Sunday, 8 October 2006

What Education Is All About?

Japanese TV drama Joou no Kyoushitsu, literally "The Queen's Classroom", is thought-provoking in many ways. In addition to being a mercilessly straightforward reminder of hypocrisy in the adult world, it also inspires the audience to re-think what education is all about.

No other issue can be more relevant and important not only for Hong Kong but all over the world.

One of the most common criticisms of Maya Akutsu is her ruthless and tyrannical style of teaching. She seems to pay no respect to human rights of her students. Otherwise she would not have forbidden her students to leave the classroom to respond to the call of nature under all circumstances.

She is also notorious for the pre-mature introduction to her students the merciless competition in the adult world by emphasising the paramount importance of achieving good academic results. Her arguments are simple and straightforward: Our resources are very limited. Only successful people will be given a choice. Good schoolwork means success, preference and thus happiness. Mediocrity will bring nothing but contempt and misery. This argument is fully put into practice in her class. Preference is always given to those with the highest marks in class. They can receive lunch first with the best choices available. They can pick a seat wherever they want. On the contrary, those with poor academic results have little choice, if any at all. Worse still, they are made to serve their classmates and be responsible for all the cleaning and tedious jobs that nobody wants. Undoubtedly, these measures make it even more difficult for those students with poor performance to catch up.

The audience should find little difficulty in understanding Akutsu's strategy of transforming the classroom into a battlefield, in which her 12-year-old students are exposed, most probably for the first time, to the reality of pain and despair that their parents have been trying to conceal from them.

Exposure to the cruelty of reality is, however, merely the first and most obvious implications of Akutsu's punitive strategy. What she wants to achieve ultimately is to strengthen her students' capabilities in meeting whatever challenges they may face in future. No one can be spared from any difficulty in life, so get ready sooner than later. The process during which her students evolve from such negative responses as suspicion, mistrust and resistance to positive attributes of courage, confidence and persistence speaks for the remarkable success of Akutsu. Upon their graduation, her students finally come to realise the extraordinary but privileged training Akutsu has given them. Their tearful farewell to Akutsu is undoubtedly one of the most touching moments I have ever seen on television.

Apparently this is no more than a dramatised episode designed to impress the audience. What I find Akutsu's strategy provoking is, nonetheless, the sharp contrast between her devastating strategy and the benevolent approach that is commonly adopted in Hong Kong nowadays. In a setting when the rhetoric of human rights and respect for individuals replaces responsibilities and obligations, Akutsu is by all means an inspiring reminder that excessive protection and tolerance can be destructive. Just like human immunity against certain diseases, children can never develop self-protection mechanisms without experiencing setbacks and difficulties. Akutsu's approach is by all means an exaggeration to another extreme, but its intrinsic value deserves more recognition than it currently receives.

When protection and tolerance does not help create next generations with more strength, more integrity and higher capabilities, what should parents and teachers do? If they are right in saying that Akutsu's ruthless approach doesn't work either, what is the best approach of education to achieve the mission of creating a better future with young people of responsibility, respect and integrity?

Unfortunately the negative response of many parents and teachers in Hong Kong show that they fail to comprehend the key question raised in the drama. All they can see is how they become a laughing stock at which Akutsu and the audience coldly sneer. For some reason they fail to do anything but associate themselves with the selfish and stupid gang of adults. What is even more ridiculous is that some accuse Akutsu for damaging the professional image of teachers. How much damage could a fictitious character do to a well-established profession? Why make a fuss of everything if you have already done a good job at what you are supposed to do?

Ultimately all these ridiculous behaviours of the teaching profession may be attributed to the result-oriented management that is proven to be seriously unfitting for public functions such as education. When teachers are evaluated by the number of students who get "A" grade in examinations, how can you expect to have truly good teachers that do not care what parents and students say about them until 20 years later? When the teaching profession is filled with people who fail to attain academic results good enough for business schools at universities but are obsessed for well-paid jobs with long holidays, what kind of education do you expect? When parents feel that education of their children is none of their business but the teachers', what kind of future do you expect of Hong Kong?

Perhaps it's time for Akutsu to launch an intensive programme for those parents and teachers who have failed to do what they are supposed to do, rather than wasting her time in the re-training centre, which will fail to change her philosophy anyway. To me, the fact that Akutsu is sent to the re-training centre for the second time represents a harsh and powerful slap in any education system that prevents truly committed teachers from shaping a better future.

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