In 1918 the then-French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau was told that US President Woodrow Wilson had propounded 14 points to guide the making of peace in Europe, where the First World War was still in progress. Clemenceau responded: “Fourteen points? The Good Lord gave us only ten. And do we abide by those?”

What would he have thought of our friendly local Education Bureau which – to paraphrase another well-known Clemenceau quote – has decided that education is too serious a matter to be left to teachers, and has propounded no less than 70 rules for their guidance?

Secondary school students in Hong Kong. File photo: GovHK.

The Guidelines on Professional Conduct as they are called (but do not take “guidelines” too seriously – penalties for violation can include being banned from the profession for life) replace a marginally brisker set produced by the Council for Professional Conduct in Education, which used to do this sort of thing, but was recently abolished on the grounds that it processed complaints too slowly. Failure to produce the post-protest bloodbath desired by the pro-government media had nothing to do with it.

So instead of a self-regulated profession we now have teachers who are regulated by a government department, and can be drummed out of the profession by a combination of civil servants and political appointees. Any resemblance to the way these matters were handled in the USSR is no doubt coincidental.

The civil servants responsible for this latest masterpiece have, alas, ignored one of the fundamental laws governing the drafting of codes of practice, ethics, professional conduct and other platitudes. You can, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it in a rather different context, be either quick or dead.

If you go for something short and sweet the people concerned will read it, probably several times. This does not guarantee that they will follow it but at least the thought will cross their minds occasionally. However if you go in for something long and turgid it can be expected that those expected to follow it will read it only once – if they read it at all.

The new guidelines are long, platitudinous, repetitive and an odd mixture of aspirations, orders and statements of the obvious. Lurking among them are a surprising number of things which teachers are apparently no longer allowed to criticise, including the teaching profession, schools, and “the nation.”

The objectives of education are now to “Foster students’ whole-person and balanced development; nurture in them positive values and attitudes; equip them with the knowledge and skills required to have a foothold in Hong Kong, an affection for the country and a global perspective.”

“Critical thinking,” however, does not appear to be on the menu.

The disturbing undercurrent to all this is the assumption that if teachers stray from the path laid out by government officials then students will follow them into erroneous thinking and illegal behaviour. There may have been something in this way back in the days when the local teacher was one of the few literate people whom kids would encounter, and the others were either priests or medics.

Modern students have access to a wide variety of sources of information, many of which have considerably more influence on them than their teachers do. It is entirely erroneous to suppose that local student protesters were radicalised by their teachers. This is not possible. A whiff of tear gas, on the other hand, is extremely effective.

Tear gas canisters. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Many of the guidelines are open to no criticism except that everyone knows about them already – follow the curriculum, don’t grope the students, ask parental permission for outings – and would no doubt have a place in any guidelines worthy of the name.

Unfortunately in other parts there is a distinct whiff of a political purge in the offing. The whole exercise was presented by a Secretary for Education whose previous hobbies include being vice chair of the pro-Beijing mini-union for teachers.

The new Secretary, Christine Choi, has one pronounced advantage when compared with her predecessor. He was an accountant. She was a teacher, albeit in the part of the education industry which believes nothing happened on June 4th. She also writes for the newspapers, if you consider Ta Kung Pao a newspaper.

Unlike so many avid government supporters Dr Choi has a collection of perfectly genuine degrees, including a doctorate from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This is a doctorate in education, which PhD holders disparage as “not a real doctorate” – probably because it has some practical use.

The Secretary for Education Christine Choi. File photo: GovHK.

Considering this is all good stuff, the usual sources are surprisingly reticent about Dr Choi’s student history. Her Facebook page mentions none of it (only like: Chris Tang, Secretary for Security) and the official government biography just has “she taught in secondary school for more than a decade after 1988,” with credential collection continuing, presumably, on a part-time basis.

The anonymous compiler of her Wikipedia entry has a BA from Hong Kong Baptist University, awarded in 1988. But this cannot be right. BU is where I corrupted young minds for many years, including most of 1988. At that time it was Baptist College, and was not awarding degrees at all. It was nevertheless an excellent establishment in its way; it would be nice to see the qualifications it awarded worn with pride.

Correction 24/12: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the phrase “critical thinking” was absent from the guidelines. We regret the error.

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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.