Monday, May 25, 2020

Johannes Chan Comments on the DSE History Exam Question Fiasco (Ming Pao)

"A Regrettable Decision"
Professor Johannes Chan
19 May 2020
In an unprecedented move, the Education Bureau of the HKSAR requested the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority to set aside a question in the History paper of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) on the ground that the question was biased, misleading and seriously hurting the feeling and dignity of the Chinese people. The question was, “Japan did more good than harm to China in the period 1900 to 1945. Do you agree?“ Students are asked to refer to two provided sources and any other known sources in their answers.
     In coming to this hasty decision, it appears that the Education Bureau has not consulted the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority or its experts. Nor does it appear that the Bureau has considered the impact that would have on tens of thousands of candidates having taken this examination. It shows no respect for the system of public examinations and does not seem to have considered for a second the adverse impact that would possibly be inflicted on the reputation and international recognition of HKDSE. The examination was introduced only in 2012 as a result of secondary school reform in Hong Kong and replaced the former A-level examination. It took a while before overseas universities are prepared to accept the HKDSE as the equivalent of the well-established and accepted A-level examinations. Many students in Hong Kong rely on the HKDSE results to apply for overseas universities. If an examination question of the HKDSE could be arbitrarily set aside on political grounds, how could overseas universities continue to have confidence in the quality and standards of the HKDSE? The decision of the Education Bureau is arbitrary and unprofessional. It has failed to observe proper procedural fairness, and failed to take into account the very likely negative impact on both the candidates and the integrity and reputation of Hong Kong’s public examination system. In short, it is a classic example of putting politics before professionalism.
     The Education Bureau considered that there is no room for discussion in this question as there could only be one possible answer. Even if this were the case, is this a sufficient reason to set aside the question? Many questions in mathematics have only one answer, but there could be many different ways to arrive at the same answer. The purpose of education is not just to mandate a correct answer, if there is one, but how to derive and arrive at the answer, which is far more important. A historical event could be analysed from many perspectives - political, economic, social, moral, and cultural. It is also possible to approach the question by exploring the different facets of changes and development in the 45 years between 1900 and 1945. A student may decide to focus on the political perspective and consider whether Japan has done more good than harm to the fall of the Kuomintang and the rise of the Communist Party during this period, or discuss the period between 1900 and 1915 when exchanges and interactions between the two countries have stepped up after the Meiji Reforms in Japan, and compare them with the period after 1915 when Japan imposed upon China the infamous 21 Covenants in 1915 and the rise of militarism in Japan leading to a tense Sino-Japanese relationship and the eventual Japanese invasion of China. Would there be “no room for discussion”?
     History is never black and white. In reconstructing historical events we have to rely on historical materials, evidence and documentation. How to handle such historical sources is the prime training that one must acquire in the study of history. The question provided two sources, and the critics lamented that these sources are misleading. But let’s take a closer look at these two sources, which were respectively written in 1905 and 1912. The first piece is a letter written by the President of Japan University of Law and Politics. At the request of the government of the Qing dynasty, the President agreed to cut short the study of law and politics from 4 to 5 years to 1 year for Chinese students. Yet in just a few years’ time, the Qing government was overthrown. It is doubtful whether this generous act of the Japanese university President had any lasting impact on China. The other source is a letter written by a senior member of the then newly established Republic of Chinato a Japanese politician, asking for his help to facilitate a loan from a Japanese enterprise to support the Chinese government in case a war was to be waged by the powerful warlord General Yuan Shikai. It was far from clear that the loan was a support for the revolution. The Republic of China has already been established by that time, and it is more likely that the loan was intended to set up a good relationship with the new government. Nor has the loan been effective in preventing the ambitious General Yuan from claiming to be the Emperor later. From a commercial perspective, a major quarry mine was provided as security for repayment. The exchange rate was to be decided by the Japanese, and the annual interest rate was 7%. The terms were pretty favourable to the Japanese side. In handling historical sources, it is crucial to consider issues such as who wrote the documents, when they were written, and what the background and purposes of the documents were. These questions are crucial in determining the reliability and the weight to be given to the sources. Students are expected to know how to analyse historical sources. In this question, the sources only cover a short period out of the 45-year period that the students were asked to address. The way they handle these historical sources as well as other materials and evidence they may decide to put forward to substantiate their arguments would determine and distinguish the analytical ability of different students in the examination. The critics did not pay any attention to the details of the sources and have probably failed to appreciate the purposes of such materials in the question.
     The question also asked the students to use and rely on other sources that are known to them. Some critics said that the students were unable to do so. I believe this has significantly under-estimated the ability of our students. If they have studied history for three years and have chosen history as the subject for the HKDSE, it is almost impossible that they would not have known what happened between China and Japan between 1937 and 1945. A secondary school headmaster said that this question would prejudice students in the coming years as they would study the examination question and prepare to argue for the good that the Japanese has done to China, thereby undermining, if not glorifying, the Japanese invasion of China. Such an argument is just a non-starter. If this situation is to happen, the problem lies in the education system itself. If the education system focuses on rôte learning instead of intellectual analysis; and aims to produce only compliant instead of critical minds, it is a failure of the education system, and the blame should not be put on the examination question. The purpose of an examination is to test students’ analytical abilities, not to ask them to state their political beliefs. In this regard, the question has nothing to do with the so-called “seriously hurting the feelings and dignity of the Chinese people“. Those who said that the provided sources glorify Japanese invasion of China have probably not even read the sources, let alone intellectual analysis. If the Education Bureau is to approach educational issues with such political yardsticks, it had better rename itself the Bureau for Political Propaganda.  The Chinese version of this article was published in Ming Pao, 18 May 2020, and is reproduced below.

Professor Johannes Chan

     歷史從來不是非黑即白,重組歷史時我們需要倚賴歷史文獻和資料,如何處理這些文獻和資料便是修讀歷史科一個重大課題。該題目提供兩份資料,不少論者便以此認為題目偏頗,但這兩份資料分別寫於1905年和1912年,一份是由日本人撰寫,紀錄日本政法大學校長應晚清政府要求將政法科的修習時間由四至五年縮短至一年,但清政府幾年後便被推翻,這決定對培養中國政法人才的影響微乎其微。另一份文件是由國民黨中人撰寫,向日本人借貸作為應對與袁世凱一旦開戰的資金,當時國民政府剛剛成立,借貸一事恐怕出於拉攏新政府為目的,借貸資金亦未能阻止袁世凱的野心和日後的復辟;在商言商,借貸以大冶鐵鑛作抵押,匯率由日方決定,年息七厘,是一椿對日本人相當有利的買賣 。資料由誰人撰寫?在什麼時候撰寫?撰寫時的背景和目的為何?這都是考慮資料的可信性及其份量的因素,讀歷史的同學必須懂得如何分析這些資料。同學如何處理這些資料及選取什麼其他史實或角度來論證,便是考核和分辨同學的分析能力,但批評者似乎完全忽略了這一點 。
     該題目要求同學從這些資料及他們的認知作出分析, 一些論者認為同學沒有這個能力,這是低估了我們中學同學的分析能力;如果讀了幾年歷史並考歷史這一科,而不知道1937至1945年間中日之間的關係,這恐怕不是學生的錯,而是老師的錯。有校長說這條題目會影響到以後的學生存在錯誤的觀念,這種論點更是匪夷所思。出現這個情況,問題是在教育制度本身,如果教育制度只要求學生背誦,囫圇吞棗,不假分析,不敢對命題提出不同的觀點,這是教育的失敗,請不要將責任推到試卷身上。考試是測驗同學的分析能力,和什麼損害中國人民的感情根本扯不上關係。硬説這些資料美化日本侵華,恐怕是沒有看過資料,亦不懂何謂資料分析的人云亦云之說。如果教育局憑這樣的準則去處理教育問題,那乾脆將教育局改名為政治宣傳局便算了。  (原文刋登於《明報》,2020年5月18日)

No comments:

Post a Comment