Hong Kong students are notoriously busy – 8-10 hours of school everyday, plus extra tutorial classes after school and even on weekends. In such a tight schedule, teachers could only squeeze what is most important and exam-related into the curriculum. Many subjects are often ignored.
Chinese History is one of them. Despite being an elective subject in the New Senior Secondary Education Curriculum, very few are willing to opt for it. And as for history education in junior secondary curriculum, the class time designated is even fewer.
This is what the typical timetable of a junior secondary student is like. Only 70 minutes is spent every week on history education, among a total of 1,505 minutes (or 25 hours).
The situation for senior secondary students are worse because they have to focus on their core and elective subjects for the public exam. Very few focus is put on history subjects.
What’s more, the Education Bureau has not set a compulsory class guide for Chinese history junior secondary subjects. Some schools have set an individual subject for Chinese history; some incorporate it with geography and other humanities subjects; some add a special component in Chinese language class; and for some schools, none.
The lack of history or humanities-related subject in students’ education directly leads to students’ lack of knowledge in Hong Kong and China’s history. Although there are indeed students who are very passionate about this area, they are a minority.
In view of this, a survey was conducted and 20 secondary students were asked, both junior and senior, about facts of the Cultural Revolution. The results were not surprising – most of them could identify the incident and recall important names, but when asked about specific details they could not get it right.
With further investigation, it can be concluded that the fewer class hours that students take, the less they know about history.
Jeremy Wang, a secondary one student, admits that he does not know much about Chinese history. “I may be able to recall all the dynasties, but that’s all. Don’t even bother asking me to map emperors with their dynasties because I know nothing.” joked the 13-year-old.
Jeremy studies at a local school and has 2 classes of Chinese history (equivalent of 50 minutes) every week. He says that although they have to do homework and take quizzes, the subject itself is not set for a final exam.
“We have to buy a textbook and a workbook for the subject. We do about one chapter every week, and some quizzes in between. But no, no finals for Chinese history.” he said.
He admits that this is one of the reasons that he does not take this subject seriously. “If that subject has no exam you pay less attention in class. I guess it is the norm. Some of us sleep and some of us use the class time to do other subjects’ assignments.” he said.
Jeremy is not the only one. Many secondary school students are paying less attention to history subjects because very few consider it as an option for further studies.
Sarah Chan is seventeen and will be taking her Diploma of Secondary Education exam (HKDSE) next year. She says that her school is one of the few in Hong Kong who offers Chinese History as an elective subject, but nobody in her year chose that.
“Most of us chose science or economics. Some of us who are talented at art and music chose those subjects. But no one chose history subjects at all.” she said.
She says it might be the large amount of memorization and writing essays that scares off students. “No one likes to memorize a bunch of information, especially when you cannot apply it in daily life. I’d rather do calculations.” she said.
Like Sarah, many other students in Hong Kong think that history is all about memorizing a lot of irrelevant information. That could explain why students are reluctant to study history.
Both Chinese History and History are offered as an elective subject under the HKDSE exam, but very few would opt for that.
But if you ask history fans, they will give you a completely different answer.
“When I was small I lived with my grandparents. They used to tell me these history stories and myths which would fascinate me. I also liked reading a lot. That’s why I chose to study history in university.” said Amanda Sin, a year two student majoring in history.
She admits that very few people are interested in the subject, but she says there are actually a lot of interesting aspects.
“You know what people did in the past and you evaluate if that is right or not. And then you compare it with political leaders nowadays and you will know, after all these years people have not changed much.” she said.
“Take the Cultural Revolution for example. You will think that people worshipped Mao because they were uneducated and ignorant, but actually there is a psychology in people that they would tend to listen to those who seemed authoritative.” she said. “There are a lot of people, especially the older generation, who behaves just like the red guards did. They support the government no matter what, and does not believe in the idea of opening up and democracy.” she added.
Even if schools would like to educate their students about the past, it is difficult to find an unbiased textbook, she said. “Some textbook tend to hide the fact that China did something wrong in the past. Some even did not mention important events like June-fourth, Cultural Revolution, or the Great Leap Forward. Even if students pay full attention in class, they still won’t be able to know what happened.” said Amanda.
Hong Kong’s history textbooks are relatively not as subjective as those published in Mainland China, but the wording used to describe certain person or events remains questionable. Important historical events like the Nanjing Massacre, Cultural Revolution, were slightly mentioned, some textbooks even skipped the number of deaths.
Textbooks in Hong Kong are relatively objective, but still various facts are missing from important incidents.
Mr Sam Tseng teaches history in secondary school and thinks that schools has to bear the responsibility as well. He noticed that the syllabus was not comprehensive enough, he tried to voice it to his teaching panel but was told to follow the syllabus and teaching according to schedule.
“Honestly I feel frustrated.” he said. “I always wanted to share a bit more than the class content with my students, but the class time does not allow me to do so. We have very little time, and we have to complete the syllabus so that students can take the exam. It is rather exam-oriented, not learning-oriented.” said Mr Tseng.
History is not merely a subject of memorization; if it is studied in the right way, it helps students analyze what is going on nowadays, and develop their critical thinking on controversial social issues. The sad fact is that schools do not see history as an important subject and limited time and effort is spent. Students are the ones who suffer because they will not be able to know, in detail, what happened with their home country.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. The incident caused such a social uproar because Mao Zedong was trying to change the country and its people. At that time, those who were educated was being targeted and harmed; those who weren’t blindly followed Mao’s ideology.
We are lucky to be born into a developed, open-minded society. Young people nowadays are a lot less likely to blindly follow their leaders, instead, they have many opinion for the government and many ways to speak out. This is of course an improvement from past times, but if we want to move on further and lead Hong Kong into a truly democratic place, we must learn from the past, and studying history should be the fundamental step.