The March Towards Mediocrity —— 吳靄儀                   1983 10 月           號 外
Once upon a time (about seventeen or eighteen years ago), my friends at the students’ union were very concerned about a problem they called “student leadership”. They all agreed that “leadership training” - whatever that may be - was the most urgent thing to do. So there was this big week-long “Student Leadership Seminar” organized by student leaders already in office, ostensibly to train up potential and incoming student leaders. No one that I have talked to, after this span of time, could remember the content of this seminar, but there is no earthly doubt, as there never was, that the only people who got any training out of it were the organizers themselves. This was entirely satisfactory, because what their anxiety for leadership training really reflected was their own sense of intense inadequacy confronted with what they felt they were expected to do in their exalted positions. They did not know exactly what they were supposed to achieve, but they were very keenly aware that they were expected to achieve great things.
There was no disguise that university students were elite. True, to the run-of-the-millundergraduate this simply meant they had the pleasurable privilege of being arrogant to the non-U (in this case the non-University educated), but to my serious student leader friends, who considered themselves the “true” elite among the elite, this meant they had a heavy responsibility towards the non-elite, the common folk, the people, the under-privileged - whatever you choose to call everybody. Their idea of being a true member of that elite was dutiful leadership. They felt the pressure to make good, to live up to expectations not only of their parents and teachers, but also of society at large.
This was exactly according to plan. It was generally assumed by those who were running Hong Kong that the well being of Hong Kong depended on the caliber of its leadership, and that the business of identifying the potential leaders and preparing them for leadership through a process of selection and training, was the main business of education. You would not need a very large group, nor a group highly specialized in a range of fields, but this small elite would eventually take up the various aspects of running Hong Kong, including government, politics, business, social welfare, the arts and sciences, and so on.
Thus if university students felt the pressure of high expectations, they were justified in doing so. In the best of cases, this resulted in an internalized urge to keep striving at better things, demanding more of themselves, and identification with the pursuit of excellence - although some went raving mad in the process. On the average, this system produced competent professionals, efficient civil servants, men and women of public affairs, who in one way or another, are now indeed collectively the force that drives on the progress of Hong Kong.
For that Hong Kong paid a certain price, the most obvious of which is over competitiveness in education. As more and more people enter the competition, and with the expansion of places at the top lagging behind, one has colossal numbers of losers in proportion to each winner in the game. And also as Hong Kong becomes more and more rich and prosperous, the stakes becomes increasingly high, and the prizes the winners come away with become increasingly enviable. In short, while everyone’s living standard has generally raised, the distinction between the successful and unsuccessful are all too visible.
A reaction has set in against the traditional “elitist education”. The aim is to even things out; to blur the lines that divide caliber and achievement into grades; to narrow the gap between what the winners get and what the losers get; in fact to remove as much as possible the idea of winners and losers. The battle is waged to champion Equality, and to vanquish Discrimination, led by people who believe competition prohibits personal development, by people who believe removing the reward of winning is the only way to hit at high competition, by people who believe shared poverty is better than unevenly distributed wealth, and people who are downright bitter at not being winners themselves and therefore cannot believe that the system is fair.
Whatever the motive, one can still see two ways of achieving the object: either to systematically augment the weaker end of the system, or to systematically dismantle the strong end of it. That is, one can either help those doing less well to do better, or prevent those who are doing well to continue to do well. Obviously, the latter is far easier and faster than the former. This destruction of the elitist system by removing the elite is what is confronting us in Hong Kong today. The result can only be a march towards mediocrity.
Take, for example, the problem of the unevenness of standard in secondary schools, Bitter complaints are raised about the way parents flock to a few “prestigious schools”, and in order to get the best chance for their children to enter these schools, fight to enter their children into special kindergarten.
Obviously various ways exist to deal with this. To persuade parents of the advantages of less competitive schools; to make other alternatives more attractive; to prevent parents to try to enter their children into these schools; to remove these desired schools altogether. It seems that measures taken to handle the situation, pressured by the education lobby, have concentrated mostly on the last too.
Again on the controversial language of teaching issue, although there are overwhelming reasons why Chinese should be used as the language of teaching, the discussion and pressure has managed to twist to forbid people from teaching in English. If there are such obvious advantages to teaching in the mother tongue, why is it that we have no confidence people will see them? What is most likely to happen is that we will succeed, in the end, to destroy schools which have been doing a good job teaching in English, without at the same time replacing them with schools that do a good job teaching in Chinese. If our complaint now is that the standard of Chinese is falling, then our remedy is to improve the standard of Chinese through constructive ways. However, the most clamorous opinion is that we cannot raise the standard of Chinese without reducing the teaching of English. How founded this opinion is very doubtful, but again, in the end, we will succeed very well in bringing down the standard of English, without a compensating rise in the standard of Chinese.
At university level we are witnessing a still more appalling drop in standard. One could go further. Because the traditional liberal type of university is now considered too much of a luxury for the impractical purpose of breeding a handful of elitists, we are now linking education up with “manpower”, even at the very top level of advanced education. I am not against opening up more places at the universities, but when there is no more to university education than higher level manpower training, and then I do not see the point, myself, of going there at all.
The same reaction against elitism is seen in politics. No longer is it acceptable for the more privileged to champion the cause of the less privileged; people who have taken upon themselves the task of speaking for the welfare of “ordinary people” are now held in suspicion, unless they are themselves a member of the “grassroots” level, elected by them or belong to “grassroots” organizations. The word “grassroots” is becoming magic, though no one knows exactly what it refers to in the context of Hong Kong.
There is much to be said for direct representation against this business of having some public spirited member of the intelligentsia speaking for this or that group of people. For one thing, I do believe people should be allowed to assume responsibility for their own welfare, and a society in which people cannot defend their own interest cannot be said to be mature.
But there are also drawbacks. There is the tendency of the referendum taking the place of rational arguments, and the pressure of the sheer will of the majority over fair-mindedness. When you are arguing against the government on behalf of some groups whose interest you consider to be adversely affected, you had better argue a very strong case. When you can mobilize hundreds, or thousands, you head for a rally and confrontation of pressure. The result is that we revert to a more primitive form of conflict resolution by might. Such an approach is not necessarily the most likely way to arrive at policies which will benefit Hong Kong as a whole in the long run.
Such shows of force can also perpetuate ignorance and inhumanity, as the recent lobby against the liberalization of the law about consensual adult homosexuality demonstrates.
There is nothing sacred about what is commonly believed - common beliefs have just as great a chance of being mistaken.
If the rule by majority is going to be the rule of mediocrity, then we have a very unpleasant future ahead of us. We call vandalism acts of destruction of the beautiful achievements of civilization by barbarians who do not understand them. Let us hope we do not have to see this happening to Hong Kong soon, either by forces within or without.
The only way to prevent popularization, which is good, from becoming the rule of mediocrity, which is insufferable, is to make every effort to keep options open, to maintain the possibility of choice, and even cultivate the proliferation of choices. Those who believe a life of stunted personal development in exchange for a place in a cram school should be allowed to do so provide those who want a different kind of education can do so also. Those who consider priority lies with feeding the millions may have the right to vote for a bigger budget for that purpose, but they must leave in peace those people who prefer to pursue the beautiful and the sublime on an empty stomach.