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Published: 01:42, March 30, 2023 | Updated: 15:02, March 31, 2023
HK's education system must be reformed to ensure cultural security
By Mathias Woo
Published:01:42, March 30, 2023 Updated:15:02, March 31, 2023 By Mathias Woo

Cultural security is not indeterminate nor indefinable. Education has a significant impact on cultural security and, at its best, can help foster students’ critical thinking and competencies, and bring forth attributes of team players. There we have the five aspects of development, i.e., moral, intellectual, physical, social and aesthetic, in Hong Kong’s schools. Will Hong Kong’s approach to education achieve this?

Since its return to the motherland, Hong Kong has always stressed granting students the freedom to choose for their own learning. That explains the diversity of subjects. But when students barely have any abilities, how can they make sensible choices? On the other hand, students with the highest scores in public exams are often commended for their achievements and were branded as zhuangyuan (often translated as “the principal graduate”), as if they were being awarded summa cum laude honors. Zhuangyuan originally referred to the highfliers who could enter the highest office of civil service in Imperial China after excelling and outrunning everyone else in the imperial examination (keju). So how could a secondary school graduate be referred to as zhuangyuan?

The primary goal of education is skill-building. Education with regard to cultural security should start with developing a sense of national identity in Hong Kong’s youth. Learning Chinese arts and philosophy is the first step toward establishing cultural identity, which should encompass basic Chinese history, philosophy, literature and arts.

Having said that, as cultural identity involves the flow of people, ideas and cultures across generations, its formation is not definitively single-sided. One must as well learn the forte of the West, including all philosophical and literary canons. Hong Kong found its strength and late success in amalgamating Chinese culture with English culture. That has naturally made the cultural identity of Hong Kong people. Post-handover Hong Kong, despite the changes, has made no effort to accommodate such a sense of identity and showed a growing inclination toward everything British and American. That has been curiously remolded into the “globalization” discourse. It is undeniable that a big chunk of local residents is drawn toward the popular cultures of the UK and the US. Such a tendency grows insofar as students feel a kinship with Western pop culture instead of identifying themselves with Chinese culture. That reveals a problem of cultural security. Cultural security in peril poses a threat to students’ learning, as little room will be given for growth and development if culture identity develops varyingly with people’s social predispositions. With barely any skills and competencies, they wishfully think that freedom is the solution to all problems. But little do they know how to make good use of freedom.

So to improve cultural security, Hong Kong should, first and foremost, adopt systematic teaching of Chinese culture from the outset, starting with kindergartens, primary schools and secondary schools. Local youth will then start to see the fundamentals of Chinese culture. What constitutes the fundamentals of Chinese culture? Chinese calligraphy, philosophy and history, for instance, are the building blocks of Chinese culture. Some ask what this knowledge and these skills have to do with making a living. But could one make a living out of a BBA (Bachelor of Business Administration) degree?

Some prejudices persist in our society, which believes teaching Chinese culture is old-fashioned. Yet the reality is quite the contrary. Wisdom of ancient China is manifested in various forms of Chinese culture — The Art of War, the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching, to name a few. Learning such classics will enhance students’ critical thinking and give them the apparatus to comprehend the status quo. Therefore, as opposed to rote learning, teaching Chinese culture will help develop students’ multimodal thinking.

Proper education on the sense of cultural identity is a prerequisite for good education on cultural security. Laying the foundation of cultural identity at an early stage of education, namely, primary or secondary school, is vital to establishing personal autonomy across cultures. After years of learning the basics, these students will have acquired cultural perspectives to become responsible and contributing citizens and nationals once they proceed to universities. Nevertheless, local tertiary institutions, for the sake of international ranking, employ students like mercenaries. Curricula are designed to go with the European and American fashion. They fall short of the city’s expectations to integrate Chinese and Western cultures. Freedom is granted to scholars to write papers and voice their opinions. Yet never were they freemen when it comes to exercising discretion and duties of teachers. The main function of universities is reduced to concerning international ranking instead of cultivating learners’ autonomy, while the operation of universities is overly dependent on the scholarship of expatriates without rallying a local team. That, as a matter of course, affects cultural security.

Having a clear-cut definition of cultural security while omitting internationalization is not the answer. Alternatively, for local universities to achieve cultural security, they must address the challenges with a stand for local autonomy. What does it mean by “a stand for local autonomy”? Take the world-renowned New York-based Juilliard School as an example — it opened a branch in Tianjin. The faculty of artist-teachers is composed of Chinese alumni from the Juilliard School. Professionals in Hong Kong have also been invited to join the faculty and teach. This approach of localization internationalization is the only way that benefits local culture while ensuring its autonomy and cultural security.

Hong Kong is used to recruiting internationally and allowing tender bids to be done globally. Thus the system engages people who feel little to no attachment and are simply assigned to design nonpragmatic curricula and tinker with the global ranking. Will that eventually nurture talents the system requires? With local tertiary institutions failing to develop their own academic and research talents, cultural security will be in jeopardy. If we make references to other Asian neighbors, it is not hard to see how they achieve steady development by growing teams of their own while attracting foreign talents.

But the problem remains — why would Hong Kong, with its wealth, fail to rally a team of its own while being reliant on the “mercenaries” who are employed from afar? That draws our attention to the core problem that the Hong Kong education system faces. Skill development instead of ranking should always be the focal point of education. If no changes are made to alter the existing approach while letting local universities live off ill-defined rankings, more youngsters will be caught in the conundrum of not knowing what to do nor how to do it.

All in all, to achieve cultural security, it is necessary to steer away from the blind and vain pursuit of global rankings and examination scores. With youth, efforts should be made to develop skills and “cultural antibodies” that can resist the propagation of “cultural viruses”.

The author is a member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies and artistic director of Zuni Icosahedron.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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