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Research brief on Moral and National Education in Hong Kong: Autonomy, state neutrality, and freedom of thought, conscience and religion
1. A human rights case as a prologue to analysis
A human rights case may provide a perspective for analyzing the government's proposal to introduce mandatory moral and national education into school curriculum in Hong Kong.
In 1997, Norway introduced a new mandatory religious subject in the Norwegian school system to replace two previous subjects respectively in Christianity and life stance. The new subject was called "Christian Knowledge and Religious and Ethical Education" (CKREE). Several Norwegian parents who had a non-religious humanist life stance and their children filed a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee, challenging CKREE as incompatible with the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as enshrined in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). They argued that the right was also applicable to non-religious life stances. Specifically, the parents challenged that the Norwegian government violated their right to secure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions as protected by ICCPR Article 18(4). The Human Rights Committee ruled that Norway's CKREE curriculum did violate Article 18(4) of ICCPR.1
This case raises two questions:
Is it legitimate for the state to inculcate a particular way of life or a particular conception of the good life?
Who should have control over children's education-- the state, parents, or children themselves?
These two questions are equally pertinent to deliberations on moral and national education in Hong Kong.
To answer the two questions, the following needs to be examined:
the value of autonomy
the state neutrality principle
the nature of compulsory public education
the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion
the nature of the moral and national education curriculum proposed by the government
2. The value of autonomy
The idea of autonomy is that as moral beings, people should be free to fully exercise their moral power to determine for themselves what sort of life they would want to lead. Their choice should be genuinely their own and free from coercion. People's freedom to determine their ways of life should be respected equally. To deny anyone's autonomy is to deny him/her as a moral being and to treat him/her as being less equal than others. However, that people's autonomy should be respected does not mean that people's chosen ways of life are all equally valuable. Some ways of life are definitely more valuable than others. Also, people definitely can be mistaken in their judgments of what is valuable in life.
Thus, apart from the freedom to form one's conception of the good life, autonomy also means that people should be free to examine their beliefs and revise their existing conceptions of the good life.
As social practices, social roles, mainstream values, customs, and traditions may all affect or shape how people choose their ways of life, the value of autonomy requires that people be free to examine different conceptions and practices without the fear of being penalized.
Given the fallibility of one's judgment of what is valuable in life, the value of autonomy does not require that third parties be banned from intervening in one's choice of ways of life. Third parties may try to persuade a person of the values of alternative ways of life and illuminate the existence of more valuable ways of life, or provide the person with the necessary resources for making better judgments. However, coercion or imposition is not allowed.
3. The state neutrality principle
The account of the value of autonomy above should lead to the endorsement of the principle of state neutrality.
Modern societies are characterized by a plurality of ways of life and different conceptions of how best to live.
To respect people's autonomy, the state should be neutral among conceptions of the good life:
the state should not justify its actions on the basis of the superiority of a particular conception of the good life;
the state should not deliberately attempt to influence people's judgments of a particular conception of the good life.
"The basic idea behind the value of neutrality, then, is that nonneutrality is an unwarranted sign of disrespect to the person whose views are being disregarded. In treating that person's conception of the good as inferior to others, the state is (and fellow citizens through the state are) treating that person, effectively, as worthy of lesser respect."2
Since the state possesses coercive power, a nonneutral state is a state trying to impose a particular way of life on its people by coercion.
It should be noted however that the state neutrality principle does not mean that the state should regard all ways of life as equal. It only means that there should be no public ranking of the value of different conceptions of the good life. The state should pass as little comment as possible on how people should live.
Neither does the state neutrality principle entail that the state has no role in helping people to decide how they should lead their lives. A case can be made that the state has the duty to provide people with the necessary resources or means to facilitate them to make their choice among ways of life.3
4. The nature of compulsory public education
On school education, a human rights law academic has the following comments:
"[s]chools are a place where students are ‘coerced' (in the sense of being disciplined to behave in ways that they would not otherwise) in a variety of ways."
"Teachers enforce certain behavioural requirements, demand attendance in classes that students dislike, set homework that takes up time on the weekend when students would prefer to be doing something else and require students to wear a uniform or comply with a dress code."
"When it comes to issues of religion, however, the coercive powers of the schools are restrained and schools must ensure that education does not impair the student's choice to ‘have or adopt' a religion or belief of his or her choice."
"The fact that a school can force the reluctant maths student to study algebra does not mean that it can require the committed atheist to take religious instruction."4
Such comments on religious education in schools can be extended to any moral education curriculum which bears on students' choice of ways of life. (As will be discussed in the next section, international human rights law adopts a very broad interpretation of religions and beliefs.)
If school education is made compulsory, schools will become agents of the state. School coercion will then turn into state coercion.
Thus, another human rights law academic argues that state neutrality in school education should be strictly observed when school education is compulsory.5
"A public educational system not premised on state neutrality could, at least in theory, foster and condone state indoctrination. In sum, the state has a compelling obligation to remain neutral when manifesting itself upon particularly impressionable youth who are compelled to spend time on public premises."6
5. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion
People's stakes in autonomy supports the right to freedom of thought and conscience.
The value of autonomy and the state neutrality principle are enshrined in international human rights law.
Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides:
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.7
Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) provides:
States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.
Several remarks relating to these two human rights laws are in order.
On the terms "religion" and "belief"
According to the United Nations Human Rights Committee's General Comment No. 22 on Article 18, "religion" and "belief" are to be "broadly construed".9
Article 18 "encompasses freedom of thought on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment to religion or belief, whether manifested individually or in community with others."
"Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions."
In the Leirvåg v. Norway case, the Human Rights Committee commented that the scope of article 18 "covers not only protection of traditional religions, but also philosophies of life".
It has been reported that the Human Rights Committee has accepted claims relating to humanism and political beliefs.10
It has also been argued that state-run compulsory instruction in secular ideologies, such as North Korea's Juche ideology and the Marxist ideology, are at odds with Article 18.11
With regard to our analysis of moral and national education in Hong Kong, it is of relevance to note what the constitution of North Korea stipulates regarding the state's public education: "the State shall put the principles of socialist education into practice and raise the new generation to be steadfast revolutionaries who will fight for society and the people, to be people of a new communist type who are knowledgeable, morally sound and physically healthy".12 In North Korea, one purpose of public education to is raise children to be persons of a particular type, a type dictated by the state.
General Comment No. 22 states that coercion includes not only the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions but also policies or practices having the same intention or effect, such as, for example, those restricting access to education.
Thus, if a student's refusal to enrol in a course on morality or religion on the ground of freedom of thought results in expulsion from school, this constitutes prima facie a form of coercion.
On who should have control over children's education
As far as religious and moral education is concerned, ICCPR Article 18(4) provides that parents or legal guardians have the liberty to ensure such education of their children in conformity with their own convictions. In other words, parents or guardians have the right not to allow their children to attend any religious or ethics classes which do not conform with their own convictions.
However, to respect children's right to freedom of thought, UNCRC Article 14(2) enjoins that parents' or guardians' right to their children's education can only be exercised in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the children.
In other words, parents' or guardians' right diminishes as their children grow.
Although the Committee on the Rights of the Child has not determined the precise age from which children are allowed to exercise their full right to freedom of religion or belief, the norm is that such right should be granted to them some years before maturity.13
Thus, presumably, high school students should be allowed to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief in full.
On when compulsory religious and moral education is permissible
In this regard, the United Nations Human Rights Committee in its General Comment No. 22 allows compulsory religious and moral education only under two conditions:
"The Committee is of the view that article 18.4 permits public school instruction in subjects such as the general history of religions and ethics if it is given in a neutral and objective way."
"The Committee notes that public education that includes instruction in a particular religion or belief is inconsistent with article 18.4 unless provision is made for non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the wishes of parents and guardians."
While what "neutral and objective" entails precisely remains subject to dispute, human rights law academics observe that in the field of religious education, instruction aiming to prepare students for participating in a particular religion is unambiguously not neutral and not objective.14
This line of analysis in religious education can arguably be generalized to instruction in public education that aims to instill a particular way of life in students. The ideological education in North Korea mentioned above is a case in point.
That is to say, public education that includes instruction intending to instill a particular way of life in students is inconsistent with ICCPR Article 18 and UNCRC Article 14 unless opt-out clauses or alternatives are provided.
6. The nature of the moral and national education curriculum proposed by the Hong Kong Government
Whether the proposed curriculum undermines the value of autonomy and violates the state neutrality principle and international human rights law (as in the Norwegian case) depends on whether it bears an intention to inculcate a particular way of life in students.
Upon examination, a case can be made that the curriculum does manifest such an intention.
Not a few learning objectives and related teaching examples of the proposed curriculum come across as dicta on how students should behave, think, and feel.
In the curriculum, students are not only required to know X but are required to behave and think in the X way and to feel a particular sentiment towards X.
Most importantly, even assessment procedures are proposed to be instituted to ascertain that students do behave, think, and feel in the ways as prescribed by the curriculum - some sort of "positive vetting" is to be instituted.
Below are some of the learning objectives and teaching examples:
to have a sense of admiration and to feel gratitude for homeland's natural landscape and natural heritage 理解國家的山川地貌特色，感受其廣闊疆土上瑰麗多姿的面貌，並培養欣賞、感恩之情。 …. 欣賞國家重要的山川地貌，如五嶽名山、三大河流等，並欣賞當 中孕育的名勝古蹟，包括自然與文化遺產，培養保育意識，以及對自然文化感恩之情。15
to feel proud of one's nation 認識國家當代科技發展，以及它們對於促進社會民生的意義，包括交通運輸系統建立，如高速鐵路網絡、大型橋樑建設等；航天科技成就，如載人航天工程、探月工程等。由上述各項，了解科技發展有助開拓國家發展和持續進步，提升民族自豪感。….了解中國歷史上的重要發明，如指南針、造紙、印刷、火藥等，當中不斷探索與改良，並為推進世界文明作出貢獻，藉此提升民族的自豪感。16
to have a sense of belonging to and a sentiment of cherishing one's homeland and home customs 從家庭開始，認識主要家族成員關係及家族歷史，並了解祖籍和家所在，以及當地物產文化特色、當代發展狀況，培養對於鄉土的珍惜之情和歸屬感。17
to agree with the intimate link between Hong Kong' development and China's development; to show deep concern for one's fellow nationals; to manifest a sentiment of the sameness of blood and roots 認同國家與香港發展的緊密聯繫，主動向祖國同胞表達關懷之情，體現中華民族血濃於水、同根同心之情。18
to put into practice ancient/traditional Chinese virtue and wisdom 汲取中華文化的精髓，實踐仁愛、孝道、誠信、儉樸等美德。汲取經典智慧，陶鑄美德，孕育優雅氣質，並活學活用，在日常生活實踐。19
to improve one's quality through appreciating Chinese culture and spirit 學習欣賞中華文化，體會當中蘊藏的意趣及精神，提高國民素質。20
to understand the situation and the history of the country from a particular perspective 以歷史視野了解國情，…. 。….. 以宏觀及中外比較視域，探討中國歷史重大事件 …。21
to show concern for one's family members and to build and maintain a harmonious family relationship 關愛家庭成員，建立及維繫和諧關係。22
to have a positive life attitude and to face challenges in life with an open-minded and magnanimous attitude 抱持積極的人生態度，培養開放豁達的胸襟面對逆境。23
to discuss social issues in a rational and pragmatic/practical way 以理性和務實的態度，討論社會的各種議題 …. 。24
to be able to understand global issues from the angle of the country's situation … 亦能從國家國情的角度理解世界議題，…。25
The examples above should suffice to show that one objective of the proposed mandatory moral and national curriculum is to mould students into persons with particular outlooks on life.
Prima facie, the proposed curriculum is incompatible with the value of autonomy, the state neutrality principle, and related international human rights laws.
7. Concluding remarks
It is important to note that the focus of the discussion in the last section is not on the substantive content of the learning objectives of the proposed curriculum. In other words, the central issue is not with the moral principles, values, Chinese cultures, or Chinese virtues etc. as spelt out in the proposed curriculum.
Nor is the focus of discussion on the worth of the type of persons the curriculum appears to be trying to turn students into.
No judgment is passed on the intrinsic worth of the curriculum' substantive content here.
What is at issue is the legitimacy of the objective of requiring students to accept such contents as the "contents" of their life by coercion.
There may be intrinsic worth in the substantive contents of the proposed curriculum.
But let it be not forgotten that informing students of X and imposing X on students are two very different matters.
2 Harry Brighouse. 1998. Against Nationalism. In Jocelyne Couture, Kai Nielsen, & Michel Seymour. Ed. Rethinking Nationalism. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, p. 376.
3 The discussion of the value of autonomy and the state neutrality principle in the last two sections is mainly based on Will Kymlicka. 2002. Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
4 Carolyn Evans. 2008. Religious education in public schools: an international human rights perspective. Human Rights Law Review 8(3): p. 453.
5 Jeroen Temperman. 2010. State neutrality in public school education: an analysis of the interplay between the neutrality principle, the right to adequate education, children's right to freedom of religion or belief, parental liberties, and the position of teachers. Human Rights Quarterly 32(4): pp. 865-897.
6 Ibid., p. 866. 7 Quoted from Manfred Nowak. 2005. Human Rights: A Handbook for Parliamentarians. Geneva: Inter-Parliamentary Union and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, pp. 108-109.
8 The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Available at the website of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at <http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/crc.htm>. Accessed on 30 July 2011.
9 General Comment No. 22: Article 18 (Freedom of Thought, Conscience or Religion). Adopted at the Forty-eighth Session of the Human Rights Committee, on 30 July 1993 CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4, General Comment No. 22. (General Comments). Accessed on 30 July 2011.
10 Sylvie Langlaude. 2007. The Right of the Child to Religious Freedom in International Law. Leiden; Boston : Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, p. 72.
11 Jeroen Temperman. 2010. Op cit., p. 874.
12 Quoted in ibid., P. 874. 13 Ibid., P. 871. 14Ibid. & Carolyn Evans. 2008. Op cit.
15 德育及國民教育科課程指引(小一至中六)諮詢稿. p. 27. 16 Ibid., pp. 28, 36. 17 Ibid., p. 28.
18 Ibid., p. 34. 19 Ibid., p. 35.
20 Ibid., p. 43.
21 Ibid., p. 43. 22 Ibid., p. 24.
23 Ibid., p. 34.
24 Ibid., p. 41.
25 Ibid., p. 53.
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