Hong Kong kids flee in fear of arts subject

After playing out her laborious fantasy of keeping us all on tenterhooks (as if we gave a damn), former Legislative Council president Rita Fan finally declares what we all already knew, that she is not going to ‘run’ for Chief Executive. Thus ends an especially tiresome non-story. A period of silence would perhaps be in order.

On relatively serious matters… University academic Victor Fung Keung pleads for all Hong Kong final-year high-school students to be given generous scores in their Liberal Studies exams next year. The reason is that this is the first year the subject will be tested and required for university admission, and the students are apparently petrified by it. So afraid are they, indeed, that many are going overseas to avoid it. Looking at the range of subjects in the course – politics, globalization and the environment, among others – Fung even doubts that he could manage it.

If Liberal Studies were like other parts of the Hong Kong syllabus, which require kids to learn a textbook off by heart and regurgitate random bits on command, the exam would indeed be a terrifying prospect. But the course does not require students to learn any specific body of facts. The trendy-sounding subjects are simply something to chew on. The idea is to wean students (and teachers and parents) off rote-learning for a few hours a week and introduce them to critical thinking and presenting an argument.

The exam is in three parts. The first is data response questions, requiring the students to analyze and discuss information from more than one source on a current issue, such as drug testing in schools. Essentially, it’s comprehension and expression of a few opinions. There is no way Fung, director of Baptist U’s International Journalism MA course, could fail to sail through it. Any 17-year-old who can’t should have quit school for a job at McDonalds already.

The second part is an essay-type question with the emphasis on expressing an opinion and justifying it. Some of the subjects are quite witty, like one about Maoism and today’s China. Again, Fung, who can pen a 700-word column for China Daily every week, should find it easy. You can choose from several questions, so it would be nice to think that most averagely bright Hong Kong high-schoolers, whose verbal abilities seem undaunted outside the classroom, will find something they feel comfortable writing about.

The third part is some sort of school-based project and counts for just 20% of the marks. If the above is anything to go by, finger-paint a poster on global hunger and your Liberal Studies ‘pass’ is in the bag.

Does Fung really believe that the Liberal Studies syllabus is another fact-memorization binge? He must have been stuck very high up in whatever sort of ivory tower they have at Baptist U to avoid hearing about the exotic new approach over the last few years. Maybe his university is seeing a fall-off in students in favour of overseas institutions, and he wants something to blame. (And why would these Hong Kong kids seek sanctuary from the terrifying new subject in liberal arts-drenched schools in the West?)

It might have been better if the government had called the new subject something people could understand like Thinking For Yourself Like Kids Who Go To Western Schools Can, or at least didn’t call the assessment an ‘exam’.

Whatever Fung’s problem, his most telling comment is this: “High school leavers next year dread this ‘Liberal Studies’ subject because it is viewed as an arts subject, not a science subject.”

When I was in high school, arts subjects were for wimps, girls and idle know-it-alls destined to drift off to Hong Kong one day. Blathering away about Chaucer or the origins of World War 1 was the easy, cowardly route. Real men did mathematics, applied mathematics, further mathematics and physics. The more easily intimidated might do chemistry or biology (what Lord Rutherford called ‘stamp collecting’). The least brave of all – those of us who trembled at the thought of long division – were losers and happily accepted the fact. But in Hong Kong, the losers are the ones who fear an essay question with no correct answer.

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9 Responses to Hong Kong kids flee in fear of arts subject

  1. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Didn’t Singapore reform its education system a few years ago to avoid pressing out generations of rule following turtles? I was speaking to a lecturer from the Singapore outpost of INSEAD who said it made quite a difference to the quality of Singaporeans they were getting. Maybe HK could carbon copy that programme.

  2. maugrim says:

    Fung’s blatherings show exactly why subjects like Liberal Studies are needed. It is a step in the right direction. His bleating alone shows how worried some are.

  3. mumphLT says:

    ..even worse – the answer might have to be written in English.

  4. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Surely it can be done in an eight-legged essay style?

  5. Claw says:

    A valid worry for the students is who is going to mark the exam. If they are the usual HK markers will they be able to get their own minds around the concept of a question with no set right (or wrong) answer ? How will they mark an essay which is good in all respects except that the opinion expressed is different from their own or out of the mainstream ?

  6. Probably says:

    Am I missing something here?
    Surely the top marks in Eng Lit and History exams for example are granted on the basis of critical thinking rather than rote learning of someone else’s opinion (which would yield a ‘C’ pass mark). Or, at the risk of sounding like a Daily Mail editorial; have educational standards deteriorated over that past xx years in HK, like the UK, such that higher grades are awarded for lesser achievement?

  7. Sir Crispin says:

    Think for themselves, or think only of themselves? The former, perhaps their is hope; the latter, they are world experts.

  8. Sen says:

    Yes but will all this new age stuff enable them to become doctors and lawyers and look after their self sacrificing parents in their dotage

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