Exams are a major focus of schooling, yet they can be overdone. Scoring 100 per cent in the next test becomes the sole purpose of a student’s life.
Chinese parents worry about their child becoming an exam-taking robot. In addition to memorising names, dates and statistics, what else should a balanced education include?
Education is many sided
Primary education on mainland China aims to cover five areas: virtue or morality (德), intellectual knowledge (智), physical (體), music and art, aesthetics (美) and manual dexterity (劳)—such as the coordination that comes from jumping a rope.
In Hong Kong, the fifth item is replaced by teamwork, or a sense of belonging to a group (群). Nobody argues against any of these.
Controversy recently swept Hong Kong over an addition to the curriculum: national education.
On May 13, the Education Bureau issued a consultation paper on National and Moral Education as material which would be introduced in primary schools and explored in greater depth at the secondary level.
The moral side of the coin is not controversial; everyone wants the next generation to learn how to do good and avoid evil.
The debate concerns political loyalty from the upcoming generation to the nation and to the national government within the context of One Country, Two Systems.
Little emphasis on patriotism in Catholicism
The index of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) has no entries for country, nation, nationalism, patriotism or race.
The first reference to nations in the plural (n. 57) is far from flattering: the descendants of Noah are divided into nations “to limit the pride of fallen humanity,” which includes the sins of “polytheism and the idolatry of the nation and its rulers.”
The Hebrew prophets foretold a coming salvation which “will include all the nations” (n. 64). Let us add that catholic comes from the Greek adjective for “universal, open to everyone.” A national Catholic Church or an ethnic Catholic Church contains a contradiction.
The CCC has several pages on the human community, person and society, and participation in social life (nn. 1877-1927).
People need to live in society (n. 1879), as members of a family and a state (n. 1882). The Catholic vision is incompatible with glorifying rugged individualism or the so-called self-made person.
Even earlier, Aristotle (384-322 BC) classified humans as social animals, adding, “He who delights in solitude is either an angel or a beast.” We need relatives, friends, neighbours, co-workers, community associations and an overall state.
However, the CCC voices fear of too strong a government: “Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative” (n. 1883). Subsidiarity acts as a counterbalance: let the local or regional community handle as many activities as possible before calling on a higher level of government to intervene.
“The principal of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits to state intervention… It tends towards the establishment of true international order” (n. 1885). This implies a false international order is one based on violence, coercion and exploitation.
Major emphasis on patriotism in China
The preamble of the current (1982) Constitution of the People’s Republic of China begins, “China is one of the countries with the longest histories in the world… Feudal China was gradually reduced after 1840 to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society.”
The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 after over a century of invasions by imperialist powers, exploitation and civil war.
The trauma and humiliation of the past must not be forgotten today. “The Chinese people must fight against those forces and elements, both at home and abroad, that are hostile to China’s socialist system and try to undermine it.”
Towards the end, the preamble acknowledges, “The future of China is closely linked with that of the whole world… China… strives to safeguard world peace and promote the cause of human progress.”
In a hostile world, a strong national government and a united people are essential for peace and progress.
The body of the constitution mentions education. “The state develops socialist educational undertakings and works to raise the scientific and cultural level of the whole nation. The state runs schools of various types” (Art. 19).
Shortly after 1949, schools managed by missionaries or local Christians were nationalised.
Today various religions sponsor kindergartens and seminaries, yet it would be almost impossible even to licence a school at an intermediate level. Education is de facto a state monopoly.
“The state advocates the civic virtues of love of the motherland, of the people, of labour, of science and of socialism” (Art. 24).
The Communist Party is not mentioned in the body of the constitution, meaning its leading role is unspecified. In mainland schools, both the state and the party are given uncritical praise.
Someone has said the party in Hong Kong is already like God: present everywhere, but invisible. The thought of reprinting mainland textbooks in traditional characters for use in schools here creates anxiety.
Pre-modern love of country
Many things can unite a nation, such as a common religion or the overwhelming majority of one ethnic group. The high culture of Old China was attractive to lands beyond the boundary of this or that dynasty. Within the empire, there was little need to distinguish love of antiquity from love of country, or even love of the wider universe.
For example, Zhang Zai (張載1020-1077) was a Neo-Confucian scholar who wrote a famous essay and hung it on the west wall of his study.
The Western Inscription (西名) begins, “Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and even an insignificant being such as myself finds an intimate place between them… All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.”
Zhang Zai felt at home in the cosmos and he was also loyal to the Northern Song (北宋) Dynasty. “The Great Ruler is the eldest son of my parents.” That sentence has a political implication: just as a younger brother could reason and plead with his older brother, but ultimately have to do as he was told, so also a scholar could petition the government, but he ultimately had to do as emperor’s ministers decreed.
Zhang Zai did not pledge his loyalty to the emperor, the Son of Heaven, because of common facial features or skin colour, but because the dynasty promoted the teachings of Confucius (孔子) and Mencius (孟子).
The Western Inscription ends, “In life, I will serve heaven and earth compliantly. In death, I will be at peace.” To serve the emperor compliantly was a good way to live in harmony with the cosmos and also to prepare for a peaceful death.
Call this uncritical patriotism or even feudal thinking, if you wish, but at least it was patriotism with a wider horizon than the ruling family, nation or ethnic group.
There is no way to resurrect Zhang Zai’s vision of heaven, people and the earth forming an organic whole. With the coming of modern science, the world has lost its enchantment. A rainbow is nothing but light of different frequencies being diffracted at different angles and a king does not rule by the grace of God, karma or the Way of the Sages, but rather by the support of wealthy classes.
Survival of the fittest at the personal and international level produces a more violent, less harmonious worldview.
Catholic social doctrine, based on natural law, has a number of resources for relating individuals and nations into a more just world.
The green movement puts ecological integrity ahead of economic or national interests. International religions and green political parties both raise alarm bells in Beijing. It will be difficult to adapt their insights into the materialist educational curriculum presented in China’s schools.
Talk of universal human rights that transcend national boundaries is also labelled subversive or a foreign conspiracy. The system does not have any value higher than the state, so patriotic education lacks checks and balances.
Education in loyalty
In 1816, naval hero, Stephen Decatur, of the United States of America (US), said, “Our country!… may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.”
In 1872, US senator, Carl Schurz, offered a correction, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right.”
A generation later, G. K. Chesterton in England said this wording sounded to him like, “My mother, drunk or sober.”
No one wants to see an intoxicated mother. What is the best way to help her overcome her alcohol problem? Denying the problem, making excuses for her and acting as if there is no problem leads to co-dependency. To speak out is to risk a painful confrontation with the alcohol. This is called tough love, and finally it becomes the best course of action.
At the deepest level, what is loyalty (忠)? When does an excess of loyalty become destructive? If a mother gambles all her money playing mahjong and is unable to put food on the table, is it disloyal for her hungry child to mention this to a teacher? If local officials in the government or the ruling party profit from a factory which pollutes the air, soil and water, is it disloyal to the nation to protest?
If a priest is misbehaving and the bishop ignores the problem, is it disloyal to the Church for the victim to talk to the news media?
Nothing less than God is God; nothing and no one on earth is perfect, not even parents, nation or Church. A loyalty that refuses to see any flaws or admit any mistakes can launch nasty attacks on anyone who dares to mention the imperfections.
Imperfect people and imperfect organisations still deserve our respect, love and support, as well as constructive advice or even unpleasant confrontation. How do we teach that lesson to growing children? Under One Country, Two Systems, the answers to these questions could well be different in Hong Kong and in Beijing. MJS