These 9/11 ceremonies, while not part of the curriculum, are incredibly important for the Fairfax school community, whose families were directly impacted by the attacks. Throughout the school year, it will be only one of many patriotic rituals that students perform, which include the daily pledging of allegiance to the flag.
For the most part, these rituals are unquestioned in the United States, and students who do not wish to participate are allowed to abstain – reflecting our country’s time-honored freedom of speech. Allowing students that freedom is vitally important, as countries that restrict it can cause great student unrest. Take China for example.
This past week in Hong Kong, the school year started with a bit more excitement than it did in the U.S. A ten-day hunger strike and protest -- which drew up to 120,000 people -- culminated Sunday in national legislative elections that had come to be seen as a national referendum on China’s educational influence over the Special Administrative Region.
The protests had erupted over Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s newly-elected Chief Executive, and his support for instituting compulsory patriotic Chinese education in schools. Although he eventually backed down from the program, which would have come into full-effect in 2015, the proposed policy helped fuel voter turnout -- 53 percent of 3.4 million registered voters cast their ballots, up from 45.2 percent in the last election in 2008. As a result, pro-Democracy parties were able to narrowly preserve veto power over pro-Beijing parties.
According to curriculum guidelines under Leung’s proposed plan, students would have had to learn about “China’s political leaders, the contributions they have made and the difficulties and challenges they face.” They would also learn how to “speak cautiously, practice self-discipline and get along well with others in a rational and respectful way.”
Parts of that course description could be taken directly from our government classes in the U.S. However, because it is wrapped in cloak of Chinese nationalism, the policy was viewed as an assault on Hong Kong’s freedom of speech, a freedom that residents of mainland China do not enjoy.
This kind of patriotic education is pretty typical in one-party states, where nationalistic education would by definition serve to bolster the ruling party. Multi-party states like the U.S. have different sorts of educational problems, like those that emerge when teachers assert their own political opinions. Complaints often arise in presidential election years when partisan tensions are highest, and we often remind our teachers to be careful of the ways they teach about the election.
Hong Kongers should be happy that they were able to curtail any assault on their freedom of speech imposed by China by, interestingly enough, practicing their freedom of speech. However, since Leung left it up to individual schools to decide whether to implement the patriotism classes, the issue will likely reemerge in the coming years.
Lucky for those us in the U.S., though: our multi-party system helped settle that debate long ago.