The Labyrinthine Journey Towards Social Conscience

Maddy Lab beginWhen students enter high school and choose to take Humanities I in Action, they embark on a journey that asks them to leave their ordinary way of thinking behind and begin a personal exploration of their place in the world. In this entry, Mike Kersten and I share our first attempt to capture student interviews about this curriculum in a video. 

In April, 1997 when my colleague George Coombs and I visited Ateneo, a Jesuit high school in metro Manila, I was deeply impressed by a senior capstone course that combined sociology, theology, and service experiences in Manila’s slums, to develop the school’s motto of “men and women for others” within their privileged students. That weekend was a call to adventure for me, and I returned to Hong Kong with a sense that I needed to create a version of this course at HKIS.

In the year 2000, George and I began teaching, “Service, Society, and the Sacred,” and in 2003 I brought these ideas into a core 9th grade course, “Humanities I in Action.” We’ve done much service-learning in these years, and the sacred dimension has been something that we have often incorporated into our study and experiences. However, the actual joining together of service and sacredness, of the outer world and the inner life, of solidarity with the poor and solitude within, of matter and spirit – has always been a lesson plan-by-lesson plan experience, or even a moment-by-moment encounter. Even harder than teaching in this way has been explaining the what, how, and why of this work, for this is the terrain of paradox.

mike me conferenceSo, it was some sense of satisfaction that my colleague Mike Kersten and I spoke on Saturday, February 23rd at the Ndoto conference on our campus, which explored the themes of creativity, innovation, and change, and shared a video that we made that shares about our Humanities I in Action course.  In the same moment-by-moment way that service and sacredness combine in our classes, so too did these elements weave together in the film. We did about 15 interviews with students who are currently taking or have taken Humanities I in Action. As we began stitching the themes together, it just so happened that we had a labyrinth walk in my SSS class on Monday before the conference. We then came to see that the labyrinth offered a unifying symbol that linked together students’ comments. Through this film we hope to share that what might be considered fairly ordinary remarks by students are subtle signs that they are indeed embarking on a sacred path towards caring for the world.

Enjoy our film.




Senior Jacqui Yeung Reflects on Humanities I in Action:

I believe that in a decade’s time, the only high school course that I can remember vividly is the Humanities I in Action course. It was an eye opening, a unique experience that touched my heart. It allowed me to be connected with the abandoned orphans, the neglected elderlies, the unwanted addicts, and the helpless disabled. Not only had it opened my eyes to the sufferings of those who are less fortunate, it also moved me deeply into appreciating what a wonderful life I had been leading, and how I should share my love and care with those who have nothing. The course had sparked my eagerness to be a committed volunteer at Riding for Disabled and sacrifice every Saturday to help young handicap children to regain their sense of mobility and confidence; as well as prompted me to take an interests in other social enterprises and took part in launching a new charity that provide school meals to schools in China and Africa. I believe that it is the overwhelming sense of gratitude and love towards what my parents, teachers and friends had provided me that enabled me to share what I can with the others. And I do believe that the insights that I have gained from Humanities I in Action will always remain in my heart and mind, and become part of my core values, steering the way I feel and act towards others.

roy horanhoward mccrary wonderful lifecushions

GeorgeKaren & AnnaFranklin


Alumni Olivia Chin (2009) uses the image of a labyrinth as a symbol of her journey since taking Humanities I in Action:

Dear Mr. Schmidt,

I’m glad to hear such wonderful news from your end. Congratulations on finishing your doctorate! I’m really happy to hear about your research in teaching students to develop a social conscience and to see the strong impact that your Humanities in Action course continues to have on HKIS students. I also want to let you know what a huge impact it had on me and how I navigated these past 8 years (wow…) after taking your course.

For me, your course and the journey that it led me onto can be summed up in a term that you might also use – a labyrinth experience. I find it amazing how things come around full-circle especially when I have to do a lot of self-reflection, like currently as I am thinking about my next steps after graduation. From your course I got my first exposure to real suffering around the world and the fundamental connection between humans that should compel us to reach out to those in suffering. I remember being so filled with sadness for the orphans in Foshan, for the children wasting their youth away in sweatshops, for the people getting trafficked for sex and human labor, and being compelled to help all of them, but at the same time I felt a deep sense of helplessness myself. I did not understand how to live in Hong Kong among people from a good socio-economic standing yet lead a socially responsible life. I thought I would have to live some sort of double-life: a civic humanist in theory and mind, but in practice unable to fully integrate these humanist ideals into my life because of societal and familial expectations. In retrospect I see the black-and-white way in which I was thinking but as a high school freshman it was tough to process all the lessons that I was taking away from your course. I distinctly remember the moment that I decided, well if I cannot make a positive difference in the world, I can at the least try my best not to contribute to the existing suffering. So I chose to pursue dance because
a) I developed a passion for dancing!
b) I enjoyed the challenges of beginning to dance at a later age and
c) I knew I’d be dirt-poor as a “starving artist” so I couldn’t possibly afflict harm in any systematic or significant way (again, my past black-and-white mode of thinking).

As funny as my third reason sounds, it was indeed one of my top reasons for pursuing dance. But I was so wrong in thinking that I could isolate myself from this world through dance. The truth is that I’m always going to be connected to the poor as well as the affluent – in the practical sense, because of the environmental and economic impact I make simply by living in a increasingly globalized world and because of the people in my social network, and on a spiritual level because of the innate human connection that I share with everybody else. And I actually do not even want to be disconnected. I need and want to serve others with my full heart, soul, mind, and strength – with all that I have in terms of material resources, education, interests/skills etc. I came to this realization through two pivotal experiences in my junior year of college – when I accepted Christ as my personal savior and took a course on racism. The inextricable link between evangelism and liberation work became clear as day to me. Jesus freed me from spiritual bondage and beckons me to help free people from the cycle of poverty, racial prejudice, and other injustices that prevent them from enjoying the abundance of God’s provisions. I am also in an extremely fortunate position to share my blessings. The journey to that realization took a little longer than it could have had I immediately took action after Hum I in Action but I am grateful for where I started with your course and the important take-away lessons through those wonderful twists and turns along the path. I would not have had it any other way.

My immediate post-graduation plan is to return home and continue doing serious reflection and research into my options. I have two ideas swimming in my head. One is actually a version of an idea that I once briefly mentioned to you in 9th grade – I want to found a social entrepreneurial supermarket chain that sells fair-trade products. I believe it is beneficial and it can be done. I won’t get into the details of it since I’ve already belabored you with a story about my “labyrinth experience”, but if you’re interested in hearing more about the supermarket plan then I’d love to share more. Another idea that excites me is to work with refugees in Hong Kong. I’ve applied through the HKIS Alumni Program for a summer internship at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and I’m continuing to seek volunteer opportunities in legal aid programs that work with refugees and other under-served populations. I want to see how lawyers use their knowledge and practice as a tool to serve others because I find the law and public policy fascinating and powerful. I will also keep an eye out for NGO and NPO work so that I can gain perspective from another dimension of humanitarian work. Somewhere along the horizon is graduate school, likely a joint JD-MBA program because of my interests in both law and business, or in international development.

mike & i


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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4 Responses to The Labyrinthine Journey Towards Social Conscience

  1. Jim Handrich says:

    Thanks, I really enjoyed seeing the impact the course is making. I hope enrollment for it continues to be strong. What a great start to Humanities in the high school!

  2. Thanks, Jim, for your continued support. Yes, the course continues to inspire students and we feel that we are slowly getting a better understanding how to make it an even stronger experience for students. As far as numbers, while 60% of incoming freshmen chose the “in Action” option in the preceding three years, last year the numbers dropped to only 35% of grade 9 students. We don’t really understand why the drop occurred, but we are trying this year to provide clearer information about the choice students have. One of the perceptions that is hard to shift is that because it is involves “hands-on” learning, that it is in some way less academic, as if the “in Action” moniker is a euphemism for the non-AP track. Actually, teachers and students feel it is a challenging course, both academically and personally. We’ll see what happens to the numbers this year – we’ll know that in about three weeks.

  3. Pingback: Walking a Labyrinth in Search of the Big Picture | Social Conscience Education

  4. Pingback: Education for Transformation: Introducing Humanities I in Action | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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