Literature is the reflection of poplars in a lake, conveying a reality apart from the poplars themselves. Philosophy consists of questions posed from a garden maze while looking skyward on a starry night. History is a rose blooming in the desert, behind which is a long story, with many twists and turns. The author Lung Ying-tai, head of the Taipei City Cultural Council Planning Office, used these metaphors in a speech she made to the political science department at National Taiwan University. Her hope was that over the course of their future careers in government and politics, the students in her audience would from time to time reflect upon the humanities' concerns.
Over the past half century, what has been the history of culture and education in Taiwan? What new understandings have been grasped in these realms?
By the end of World War II, Mrs. Chen, now 75, had graduated from normal school and was teaching at a public school. When the news came that the Japanese emperor had surrendered, all of the school's teachers and students broke down. Returning home teary-eyed, she was caught off guard when her grandfather gently chided her, "Foolish child, your own people won the war. What are you crying for?"
"Until that moment I hadn't realized I was Chinese and not Japanese." It was just the first in a series of cultural shocks. Fluent in Japanese, she now had to open a textbook and learn the rudiments of Mandarin. Fortunately, her parents' native tongue was Taiwanese, a Chinese dialect after all, and the traditions of her family of farmers and scholars made her no stranger to things Chinese. And so she moved in a short time from perusing a few thin standardized teachers' guides, to having a muddled understanding of Chinese grammar and history, to introducing China-that vast and distant land-to students who were even more ignorant of it than her. It was no easy feat.
Out with Japan, in with China
In 1950, only shortly after the central government had decamped to Taipei, it banned the use of Japanese in Taiwan and took a series of measures to erase the Japanese influence on Taiwanese culture. That same year the Ministry of Education issued "An Outline for the Implementation of Measures to Strengthen National Education during the Period of National Rebellion." For decades to come, all educational policy would revolve around two slogans: "Recover Mainland China" and "Support the Leadership." Apart from observing a flag-raising ceremony every day at school and reverently reading Sun Yat-sen's will, children were given as role models great Chinese patriots such as Yue Fei, Shi Gefa and Wen Tianxiang. They were taught that the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers of central China and even Mt. Changpai and the Amur River of Manchuria were salient geographical features of their supposed homeland. And over the some 40 years that the policies of mass education and indoctrination were firmly in place, radios and televisions would blare numerous heart-swelling television theme songs, each invoking the same patriotic themes: "The Everlasting Glory," "Changing Seasons on the Yangtze," "Descendants of the Dragon" . . . . Even today, they're quite stirring.
In the 1960s, the Communist authorities on the mainland knocked Confucius off his historical pedestal and hoisted Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of a united China, in his place. They also launched a campaign against the "four olds" (old ideas, culture, customs and habits), which was quickly followed by the momentous Cultural Revolution. While a 5,000-year-old cultural legacy was being smashed to smithereens on the mainland, the ROC's commitment to "revive classical Chinese culture and carry on traditional ways" represented a difficult burden for the small island of Taiwan to bear by itself. President Chiang Kai-shek would serve as head of the "Council for Chinese Cultural Renaissance." Peking opera and classical Chinese painting were deliberately promoted and local Taiwanese culture suppressed.
Yet along with a growing stress on the intellectual traditions of "Greater China," Taiwan started modernizing rapidly. During the 1960s, Taiwan began a smooth transformation from an agricultural to a light-industrial society. In 1968, to cultivate the high-quality personnel that modernization demanded, Taiwan, with a per capita income of less than US$300, grit its teeth and implemented compulsory education through ninth grade.
"At first, there weren't enough classrooms," says a Miss Chang, who is now 45 and was in the first class of compulsory junior high school students. The record was 80 pupils in one classroom. "Often, textbooks wouldn't be rushed to schools until classes had already been in session for a week or two. And what was even more of a joke, the teachers for just about every subject-be it English, math, physics, chemistry or whatever-were often just learning the subjects themselves!"
Nine-year compulsory education may have gotten off to a dismal start, but it did end up raising the overall level of education in Taiwan. The island's highly educated (as well as docile and hardworking) labor force is widely recognized as a key component in Taiwan's miraculous economic advance.
Democracy and educational freedom
At the beginning of the 1980s the political atmosphere began to loosen up. In society, consumer, environmental, women's, labor and other movements rose up one after another, and yet education, like an impregnable fortress, remained unchanged. Looking back today, it appears that just as the various social movements started to die down, the educational-reform movement-as if having a delayed reaction to the changing times-took off full steam.
Calls for educational reform began as early as 1981 with the founding of the Humanistic Education Foundation. Holding that "students should be the focus of the schools," the foundation advocated reforming education to make it more humanistic, diverse and flexible. Its proposals could only be tried outside of the educational structure under the guise of "experimentation," but these experiments caught hold. Eventually, when 10,000 demonstrators showed up to march for educational reform on April 10, 1994, they commanded the government's attention.
Chang Tze-chou, a forestry professor at National Taiwan University who was one of the organizers of the march, notes that the points emphasized in today's educational reform policy-"the loosening of central control," "small schools, small classes," and "broadening access to high schools and colleges"-were among the marchers' major demands. Their purpose was simple: to liberate education in Taiwan from its centralized, authoritarian structure that forced students to receive educations ill-suited to their individual needs and to cram for joint entrance exams in order to proceed to the next educational level. Not long after the demonstration, the government formed the Educational Reform Council and named Lee Yuan-tseh, president of the Academia Sinica, as its head. Since then the council has been hatching one educational reform proposal after another.
Minister of Education Kirby Yang points out that in order to attain the goal of small classes in small schools (so that by 2008 there are no junior high schools or elementary schools with more than 35 students in a classroom), the Ministry of Education plans to budget more than NT$100 billion. Year by year, they want to improve equipment and bolster teaching resources. To create more diversity in education, private publishers have been permitted to issue elementary school textbooks since 1997. (Previously, the National Institute for Compilation and Translation compiled them all.) In order to lessen the pressures associated with the joint entrance exams, various factors are now considered in high school admissions. The dreaded entrance examination for colleges and universities will also be eliminated in 2002.
Flexible, diverse, international
Educational reform is an important long-term goal. Nevertheless, perhaps society is overly concerned about it, resulting in it being carried out in a panicked, helter-skelter manner. The past five years have witnessed the loosening of central control, the use of recommendations and interviews in admissions, the adoption of self-study programs and the A-F grading method. . . . Amid a constant stream of new educational terms, teachers, students and parents are being asked to confront the newest reform measure before they have had a chance to adapt to the last. Originally an integrated curriculum spanning all the way from first- to ninth-grade was supposed to be in place next year. But as of yet no real curriculum content has been developed, and it is difficult to find any teaching resources regarding it. Teachers, as a result, are griping.
"The details of educational reform perhaps ought to be reconsidered," says Yang Chao-hsiang. "But the general direction is clear-toward something more flexible, diverse and international." He notes that starting next year, so as to better prepare students for the demands of global competition, English instruction will begin in fifth grade. And two trends expected in the 21st century-increased job mobility and an aging populace-have prodded the Ministry of Education to promote a concept of "lifelong learning" and to open community colleges in every county and city.
And yet the liberalization of education has had its unfortunate side effects. For the last half century, thanks to the government policy of subsidizing tuition, equality of educational opportunity has helped to create great upward mobility in Taiwan. Chen Shui-bian, the Democratic Progressive Party's candidate for president who came from a very impoverished family, is just one example of a poor boy who has made out well. One result of the relaxation of central control is that high schools and colleges are now free to set their own fees. It is a source of concern that student fees and textbook charges are climbing every term.
Knowledge does not equal culture
For Taiwan, which is just now confronting the knowledge-based competition of the information age, the educational reforms came at the perfect time. Currently, the country has more than 130 colleges and universities, more than twice as many as a decade ago. Over the same period, the rate of success on the joint entrance exams for universities and colleges jumped from only 30% to 60%. Even more surprising, last year graduate school programs received 60,000 applicants, which is equal to the number of people graduating from college that year! (Of course, many people applied to more than one program.)