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Thursday, July 16, 2020, 01:19
Revised liberal studies courses should include lessons in ethics
By Paul Surtees
Thursday, July 16, 2020, 01:19 By Paul Surtees

The great numbers of university students, secondary school and even primary school pupils apprehended over this last year while engaged in so-called protests that in many cases represent illegal activities have given cause for questions to be asked about how public education in Hong Kong has failed to engender better community conduct in our coming generations. To join in a peaceful protest march is one thing. But to destroy community and private property; to set up burning street and campus barricades; and worse, to violently assault those older citizens who may not agree with you, including vicious interpersonal mob violence and launching gasoline bombs at police lines — all such activities do nothing to achieve the claimed objective of the “protesters” of making a better Hong Kong.

Many voices call for patriotism to be better-engendered in Hong Kong schools: a thing far easier said than achieved in these troubled times.

There is an old saying that “education is far too important a subject to be left entirely in the hands of teachers”. The recent furor over a half-baked question set in a history exam offers a glimpse of the misguided or even partisan nature of what too many of our school pupils are exposed to, in the name of education. There is likely a link between the anti-government sentiments of many schoolteachers and the lamentable and shocking involvement of young students engaging in wanton vandalism, and street violence.

Thousands of teenagers have taken part in violent street protests — otherwise correctly called riots. At such a tender age, most do not yet have a mature understanding of political controversies, and their youthful passion is easily exploited by politicians and radical activists who play to their idealism. Many of them have been arrested and charged, their future permanently compromised. A retracing of how these bright-eyed youngsters got sucked into such a ruinous situation quickly pinpoints the current liberal arts courses as the source of their downfall. For it is here that some teachers proselytize their impressionable pupils with their extremist political views, heavily loaded with sophistry. It is not difficult for an authority figure — particularly a teacher — to brainwash an innocent pupil with no more than a superficial, or lopsided, understanding of Hong Kong’s complicated political dynamics. Under the circumstances, the government has rightly undertaken to review the content of these liberal studies courses.

An understanding of ethics would help the pupils work out for themselves what is right and what is wrong in any given situation. To make the course topical and realistic, they could usefully examine and debate some recent outrageous actions by Hong Kong youngsters that the world has observed with horror during recent violent street and campus protests

This school subject would benefit from having a much more strictly regulated curriculum, delineating exactly what will be studied and with the teaching material pre-approved and supplied by the government, leaving a much-reduced opportunity for teachers to present their personal brand of politics being passed off as liberal studies.

Equally important, the study of ethics should be incorporated as part of any such revised course. An understanding of ethics would help the pupils work out for themselves what is right and what is wrong in any given situation. To make the course topical and realistic, they could usefully examine and debate some recent outrageous actions by Hong Kong youngsters that the world has observed with horror during recent violent street and campus protests.

For example, there have been several cases of older local residents, seeking to take down street barricades, being violently assaulted and even killed by young protesters. The black-clad protesters gang up to encircle their unarmed victims, who are kicked and struck with batons, hammers, fire, bricks and more. A debate about the morality and ethics of such conduct would highlight the problem inherent in seeking to morally justify (usually in the name of pressing for greater democracy, freedom, human rights and lately, even independence) such grossly anti-social behavior.

Then they could go on to study the rights and wrongs of vandalism. Destroying public and private property, upon which the local community relies, such as MTR stations, traffic lights, banks and shops, can be carefully evaluated on an ethical basis to determine whether the ends (i.e., making your political points) can ever be justified by the means (indulging in illegal anti-social destruction of community infrastructure and attacking those who don’t agree with you).

Such considerations could lead to reasonable limits being discussed and determined as to the conflicting rights of all those involved. Demanding that your own right to protest takes precedence over the human rights of all those adversely affected by your behavior would need to be examined carefully, and a reasonable conclusion drawn. This point about the overlapping of the human rights of both sides is a difficult one to resolve, and careful consideration of it may cause the more violently inclined to take pause and to really grapple with the morality of their actions.

The basic principle of taking responsibility for your own actions should be impressed upon all students to ensure that they would pause before joining any mob attacks on fellow citizens or vandalize private or public property. Why do the violent protesters hide behind black masks, and why do others from their ranks seek to protect their fellow violent thugs from being identified by covering the perpetrators with their umbrellas? Is it because they know that what they are doing is morally wrong and illegal, and they don’t want to be identified as wrongdoers?

It is through a study of ethics that we can hope to get those students who had been led astray to return to the straight and narrow and for others not to be so easily misled in the future.

The author has been involved in education for more than three decades, across several continents.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 


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