Progressive education, which tries to reduce everything to a narrow academic specialty, thinks “liberal arts” means “humanities.” But in reality, the classical liberal arts refers to a whole approach to education– one that is broad rather than narrow, connected rather than fragmented, open to the past rather than favoring whatever is new, etc., etc.
It’s called “liberal” from the Latin word for “freedom.” It goes back to the distinction in ancient Greece and Rome between the “servile” education given to slaves (nothing more than training for a job) and the “liberal” education given to free citizens of the Greek democracy and the Roman Republic–one that required the cultivation of the intellect and other human powers, as well as knowledge of the cultural heritage that must be transmitted to the new generation. (I argue that much of “progressive education” is a revival of “servile education.”) Interestingly, when Melanchthon and other Reformers opened schools to teach the masses how to read the Bible, they instituted a liberal arts curriculum, an education for freedom.
The British have done much with liberal education, and the schools they started throughout the British empire tended to follow this approach. Today, the still-Communist Chinese are blaming the liberal arts curriculum in the schools of Hong Kong for the pro-freedom movement currently roiling that city, with the protests generally led by liberal arts students. The movement is being called “scholarism.” In the mean time, the Chinese government wants to impose a pro-government purely economic curriculum. Sound familiar?
Until the dying days of British rule in Hong Kong, there was no place for politics or controversy in education. Chinese history, as far as the school curriculum was concerned, ended in with the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, and local current affairs were not really anybody’s business but the colonial rulers’.“The British government didn’t want us to learn about what was happening in the day-to-day politics in Hong Kong,” said Ip Kin-yuen, a legislator and chief executive of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union. “We were taught to behave ourselves, to follow instructions from our elders, to be submissive and obedient.”
How times have changed. A short walk from Ip’s office, thousands of students and schoolchildren form the vanguard of a protest movement that has defied and embarrassed the governments of Hong Kong and China.
It is very far from anarchy — many students sit at desks diligently doing their homework — but it is still a spear in the side of the Chinese Communist Party and its conservative allies in Hong Kong.
For Hong Kong’s establishment, it is tempting to ask: What went wrong?
The sight of so many students on the barricades has reopened a long debate here about the role of education in politics and society, a debate that is central to questions of democracy and of Hong Kong’s place within China.
The problem, argue conservative voices such as the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao newspaper, lies in the schools. Teachers and university professors “lack a sense of nationhood, and have blindly inculcated the young with Western ideas like universal values and democracy,” the newspaper wrote in a recent editorial. “Textbooks have failed to shoulder the duty of propaganda.”
Conservatives take aim at a relatively new course called Liberal Studies designed to teach secondary school students to think critically about such issues as modern China and today’s Hong Kong, as well as topics including globalization and the environment. Blaming it for fanning the current unrest, they want Liberal Studies replaced as a compulsory subject by Chinese history, with a syllabus that looks at the motherland through much more rose-tinted glasses.