Scant Room For Classroom Debate After Death of Hong Kong's Liberal Studies: Teachers

Where students were once asked to debate topics from more than one perspective, they are now being told to memorize swathes of government-approved content by rote.
By Cheng Yut Yiu, Lu Xi, and Man Hoi Yan
Scant Room For Classroom Debate After Death of Hong Kong's Liberal Studies: Teachers Representatives of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union hold a press conference in Hong Kong to announce it decided to disband citing "huge pressure" as authorities stamp out the city's democracy movement and impose political orthodoxy on the finance hub, Aug. 10, 2021..

Three weeks after the start of the new semester, teachers of the new "civic and social development" curriculum that replaced Liberal Studies in Hong Kong's schools say there is scant freedom for classroom debate.

Teachers delivering the new Values Education (Moral, Civic and National Education) curriculum said they were confused over which teaching materials to use, but were less likely to confer with colleagues amid a growing culture of informing on teachers for having the wrong political opinions in schools.

They said the teaching materials are structured so as to ensure there is little room for free discussion and debate among students and teachers in the classroom.

In stark contrast to the Liberal Studies curriculum that was abolished this year, no contemporary news reports are used as examples to illustrate the points being made, they said.

Instead, students were asked to memorize by rote sections of the draconian national security law that was imposed on Hong Kong by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from July 1, 2020, ushering in a citywide crackdown on political opposition and peaceful dissent.

Instead of current affairs reporting, speeches by CCP officials were also offered as examples for the topics being taught.

A teacher who gave a pseudonym Wong, who previously taught Liberal Studies for more than 10 years, said all of the topics in the new Values Education curriculum must be taught in the order specified by the education bureau, using approved textbooks.

"The textbooks and syllabus materials define the three treaties [that led to the founding of a British colony in Hong Kong] as unequal treaties, and Hong Kong as an an 'issue,' and as an inseparable part of China," Wong said.

"The biggest difference compared with Liberal Studies is that you could debate the good or bad on both sides of any topic, whereas now ... there's very little room for discussion because Hong Kong is defined as an inseparable part [of China]," Wong said.

According to the Education Bureau website, Values Education includes topics titled National Identity, Law-Abidingness and Responsibility, as well as Integrity and Empathy.

National security education

A primary-school teacher who gave only the surname Lee said national security education, which insists that the national security law protects people rather than criminalizing critical speech and peaceful protest, has been deployed throughout the education system.

"It's the kids who are suffering the most right now, especially the younger ones," Lee said. "They are really going through a dark time."

"There is a huge problem with teachers leaving, because they don't feel it's safe to be a teacher any more," he said. "That's the very sad state of education in Hong Kong."

The changes being imposed on schools and universities under the national security law are having a far-reaching impact on civil society.

On Sept. 11, members of Hong Kong's oldest professional body, the Professional Teachers' Union, voted to formally disband after repeated denunciations by the CCP-backed media.

"With the worsening of the situation, this is a decision we have to make, actually we're quite sad about this," president Fung Wai-wah told journalists on Saturday, in comments reported by government broadcaster RTHK.

The move came after the government said it would stop working with the union, and after it was called a "malignant tumor" by state news agency Xinhua and CCP mouthpiece the People's Daily.

According to Wong, teachers are now far less likely to discuss their work with colleagues, or share teaching materials.

"If we share our teaching materials, and then they are deemed problematic, they could be used to label us," Wong said. "Now we've been cut off from our peer support, we will get more and more isolated and powerless."

"Liberal Studies used to be a core subject that would help students qualify for university," Wong said. "But our role has been reduced to just getting the students through the course, with a pass or fail."

Oaths of allegiance for teachers

On Saturday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam hinted that teachers, along with anyone holding political or administrative public office, could be forced to swear oaths of allegiance to the authorities.

But she didn't mention schools directly.

"It is not possible to disclose in detail today what kind of public officials and what kind of institutions [this will apply to," Lam said.

The changes aren't confined to education for under-18s, either.

The Hong Kong Baptist University announced in July that national security education would be included in its compulsory coursework for undergraduates from Sept. 1, 2021.

Students will be required to pass the course in order to graduate from the university, and must attend a two-hour class with two hours of private study, followed by a test, it said.

Other Hong Kong universities quickly announced they would follow suit.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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