically an argument to narrow the curriculum. Yet that is the last thing Hong Kong needs. Rather, there needs to be a renewed commitment to making sure students develop the kind of skills that will allow them to understand the current issues, consider alternative points of view and learn how to negotiate with others over areas of disagreement.

Students need to learn about the true nature of dialogue, how to engage in it and how to produce outcomes acceptable to both sides. Hong Kong needs civically literate citizens, not single-issue citizens looking for quick fixes to complex problems.

At the same time, Hong Kong does not need servile citizens ready to acquiesce to any authority without truly understanding the issues and the consequences that follow from actions. We do not need a narrowing of the curriculum but a broadening that will contribute to the development of more enlightened citizens. Such citizens will know when to act, when to negotiate and when to compromise. They will come to value the democratic way and what is expected of democratic citizens.

None of this rules out teaching about the Basic Law. Indeed, the opposite is the case. The more Hong Kong people know about the Basic Law, the better it will be. Students in particular should know it is a national law, not a local law, and can be amended only by the National People’s Congress. They need to know that the final interpretation of the Basic Law rests with the NPC Standing Committee, although Hong Kong’s courts can also interpret some provisions of the Basic Law.

These sound like dry legal facts – and they are. But understanding the instruments that govern them will also help students to understand the limits of what is possible under the law as well as the responsibilities of different parties affected by the law. Law-related education should certainly be part of any liberal studies course.

These are the different ways the school curriculum might be used to help students learn about citizenship and their responsibilities as citizens.

Yet it has to be recognised that there are many other ways in which students might learn these things.

Parents, peers, traditional and social media and social groups such as churches provide additional ways of learning about citizenship. None of these is under the influence of the school and, in Hong Kong at least, they are not under the influence of the state.

Thus students come into contact with political ideas and thinking from a variety of sources. Students must evaluate these different sources and make decisions about what they themselves will believe.

The key contribution of the school curriculum is to make sure that students are well equipped to make these judgments, using evidence and making an assessment of how different courses of action will benefit the majority and not just a privileged few.

Using the school curriculum as an instrument of propaganda should not be on any educational agenda. Recognising the role the curriculum can play in developing intelligent and caring citizens who can make a difference to the future of Hong Kong should be a key priority in these troubling times.

Professor Kerry Kennedy is director of the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at the Hong Kong Institute of Education


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