I recently had to speak on the state of Hong Kong education to a group of Year 13s. I was dreading it, because, where do I start? I’ve been teaching in Hong Kong for the past 12 years – and the one thing every student needs is more empathy.
In an increasingly hostile world, it is the most important skill we can give kids. Empathy is the ability to look at something from another person’s perspective before opening one’s mouth (or Gmail) and ranting. It’s the ability to deal with people in a sensitive way, and it’s lacking the world over, especially in Hong Kong.
At its heart, diplomacy is about listening before reacting and knowing how to control your impulses. A lot of people equate anger with power (just look at the US election). In debating, we often talk about delivering powerful rebuttals. But real life is rarely about slamming the opponent. It’s about compromise, teamwork and the ability to get along with others.
People come in many shapes, sizes, colours and from all walks of life, which is why, for schools to teach empathy well, they need diversity. Diversity is the foundation of diplomacy, because if you never interact with people different from you, how will you know how to interact with them tactfully?
My greatest worry for Hong Kong schools is that they can’t teach diplomacy because, fundamentally, they are not diverse. This is a problem with international and local schools alike.
There are few opportunities for the two circles to mix, which is a tragedy. Not only does it make education boring, it fails to produce future leaders. The world is fraught with conflict. There’s less demand and opportunity for people who can sit at a desk all day and do paperwork. They are being replaced by machines.
Quite frankly, future peace depends on whether our children acquire this skill. For that, a few things need to change. International schools need to have more financial aid programmes to let in kids from different walks of life; local schools need to switch from Cantonese to English as the main language of instruction so non-Chinese and non-Cantonese have access; children need to attend clubs, activities and programmes that bring them together from different schools. And all schools need to invest more in teaching emotional intelligence, like empathy, resilience, grit and diplomacy.
If we want Hong Kong to remain a global city, we need to reframe how we see education.
Kelly Yang is the founder of the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debating. Her latest children’s novel, Front Desk, is due out next May.