As the last students stepped out of Hong Kong’s university entry test venues after sitting the Liberal Studies exam on Thursday, the moment marked the end of the subject’s short-lived yet controversial history.
Introduced in 2009, Liberal Studies was one of the four core subjects in the senior secondary curriculum – meaning that every secondary school student had to sit an exam in it. That changed in 2021, when the subject was revamped and renamed, making those who took up Liberal Studies in 2020 while in Form 4 the final cohort.
The new Citizenship and Social Development course has a greater emphasis on national security and identity, half the teaching hours of Liberal Studies, a pass-fail assessment instead of a grading system, and a study trip to mainland China to replace the Independent Enquiry Study (IES) – a self-initiated research task.
The curriculum shift came after officials and pro-Beijing figures – including former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa – blamed the subject for encouraging students to take part in the 2019 pro-democracy protests and unrest.
During the Policy Address in 2020, then chief executive Carrie Lam said that Liberal Studies’ “deviation” from its objectives would be rectified. Before that, she told a state-backed newspaper that her administration could not allow the city’s education to become a “doorless chicken coop.”
Teachers that HKFP spoke to, however, treasured the space the Liberal Studies subject gave students to discuss a spectrum of opinions on current issues.
‘Informed, rational and responsible citizens‘
Before the last ever Liberal Studies exam, in a fine drizzle, a former Liberal Studies panel head reluctantly took a stack of textbooks and teaching materials to a recycling station. He had been accumulating them since 2012, when he began teaching the subject as a teaching assistant.
The teacher, who asked to use the pseudonym Chris Wong for fear of retaliation, said he spoke to the piles of paper as he discarded them, saying they should become something “useful” in the future. “Don’t ever be Liberal Studies textbooks again,” he said.
Before the social studies subject was introduced, the education authorities stated that Liberal Studies would adopt a student-oriented approach to help students understand themselves, and their relationships with others and the environment they live in.
“The intention is not to turn students into specialists… but to enable them to become informed, rational and responsible citizens of the local, national and global community,” the curriculum read.
It was in this spirit that Wong found his greatest sense of achievement as a Liberal Studies teacher – when he took his students on field trips and they connected what they were learning with the world around them.
The teacher could still vividly recall taking his students to a local wet market. While it was Wong who kicked off the conversation with the stall holders, the students – initially shy – followed up with their own questions and found out one of the vegetable sellers used to be a farmer who grew her own crops when the neighbourhood was still farmland.
“They began to understand the impact development could have on a community, as they learned that their home used to be a farm, and then they thought more deeply about the importance of local agriculture,” Wong added.
Through such first-hand experiences, Wong found that his students gained a more profound understanding of different issues, and began to think from other perspectives.
“You realise in those moments, their life has been changed,” Wong said.
Wong also cherished the IES report, which was axed from the curriculum in 2022. The assignment required students to do their own research on a social topic of their choice.
“Frankly speaking, it was tough… when you had to read 60 to 70 IES reports. But when you saw that two or three of them were brilliantly done, you would be very happy,” he said.
Wong recalled one student who shot a documentary of the final days of a pedestrian zone in Mong Kok and interviewed the performers, passers-by and nearby shop-owners – all of whom held different opinions. Wong said the project helped the student see the nuance in current issues and inspired them to go on to study journalism-related courses.
“Even if a student was just casually looking up information, at least they Googled and did research… Now Liberal Studies is gone, all that’s left [in the remaining subjects] is practising past exam questions, it feels like something is missing,” Wong, who now teaches Citizenship and Social Development, added.
With the original curriculum gone, Ah Man, who began his career as a Liberal Studies teacher in 2019, feared the teaching method that favoured open discussion would also cease to exist.
Worried that what he said would be viewed as unprofessional by the city’s education authorities and thereby affect his career, the teacher asked HKFP not to disclose his full name.
Since Ah Man left behind is Citizenship and Social Development teaching job and switched to another school in 2022 to teach Geography, he has found the in-class discussions “completely different” from those in his old subject.
“They were based on points [of academic knowledge] but not… points of views generated by students themselves. The latter would drive the direction of a discussion in a [Liberal Studies] lesson,” he added.
For Ah Man, Liberal Studies was not a perfect subject. He said its scope was perhaps too wide, including, as it did, topics from current affairs in Hong Kong, mainland China, and the world, as well as environmental issues and people’s self-development.
But he said the core of Liberal Studies – asking students to consider both sides of an issue and to entertain opposing opinions – was beneficial to students’ personal development and their ability to think.
However, under the revamped curriculum, Ah Man said there was little room for such expression.
“The exam questions of Citizenship and Social Development… do not require students to have their own opinions,” he said.
Echoing Ah Man, Wong said the most demanding part of being a Liberal Studies teacher was to get students to care about and contribute to society. It was also, however, one of the most rewarding.
“The mission of Liberal Studies teachers was not to teach students about a particular issue, or how to answer a question. I hoped to teach them to think in a comprehensive manner, so they would be equipped to make value judgements, and, hopefully, make wise decisions.”
Wong added: “I liked teaching Liberal Studies.”
De-politicised exams, classrooms
Even before Liberal Studies was officially axed, classroom discussions had become less lively, Tin Fong-chak, the ex-vice-president of the disbanded pro-democracy Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union and a former Liberal Studies teacher, told HKFP.
Tin said he had noticed that, since 2019, students began to self-censor their opinions. He said that some had asked “how there could be problems” in government suggestions, or said “there are no social problems in China.”
“If you ask me, I think they were kidding. But it also reflected some of their considerations and fears,” Tin said.
From 2012, the first year of the Liberal Studies exam, to 2020, questions about Hong Kong’s political system, people’s right to protest, and press freedom were a recurring theme in the Liberal Studies paper of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) – the city’s university entry exam.
However, the teachers HKFP spoke to said that feelings that certain political topics should not be discussed as they were outside “the red line” had been looming since 2019.
The 2021 HKDSE exam, which came after Beijing implemented the sweeping national security law in Hong Kong and revamped the city’s electoral system to secure “patriot only” public polls, did not include any overtly political questions.
Ah Man said he was indifferent to the de-politicisation of exam questions. But he said he did care about how classes were impacted by the political atmosphere, which made people – including teachers – “cautious” about what they were saying.
He said he started to avoid saying “things that we used to believe to be correct,” such as discussing the separation of powers, something the government said never existed in Hong Kong’s constitutional system.
‘Can easily be misinterpreted’
Responding to concerns about the government decision to restructure Liberal Studies, the Education Bureau said in a 2021 statement that the existing curriculum was “open and flexible and can easily be misinterpreted by a minority of people, resulting in deviations in its implementation.”
Citing “criticisms” of the subject, the bureau said it placed “too much emphasis on discussion of current affairs,” carried “polarised” discussions that were “too focused on political issues as a result of… the direction of question setting in the public examination,” and misinterpreted “critical thinking” as “a readiness to challenge authority and criticise and object indiscriminately.”
“After the curriculum has been implemented for more than a decade, the problems [relating to] its content, teaching strategies and even assessment are getting worse. There is an urgent need to reform the subject,” the city’s educational authority said.
Both Ah Man and Wong told HKFP that they did not think students could be that easily swayed by political discussions.
“When I was having trouble chasing my students for their homework… How could I be capable of poisoning them with Liberal Studies lessons, or inciting them to do anything?” Ah Man said.
Citing research commissioned by the government’s Central Policy Unit in 2016, Tin said students were found to be more considerate of different opinions and less likely to carry out radical actions after studying Liberal Studies.
Tin added that, until 2019, officials used the study to defend Liberal Studies and rebut claims that the subject had radicalised students. But the government’s attitude turned “180 degrees” after the months-long unrest in the latter half of 2019.
The new Citizenship and Social Development course emphasises improvements brought by the country’s policies but omits challenges felt by society – such as rural issues and problems faced by underprivileged workers – that students would have been allowed to discuss under the old curriculum.
While Tin agreed that students should learn about the nation, he thought the revamped civics subject should not have excluded those parts: “Otherwise, how can I make the country better, or help with its development?” Tin asked.
Ah Man, who studied to become a Liberal Studies teacher at university, said he felt the subject had become a “scapegoat” for Hong Kong’s political controversies in recent years.
He said the subject was not introduced by a group of teachers with “ulterior motives,” but was suggested by the government itself as part of a high school curriculum reform.
Sharing the same opinion, Tin said the government had never provided any evidence to support its claim that Liberal Studies had “deviated” from its initial objectives.
While a government task force produced a report in 2020 of recommended changes to the four core subjects, it had only suggested trimming the content of Liberal Studies, allowing students to opt out of the IES report, as well as potential vetting of textbooks.
Tin said it was “terrifying” that the government carried out a large-scale overhaul of the subject, adding that there was “obviously” political pressure.
The former Liberal Studies teacher said the government’s criticism was “groundless.” For example, Tin said the subject’s public exam papers had been criticised for being too political, but in recent years the examination authorities had already stopped asking questions that were directly related to politics.
After graduating as a sociology student, Tin said he decided to join the education sector in 2011 because of his interest in Liberal Studies. He resigned from teaching last year after finding the new course “unbearable.”
He said he felt the new curriculum was “unprofessional,” as its level of difficulty was a “mismatch” when it came to student abilities. The new course only required them to recite hard facts, answer questions by copying provided materials, and score a pass in exams, he said.
“People like me, who became a teacher because of Liberal Studies, realised that their ideals collapsed: You wanted to cultivate student’s critical thinking skills, you hoped to encourage students to care about society or have deeper reflections, you wanted to design lessons that allow learning through cooperation, you enjoyed having the space for in-class discussions – now all of these have gone,” Tin said.
Tin added that it had been difficult for teachers to decide what could still be discussed as Liberal Studies reached the end of its lifespan.
“This is just how the bigger societal environment is now… As a school, you would not know what could or couldn’t be asked.”
“It is difficult for Liberal Studies to have a future in this era,” he added.
Find a way
While Wong admitted that it has become much more difficult to encourage students to engage in the new subject, he was still finding a way to make things relatable to students.
“I wouldn’t say that, when a curriculum is gone, then there is no space at all. In fact, a professional teacher should be thinking about how to increase student motivation for studying,” Wong said.
Although Liberal Studies is already history, Ah Man said teachers could still “pass on the spirit” of the subject by encouraging students to approach matters with balanced and critical thinking, whether in or out of the classroom.
Ah Man said he was grateful for the opportunity to teach the topic, even if only for a short three years. Having already left the school where he taught, he said he wished he could pass on a message to his former students: “It has been the greatest honour and privilege of my life, to share your home for three years and to have some responsibility to your future.”
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