What can we learn from the controversy over DSE History Exam?

June 02, 2020 09:47
Photo: RTHK

Under the haze of COVID-19, the 2020 DSE finally went ahead on 24 April as planned. After 3 months of class suspension, teachers, parents and students were relieved. History – one of the elective subjects of DSE, had its exam held on 14 May.

Tensions flared up over this year’s DSE History paper, where question 2(C) of Paper 1 controversially required students to respond to “‘Japan did more good than harm to China in the period of 1900-45.’ Do you agree?’ Explain your answer with reference to Source C and D and using your own knowledge”. The matter was further complicated by the city’s ongoing political turmoil.

After the special meeting and investigation by Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA), the controversial question was invalidated on 22 May disappointingly. How did the controversy happen and end and what can we learn from it?

How did the controversy happen?

Some local pro-establishment teachers and politicians were the first to flutter after the exam, garbling the question from 1900-1945 to the War time (1937-1945) which was only a part of Sino-Japanese relations. They claimed that the question was biased and led students to ignore and praise the atrocities of the Japanese aggression in China.

Few hours later, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s office in Hong Kong made a post on Facebook with views similar to them. The Education Bureau then issued a strongly worded statement of condemnation at night claiming that the question would “seriously hurt the feelings and dignity of the Chinese people who suffered great pain during the Japanese invasion of China”.

The next day, Kevin YeungYun-hung, Secretary for Education, requested the HKEAA to invalidate the question. He asserted what Japan did to China in 1900-45 is undebatable, and there was “Only harm, no good”, as it resulted in the death of millions of the nation’s people.

What approaches did pro-establishment camp use?

First of all, the use of ‘alternative facts’ in the Establishment’s arguments is “loud and clear”, so to speak. Pro-Establishment legislators tend to equalize Japanese war criminals with the whole of Japan because it served their Chinese nationalistic rhetoric and put them on the moral high ground. I am not defending the Japanese army - there is nothing defensible about their atrocious crimes against humanity, and their blind nationalistic zeal, which is indeed a powerful mirror image of our times.

Yet students of history should consider this part of their learning process. This sort of “tarring with the same brush” dismissal of arguments - yes, even vacuous or seemingly futile arguments - would only limit our mindset and vision.

Secondly, Pro-Establishment legislators enjoy attacking the design of the examination, that by asking whether the incident caused “more good than harm” , they are thereby defying the objectives of history education.

Now clearly, an overwhelming majority of historians concur that “binary opposition” and over-simplification of historical facts is anathemic to this very discipline. This format of questions has been widely adopted by internationally accredited organisations, including the IGCSE, the IB and other curricula across the globe.

Lastly, the government official has openly attacked and blamed history teachers for failing the students in imparting the ‘simple truth’ behind the Japanese invasion, in their day-to-day teaching. But such allegations lack justification and evidential support. Since the implementation of the new senior secondary academic structure, no reports of ‘professional misconduct’ related to teaching of history have been reported and the teachers are clearly managing just fine with their duties. Perhaps the issue lies not with the hands of those who ‘execute’ it, but those policymakers who left the "problem" unseen.

What is the syllabus about? How can one do well in DSE history?

The pro-establishment lawmakers and political establishment have clearly demonstrated their lack of knowledge over the DSE, the curriculum and the study of history. For any sensible person to address this controversy, they must not neglect the background knowledge of history and the understanding of curriculum therefore a thorough analysis should be carried out.

On teaching Sino-Japanese relations, the curriculum of context seeks to explore “the rise of militarism and its consequences”, with the aim stated clearly as follows: “Students will assess the extent to which Japan was modernised in the early 20th century in the light of the contemporary political, social, economic and cultural conditions. They will analyse the ways in which such conditions led to the rise of militarism and assess its consequences for Japan and Asia.”

So how will students be graded? According to the “Manual of question words used in History”, in this Data-based Question (DBQ), candidates must take a stance in the beginning, then they should reference Source C and D and the candidate’s own knowledge to explain their answer, which is the reason why the question was unilateral. Every professional teacher and hardworking student in History Subject knew about it.

Last but not least, candidates must use their own knowledge to balance the sources from 1900-1945 to answer the question. In short, candidates - in order to do well - cannot ignore the period of Sino-Japanese War. My bottom-line here, though, is that no matter what stance the candidates took, if it makes sense, points should also be awarded.

Review needed, but invalidating the question has does more harm than good

The Hong Kong government insists that the interests of candidates are first and foremost considered, which is why they decided to invalidate the question. In the short term, what the government and the pro-establishment camp did only caused more non-learning pressure on the sitting candidates, additionally, the candidates of History Subject probably chose Chinese History Subject as electives too; they worried about the potential risks at the exam paper one week later.

In the future, we could expect plummeting numbers of students taking DSE history in fear that similar incidents might happen. This is harmful to the DSE as a whole as it seizes the freedom of choice for DSE students and creates inequality between students who are better in liberal arts and other subjects as they would have no choice but to take subjects they are not interested in.

At this point, we must ask ourselves, has what been done be of the best interest of our students?

The Spanish American philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.” What can we learn from this controversy?

“While the question is designed as an open-ended question, setting it against the historical backdrop of China in the first half of the twentieth century is not appropriate in the context of a secondary school public examination.” quoted from the press release of HKEAA. The reason why HKEAA invalidated the question was intriguing. A large group of history teachers hold a different view.

Take Germany as an example, in their educational regulation, they banned any form of positive description about The Third Reich and the Holocaust. Hong Kong could do the same, by banning the positive descriptions of Japanese war criminals or the Nanking Massacre. Question types of “More good than harm” should also be reviewed.

If the government’s aim was to promote History as a viable and enticing elective for students, what it in fact achieved was clearly to the contrary. More open-ended questions create space for our students to learn and reflect upon history freely. The recent events associated with history education would only exacerbate - and not alleviate - public anxieties; indeed, one could say, they brought more harms than benefits.

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BEd (Chinese History) at EdUHK