Is Liberal Studies driving young people’s social participation?
By James Fung and Cherry Wong
On a rainy day more than a year ago, a group of teenagers walked barefoot onto a stage in Tamar Park, in front of the government headquarters. Dressed in black, they crossed their hands high in the air to show their opposition to the government’s plan to mandate the Moral and National Education curriculum in Hong Kong’s schools.
By this time, they had already triggered a movement that cut across different sectors and generations of Hong Kong society and had started a hunger strike and occupation of an area outside the headquarters that became known as Civic Square.
They were members of Scholarism, a group of secondary school students, and their success in mobilizing support and media attention took many by surprise. Young people, and expressly secondary students had demonstrated their commitment to social participation and shown they were a force to be reckoned with.
This prompted many to ask what the driving force behind young people’s growing participation in social movements is. The introduction of Liberal Studies as a compulsory school subject has been suggested as a factor.
The subject came under the spotlight recently because it was accused of being too political by critics led by legislator Priscilla Leung Mei-fun. Leung suggested the subject should not be compulsory and that students should study Chinese history instead.
Along with Chinese Language, English Language and Mathematics, Liberal Studies was introduced as one of the compulsory core subjects in the New Senior Secondary Curriculum (NSS) in 2009. There are six modules, namely Personal Development and Interpersonal Relations, Energy Technology and the Environment, Hong Kong Today, Modern China and Globalization and Public Health. Through these modules, Liberal Studies aims to “broaden students’ knowledge base and enhance their social awareness through the study of a wide range of issues”, according to the Education Bureau.
Agnes Chow Ting, is a Form 6 student and a core member of the Scholarism. The 17 year-old says Liberal Studies does increase students’ social awareness. “Before the introduction of Liberal Studies as core subject, there were only three days on which teachers would discuss social issues with students. They are July 1, October 1, and June 4,” she says. Now students have a chance to discuss social issues at least two to three times a week.
Another core member of Scholarism, Tommy Cheung Sau-yin, who is now a second year student of Government & Public Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that before the introduction of Liberal Studies, students were embarrassed to talk about politics. To do so would be to risk being labelled as a “freak”. Online posts about politics were considered strange because other people tended to discuss leisure activities and school matters, Cheung recalls.
Taking Liberal Studies makes it more comfortable and natural for students to discuss political issues, and perhaps participate in social movements as well. When Varsity reported on national education for its April 2011 issue, it interviewed Ivan Lam Long-yin who had set up a Facebook group to discuss Liberal Studies and national education. Lam went on to become one of the core members of Scholarism later that same year.
Tommy Cheung Sau-yin says Liberal Studies is often the first contact students have with current issues. But he adds that whether a student then goes on to participate is an individual decision, “Liberal Studies is the foundation while social participation is the building above,” he says.
Rosanna Tsang Yee-wai, an 18 year-old first year medical student agrees Liberal Studies helps her understand more about social issues. She says she has learnt to analyze a social issue from different perspectives after taking the classes. But she says it has not inspired her to take to the streets. “Political participation is not limited to demonstrations; there are other channels for you to express your views,” says Cheng, who prefers to express her opinions in online forums.